ON Scripture: Moral Injury - the Devil that Looks to Devour (1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11) By Brian Powers


Moral Injury - the Devil that Looks to Devour (1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11)

By Brian Powers


Memorial Day and Combat Trauma

In the earliest parts of my military training, I recall being taught that Memorial Day should not be confused with Veterans' Day because it remembers those who have made "the ultimate sacrifice," having died in the service of our country.  Veterans' Day, by contrast, celebrates those who have survived the conflicts and returned to civilian life.  Trauma researchers might argue that this line is not as clear as it may seem.  They note that experiences of extreme stress, particularly among those who have survived combat, can be described as encounters with death that establish a hold on the survivors and disrupt their abilities to envision and live out a positive future.  Perhaps it is not inappropriate to talk about the living on Memorial Day in remembrance of the life to which so many veterans cannot return, their futures haunted and irrevocably altered. 

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimates that as many as 1 in 5 veterans from the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan return with some degree of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  While the categorization of PTSD largely describes those who suffer from the physiological effects of stress on the body, psychiatrists note that there are less visible psychological wounds of war.  One of the most damaging and persistent of these wounds is what has come to be recognized as "moral injury."  It concerns the profound way in which the moral ambiguities and high-stakes situations combatants face profoundly affect their sense of "right" and "wrong".  While different definitions exist, it is broadly understood as the result of participation in, failure to prevent, or simply being witness to actions that one understands to transgress or betray some moral boundary.  As combatants' actions are often performed in service of a greater "good," there is a profound cognitive dissonance when they experience shame and guilt in the aftermath.  As a result, some morally injured veterans subsequently mistrust the "goodness" of any set of ideas and isolate themselves from others as they struggle to make meaning of their own lives and actions.


The Force that Threatens to Devour

Within the context of moral injury, the imagery within the text from First Peter resonates in a vivid way.  Here, the author exhorts his readers to stand firm in the face of persecution and suffering, acknowledging that they are enduring a "fiery ordeal"  (4.12).  He urges the members of this Christian community to be vigilant in living out the moral vision he has previously expressed for the community, urging them to remain alert because "like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour"  (5.8).  This devil, it seems fair to say, seeks not simply to kill them, but to isolate them from their Christian calling as members of a community, to drag them from the moral path and devour their "goodness."

Psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, the first to employ the term "moral injury," argues that veterans often feel as though they are in danger of being devoured by the government.  Through the long and often tedious process of getting care at the VA, Shay notes that they often express that they have been reduced to a number, their identity devoured by the bureaucratic process itself.  For many suffering from moral injury, their feelings of shame, guilt, isolation and brokenness can also feel like a force that constantly threatens to devour them.  It can poison relationships, drive addictions to drugs and alcohol and cause risky, thrill seeking behavior that seems to test their ability to provoke a response from the universe.   Yet the metaphor cuts to the heart of what moral injury is as well, describing the ways in which the forces of war threaten to utterly consume a combatant's moral capacities. 

Many combatants join the military with the desire to serve the "good" of national security.  Their sense of the goodness of military endeavor is fortified in their training and their skills are sharpened through repetition and conditioning.  As a result, their combat actions (firing a weapon at an enemy target, reloading, etc...) are honed into a nearly reflexive action in response to battlefield stimuli.  After experiencing those actions' real consequences in actual combat - enemy bodies, dead animals, a wedding celebration turned to carnage by an errant bomb - some combatants come to regret that their actions and decision-making process are bound in service to goals they no longer view as entirely morally good.  Some lament that the forces that condition their adherence to it have conscripted their very identities and senses of agency.  They are not killed by these forces, but like the flesh devoured by a lion, they are consumed by it, their agency and identity co-opted and repurposed to serve the forces of war. 

Those suffering from moral injury perhaps remind us how easily our ideas about what is "good" in the world are distorted and devoured by powerful forces of culture, society and politics.  This facet of moral injury resonates deeply with what the influential 5th century theologian Augustine of Hippo understood to be the consequences of humanity's initial fall from grace.  When Adam rejected God's "good" as ultimate, Augustine contends that all humanity became alienated from God.  Unmoored from God, our sense of "good" became deeply malleable and vulnerable to external influence.  Bound in a context of sinful forces, the things we understand as "good," while not without merit, are corrupted by other influences and their pursuit does not produce harmony.  As a result, we pursue what we understand to be an absolute good with zeal, only to be left morally troubled at the guilt, shame and suffering that result.  We may understand veterans and others who experience moral injury to contend with these distortions in acutely damaging ways.


Restoration, Support, and Strengthening

This passage does not simply highlight the ways in which sin and the devil may devour, confuse and ensnare our very moral capacities.  It also provides a sense of hope and encouragement for a community that is exhorted to remain humble.  The author encourages the community to remember the sufferings of others outside its group and promises them that in Christ, God will ultimately "restore, support, strengthen, and re-establish" them.  Like the women in the documentary After Fire, veterans suffering from moral injury often find healing in community with each other, embodying the idea in this text that the community should build its hope upon the knowledge that they do not suffer alone.  They often find a sense of renewed purpose and the power to resist the distorting forces that injured them through friendship with one another, helping members in need and speaking out against the insidious harm that preys upon the concepts of service, honor and loyalty as it creates situations of cruelty and abuse. 

In this, these communities provide a model for the Christian community to emulate.  If we remember the morally injured on this Memorial Day, then perhaps we should also take a moment to critically examine the values that shape our collective ideas about goodness.  This passage attempts to reorient the church's idea of what goodness is, imploring the community to "discipline" itself, to "keep alert" and to "resist" the devil's devouring influence.  It implicitly suggests, in doing so, that such vigilantly guarded goodness should include a humble yet determined effort to embody the restoration, support and strength in Christ to those who are suffering.  Perhaps on Memorial Day, it is a call to extend this particular form of healing and grace to those who suffer from moral injury.


Brian Powers is a graduate of Emory University's Graduate Division of Religion, having earned his Ph.D in the Theological Studies area.  As a veteran of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, he is interested in the ways that Christian (primarily Reformed) theology shapes and also fails to shape our thinking about contemporary ecclesial and political issues - most notably, those involving identity, justice and violence.   He has presented papers on the resonances between Augustinian doctrines of sin and moral injury at the national gatherings of religious and anthropological scholars and has published an article in Theology Today entitled "Moral injury and original sin: The applicability of Augustinian moral psychology in light of combat trauma."  He earned a B.S. in Meteorology from North Carolina State University and an M.Div and Th.M  from Columbia Theological Seminary.




Reflection Questions:

1.  What are the ways that cultural, societal and political forces seek to devour our sense of "good" and remove us from what God calls us in Christ to do and be as a Christian community?

  1.  How might our churches and communities of faith demonstrate a particular interest in the suffering of those around us through humbly listening to their stories?

3.  What are ways in which our churches might humbly and authentically embody restoration, support and strengthening to veterans that go beyond simply saying "Thank you for your service?"


For Further Reading:

Jonathan Shay, Odysseus in America:  Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming  (New York:  Scribner, 2002).

Jonathan Shay, Achilles In Vietnam:  Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character (New York:  Scribner Press, 1994).

Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini, Soul Repair:  Recovering from Moral Injury after War (Boston:  Beacon Press, 2012).

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