On “Trauma Bonding Civil Discourse” in 2019, and He Who Endured the “Trauma” to “Bond” us with Something Better

Phyllis Beveridge Nissila

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life (John 3:16, KJV).

Trauma Bonding

There is a psychological phenomenon called “trauma bonding,” i.e., a kind of loyalty to a person or to a group that is destructive.

One famous case of trauma bonding prompted a new classification of this kind of abuse. It’s called “Stockholm Syndrome” and is based on what happened to hostages in a bank in Stockholm Sweden in August of 1973 where some of them ended up defending their captors. It’s a type of survival technique as well.

The phenomenon is officially defined as a “psychological response wherein a captive begins to identify closely with his or her captors, as well as with their agenda and demands” (britannica.com).

I would add the captivity could be not only physical (as was the case with the bank hostages) but also mental (think, mind control), psychological (think, the persuasive techniques of propaganda), social (peer pressure), and/or spiritual (cults).

Whereas bonding on its own is a good and necessary aspect of relationships, of course (think of an infant with its mother), when trauma is included, the relationship becomes abusive (think of fear-based mechanisms that keep abusers’ targets loyal, at least keep them from leaving).

The Trauma Bonding Power of the Politics of Division

I kept thinking about how trauma bonding plays into so much of what is happening in the politics of division of late in the United States.

Whereas until this century, our motto was “out of many, one” (E Pluribus Unum) and over the last over 240 years we have made great strides in applying that to our sense of justice and equality, it seems now the motto is almost the reverse, “out of one, many,” for myriad reasons.

My previous three posts* go into this idea in more depth and offer some encouragement to counter the negative ramifications of the phenomenon based, in my view, on “intersectionality” and other modern, divisive political strategies.

Specifically, though, what prompted me to share further thoughts on this idea (through a Christian lens), were lectures and follow-up discussions in which I participated at a recent three-day Summer Institute at  Gutenberg College.

The overarching theme was “Tribes and Truth, What Happened to Civil Discourse?” and covered various contributing factors to “why good people are divided by politics and religion,” such as  the power of propaganda, psychological factors, and philosophical orientations through time. For ours is not the only era when long-held cultural beliefs and practices have been challenged, causing some to be overthrown and replaced by others, good and bad.

We all agreed on the problem, however: the situation now seems to be one of the worst due to the speed of communication (Internet and social media) and, as above, the politics of division.

Why is Civil Discourse So Much Worse Now? Impossible, in Some Cases?!

In one discussion in particular, the question centered on how much worse the “warring factions” seem to be these days, even far worse than the opposing political and social groups who fought through the issues of the 1960s (those of us who lived through those years contributed some personal observations).

One of the reasons, some thought, was that concurrent with all the upheaval then, there was still a strong desire to “get along.” An iconic photo, at left, called “Flower Power,” by Bernie Boston, symbolized in a way the desire for national unity–for peace–despite the fierce opposition to the Vietnam War.

I also believe that the spiritual “revolution,” i.e., revival called the “Jesus Movement” helped keep hope alive, if not for the ultimate solution about mankind’s continuous wars, to address a “bigger picture,” hope on a higher, more inclusive and all encompassing level, hope of a more existential nature touching on one of the most basic of all human quests: is there something more/bigger/better/eternal?

By contrast, if there were an iconic photo (and there are many), to underscore the hardening opposition to any kind of unity today, given the division that drives so much of not only political but interpersonal differences of opinion, I would pick the image of walled, closed silos, at left.

They are united in structure only, just as we all are still part of the United States (the state structure holding us together, as it were) but we are each growing further apart, it seems, with some wanting to separate us even more.

Indeed, it can be–and is being–argued this is due to a state of disunity ginned up by some in order to completely and fundamentally transform the nation to something else entirely. Socialism, for example.

The problem is, however, there has been too much unity going on–at least until now.

In a sense, we have been bonded in a good way in this country for a long time, despite our problems. And a healthy nation is extremely difficult to transform. Or, as one of the last century’s most brutal despots Josef Stalin (allegedly) put it,

America is like a healthy body and its resistance is threefold: its patriotism, its morality and its spiritual life. If we can undermine these three areas, America will collapse from within.

Thus we do indeed face far more treacherous times in our e pluribus unum because we’re a big nation with a lot of people who staunchly “hold certain truths to be self-evident” about freedom and limited government so the trauma to secure the bond to a new ideology, especially one that infringes on those freedoms, is going to have to be exceptionally harsh.


Nationally and personally.

Some of our inner cities and college campuses smell of the stench of that effort already. And it smells a lot like fire and brimstone…

But if the divisive effort is successful, we may well collapse from within–as any thinking and caring citizen comprehends while observing and/or experiencing the increasingly anti-patriotic, anti-traditional morals, and anti-spiritual (at least Judeo-Christian spiritual) ideologies and emotions on display more and more in the streets, in the classrooms, and in the halls of power.

And around dinner tables.

So, I was thinking, as I listened to and learned from the lectures and discussions during the Institute, it does indeed seem as if this is a new and far more lethal era of protest and discourse.

The “hope and change” of a recent administration has definitely soured and darkened into “fear of change.”

And on both sides of the aisle.

Certainly, harsh, hyperbolic rhetoric feeds the fear–and the anger.  Throw in, then, some visits from the Antifa thugs to vandalize and perpetrate personal assaults. Then add rampant name-calling and ad hominem attacks to the flames of division and the damage burns ever hotter and higher.

Pretty soon our vision is obscured by the smoke and fire of chaos and we lose hope that we can return to normal. We fear we’ve lost our nation, our freedoms–our friends, and our relatives who hold to different opinions.

Chaos and fearful change become the new norms that emerge from all the social and political trauma, and as Stockholm Syndrome morphs into Divide-and-Conquer Syndrome, we cower in our silos as best we can for identity and protection.

Maybe due to the psychological complexity of the assaults, we even switch silos to unite with the opposition!

Trauma. Bonded.

Or if we have resisted the pull to conform with the opposition, we fight with all of our might to stop the political outliers from ruling within…

Due to the fear part that gets more and more violent in its vitriol against any who oppose its opinions egged on by divisive politics including but not limited to Intersectionality, the ever-increasing anti-First Amendment tactics of the Political Correctness movement, and the Balkanizing force of Identity Politics, it’s clear we need new tactics to counter the threats.

Or, a revival of old tactics of a more spiritual nature.

So Where to From Here?

As citizens, we come to realize we have to deal with it with more strength of character and resolve than ever before, perhaps, since our beginnings as a nation. Action must replace apathy and laziness.

After all, we still have the power of the ballot box, of peaceful assembly, of religion, of speech, and of addressing the government viz our grievances–although there are some who try to convince us we do NOT have these rights. That is to say, we don’t have the rights if we are not in lock-think with them.

As Christians, however, and to my spiritual and bigger point, I think we have the more lasting option to not only survive the trauma “on the ground,” as it were, by exercising our rights as noted above, but also to bond in a good/better/best way with He Who, you might put it,  not only enables us to cut through the anger and hostility and return love and hope not only in our own group but also the “other” but also to offer a “bigger picture” that will sustain “civil discourse” not only now but through the next controversy and for all time.


On He Who Endured our Trauma that We Might Be Bonded to Something Better

I am reminded here of an old hymn called “He Paid a Debt“. Verse 3 summarizes the trauma Jesus took for us so that the second part of the introductory verse, John 3:16, can become reality:

O such great pain my Lord endured
When He my sinful soul secured
I should have died there but Jesus took my place
So now I sing a brand new song
Amazing Grace
Christ Jesus paid a debt that I could never pay…

But What Does This Have to Do With Civil Discourse or Lack Thereof in 2019?

As flawed human beings, Christians are in the same trauma-tossed boat as everyone else, all the other groups, divisions, Intersectionals, tribes, political parties, etc., on this stormy sea called politics that affects ever sphere of human endeavor.

We feel the pain of being hated and despised and we dodge the slings and arrows of the opposition even as we are tempted to lob some S & As at them, too.

HOWEVER–and here’s the encouragement–we are the only ones with a hope that will enable us to not only outlast this storm (however good or bad it may turn out) but also to share our hope with others if, perchance, they see how we might bring something different to the fight rather than the usual “guns and knives” of worldly conflict.

Something they might be interested in, too. Ready for. Searching for.

Maybe something that addresses their own existential fears and longings that tend to rise to the surface when humanity goes so low.

And then, perhaps, we can tell them about our hope–and our Hope–Who is hope for all mankind.

This is Jesus Christ, Who not only took our debt on that old cross, but did the same for all who decide to put faith in Him.

And then He did something even more extraordinary.

He promised to send us the Holy Spirit to lead, guide, and direct us in our daily and often difficult lives to help us not only rise above the trauma bonds of anger, division, and hatred so rampant in the world today, but also to overcome them.

Because He did.

Here’s how He put it when He was still here and giving his disciples instructions for the time when, soon, He would no longer be with them:

A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me.

33 “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world”  (John 16:32-33, NIV).

(Those silos might get lonely at times, but He’s right there with us.)

He told His disciples this the night before He chose to die for them–and for us, on that cross where He took on our trauma, you might put it, so that we can have an eternal bond–and eternal benefits–with Him.

Which, when you think about it, puts this hot political mess “down here” in a whole new context–and offers us a new, reviving, refreshing, rejuvenating, and re-uniting perspective.

And we are going to need all of that we can get in the days to come.


*part 1, part 2, part 3

Image of broken heart from Wikimedia Commons

Image of fist from Wikimedia Commons

Image of “Flower Power” available for limited public use.

Image of silos from Wikimedia Commons

Image of arrow from Wikimedia Commons

Image of the cross from Wikimedia Commons

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