The role of the body in healing after trauma

Reflections on my bus accident

May 23, 2019

One year ago, I stepped into a crosswalk and was struck by an oncoming bus.

The trauma of the accident has made me reflect much on the role the body—both the physical body and the church body—plays in spiritual healing and recovery.

That it even happened seems surreal—like a bad dream or a too-vivid movie about someone else’s life: the close-up I saw of the bus just as it was about to strike me, the voices I heard of people surrounding me as I lay in the intersection, and the stabbing knives of pain I felt throughout my body over the following hours and days. For someone with a well-developed imagination, for whom the best-written stories become just as much a part of my mind as my own experiences, it would seem these memories could just be stored away in a part of the brain that retains information about things that happened to other people.

But my body doesn’t make that possible.

There is the lingering pain, of course, from the fractures to my spine, shoulder, ribs, and pelvis (now permanently stabilized by a large titanium screw). Then there are the visible scars from the chest tube and the staples, as well as the bruise on the inside of my knee, still faintly visible a year later.

But my body retains even more than these reminders of trauma, memories carried deeper inside, beneath flesh and bones—visceral memories. It is this visceral dread that causes my body to react to scenes in the news or movies of people being struck by vehicles. I had no idea until my accident just how common these scenes are. It makes me flinch involuntarily at passing vehicles while I’m running. (It took me quite a while not to envision every single vehicle that came toward me hitting me.)

I confess that before experiencing this trauma, I thought that emotional (as well as spiritual) healing consisted primarily in thinking the right things and believing the right things. I didn’t understand the role the body plays. Yet, the original meaning of the word “emotion” is “a physical disturbance.” Emotions originate in the body, not the mind. And as Dr. Bessel van der Kolk explains in The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, “traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies.” Because trauma is an embodied experience, the book shows, those who have suffered trauma must pay attention to the sensations of their bodies in order to recover:

Being frightened means that you live in a body that is always on guard. Angry people live in angry bodies. The bodies of child-abuse victims are tense and defensive until they find a way to relax and feel safe. In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them.

For healing from trauma to take place, Van der Kolk says, “the body needs to learn that the danger has passed” [emphasis added].

Although I have known, loved, and talked to many traumatized people, I never really understood this phenomenon until I experienced it for myself.

I have a friend who, years ago, was hit by a car while walking at night and suffered irreparable injuries. For many years afterward he always wore fluorescent orange shirts so he could be seen easily wherever he went. I didn’t get it. But I do now.

I have another friend who went on a job interview and was raped afterward by the man who interviewed her.  It has taken her a long time to learn to trust her own judgment about all kinds of life decisions, and I didn’t really understand why.  But I do now.

A year out, the hardest part of my trauma now is not being able to trust what my own senses are telling me. I look both ways into traffic several times—and still feel like I’m leaping off a cliff every time I cross a street or pull my car out onto the road.

Furthermore, I’m now viscerally aware of a truth of which I previously had mere head knowledge: our lives truly are in the hands of the Lord. In the blink of an eye, a fraction of a second, or the changing of traffic light, everything can change.

Yet, to dwell on this truth would be paralyzing. It would be easy for the spirit to be overcome by the reality of just how fragile the body is.

This is why our physical bodies need the body of Christ.

God himself chose this metaphor-that-is-more-than-a-metaphor of “the body” to describe his people. It is his people whose flesh houses his Holy Spirit and carries out his mission with hands, feet, eyes, ears, and tongues to touch, feed, shelter, listen, and speak the good news. The church ministers to us not only in delivering songs and sermons for the mind and spirit. The church ministers to us physically, too. This ministry to the body requires, of course, bodily presence. But it requires more, too.

According to The Body Keeps the Score, human relationships are always the context in which healing from trauma occurs.

The critical issue is reciprocity: being truly heard and seen by the people around us, feeling that we are held in someone else’s mind and heart. For our physiology to calm down, heal, and grow we need a visceral feeling of safety.

Yet, the church today is not always hospitable to those who have been traumatized. By absorbing the programmatic, formulaic, results-oriented ethos of the surrounding culture, the church can sometimes, if inadvertently, squeeze out the space, time, and comforts needed by the traumatized. Indeed, even our emphasis on a moment of salvation that occurs on a distinct hour of a certain day of a particular month in a definite year can, even if only implicitly, contradict the processes of healing that are slow and serpentine, not so easily recorded in a date book.

The young man who shies away from shaking hands during meet-and greet might be recovering from abuse that makes him feel anxious and unsafe. The woman who shows up at church just a few times a year might be bearing the burden of false guilt because of things that happened to her at home when she was a little girl. And in my own case, as trivial as it sounds, if my church didn’t have comfortable seats, my experience of worship would have been entirely different, if I were able to attend at all.

Many biblical resources exist to help churches wisely minister to the traumatized. But perhaps the foremost model is offered by the good Samaritan who, upon encountering one who was suffering had compassion, rescued him from his immediate distress, and made sure his future needs were met.

Because human beings are both bodies and souls, our brokenness will always manifest itself both physically and spiritually. Thus the body of Christ must minister in both ways for healing to occur.

What is true of the physical body has implications for the church body as well. Just as we receive cues from our physical bodies, we also respond viscerally to the messages—intended or not—sent by the body of Christ. Just as the traumatized must listen to what their bodies tell them, so too the members of the body of Christ must listen to one another, to each part—hand, foot, and toe—whether healthy or broken.

And all who listen to the Lord will find healing to the flesh and refreshment for the bones (Prov. 3:8), and will eventually find themselves “at ease, without dread of disaster” (Prov. 1:33).

Karen Swallow Prior

Karen Swallow Prior is a professor of English at Liberty University, research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and a member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States. She is the author of Booked: Literature in the Soul … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24