A Letter to the Masses (Guest Post: Rev. James Briggs)

In light of the killings of Terence Crutcher and Keith L. Scott, and as part of this ongoing series, The Trauma of Racism I want to introduce a good friend and brother who can speak to these challenges in ways that I cannot. It is my privilege to count James as a friend, brother, and co-worker in the Kingdom. To those who have ears, let them hear. (Note: I have posted James' letter without any changes. Emphasis in the enlarging and emphasizing of text is exclusively mine.)

The Rev. James Briggs currently serves as Senior Pastor of the Daybreak Metropolitan Church at Addison in Addison, Texas.  His Gospel ministry career spans over 20 years. He holds a BS degree from Oklahoma Christian University and an MDiv degree from Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. His published thesis was entitled Kingdom Building and Kingdom Seeking: Creating that God Ordained Space Where All Of Humanity Can Dwell. He is currently working to complete a book about the spiritual disciplines he employed during his time of discernment prior to starting a new ministry in the DFW Metroplex.  The title of that work is Lyrics Leading to The Launch: Memoirs of a Minister's Meditations Expressed through Original Psalms. In his spare time, James enjoys reading, going to the movies and watching professional sports.  He currently resides in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area with the love of his life Mrs. Evette Sophia-Navedo.

Dearly Beloved,

It is my honest hope and sincere prayer that you receive the message of this letter with both an open mind and open heart.  There is so much grief that fills our cities today.  This is a consequence of the tremendous amount of hate that fills the hearts of men and women in our country.  The vicious attacks and hate crimes committed against people of color have far exceeded epic proportions.  There have been so many names that we've come to speak and so many lives that we've come to learn of all because these individuals merely offended or dare I say "threatened" the wrong person with their melanated skin. 

I was raised in a home that taught me to value and respect my blackness.  Over the course of my lifetime, I've come to discover that no matter how much I valued and respected the color of my skin, there would still be many others who would refuse to value and respect me as a part of God's divine creation.  Thankfully my black father taught me that my worth is not appraised according to another person's value system.  The assessment of my value as a part of God's creation was produced long ago.  God took time to make me [Ps 139.14]. As a child, I was doubly blessed, because my black mother would make a point to constantly remind me of how crucial it is to always carry myself with a form of dignity that would make it known to others that I have respect for myself.  These lessons that my parents taught me and my two other siblings have really blessed me in a myriad of ways.  I treasure these lessons from my childhood because they have helped me to maintain both my sanity and integrity when I see groups and organizational structures designed to eliminate people of color and make us extinct.  The divine detail given to the creation process is not one to be taken lightly. 

It is most unfortunate, however, that God did not make the melanin in black people's skin strong enough to repel bullets in the same fashion that it protects against ultraviolet rays from the sun. 

The devastating events that have taken place in recent weeks have affirmed one thing that I've long suspected.  It is time for the Christian Church to do what it was purposed to do from the very beginning.  It is time for the Church to unite and take action against the spiritual wickedness in high places [Ephesians 6.12].  Churches around the country can't continue to sit back and watch the "few" fight against the "many" and still expect a victory. 

Social Justice issues are not issues that the Church should view as an elective course in undergraduate school. 

It is the most critical area of ministry, because it was that area of ministry that Christ dedicated his life and work to during his earthly ministry.  Jesus made it his business to address the hard issues of his day without any hesitation even though he knew what it would ultimately cost him.

The Church must never shy away from the work that must be done because of fear of the high cost. God has forever been on the side of the oppressed [Psalm 9.9]. Therefore, the Creator expects the redeemed to pay whatever costs must be paid.

The problems that we see today will not go away if the Church continues to take a weak position against these heinous crimes of racial hatred. There are individuals who have been sworn to protect and serve all people, but they instead have terrorized and murdered a specific group of people. 

This is the time for the Universal Church to leave its laurels and join the Black Church in this warfare against the many grotesquely perverted forms of faith which stem from racism. Hashtags on social media, lunch break conversations, and a handful of sermons on certain Sundays won't remedy this infectious disease. 

While these are nice gestures and deeds done by people with good intentions, these acts simply aren't intentional enough.  A true prophetic move of power is one that points to the problem and demands a solution.  Active involvement in communities through partnerships with awareness and activist groups is key to causing the change that we need in our country. 

This prophetic move of power can be both made and felt when the Church decides that God's nearness needs to be experienced by all people in all places.  The Church has to band together, speak up, and step up.  The Church can do this.  The Church must do this. 

In God's grip,

The Trauma of Racism: Realities, Challenges, and Theological Reflection

Cover Image courtesy of Atlanta Black Star.

This is an introduction to an occasional, ongoing series that will explore the traumatic experiences of those who are impacted by racism, and the attenuating theological reflection that operates as both a reaction to these experiences, and reflection about the life of ecclesial communities in response to racism. Methodologically, this series will draw on the framework suggested by Alistair McFadyen in his remarkable book Bound to Sin: Abuse, Holocaust, and the Christian Doctrine of Sin. The model works something like this:

For theological reflection to be meaningful and appropriate in a diverse range of contexts, the subject(s) of theological reflection must be informed first by the concrete, real, lived experiences of persons and communities. These identifiable experiences must then be illuminated by the best kinds of description and analysis available through an interdisciplinary, and non-theological (the meaning here of "secular") reflection. It is only after this mutually informative interplay between the real experiences of persons and communities and these thick, non-theological descriptions and reflections that the clearest and most articulate (and therefore generative) kinds of theological reflection can emerge. 

This movement of reflection from the concrete experiences of persons and communities, followed by thick, interdisciplinary, non-theological reflection, which finally culminates in nuanced and contextual theological reflection minimizes the risk of falling into one of three major pitfalls (particularly about sin, but this can also be seen in theological reflection more generally). First, by beginning with the real, lived experiences of persons and communities this model minimizes the risk of a disembodied, or entirely theoretical response to actual, lived experience. Second, by engaging in thick, secular, and interdisciplinary descriptions of those personal and communal experiences, we minimize the risk that our theological constructions are rooted more in the "gut feeling" or reflection that is already accepted as correct. This second element allows the church to engage its ecclesial life with a nuance and particularity that was perhaps unavailable in other generations and contexts, and with a deep appreciation for the realities of their communities. The third pitfall is related in that by postponing theological reflection until the end of this process, individuals and communities seek to ensure that theological reflection doesn't "undercut" or weaken reflection on the real, lived experiences of persons and communities. It is not uncommon that theological reflection (particularly the more "popular" or "bumper sticker" variety) actually lack the capacity to serve as a meaningful reflection on the real world. The first two elements of this model in no way dictate the kind of theological reflection that occurs. Instead, it would be best to think of these things as components that inform theological reflection, which in this case would be racism and its attenuating issues, injustices, and trauma.

Image Courtesy of  Psychology Today .

Image Courtesy of Psychology Today.

What I hope to demonstrate in this series are the ways in which racism (both individually and systemically) reshape the world in which persons and ecclesial communities live and move. This reality calls for significant, focused reflection on concrete experiences, thick, non-theological description, and finally, sensitive and nuanced theological reflection. We will address these questions by exploring the actual experience of persons and communities, examining some of the responses to racism, and engaging in theological reflection which will help us individually and as communities of faith to respond appropriately as God's ongoing, redemptive presence in the world.

I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality... I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.

-- Martin Luther King Jr.

The Sanctuary: Meditations on Victims, Powerlessness, and the Life of the Church

We find ourselves in a place as a nation where whites are again faced with the kinds of violence and trauma that tears at the very fabric of our society (for people of color this violence and trauma did not take a break between news cycles). All sides drag up the language deployed against the ideological and political Other the last time this happened, and the news cycles run hotter, faster, and more emotional each time. We are locked into a spiraling, self-perpetuating, cycle of talking points, op-ed's, and yelling across the table and the screen. This isn't to say that this is unimportant, quite the contrary. It is when we can no longer have these conversations that we are most at risk. But the question remains. What good is it to talk about it?

In days like this I am drawn back to thinking about the life of the church, and the ways that, if we were to admit it, the church has not always been the greatest at addressing these kinds of realities. It is not difficult to imagine that African-American churches will gather to lament the lives of people like Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and the countless other African-Americans that are adversely affected by police brutality, racism, mass incarceration, the war on drugs, and the list could go on and on. It is also likely that many white churches will say little if anything about these kinds of events in their gatherings. This dissonance should disturb us. It should confront us. It should cause us to step back and ask questions about the very kind of life that we live in the world and for the world. It should cause us to ask this question:

Who is at the center of our churches?

Is it the people of power and influence and money? Or is it the people who are the victims, the powerless, the marginalized, the undervalued, and those who can't stand up for themselves?

The reason this matters is this: The entire life of an ecclesial community is shaped by those who are placed at the center.

If at the center you have a charismatic leader, then you find that only certain people and only other people with those same or complimentary gifts and talents are truly integrated into the life of the church. If you center around a group of leaders in which the majority of the influence and power are created you acquire the kinds of people that will advance their goals and visions. If you center around the people with the largest contributions, then the money does the talking. If you center around certain practices (or the exclusion of certain practices) then those boundary markers rule the life of your community.

What would happen if the victim, the wounded, the powerless, the poor, the marginalized, and the undervalued were placed at the center of the life of our churches?

It is my contention that there are three implications of moving the victim and the powerless to the center of our ecclesial communities:

They will discover that the vast majority of people within its church community have some real, consequential experience of being the victim or the powerless. 

Our churches are affected by experiences of trauma, abuse, and neglect at the same (or even greater!) frequency than the general population. It is one of the great myths that the church is exceptionally immune to the ubiquity of these kinds of experiences. It is merely our complicity (or outright protection!) of this false narrative that maintains this illusion.

They will discover that certain ecclesial language and practices are counter-productive to the work of pastoral care and redemption for those who are the victim or the powerless. 

The church will be more aware of the ways in which the language it takes for granted actually perpetuates the very things that it should oppose. It will recognize the way that language of "self-sacrifice" is harmful for victims of abuse. It will be forced to reinterpret the way that it talks about sin to include the descriptive capacity to speak about sin that is done to us. It will need to reevaluate the way that it talks about the difference between authority and power in the community. These are just a few of the many theological, pastoral, and liturgical consequences of this shift.

They will discover that the centering of the victim and the powerless will radically deepen their Christology and in turn their entire theological reflection. 

By locating the victim and the powerless at the center of our ecclesial communities we will find ourselves in closer and more formative proximity to the crucified God who suffers alongside and on behalf of God's creation. This reorientation has profound theological consequences throughout the life of the church. 

It is not the interpretation of love as an ideal, a heavenly power, or as a commandment, but of love as an event in a loveless, legalistic world: the event of an unconditioned and boundless love which comes to meet man, which takes hold of those who are unloved and forsaken, unrighteous or outside the law, and gives them a new identity, liberates them from the norms of social identifications and from the guardians of social norms and idolatrous images. What Jesus commanded in the Sermon on the Mount as love of one's enemy has taken place on the cross through Jesus' dying and the grief of the Father in the power of the spirit, for the godless and the loveless. Just as the unconditional love of Jesus for the rejected made the Pharisees his enemies and brought him to the cross, so the unconditional love also means enmity and persecution in a world in which the life of man is made dependent on particular social norms, conditions, or achievements. A love which takes precedence and robs these conditions of the force is folly and scandal in this world. But if the believer experiences his freedom and the new possibility of his life in the fact that the love of God reaches him, the loveless and unloved, in the cross of Christ, what must be the thoughts of a theology which corresponds to this love? In that case it is a love which creates its own conditions, since it cannot accept the conditions of lovelessness and the law. Further, it cannot command love and countermove. As its purpose is freedom, it is directed towards freedom. So it cannot prohibit slavery and enmity, but must suffer this contradiction, and can only take upon itself this grief in protest. That is what happened on the cross of Christ. God is unconditional love, because he takes upon himself grief at the contradiction in men and does not angrily suppress this contradiction. God allows himself to be forced out. God suffers, God allows himself to be crucified and is crucified, and in this consummates his unconditional love that is so full of hope. But that means that in the cross he becomes himself the condition of this love.
Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucifed God



The (Potential) Harm of Language of Purity and Holiness...

(This is the transcript of a presentation that I gave in November of 2015 at Inside Out Chapel at Oklahoma Christian University. I have left it unedited for this reason.)

How should the church think about the way that it uses language about purity and holiness and more specifically the ways that the church uses language of impurity and sinfulness? The unreflective use of this kind of Christian language not only has the capacity to be pastorally insensitive but deeply wounding and harmful. In fact, it can be the unreflective use of explicitly Christian language that drives people away from the Christian faith.

This week at Inside Out Chapel we will explore the ways in which our language needs to be mindful of the ways that trauma, suffering, and sin done to us (as opposed to sin done by us) should reshape the way we speak to one another.

Listen to these words from the Apostle Paul:

The wages of sin is death. (Romans 6:23, NIV)

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. (Romans 1:18-19, NIV)

Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.
(1 Corinthians 6:18-20, NIV)

Or consider this more lighthearted section from the early American theologian Jonathan Edwards:

Your Wickedness makes you as it were heavy as Lead, and to tend downwards with great Weight and Pressure towards Hell; and if God should let you go, you would immediately sink and swiftly descend & plunge into the bottomless Gulf, and your healthy Constitution, and your own Care and Prudence, and best Contrivance, and all your Righteousness, would have no more Influence to uphold you and keep you out of Hell, than a Spider’s Web would have to stop a falling Rock. Were it not that so is the sovereign Pleasure of God, the Earth would not bear you one Moment; for you are a Burden to it; the Creation groans with you; the Creation is made Subject to the Bondage of your Corruption, not willingly; the Sun doesn’t willingly shine upon you to give you Light to serve Sin and Satan; the Earth doesn’t willingly yield her Increase to satisfy your Lusts; nor is it willingly a Stage for your Wickedness to be acted upon; the Air doesn’t willing serve you for Breath to maintain the Flame of Life in your Vitals, while you spend your Life in the Service of God’s Enemies.

Both Scripture and church history are filled with this kind of language about sin and the looming punishment of death and damnation. But not only is this kind of language to be found in our history and in our texts but it is found in the life of our churches and even here at OC. And what I want to argue and explore briefly is that this is rooted in our inability to recognize the pervasiveness of trauma and suffering in our own lives and in the lives of those around us. And that ultimately a recognition of the sheer magnitude of suffering, brokenness, and trauma in our own lives and all around us should serve to radically reorient the way we engage Christian language about holiness, purity, and sin.

The theologian Miroslav Volf (who will be on campus this Spring!!) in his incredible book Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation speaks of various types of exclusion. As a framework for today I just want to briefly highlight two of these: Exclusion as abandonment and exclusion as indifference. Listen to how he describes these:

[Another] form of exclusion is becoming increasingly prevalent not only in the way the rich of the West and North relate to the poor of the Third World, but also in the manner in which suburbs relate to inner cities, or the jet-setting “creators of high value” to the rabble beneath them. It is exclusion as abandonment. Like the priest and the Levite in the story of the Good Samaritan, we simply cross to the other side and pass by, minding our own business (Luke 10:31). If others neither have goods we want nor can perform services we need, we make sure that they are at a safe distance and close ourselves off from them so that their emaciated and tortured bodies can make no inordinate claims on us. (pg. 75)

Volf continues on to talk about exclusion as indifference:

Strangely enough, the havoc wreaked by indifference may be even greater than that brought by felt, lived, practiced hatred. … Especially within a large-scale setting, where the other lives at a distance, indifference can be more deadly than hate. Whereas the fire of hatred flares up in the proximity of the other and then dies down, the cold indifference can be sustained over time, especially in contemporary societies. … [We] reason: the road from Jerusalem to Jericho will always be littered by people beaten and left half-dead; I can pass – I must pass – by each without much concern. The indifference that made the prophecy, takes care also of its fulfillment. (pg. 77)

Finally it is in the conclusion of this section that Volf names what we fear to even consider:

We exclude also because we are uncomfortable with anything that blurs accepted boundaries, disturbs our identities, and disarranges our symbolic cultural maps. (pg. 78)

We find ways to exclude as a way of protecting the world that we have sought to make for ourselves. And for Christian communities, one of the primary ways we do this is through our constructions of holiness, purity, and sin.

I want to stop here and talk about the world, not the one we try to maintain around us by boundaries and practices of exclusion rooted in our construction of holiness, purity, and sin, but about the world as it really is "out there" and in this room.

I am about to briefly explore just a glimpse of the trauma and human suffering that is all around us and for most of us (this is part of the myth, that trauma and suffering are the exception) some or much of this is a part of our own story. I want to urge first of all that you take priority for self-care here. If you need to leave (and you need an excuse to head to the cafeteria early) you are welcome to do so. If you need to seek help and care for something that has happened to you there are a number of us in this room that will do all that we can to make sure that happens as quickly as possible. For those of you who feel a “disconnect” from this talk about trauma and suffering, I ask that you pay particular attention because if this is not a part of your story it is undoubtedly a part of many people’s story whom you know and love. Think of this as an opportunity to learn how to be a redemptive instead of indifferent presence in the world and in their lives.

Prevalence of Domestic Violence in the United States

  • On average more than three women a day are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends in the United States.
  • Women ages 20 to 24 are at the greatest risk of experiencing nonfatal intimate partner violence.

Violence and Young People

  • 15.5 million children in the United States live in families in which partner violence occurred at least once in the past year, and seven million children live in families in which severe partner violence occurred.
  • Approximately one in three adolescent girls in the United States is a victim of physical, emotional or verbal abuse from a dating partner.

Sexual Abuse and Assault

  • By the age of 18, 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys have been victims of sexual assault by a peer or sexual abuse by an adult.

Refugees, Asylum Seekers, and Fleeing Violence

  • According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees there are some 45 million people who are currently either refugees, asylum seekers, or are displaced from their homes by war and violence. Nearly 8.5 million of these refugees are from Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Syria, and Sudan.

PTSD and Moral Injury from War

  • Everyday 22 veterans of war commit suicide.
  • We knew in the 1960’s that a deployment in combat of more than 250 days (a little more than 8 months) would virtually guarantee what we now know as PTSD and/or Moral Injury. In the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan the average deployment has ranged from 10-12 months with total deployments usually accumulating closer to 25 months per soldier.
  • The symptoms and affects of PTSD are stronger and more resistant to treatment in what it known as “secondary PTSD” which is experienced by spouses and children of veterans with PTSD and/or Moral Injury.

Trauma and Human Suffering whether from violence, abuse, neglect, poverty, disease, or your connection with people who have or are experiencing these things is inescapable. It is literally everywhere.

So what does this have to do with how Christians talk about holiness, purity, and sin? It has everything to do with how we speak about these things. It is the difference between the church or this campus being a place of healing and redemption or a place of further suffering and alienation from God and from the church.

So I want to start with sin. And there is much that can and should be said, but I will limit myself to just this one insight: We have an overabundance of language to talk about (and be mad about!) sin that we ourselves commit. But we have little, if any, language that is helpful for exploring the ways in which sin is done to us outside of our own agency.

What I mean is this: The church has never really struggled to say, “Don’t sin! Seriously, stop it! And if you aren’t sure what we mean by that here is list after list after list of what we mean by sin!” And what has happened is that in our language about sin we commit we have connected it, often times without thinking, to pain and suffering. “The wages of sin is death.”

But how do we talk about sin when it has not been done by us but has been done to us? Now, I know some of you are saying, “Well if you are a victim of something you are not guilty of anything!” And in a sense you are absolutely right. But what I want to tell you is that many who are the victims of trauma and human suffering do not or cannot make that distinction.

Just think about the text from 1 Corinthians 6 that I read earlier:

“Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body.”

Texts like this are used to emphasize abstinence, sex only in the confines of marriage, and our explanation of this text and the text itself are filled with language of purity, holiness, and sin.

But how is this text heard by someone who has been the victim of sexual violence or abuse? How is this seemingly “straightforward” reading complicated by the vast amount of literature that shows that particularly in religious communities, the victims are held in secrecy by the language and pressure of sin, shame, and the public disgrace of having lost their purity?

Or how do victims of all sorts of trauma and abuse hear texts like this one from 1 Peter 3:12:

For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.

Do you see where the unreflective use of Christian language and theology can itself be harmful? Where when we are careless with our words or with the way we speak about the “realities” of life, or the “expectations” of God, or the “cost and punishment” of sin, or the “importance” of purity and holiness, can in fact serve to alienate people from the love of God?

This movement, to read Scripture, and to examine the life and witness of the church in light of the pervasiveness of trauma and human suffering is a massive project. One that I think is not only helpful, but is absolutely mandatory if the church ever hopes to be the bearer of redemption and reconciliation in a world in which we are increasingly aware of the depth and consequences of suffering.

But this is not a project for which there is an easy answer, nor a quick cure which can be administered in a brief talk.

So what I want to do is to make a couple of assertions and then spend our last few minutes, if you would like, in conversation.

Three things that I think are really important based on what I have said so far that might suggest a way forward:

  1. Our churches (and our own lives) will be absolutely shaken to the core when we finally grasp the degree of trauma and suffering both “in the world” and in our churches. This will be a great season of lament and despair.
  2. We will then (and only then) be in a position where we can begin to engage Scripture and theological reflection in a way that can leverage the immense resources and wisdom of the Christian tradition to perhaps the most pressing and challenging barrier to people’s ability to respond to the love of God made visible in Jesus.
  3. The church will no longer be the people who “minister to the broken.” We will be the people of God, who ourselves are broken, who live our lives of ongoing redemption in full display so that the world might know the unstoppable love and power of God.

Human life is complicated, human sexuality is complicated. Our bodily experiences, our engagement with the world, our pursuit of God, our experiences of love and of violence, our hopes and fears, our dreams and our nightmares, our very being is complex and mysterious. And it is in this mess that God relentlessly pursues us.

And it is for this reason that the church must find better words to speak about the life of God and our response to the person of Jesus in a broken and hurting world.

Luke Timothy Johnson, a wonderful New Testament scholar writes in his newest book The Revelatory Body: Theology as Inductive Art this about engaging Scripture in light of the actual experience of our own lives and those around us:

Rereading and reinterpreting Scripture in the light of human experience that at first appears to be dissonant with Scripture – finding texts that formerly were not seen, discovering new dimensions of commonly read passages, relativizing those texts that do not accord with God’s new work – is not a form of disloyalty to Scripture. To the contrary, it is loyalty of the highest sort, for it is driven by the conviction that Scripture truly is God-inspired, truly does speak God’s word to humans, when it is passionately and patiently engaged by those listening for God’s word as well in human experience. But neither are these new readings and understandings of Scripture ultimate; they are also subject to revision in light of what God’s Holy Spirit is doing among human bodies in the world. (pg. 50)

Finally a line from the Rule of Benedict:

The default for a disciple is silence. When we stop talking, we become better

So here are a couple of questions for the last part of our time together:

  1. Have you ever seen or experienced language about God that you found to be harmful or alienating?
  2. How might your world change if you better understand the deepest pains and fears of those around you?

In closing, I want to offer a Franciscan blessing and prayer:

May God bless us with discomfort
At easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships
So that we may live from deep within our hearts.
May God bless us with anger
At injustice, oppression, and exploitation of God's creations
So that we may work for justice, freedom, and peace.
May God bless us with tears
To shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger, and war,
So that we may reach out our hands to comfort them and
To turn their pain into joy.
And may God bless us with just enough foolishness
To believe that we can make a difference in the world,
So that we can do what others claim cannot be done:
To bring justice and kindness to all our children and all our neighbors who are poor.


The Ultimate Betrayal: Veteran's Day and Moral Injury in the Life of the Church

To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations…
— Woodrow Wilson

Veteran's Day as we celebrate it in contemporary culture is an important part of our collective identity and memory. It is noted in the language we use to describe the service of members of the military as "sacrifice" (for those who return home) and "ultimate sacrifice" (for those who lost their life in combat). On this occasion we often celebrate this through parades, school assemblies, commercials and announcements, and often times, a space to recognize our veteran's in our church services. It is a complex (and certainly not uncontested!) web of commitments, values, and ideas that wrap around the ways we think about (among other things) justice, war, foreign policy, and national identity. 

This particular constellation of questions and commitments has always been complicated for me as someone who believes that the call of Jesus presses us to engage in lives committed to nonviolence and peacemaking. The tension that I have struggled to hold is this: I am inescapably a part of a nation that is shaped deeply by its participation in war and violence that I myself, could not in good conscience, participate in. Unfortunately, in contemporary discourse too often, an opposition to war is equated with a hostility towards veterans and members of the military. This I believe to be a false dichotomy that is perpetuated by an unwillingness to explain the ways that a commitment to nonviolence might shape the way Christians think about their care for their brothers and sisters who serve in the military. 

My commitment to nonviolence and peacemaking is the driving force behind my concern for the spiritual and psychological/physiological health and vitality of my brothers and sisters who serve in the military.

It is for this reason that I think it is important on Veteran's Day to speak frankly and honestly about the realities and consequences of MORAL INJURY. A better grasp of the complexities and challenges presented by moral injury should cause our churches to more carefully discern the ways in which they seek to honor, support, and form those who have experienced the terrors of war. 

Moral Injury in the context of war is defined in this way:

... moral injury is a construct that describes extreme and unprecedented life experience including the harmful aftermath of exposure to such events. Events are considered morally injurious if they "transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations". Thus, the key precondition for moral injury is an act of transgression, which shatters moral and ethical expectations that are rooted in religious or spiritual beliefs, or culture-based, organizational, and group-based rules about fairness, the value of life and so forth. 

In the context of war, moral injuries may stem from direct participation in acts of combat, such as killing or harming others, or indirect acts, such as witnessing death of dying, failing to prevent immoral acts of others, or giving and receiving orders that are perceived as gross moral violations. The act may have been carried out by an individual or a group, through a decision made individually or as a response to orders given by leaders. 

For Christians, the reality of moral injury, should be a cause for serious and intentional theological and pastoral reflection. In one of the pioneering articles on Moral Injury ("Moral Injury and Repair in War Veterans: A Preliminary Model and Intervention Strategy") the authors suggest that there are a number of fundamental components of moral injury in veterans:

"Morals are fundamental assumptions about how things should work and how one should behave in the world." (pg. 699)

Emotions related to moral beliefs
"Moral emotions, both self-focused and other-focused, serve to maintain a moral code. Morality-related emotions are driven by expectations of others' responses to perceived transgression. ... Most research has focused on the experience of self-oriented negative moral emotions, such as shame and guilt and how they influence moral behavior. ... Shame involves global evaluation of the self along with behavioral tendencies to avoid and withdraw. Therefore, it results in more toxic interpersonal difficulties, such as anger and decreased empathy for others, and these experiences can, in turn, lead to devastating life changes. Generally, research has shown that shame is more damaging to emotional and mental health than guilt. Consequently, shame may be a more integral part of moral injury" (pg. 699)

The effect of shame on social behavior and connection
"Shame is fundamentally related to expected negative evaluation by valued others. It is, therefore, not surprising that individuals respond to shame with a desire to hide or withdraw. ... [S]hame due to acts of perpetration or acts of omission in traumatic circumstances is likely to lead to extensive withdrawal, which in turn exacerbates shame (e.g., expectations of censure and rejection are reinforced)." (pg. 699) 

"Hall and Fincham (2005) define self-forgiveness as 'a set of motivational changes whereby one becomes decreasingly motivated to avoid stimuli associated with the offense, decreasingly motivated to retaliate against the self (e.g., punish the self, engage in self-destructive behaviors, etc.), and increasingly motivated to act benevolently toward the self'. (pgs. 699-700)

And it is here in the discussion of self-forgiveness that the most obvious connection to the life of the church is laid out:

Self-forgiveness conceptually entails acknowledging the event, accepting responsibility for it, experiencing the negative emotions associated with it, devoting sufficient energy to heal, and committing to living differently in the future.
— Moral Injury and Moral Repair in War Veterans: A Preliminary Model and Intervention Strategy; Clinical Psychology Review, 29 (2009), 700

The complexities and consequences of the brutality and violence of war have the capacity to harm in life-destroying ways those who serve in the military. For the church this is inescapably a theological and pastoral challenge that cannot go unaddressed. The primary need in moral injury is to find and receive forgiveness, and as Christians we believe the primary context for this experience is within the life and witness of the church. 

Inasmuch as the church fails to engage this reality for the lives of many veterans, either from ignorance or a more conscious decision, there is the capacity for great harm to be done. It is in this way that the church can unwittingly engage in a form of an ultimate betrayal for our brothers and sisters who have sustained a moral injury in their military service.

Churches that indiscriminately praise and honor veterans in corporate gatherings (and other settings) risk compromising the veteran's ability to acquire the means of the resolution of their moral injury (self-forgiveness) by denying the complexities and pain of their experience. This produces additional layers of alienation and shame which exacerbate the harmful effects of moral injury. It is here that the church ceases to be a redemptive community and becomes a harmful agent in ongoing and possibly deepening of moral injury.  

So what is the church to do?

While the complexities of moral injury are immense, and the research is in many ways very much emerging, there are a number of concrete actions that the church can and should if it is to faithfully witness to and care for the veterans (and their families) of their congregation and the surrounding community. 

Learn about Moral Injury
This can be done through numerous resources (both academic and more accessible) that are readily available. A starting place for this learning will be given at the end of this post.

Find and offer services and support to the veteran's of your congregation
One of the great challenges or moral injury is that it is, by its very nature, reclusive and self-harming. This makes both awareness and treatment more complicated. Finding intentional ways to encourage and facilitate the utilization of services for veterans is an investment not only on behalf of the veteran themselves but also has immense implications and consequences for their families as well. 

Stop engaging in indiscriminate praise and honor of veterans. Instead hear and learn their stories and ask them what "support" and solidarity might look like. 
Conversations that equate "support" with uncritical and unreflective praise of veterans are harmful and fail to engage the experience of veterans and their families and to consider the role of the church on their behalf. Instead, engaging in a more nuanced and more intentional recognition of their commitment to our country militarily is a more meaningful and pastoral form of "support for our troops". This is the primary way that the church is compelled not by the dominant narrative of our culture (of unreflective support), but by a deep love willing to engage and embrace veterans in the complexities of their lives. 

"My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 
Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends." 

(John 15:12-13, NIV)

What would it look like for our churches to begin to "lay down our lives" on behalf of our veterans and their families?

The Trauma-Formed Christian Tradition

This past summer I presented a paper at the Christian Scholar's Conference entitled Trauma-Informed Ecclesiology: The Embodied Life and Practices of the Church in the Midst of Trauma and Human Suffering. One of the major proposals that I presented in this paper is that by-and-large the Christian tradition in many ways has been more shaped by trauma and human suffering than it has been theologically responsive to it. In the next few posts I want to unpack some of the ways in which I think this can be discerned and the implications that this formation has had on the reflection and witness of the church. The tradition being trauma-formed is particularly discernible when we begin to think about the consequences of actual individual and communal trauma as categories in our theological reflection. 

The broad categories that enable us to discern this trauma-formed trajectory are drawn from one of the world's leading trauma scholars, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, in his important book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma 

First we find that two of the responses to trauma and suffering are related to dissociation. These are forms of alienation and disintegration that happen both individually and communally. For this project I suggested that the two kinds of dissociation most easily perceived in the reflection of the Tradition are bodily dissociation and temporal dissociation. 

Another related and yet distinct consequence of trauma and human suffering is the creation of what I describe as relational fragility. This is the kind of fracturing that impacts both an individuals immediate circle of relationships as well as communities, cultures, and even nations. 

While both bodily and temporal dissociation are forms of separation from the self, this next category is about a harmful posture towards the self. Self-loathing and Self-destruction particularly shape the way that we think not only about ourselves, but also our posture and language toward others, particularly those who are deeply different than ourselves. 

The final categorical consequence of trauma and human suffering is the inability to imagine positive outcomes. This is the kind of orientation to the future that despite any good news or positive events always ends up with a picture of doom and gloom. And it is ultimately this inability that deeply shapes the way that we live or keep ourselves from living due to these expectations of looming and inescapable negative outcomes.   

In the next post in this series I want to begin, one by one, to explore these consequences and to explore just a few of the ways that they seem to embed and manifest themselves in the larger Christian Tradition. So before we close this introduction I just want to take a little space to make clear what I am not saying:

  • I am not suggesting that the parts of the Christian Tradition that I identify as possibly being trauma-formed are inherently wrong, heretical, or should be disposed of. This is one reason why our use of the language of formed and informed will be especially important in our survey. 
  • I am not suggesting that theological reflection that is shaped by trauma and human suffering is in some sense inferior, dysfunctional, or unacceptable. In fact, I intend to argue very strongly in the opposite direction. The challenge that we will confront will be articulating the role that trauma and human suffering has made in theological reflection. 

What I hope to demonstrate at the end of this survey of the places of the Tradition that are trauma-formed is that the primary areas which have then been neglected or distorted are ultimately (and this term is important) ecclesiological

What is your reaction to the suggestion that the Christian Tradition in many ways has been more shaped by trauma and human suffering than it has been responsive to it (theologically)? Is there any validity to the assertion that the Christian Tradition may be in some ways and in some places trauma-formed?