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The Terrible, Political Misuse of Personal Grief
Without taking responsibility, Donald Trump sends a warrior to his death, then uses the wife of Ryan Owens to absolve himself of his sin. Outrageous blasphemy.
By Karen E. Park
On Tuesday afternoon, President Trump refused to take responsibility for the Yemen raid which resulted in the death of Navy Seal Ryan Owens. By Tuesday evening, he had been fully absolved of both Owen’s death and the botched mission.
The vehicle for this absolution and transformation was the body of Ryan’s widow Carryn Owens, who, during Trump’s speech to Congress on Tuesday night, stood looking heavenward for a full two minutes of applause, tears streaming down her face as she spoke to her dead husband. In those moments, Donald Trump and the entire nation were absolved by the redemptive suffering of a female saint.
In previous days, Owens’ father, himself a veteran, had emerged as a vocal opponent of the raid, questioning why his son had died on “this stupid mission and refusing to meet with Trump when his son’s body was brought home. With Trump either unable or unwilling to take responsibility for Owens’ death, Trump’s speechwriters placed Ryan Owens in the position of Christ—the one who would absolve him of wrongdoing. Trump’s speech used familiar Christian rhetoric, referring to Carryn Owens’ presence in the crowd as a “blessing” and declaring that “Ryan’s legacy is etched into eternity.” He then turned to the specifically theological language of atonement, linking Owens to Christ’s own words about his crucifixion in John 15:13 “For as the Bible teaches us, there is no greater act of love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. Ryan laid down his life for his friends, for his country, and for our freedom—we will never forget him.”
But when Carryn Owens stood for her applause, the story changed in a way neither Trump nor anyone else could have predicted. Trump indeed gained absolution, but it was granted not by Ryan Owens the Christ-figure, but by his wife. Surrounded by the crowd, and her handmaid Ivanka who patted her shoulder and knee several times, Carryn Owens became a transformative figure of redemption. Her face, damp with tears, looked directly upwards as her entire body took on the pose of a suffering saint. She cried, repeatedly mouthing the words “I love you” as the applause roared for a full two minutes. Her profound pain and grief, written on her face and in her body, functioned to take on Trump’s sin and cleanse him of it.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Catholic Church’s notion of “redemptive suffering” produced any number of “victim souls.” These were women were specially chosen by God in some way to voluntarily and willingly suffer on behalf of others, to atone for the sins of their communities. Based on the example of Christ’s passion, victim souls from from St. Gemma Galgani to Blessed Alexandrina embodied suffering for their communities for a specific theological purpose: absolution. They are often described as “co-redeemers” with Christ and like him, their suffering is always physical, not simply spiritual, taking the form of stigmata or disease–or extreme asceticism and the denial of food or rest to their bodies. The physical spectacle of the victim soul—her tears, her pain, her blood, her own body, transforms and absolves those who look upon her. The victim soul takes on the sins of others as Jesus did. She suffers for them, and in so doing, removes their own suffering from them.
Because the victim soul suffers for us willingly, we owe her nothing. Redemptive suffering is never about justice. Owens’ father wants justice and demands an explanation for the death of his son. But Carryn Owens as victim soul demands no explanation or reparation. We (and Trump) are absolved by her without having to do a thing.
Trump himself acknowledged the religious transformation that was taking place last night and was moved enough to veer off script, one of the only times he did so all evening, claiming in a cheerfully pastoral voice that “Ryan is looking down right now, you know that, and he’s very happy because I think he just broke a record.”
But Ryan is not happy, he is dead. He will never see his children grow up, he will never grow old, never enjoy a good meal or a book or a walk on the beach. He no longer exists—his life taken from him in Yemen, just six days into the Trump administration. Carryn Owens is not happy either. She must now raise her children without a father and will never again see the man she loved and with whom she shared her life.
Trump himself, however, was very happy last night—happy that through the redemptive suffering of an innocent woman, his own sin was absolved. Trump will never take responsibility or blame himself for episodes like these. He said on Tuesday of the raid that “This was something they wanted to do,. . .they came to me, they explained what they wanted to do, the generals,. . .And they lost Ryan.” In this case, at least, he didn’t have to take responsibility. We all watched Carryn Owens tears as her body took on our sin, and absolved both him and ourselves.
Karen E. Park is a professor of Theology and Religious Studies at St. Norbert College in De Pere, WI. Her interests include American Religious history and sacred space. This appeared at Religion Dispatches.
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