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?