Magazines 2020 Nov - Dec Cultural understandings of trauma

Cultural understandings of trauma

24 November 2020 By Brenton Diaz

Loving our neighbours means not imposing our concepts

All across North America, institutions are working hard to ensure their practices do not retraumatize people and, instead, are sensitive to their needs. The adoption of “Trauma-Informed” practices is taking place in social services, the medical system, education, and yes, Christian churches, ministries and movements for peacekeeping and reconciliation.

The idea is that among the people who are attending a church (or even more pointedly engaging in a peace and reconciliation process) are some who carry with them an experience of trauma that impacts the way they understand the world.

Or as the University of Buffalo School of Social Work sums it up: “Trauma-Informed Care understands and considers the pervasive nature of trauma and promotes environments of healing and recovery rather than practices and services that may inadvertently re-traumatize.”

Without question the intent of addressing the traumas of people in our Christian organizations is necessary and presents a powerful opportunity to practically share the love of Christ to our fellow Christians and broader society. Adopting such a stance communicates that we understand God is not afraid of pain. In fact, God is deeply familiar with it (Isaiah 53:3).

But despite the good intentions of this Trauma-Informed movement, some fundamental questions arise when we try to apply it to the diverse populations in our communities and across the world: What is trauma? How is it understood? How is it addressed?

Understanding trauma

These might seem like strange questions. After all, trauma (as in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD) has agreed-upon definitions created by groups such as the American Psychiatric Association. The APA’s definition in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5) is universally used by doctors and therapists across North America.

Yet, a strange thing begins to happen when you start to talk about trauma with emerging diaspora communities in Canada and the United States. The way people rooted in other cultures understand trauma can be fundamentally different than the ways our well-meaning Trauma-Informed conversations talk about it.

I’m reminded of an encounter I had training sexual assault counsellors in Malawi. My task was to equip the counsellors with knowledge and skills to address the trauma their clients were experiencing as a result of horrific sexual abuse.

In our training, it became apparent that there was no word for trauma in the local language. Likewise, there was no specific word for common symptoms of trauma such as flashbacks or dissociation. Interestingly, the Malawian counsellors identified a different list of what “common symptoms of trauma” might even be.

Some of the symptoms they listed tended to be more communal in nature, as opposed to the starkly individual list of symptoms we work with in North America. They described how a community might work to help people to heal from their suffering in ways that are rooted in their collective-based understanding of life. It suddenly dawned on me that these skilled and knowledgeable sexual assault workers had a fundamentally different construct of what this idea of trauma might be referring to.

While we all share the same fundamental biological responses to overwhelming and terrifying events, how those responses are interpreted, understood and ultimately healed can vary widely from culture to culture. The concepts of trauma, PTSD, trauma symptoms and trauma interventions, including Trauma-Informed care, were crafted by Western thinkers and practitioners among Western populations and from a Western point of view. Consequently, they might not reflect cultures from other societies that regard suffering and pain from different points of views. (Researchers such as Suman Fernando and Derek Summerfield conduct studies to highlight these fundamentally divergent views on trauma across cultures.)

What does this mean for us?

So, what does all of this mean for our Christian organizations, churches and particularly peace and reconciliation movements? The evidence that trauma is understood and interpreted in very different ways among people like Rwandans, Cambodians and Sri Lankans is vital given that these populations have been active participants in peace and reconciliation movements to address their tragic recent histories.

There is a profound need for Christian community leaders and agents of peace and reconciliation to be deeply aware of the cultures of the people groups they are ministering among.

In our efforts to address the deep pains of the world, we must humbly acknowledge that our knowledge of pain and trauma is contextual to our own cultures. We must be open to the idea that the diaspora communities we are working with – for example, people here in Canada who grew up in other cultures – might have different knowledge and emphasize different aspects of pain, trauma, symptoms and how to resolve these.

We must assess our own assumptions of how trauma, violence and genocide impact these people and listen more closely to their cries for help, following their lead to address these experiences. Through being open to such knowledge, we can gain a richer, more holistic view of trauma, and collaborate with the communities to devise strategies to promote healing and reconciliation in ways that will truly minister to the deeply held beliefs of those in our midst.

We must always show diaspora communities empathy, valuing their perspective and ensuring that the healing we seek to facilitate with them will be meaningful and lasting for them.

In the process, our churches and peace and reconciliation movements will not only reflect the well-intentioned principles of a truly Trauma-Informed approach. I believe they will also brilliantly reflect the biblical mandate to love our neighbour (Mark 12:31).

Brenton Diaz moved to Canada during childhood and now coordinates the adult program at Cedar Centre, a Toronto-area agency providing trauma-specific services. He teaches on trauma for Tyndale Seminary and on trauma and addiction at the schools of social work at York and Lakehead (Orillia) Universities. Through his denomination, The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, he has also taught in Lithuania, Ukraine, Kenya, Malawi and Rwanda. Photo of black rose by Nicholas Demetriades on Pixabay. This blog series is produced in collaboration with the Peace & Reconciliation Network, an initiative of the World Evangelical Alliance. Read all the posts at