Remember me, O Lord, in Thy Kingdom not unto judgment or condemnation be my partaking of Thy holy mysteries, O Lord, but unto healing of soul and body.
From the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom
We are a country at war. We have been at war many years now, fighting terrorism overseas. Before this war on terrorism, there was a war on communism, a war on fascism, a war over territory, a war over slavery, a war against “Indians,” and a war for independence. These are just some of the “big” wars in the history of our country. But is not a blog about war, you can find many of those elsewhere written by others much more qualified than I.
Rather, this is my thinking about moral injury: the mostly hidden wound of war on combatants and the similarity to our own moral injury as sinful humans.
Many of us old enough to remember Vietnam can recall the soldiers returning to a society hostile to them. For some number of them, it was a devastating re-entry. We are tempted to blame it on their participation in a “bad” war.
Compare Vietnam to today’s “good” war where recruits enlist with fanfare and return as heroes (“Thank you for your service”). Nowadays, veterans (I was in the Air Force years ago) are asked to stand to applause on Veterans Day.
In his book, Killing From the Inside Out, in which he effectively dismantles Augustine’s/Aquines’ Just War Doctrine, Meagher cites Pentagon statistics indicating a “runaway suicide rate in the military, averaging thirty-three suicides per month in 2012, roughly one every seventeen hours.” One every seventeen hours. This is not unique to our current war. Grossmann (On Killing: The Psychology Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society) notes that there were periods during the “Good War,” (WWII) where US soldiers were being discharged (“shellshocked” was the old term) at a rate equal to that of incoming recruits.
But, aren’t these, WWII and the war on terrorism, the “good wars,” the Just Wars? If so, why the devastating effect on so many soldiers?
In his interview in the magazine Road to Emmaus, (“The Opposite of War is Not Peace”), Dr Timothy Patitsas refers to post World War II research that indicated eighty-five percent (85%!!) of US combatants in combat would either not fire their weapons or they would aim to miss. Similar, albeit limited, research conducted on our opposing armies yielded the same result. After the release of these findings, the US Military devised a new way to train soldiers by having them shoot at human-like shapes. Patitsas notes that after this change, “the post-traumatic stress in Vietnam skyrocketed and hasn’t stopped yet.”
I an not expert in treating combatants, but I’d like to bring out some important points by some who are.
Many of those specializing in the treatment of combat veterans have made some important discoveries. It seems that despite our best theological and moral efforts to differentiate between murder and killing, a human being who takes a life makes no such distinction in the depths of their soul. Taking a life of another kills something within many who take that life. Meagher refers to this a “moral injury.” Labeling a returning soldier as a “hero” only deepens the moral injury, causing the soldier to retreat within themselves and further from community. It seems, according to these authors, that many, upon returning from war, view themselves as criminals unfit for society and undeserving of a hero’s welcome.
Here is the image in my mind that has sparked my thinking on this: the juxtaposition of a hero’s welcome parade thrown in honor of someone who views one’s self as a criminal, the one who feels they have committed the crime of killing another human being celebrated by society. Imagine what must be going through this person’s mind, the energy it must take to play the role of the returning hero. This is an image I’ll return to shortly.
Cognitive therapy, “talking it out” only seems to make the isolation worse for returning combatants. Suicide can be a final escape from this hidden, moral injury, the dissonance between being society’s hero, yet feeling irredeemable. Therapists are looking for another way to help. Shay, in Achilles in Vietnam, believes that help for soldiers can be found in the ancient past. His assertion, now widely accepted, is that Homer’s Iliad was written to help Greek soldiers, morally injured by war, cope with this hidden injury and to eventually re-enter society. As I understand it, there is a new form of therapy, based on Shay’s work, emerging to help soldiers returning from combat.
As I said above, the point of my thinking here is not to focus on war. I hope I’ve said enough to now turn to what is really on my mind. And I hope you are still with me.
In reading some of the above material, the idea of a soldier feeling like a criminal and suffering moral injury due to his or her actions resonated deeply within me. Not because I was in combat—I was enlisted during one of the short periods of time our country was not at war—rather, the idea of suffering moral injury, receiving a hero’s welcome, and the typical therapies that have been employed for healing brought to my mind my experience in the churches I have attended and the Christian books I have read as I battled my own sin.
Meagher notes that “moral injury,” doing something we know is wrong, has an older name, one with which we are much less familiar with in today’s society: sin. Our modern society has tried to do away with sin by redefining right and wrong. It seems almost everything can be justified. If I cut off someone in traffic, they deserved it for driving like an idiot or because my needs exceed theirs. If I’m angry at another, they are keeping me from what I want and my worth is justified. We now use nature, nurture, rights, genes, parenting, lineage…on and on it goes, to justify almost any action that fits the social norm (which is ever changing, but that’s a different blog).
The idea of feeling like a criminal, feeling separated from other humanity, and feeling unworthy of a hero’s accolade has also caught my attention. It is more than feeling guilt over a wrong action, over sin, to use the old word. As described, it is a realization of the kind of person I am: I am someone who can actually perform such sinful acts. This realization also goes by another, old fashioned name: shame. Like sin, shame is a concept mostly foreign to modern society (at least as attributed to one’s self; however, we have weaponized shame against others who disagree with us). If sin is reasoned away in my own life, then there can be no shame; my actions are acceptable and I am acceptable.
Finally, I get to the point of this blog.
I have encountered Christian messages wherein I was encouraged to rejoice in God’s forgiveness of me, to be filled with the joy of being saved as the result of praying a certain prayer. I was told I had victory over sin. I was told that if I acted more morally or performed some philanthropic act, I should be happy that God was acting in me; I should be joy-filled. After saying the “sinner’s prayer,” I was given something akin to a “hero’s welcome” given to the returning combatant. When facing continued sin, I was told, “Just stop it. You are a child of God.” Perhaps you have had the same experience.
But this sense of victory never squared with my own inner certainty of my sinfulness and shame, that while I repented of my past sins and God did forgive me, I did not feel victorious, nor did I experience any sort of self-satisfaction from being saved. Fr Alexander Schmemann gives voice to my sense of moral injury better than I:
Baptism is the forgiveness of sins, not their removal. It introduces the sword of Christ into our life and makes it the real conflict, the inescapable pain and suffering of growth. It is indeed after baptism and because of it, that the reality of sin can be recognized in all of its sadness…
So, back to the image I described above: the combat veteran returning to a hero’s welcome while feeling like a criminal. All around me were Christians rejoicing and telling me my salvation was a certainty while inside I felt like a pretender. I was (am) overwhelmed by the anguish of my own shame that I am the kind of person who still most often desires things other than God; I am filled with self love, not love for God and neighbor. Consequently, rather than experiencing healing, I experienced a deepening separation from these other Christians.
But, the Church has, throughout her history, been a “hospital for the broken,” a place for healing. How does this healing take place? In very simplistic terms, the Enlightenment gave us a focus on intellectual truth. Therapeutic healing, in the light of Enlightenment thinking, is that I learn Truth, and from there I find Goodness in me (or at least rationalize my behavior) and move past my moral injury. Focus on the intellect, learn truth, and healing follows, I was told. Like the soldier told that killing in war is okay, that the war is Just, this way of approaching healing did not work for me either. It only deepened my sense of separation, of isolation.
But this way of using intellect first is a relatively new idea in Christianity; it forsakes Beauty, the third of the classical virtues and the one most neglected in Western thought.
The Eastern Church has always held that to be healed I should seek Beauty first: the Beauty of God. By dwelling on God I dwell on Beauty; I fall in love with God. In time, loving the Beauty allows me to find the Goodness in the Cross of Christ, and thereby find the goodness in my own cross: my own moral injury. Finally, the knowledge of the Truth of God, which is intertwined with Beauty and Goodness, begins to emerge.
Sin and the resulting shame (moral injury) drives us from beauty and toward ugliness. It teaches us lies. It separates us from others. Beauty, on the other hand, heals by replacing the ugliness of our moral injury with Beauty. Beauty brings us into re-entry with community. Beauty allows us begin to see Goodness, to “embrace Goodness and to become good.” Then Truth comes, the truth of the Cross; and we can see the humiliation of our being—our shame—in the Light of God and rejoice in His love of us.
Of course healing is not this neatly linear, but it must begin with contemplating Beauty. Perhaps healing begins with someone who is filled with Christ (a friend, pastor, therapist, etc.) who crosses my path and “absorbs some of my moral injury,” and I see God’s beauty in them. Eventually, I am able to begin to find the goodness in my shame, for my suffering marks me—they are the marks of the suffering of Christ upon my body.
Healing is a long process.
No one can put together what has crumbled into dust, but You can restore a conscience turned to ashes; You can restore to its former beauty a soul lost and without hope. With You, there is nothing that cannot be redeemed. You are Love; You are Creator and Redeemer. We praise You, singing: Alleluia!
Akathist to the Glory of God, Ode 10