The Deeper Wound

Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 05/31/2015

I’m going to show a video of a young man named Ron who served in Iraq and has been diagnosed with what we in the US commonly call post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. What I’d like you to do when watching it is to practice what is called deep listening, as though Ron is in the room with us. Pretend he is here. Hear what he has to say. Get a sense of his feelings. Really listen. Don’t let your political opinions interfere with your listening, and don’t try to dismiss or justify or distract from his experience. Just listen to him.
Let’s take a moment of silence to experience the feelings Ron’s story raised in us. Let the complexity and difficulty of it sit with you. Try to resist mentally resolving any tension you’re feeling. Don’t bother with political opinions or platitudes. Just feel.
Those who posted Ron’s video on the web perceptively identified Ron’s problem as not necessarily PTSD but as a phenomenon now commonly referred to as a moral injury. It is moral injury in returning military veterans that I’d like to talk about today, in this era of extended war and returning service members. (Antal, Chris J. and Kathy Winings. “Moral Injury, Soul Repair, and Creating a Place for Grace.” Forthcoming in RELIGIOUS EDUCATION 110.4 (July/September 2015)

Moral injury is a relatively new term coming out of the psychiatric community as they realize that they have been lacking the concepts and understanding needed to fully address the problems and challenges that face returning veterans. Moral injury has been identified as occurring when a soldier “betrays what is right,” and “perpetuat[es], [fails] to prevent, [bears] witness to, or [learns] about acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.” (These definitions are coming from papers published by Jonathan Shay and Brett Litz, psychiatrist and psychologist with the Department of Veteran Affairs.)

Moral injury is not PTSD. Post-traumatic stress disorder is a psychological condition that is caused by “an overwhelming experience of fear,” (Antal, p.3). Perhaps you’ve heard about symptoms of PTSD in returning soldiers, such as hearing a loud noise that triggers a fear response that is inappropriate to the soldier’s real-time situation. A car backfires and a veteran has the distinct feeling that he or she is back in a war zone and acts accordingly, for example.

Moral injury is different from PTSD. Moral injury is a spiritual condition, a trauma to one’s moral framework, and is exemplified by feelings of shame and guilt about what one did or saw while in combat.

Researchers Rita Nakashima-Brock and Gabriella Lettini say that “veterans with moral injury have souls in anguish, not a psychological disorder.” Moral injury is “a wound suffered by a self-reflective and conscientious moral agent.” Although it’s not PTSD, many with moral injury are inaccurately and ineffectively diagnosed with PTSD – in part because that has been the primary psychological term available with which to label them.

Although more and more veteran-focused medical professionals are identifying moral injury as a pervasive condition among returning troops, the world of psychiatry lacks the tools it needs to address it, and are calling out to religious leaders and religious communities for help. And this help is critical, because as career Veterans Affairs psychiatrist Jonathan Shay writes, “PTSD, as officially defined, is rarely what wrecks veterans’ lives or crushes them to suicide. Moral injury,” Shay writes, “does both.”

Given the stories and statistics we hear about veteran suicide and violence, post-combat care of veterans should be a concern of all Americans. And given that the medical profession has declared the treatment of moral injury to be essentially beyond their scope, and specifically has called upon religious communities to help our returning veterans reintegrate into society, it seems a good time for a church like us to prepare.

Where better for anyone with an aching heart and a damaged soul to come than to church, whether they are a veteran or otherwise? Where better to relearn about living in peace with other people, for someone who isn’t sure whether they’ll ever be able to return to a peaceable society, whether they deserve to be able to return? Church, to me, is the obvious answer to help these folks reintegrate. But are churches prepared to help, are we prepared to help? No, we are not. And that is why we are talking about this today.

When we hear tough stories like the one Ron told, we might be very tempted to look away, and quick. If you’re like me and you don’t have much military experience or exposure, you might feel overwhelmed by the situation he describes.

If we do have military experience, we might be tempted to shut down a conversation like this because regret, shame and guilt, and the stories that explain it, isn’t what veterans are “supposed” to talk about, even though surely every veteran knows of it.

If we have strong political opinions against our current particular wars, we might find some escape there, telling ourselves this isn’t our war or our problem, so we don’t have to help with the fallout.

And if we just have no idea how to comfort or aid someone who is suffering from moral injury, any of us might be tempted to simply walk away. Physically, emotionally, in the attention we pay and the amount of listening we do, we might be tempted to just move away from returning veterans who need us.

But that would be a shame, a wasted opportunity to aid and support where perhaps only a church community can aid and support.

One of the best things we can do in a church setting with those with soul traumas is to do what we at Sugarloaf actually do best: Listen with a loving heart. Staying, paying attention, and listening closely is a good choice to make, even if you’re nervous. Here’s why: Moral injury in a soldier is actually a good sign.

Moral injury is actually a good sign. It’s a sign of hope and humanity. And a strong, humble religious community can help a veteran follow that hope to healing.

UU military chaplain Chris Antal, who wrote the paper that provides much of our material today, quotes two different articles in saying that “Veterans who experience moral injury testify to human capacities for empathy and to the resilience and persistence of moral teaching.” “A person of good character feels moral pain – call it guilt, shame, anguish, remorse – after doing something that caused another person suffering, injury or death, even if entirely accidental or unavoidable.”

Soldiers are trained to be violent by our military institutions, and further trained and rewarded for developing a great deal of moral and emotional detachment from the actions they are called upon to make. When the training doesn’t hold, when the soldiers can’t really maintain that moral detachment upon return to us, that is a good sign. It is a good sign for both the individual soldier and for society at large that someone cannot kill, maim, or even thoroughly scare others without at least some degree of regret.

Imagine if it were otherwise! Imagine if killing or scaring children had no effect on the soldier who did it! That would surely be a terrible sign for humanity. War is painful. It should hurt those who perpetrate it, even if that war is a necessary one. (Paraphrased from M. Scott Peck in People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil (1983, 232.) as quoted in Antal, Winings.) Like it or not, we have proven to be a war making nation, and it is part of our job as a war making nation to remember that war is painful and it has a cost. To turn away from that reality is to abdicate our responsibility for our actions in the world.

Soldiers are trained to tell themselves what a psychologist named Daniel Goleman calls “vital lies”, in order to “cope with the anxiety inherent in combat” (Antal, p. 5). Those “vital lies” – the lies that tell a soldier that his or her behavior is morally acceptable – those lies make a soldier effective in what they are trained to do and what may in fact be necessary to do. Having a moral justification for wartime acts makes those acts possible. It allows the soldier to do his or her job.

It’s often when the soldier comes home that the problem begins. As Antal puts it, “a veteran who remains morally disengaged never returns home.” (p.5) As the psychiatrist Jonathan Shay notes, “To really be home means to be emotionally present and engaged.” And the only way to go from a morally disengaged, effective soldier in a violent field of war to an emotionally present and engaged civilian in peaceful society is to go through a process of reflection and, yes, repentance, with the support of a community that has the capacity to really witness the process. A community that can listen with love and hope.

Imagine if you were returning from war with a weight of guilt and remorse heavy upon you, as I would suggest is supposed to and likely to happen. You have seen and done both things that were necessary and things that were unnecessary. None of it was pleasant. Much of it was mandatory, uncontestable. Some of it wasn’t. All this is swirling around in your spirit.

You aren’t given training on how to unlearn the violence you were so effectively trained to learn. The people around you don’t know anything about the conditions you’ve seen, and instead of listening to your stories, your doubt and pain and regret, they more often shut you up, say “Thank you for your service” and call you a hero.

The last thing you feel like is a hero. You become more and more isolated. To whom can you tell your story, like Ron did in our video? To whom can you confess?

That’s right, UUs, I said confess, and I’ll go on to say, to whom can you confess your sins? Sins that perhaps you had to commit, but sins nonetheless?

We may be able to discern that confession is best done in a church. But what can we UUs offer, we who are doubtful about sin and dubious of confession? Can we be present to those who are morally scarred, with good reason? Can we love them too? And how does our motivation to love them change as we realize that whether we liked it or wished for it or not, these soldiers fought for our benefit, with our complicity?

Chaplain Antal says that when a community like ours is able to really hear the confessions and guilt of returning soldiers, it helps us ask and wrestle with the hard questions that any member of a war-making nation needs to ask. Questions like:
“Can war ever be ‘just’?
Is the act of killing by individuals in war sinful?
Why must we as a peace-loving people rely on war for our sense of security?
How do we view our returning veterans knowing some of the actions they had to commit?” (p.13)

Antal quotes Rita Nakashima-Brock in saying, “Engaging in collective conversations about moral injury and war can help us all to strengthen the moral fabric of society and the connections that tie us to the rest of the world. Our collective engagement with moral injury will teach us more about the impact of our actions and choices on each other, enable us to see the world from other perspectives, and chart pathways for our future.”

Antal goes on to say that “veterans need to see this level of conversation taking place…[T]he guilt and shame they may be experiencing is not confined just to them. They are part of a larger social contract and system that had a hand in the decision to deploy the troops either directly or indirectly….[T]his system of which many of us are a part is broken. Conversations about moral injury, soul repair, and creating a place for grace within the religious community are essential to repairing the break, unlearning violence, and learning peacemaking.” (p.14)

A place for grace. This is what Chaplain Antal suggests a church can be for veterans. Grace is that unidentifiable quality of creation makes forgiveness and healing possible where no possible healing could have previously been imagined. The tools for making a place for grace for veterans, Antal says, are the tools of confession and repentance. Church is a place for moral injury healing grace to happen, and confession and repentance are tools that even we UUs can use.

Confession is really just a fancy word for telling your story. Except it is a word especially reserved for telling a difficult story where you are in the wrong.

There is a reason why the act of confession has played such an important role in church life, even though UUs sometimes like to pretend that we’re above such things. When you’ve done wrong – and we’ve all done wrong at one point or another – confessing can be a path to forgiveness, to healing. It is such a path even when we can’t imagine such a thing could help, in the way that many UUs can’t imagine confessing could help.

Confession leads to repentance, an expression of remorse and sadness for what has been done. Repentance, in turn, can lead to change: change of heart, change of behavior, change of attitude, change of relationship, change in understanding. This is even more the case when a community envelopes the veteran and joins in confessing and repenting for a social system to which we all belong that just can’t seem to leave violence behind.

We are human beings, in turns glorious and weak, and we regularly fail to live up to our potential as the physical incarnation of love that we have the capacity to be. The weakness in our way of being leads to war and we send soldiers to fight those wars. War is brutal and a harsh teacher, and those who have seen it up close learn the most.

We must not turn our eyes away from the lessons these soldier students bring home to us. We can confess that we can’t figure out a different way. We can regret and repent the harm that our way has caused. We can do that all together, and this repentance can lead to healing in our individual veterans. More than that, repentance can lead to change in those violent ways we can’t steer clear of. Change can come, by grace and by our efforts. And we can heal together, and learn to be the kingdom of peace that we are ultimately called to be.

Hearing about and treating moral injury is serious and complicated work. It’s not quick or simple. That’s why it so needs the help of other people who are willing to be present and to listen, and it needs the grace of God who is endlessly redemptive and renewing. We can be a place for this healing work to happen, a place for grace. May it be so.

I’d like to close by reading Chaplain Chris Antal’s prayer, called “A Veteran’s Day Confession for America.” Please join me in the spirit of prayer.