Trauma and the “Other,” For Better or Worse
By Alexiana Fry.
In the midst of trauma, many people begin to seek out a “reason” behind the situation that besets them—conspiracy theories are among the many ways through which people attempt to cope with their lack of control. Yet, this process of reasoning can easily turn into blame displacement, or scapegoating, a process that goes hand-in-hand with groups who are already being “othered.” We’re seeing this in abundance during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This response is so common that it was even prevalent in the Old Testament, a text that many, including myself, find sacred. A common strategy in the Old Testament was to explain suffering through a theological lens, understanding their plights as something they may have deserved or even earned, a punishment for transgressions. Trauma can leave lasting effects on a community, and communities themselves can respond in a variety of ways to what they decide is traumatic for them; but given we are meaning-making beings, events that threaten the communal makeup need what sociologist Jeffery Alexander calls “a symbolic construction and framing” in order to move forward. After enduring 70 years of exile in Babylon, the Judahites began to return to the land of Israel around 539 BCE and seem to struggle to cope with their trauma of war and forced migrations as they resettled and rebuilt. The experience of exile is then, explained as a punishment for the people’s infidelity to their God, reinforcing covenant theology.
As a response to their trauma, when the Judahites return to the land, they have a newfound zeal to refine and “purify” their communal identity, broken and shattered in the great loss of trauma. Ezra and Nehemiah recall the events that follow this painful reestablishment of a nation, with a newfound understanding of how to obey and follow the covenant in light of their trauma. In doing so, they create distinct boundaries that displace and “other” those amongst them who are carrying out what are, to them, “detestable practices (Ezra 9:1),” a common use of rhetoric when engaged in “othering.” Ezra goes further, pointing out the specific group with these different practices—foreign women married to Israelite male leaders. Ezra assumes they are still worshipping the gods from their original homelands, thus being a temptation to once again turn from YHWH and endanger the covenant that they had, already, experienced the consequences of breaking. Being both foreign and a woman in this context means to already be othered through gender, religion, and nationality. Yet, the returnees are not only othering those who are already “other,” but also those among them not forced into exile. We do not hear from the foreign women in the text as their priestly husbands obey, adhering to the community leader’s interpretation of how to move forward post-trauma. The women and their offspring are sent away (Ezra 10:3).
We would do well not to put this situation on equal footing with the current pandemic, leaving room for nuance as the text is discussing a traumatized people attempting to return to what was their homes, while yet under the thumb of another hegemonic power, after being enslaved for years by the Babylonian colonizers in a land foreign to them. While not condoning the actions we see in the text, and recognizing their resilience, trauma’s response longs to quickly resolve the many problems before them and to prevent them from happening again using easy binaries. However, in this text’s full context, the lines blur between who is truly “other.” Taking the time to reckon with the interplay between power hierarchies and trauma becomes difficult in ancient and religious texts, but is an absolutely necessary lens to continue to use in our modern contexts.
Rick Wiles, as a leader of right-wing Christianity in the United States, places blame of COVID-19 spread on minority groups, not only the LGBTQ population, but also Jews, the very descendants of the texts read in Ezra, as they both “do not follow Jesus.” The learned and modeled xenophobia through the process of scapegoating continues to distract individuals from the difficult emotions and seeming senselessness that come with trauma. Dominant culture supremacy against those seen as “other”, most specifically the ideology of white supremacy in the United States, to show itself without ceasing through not just individuals, but also through systems and policies. We must recognize and resist the many ways in which “othering” sees bodies, particularly, bodies of color, as dispensable. This discrimination is multiplicative, and while the pandemic has all of us “in the same storm, we are not all in the same boat.”
While considering “othering” in the face of trauma is not novel, it is necessary to note that trauma can give one explanation for the behavior, but not license. Uriah Kim gives a timely reminder that “unless we see ourselves in the Other and see the Other in ourselves, we are in danger of repeating the habit of making enemies of our neighbors, representing the Other negatively in order to sanction our use of violence against them.” In recalling the texts of the Old Testament, the guiding force and command of loving one’s neighbor should remind us of the posture needed in order to act as we reject the ever-constant mechanism of “othering,” and to consider the invitation to see ourselves as truly connected.
 See also Damola Durosomo, “Africans in China are Being Evicted from their Homes and Blamed for Spreading Coronavirus,” https://www.okayafrica.com/africans-in-china-guangzhou-evicted-left-homeless-blamed-for-coronavirus/, and Billy Perrigo, “It Was Already Dangerous to be Muslim in India. Then Came Coronavirus,” https://time.com/5815264/coronavirus-india-islamophobia-coronajihad/.
 Jeffery C. Alexander, Trauma: A Social Theory (New York: Polity Press, 2012), 3.
 There is something to be said about there being no mention of foreign men in the book of Ezra-Nehemiah, to which I would commend Claudia V. Camp’s chapter, “Feminist and Gender-Critical Perspectives on the Biblical Ideology of Intermarriage,” in Mixed Marriages: Intermarriage and Group Identity in the Second Temple Period.
 Uriah Kim, “Postcolonial Criticism: Who is the Other in the Book of Judges?,” Judges and Method: New Approaches in Biblical Studies, ed. Gale A. Yee (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 180.
*This post is partially based on research done toward an in-progress PhD project in Old Testament in the Faculty of Theology at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa.
Alexiana Fry (she/hers) is a PhD in Old Testament candidate at Stellenbosch University in South Africa and an adjunct professor in Bible in the West Michigan area. Her research includes the intersection of not only the Biblical text, but also the fields of feminist methodology, trauma hermeneutics, and migration studies. She holds an MDiv from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, and while attending, received the educational ministries award.