Speaker: The Rev'd Geoffrey M. St J. Hoare
Tags: lent, ritual
I know that many of you have participated in an excellent series in recent weeks that has included our own David Wood addressing what he calls ‘moral injury’, “a jagged disconnect from our understanding of who we are and what we and others ought to do and ought not to do.”  He began his book by telling the story of a twenty-two year old Californian infantryman called Nik Rudolph. In Afghanistan, and in the heat of battle Nik shot and killed a boy of twelve or thirteen who was spraying bullets at U.S. soldiers from a machine gun. What was a righteous and even laudable action in battle, saving the lives of others by killing the enemy was nonetheless a bruise on his soul, according to Wood, when he returned to civilian life where killing a child is against everything that civilized people hold dear. Moral injury is distinguished from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome which is a biological response to a perceived threat, starting at loud noises or being terrified in a crowd. It can go along with moral injury but doesn’t need to. In the same way, many of us can suffer from moral injury without fighting in a war, but war is a source of moral injury like no other. It occurs when we begin to reflect on what we have done and start thinking of ourselves as a bad person rather than as someone who has done a bad act. Moral injury according to David Wood is characterized by symptoms of “sorrow, remorse, grief, shame, bitterness, and moral confusion –What is right?—“ He goes on to reflect on multiple situations and what is involved in healing moral injury, including recognizing ancient practices of cleansing rituals for soldiers returning from war.
Rituals are not magic, but they can be ways of signaling and naming truth as we navigate difficult stuff. Sage, my lady wife who you will meet in due course, (and about whom I share with her explicit permission) – Sage tells of how helpful she found Episcopal liturgy following a horrible diagnosis of an inoperable malignant astrocytoma or brain tumor and the premature death of her father, a time when she did not know how to pray or what to say.
When Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness, he was tempted or tested by the devil. With each temptation, he is asked to betray himself, to be something other than the person he was to be. He was not going to take short cuts to addressing his hunger. He was not going to do anything silly or self-destructive as though it did not matter and he was not going to worship idols. What our tradition calls his being ‘without sin’, I call his being the human of absolute integrity, the wholly integrated person who unveiled the multitude of ways in which we damage ourselves and one another in a compromised world even at the cost of his own life. (More on that as we live together towards Easter this year.)
Our sins might be clues as to our own disintegration or they might grow to the level of moral injury, but in God’s grace we have rituals and ways of naming truth without pretending that we do not live in a compromised world and without declaring ourselves morally pure. Our baptism is much more about drowning--dying with Christ and being raised with him as we come up from the waters—than it is about bathing or cleanliness (not that there is anything wrong with bathing, of course.)
The first time I was aware of coming to terms with this truth of the compromised world in a theological sense was one day in the refrectory or dining hall at Divinity School. (it was in the dining hall that much of the real education took place!) I was at a table where we were having a conversation about Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s participation in the German resistance and the attempts to murder Adolf Hitler. Bonhoeffer was a brilliant young and brave theologian who was arrested and executed in a concentration camp just before the end of the Second World War. He is one of my pantheon of Saints and you will hear more about him from time to time. On that day as we ate lunch, one friend was arguing that killing was always wrong and that the only way for Christians to resist evil and bring about change was with techniques of non-violence. She pointed to Gandhi and MLK Jr. to make her point. Another friend responded by saying that attempting to kill Hitler was clearly the right and good thing to do given the slaughter for which he was responsible. He referred to Bonhoeffer’s own question—something like: “If I see a madman driving down a crowded shopping street, is it my duty as a pastor to comfort the wounded and dying or should I not try and wrench the steering wheel from his hands?”
I realized that what I believe is that joining the resistance and attempting to end the leading fascist’s life was clearly the right and good and best thing to do in the circumstances, and at the same time to acknowledge that killing is wrong and subject to confession and absolution. I‘m not here talking about cheap grace—‘do whatever you want and don’t worry because God will forgive you.—but rather costly grace that recognizes the real human cost of moral injury and the need every one of us has for grace and forgiveness if we are to taste the first fruits of the abundant life of the gospel. It is this reality that has allowed me to escort a parishioner past vile and ugly protesters into a clinic for an abortion. It is this same reality that allows me not to be destroyed by the many moral compromises that come with living in the land of the free, including the fact that we are better off with some of our brothers and sisters being imprisoned and behind bars. It is this same reality that allows me to celebrate the love between two people of which the sign is often a diamond ring that is steeped in human blood.
Naming our specific sin can be helpful in acknowledging our fundamental sinfulness and so coming to accept forgiveness and its closely related healing of moral injury so that we are not forever limited to categorizing ourselves and others as miserable sinners.
This season of Lent provides ample opportunity for ritual in which we address and focus on all that is deathly in our lives including the temptation to take short cuts, doing anything to satisfy our appetites even when our actions harm us or others; including the temptation to do something silly like drive recklessly, to use pornography, to drink in order to deaden our feelings or the like; including the temptation to make idols out of our families or our church or to allow our self-esteem to be bound up with grades or metrics, or organizing our lives around some material object or objective. All such sin leads to our disintegration and today in particular we are reminded that what really matters is that we not live by bread alone; that we remember the word and the trustworthiness of the Love who made us for Love, not putting God to the test; that we worship and serve only that which is life-giving.
I’d like to invite you today and every week from now on, to take a minute or two of silence for our own continuing to respond to the gospel. Some of you will it too long at first but I expect that before long I will hear that you would like the silence to last longer. Use it in any way useful for you, but today consider both the reality that we live in a world of moral compromise, maybe offer a prayer for our troops and our veterans and perhaps give thanks for the abundant grace of God by which we live. In silence and in response to the Gospel, let us pray…. David Wood, What Have We Done: The Moral Injury of Our Longest Wars. (Little Brown, 2016) p. 8