Triaging Moral Injury

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERARita Nakashima Brock ended her day-long series of lectures at the Earlham School of Religion with a lecture on how religious communities might aid those morally injured by war.   I admired her suggestions and hope churches, everywhere, take them seriously.  But I also found myself wondering what sorts of anguish, and what sorts of sin, become less urgent when we focus on the moral injuries of veterans.  Are soldiers’ moral traumas more redeemable – or at least more publicly, institutionally urgent – than the sins of the rest of us?

Let me say at the outset that this is probably unfair.  If anything emerged from Brock’s lectures, it is that many returning soldiers suffer from crushing moral anguish without much care, understanding, or support.  Other posts on this site have repeated the horrific suicide rate among current veterans.  If Brock can remind churches – can remind the nation – that these men and women’s anguish properly belongs to all of us, she has done a moral service.  And if encountering soldiers’ brokenness can make real and personal the costs of wars – wars that have become invisible to most Americans — then Brock’s work is God’s work. Yet something still unsettles me.

But first the basics.

As other posts on this site note, Brock is a feminist theologian who made her name by arguing against substitutionary atonement—the widespread Christian belief that Jesus died as redemptive sacrifice for the sins of the world.   In several books, Brock has argued that this theology makes God a kind of cosmic child abuser.  It transforms Jesus, in Brock’s analysis, into a model for silently suffering abuse in the service of a warped, self-annihilating vision of love.  By contrast, her newest book and newest project, Brite Divinity School’s Soul Repair Center, focus on the anguish of those with the terrible power to inflict violence themselves – members of the United States military.

In some sense, “soul repair” seems to mark an expansion of Brock’s empathy (at least as that empathy finds expression in her written work).  As she argued earlier in the day, those who suffer from moral injuries – violations of conscience that create moral anguish and “unmake character” – are “both perpetrators and victims.” And her examples drove home the point.  She spoke of a jailed Vietnam vet who dreamed about the children his unit unwittingly killed at a schoolhouse.  She showed a video of a young soldier who felt he had morally “crossed a Rubicon” when he followed orders to shoot at an Iraqi youth too wielding a grenade but too far away to do harm.  She played a devastating clip of an officer who called the relatives of the dead and disfigured.   These testimonies wrenched me with their anguish and anger.  These were good men, hurt and angry.  I don’t know that I’ve ever been to lectures that I felt more viscerally.

I’ll leave it to others on this blog to say more about moral injury, as Brock described it.  In her last lecture, though, she spoke of what churches could do to bring soldiers “all the way home.”  Her examples made a lot of sense.

First, she suggested that churches had the theological language and the social resources to help veterans transition to civilian life.  For one thing, churches can offer opportunities for service – chances for veterans to seek redemption by “restoring the balance of good in the world, ” as Brock put it.  Just as important, church members can offer long-term, committed friendships if they “earn the right to listen.” But to help, Brock emphasized, churches needed to learn “deep listening” and to become comfortable with intense anger – anger which often masks deep grief that masculine norms make difficult to express.

“It’s important to listen for the pain under that anger, but not to say, ‘don’t be angry,’” Brock said. “If you tell a vet not to be angry, they probably won’t talk to you again.”

Beyond individual care, Brock said, churches could reflect on the shared, social responsibilities for war.   Our near-total dependence on oil, Brock said, is “part of our complicity.”

Churches’ explicitly theological resources can also help veterans process their moral trauma.    In particular, Brock stressed the importance of rituals, occasions for public grieving that process pain in a “ritual container.” Through bodily movement, repetition, and art, ritual “encodes” emotions, stories and meanings into deep, unconscious levels of the brain, Brock said.  Ritual, then, forms our moral instincts; it fuses our bodies, emotions, and logical minds.  Brock often drew, compellingly, on neuroscience to demonstrate her points.

And the military understands ritual  Basic training is a an 8-week ritual process that inducts soldiers’ minds and bodies into an alternate moral world, one in which things normally considered immoral – killing, most obviously – may be justified.  It also highlights values like courage, competence, confidence, and camaraderie, Brock added.   Yet after undergoing this ritual remaking – and living through combat situations that threaten all their value systems – soldiers return home almost instantaneously.

Back in their homes 48 hours after leaving a war zone, soldiers feel “like aliens,” Brock said.

Religious groups can provide re-entry rituals to facilitate the transition, Brock sajd.   She used the 9-day Navajo “enemy way” ceremony to suggest the intensity of effective rituals.   Still, she suggested that the Christian tradition also had resources for dealing with grief.  In particular, she focused on Shelly Rambo’s description of “Holy Saturday” – the often-overlooked day between Good Friday and Easter.  For people who have experienced trauma, Brock said, the resurrection and new life of Easter may never arrive.  Instead, the church might help them live “between death and life,” and with the inevitable “remainder of trauma.”

This point – that trauma never fully disappears – was among Brock’s strongest and most sobering.   She rooted it, among other places, in the story of the resurrection, and in Thomas’s insistence on seeing Jesus’s wounds. “He is not who he says he is if he doesn’t have the signs,” Brock said.   In fact, she continued, an enormous number of Biblical characters can be understood as suffering from moral injury.   Peter denied Christ, yet sought redemption by heeding his call to “feed my sheep.”  Paul savagely persecuted Christians until he became one.  In the Gospel of John, Nicodemus fails to understand Jesus’s message, but then reappears at the cross, helping Joseph of Arimathea prepare Jesus’s body for burial.  Moral failure, moral anguish, and work toward redemption:  it’s a common thread.

In fact, moral injury and recovering from it sound a lot like sin and penance.   Brock said as much, but her focus, obviously, fell on the term “moral injury.”  As she noted in an earlier lecture, the term came from a Veterans Administration writers and researchers.  The VA cannot, without consequence, use words like “sin” and “evil.”   However slim the distinction, “moral injury” and “conscience” are acceptable.   And if you want to work with veterans – including non-Christian veterans – clearly you have to adopt more inclusive and less directly religious language.

Yet I wonder what is lost when we stop speaking of sin – which most Christians believe we all commit – and instead speak more narrowly of the moral injury of soldiers. My concern isn’t  that “moral injury” absolves the rest of us – Brock rightly stressed that churches should remind communities that we’re all implicated in the decision to send troops into combat.  Instead, it’s the opposite – that moral injury frames troops moral anguish as almost uniquely worthy of the hard work of redemption.

Maybe it is.  Whether we like it or not, American soldiers do things in our name and – more crucially – they do so believing our great myths.   In the clips Brock showed, soldiers repeatedly spoke of entering the military to fight for freedom and for good.  They believed, in our name, in the goodness of the American nation and the American military’s mission.   That high-minded idealism on our behalf – combined with the gut-wrenching moral unmaking many suffer – must have a higher-level claim on our supplies of redemption, right?

It may.  I just wonder –  selfishly? – where it leaves the rest of us.   I don’t know about you, but I’ve sinned.  I’ve done things that have hurt people.  I feel guilt and something like moral injury.  But I don’t have the moral status of “soldier” to prioritize my injury in a world of moral triage.  Instead,  I just have the dirty, self-inflicted cuts of sins rarely incurred in the service of a higher purpose.   I have no mitigating factors.  Do we need mitigating factors?

The soldiers Brock works with deserve our care, our deep listening, and our work for redemption.  How different does that make them from the rest of us?  Judging from their testimonies, probably a lot.  But most – all? – of us need redemption as well.  In narrowing the sins of humanity to the moral injury of soldiers, in triaging moral injuries, I hope that everyone needing urgent treatment still feels they have an equal right to it,


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