Scripture, Ministry, and Moral Injury

Brad E. Kelle

When thinking about those who need ministry care within our congregations, it’s easy to overlook service members, veterans, and military families. They often appear composed, resolute, and strong. Yet caregivers both inside and outside the church have recognized that those who’ve endured the realities of war directly as soldiers or indirectly as families may experience complex psychological and mental health struggles. Over the last decade, psychologists have identified another effect of war now known as “moral injury.”

In short, moral injury is a non-physical wound that results from the violation (by oneself or others) of a person’s core moral beliefs and ethical convictions about themselves, the world, or even God as a result of experiences such as participation in war. It’s not the same as fear-based adjustment disorders such as PTSD, with their flashbacks and traumatic episodes. Rather, the sense of moral violation can lead to feelings of shame and guilt, as well as the inability to trust in the morality of oneself and others or the goodness of God and the world.

For pastors, as well as for those preparing for ministry, knowing how to minister to those struggling with the psychological aftermath of trauma often falls outside of typical seminary training. This is even more true for the lasting effects of moral distress and anguish that can result from the experience of violent, or otherwise ethically questionable, circumstances and events. Our first thoughts here rightly go to veterans. But recent years have seen an expansion of the notion of moral injury to include the effects (and even moral disillusionment) that may result from serving as a frontline medical worker in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, seeing the impact of systemic racism and sexism within societal institutions, or witnessing the troubling actions and social turmoil that has characterized US politics in recent years. All of these things can create a sense of moral woundedness and disillusionment, as well as feelings of guilt and shame, which take an emotional and psychological toll, create lasting injuries that are not physically observable, and need perspectives and practices that offer moral healing and repair within a communal context.

Work on moral injury in general has emerged at a staggeringly fast rate since 2009, with academic analyses, clinical studies, firsthand accounts from veterans, and other discussions appearing in works from clinical psychology, military studies, moral philosophy, chaplaincy resources, general-audience books, and popular press publications such as The New York Times and the Huffington Post. Two major sites for online resources and programming are available for those seeking the broadest engagement with moral injury: (1) The Shay Moral Injury Center at Volunteers of America, and 2) The Soul Repair Center at Brite Divinity School.

For a published collection of resources, see Brad E. Kelle, ed., Moral Injury: A Guide for Understanding and Engagement [Lexington, 2020]). Although not moving as quickly as work in disciplines such as clinical psychology, several recent works on pastoral theology, Christian counseling, and spiritual formation (e.g., Larry Kent Graham, Moral Injury: Restoring Wounded Souls [Abingdon, 2017]; Nancy J. Ramsay and Carrie Doehring, eds., Military Moral Injury and Spiritual Care: A Resource for Religious Leaders and Professional Caregivers [Chalice, 2019]) have engaged moral injury and the need for moral repair within Christian ministry and theology.

But what about the study of Scripture? For those practicing or preparing for Christian ministry in congregational settings, the study and proclamation of Scripture will stand at the center of their work and therefore of any engagement with moral injury, its effects, and its healing. Those working on moral injury in other fields have already established a habit of using interdisciplinary study to examine ancient writings such as Greek myths and epics for reflections of moral dissonance and distress (e.g., Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character [Touchstone, 1994]; Jonathan Shay, Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming [Scribner, 2002]). They have also looked to the sacred texts of various world religions (see Joseph McDonald, ed., Exploring Moral Injury in Sacred Texts, Studies in Religion and Theology [Jessica Kingsley, 2017]), as well as specific writings of early Christian theologians (e.g., Brian S. Powers, Full Darkness: Original Sin, Moral Injury, and Wartime Violence [Eerdmans, 2019]). There is no reason to doubt that the ancient texts of Christian Scripture can also contribute to this pressing matter appearing more and more in today’s context. But how can the interpretation and proclamation of Scripture contribute to the efforts to recognize moral injury and move toward moral repair?

Below are some excerpts from my recent book entitled, The Bible and Moral Injury: Reading Scripture alongside War’s Unseen Wounds (Abingdon, 2020), which is dedicated to the question of whether the study of the Bible—in academic, ministerial, or other contexts—can benefit from and/or contribute to the ongoing work on moral injury. My approach is to explore (with case studies) the interpretation of biblical texts (especially war-related stories, rituals, and laments from the Old Testament) in conversation with research on moral injury in other fields. My thesis is that the engagement between the Bible and moral injury generates a two-way conversation. On the one hand, moral injury can be an interpretive lens that brings new meanings out of biblical texts, especially those associated with war and violence. On the other hand, the study of biblical texts can make substantive contributions to the ongoing attempt to understand, identify, and heal moral injury.

“Psychologists, researchers, and other caregivers have recently identified another of war’s unseen wounds that has come to be referred to as “moral injury”…. Put more technically, moral injury refers to the deleterious effects of war participation on moral conscience and ethical conceptions—the wrecking of a person’s fundamental assumptions about “what’s right” and how things should work in the world that may result from a sense of having violated one’s core moral identity and lost any reliable, meaningful world in which to live…. The first part of my thesis suggests that moral injury can be a heuristic or interpretive lens through which we can read biblical texts in new ways…. We can become attuned to characters and stories that resonate with issues raised by moral injury—characters who display the characteristics of violating their moral conscience or experiencing betrayal, and stories that illustrate the consequences of and attempts to deal with these experiences. We can look for war-related rituals, poems, or prayers that connect to experiences of moral injury and attempts to come to grips with them. Moral injury can provide a window into the human experiences, realities, and dynamics that stand behind these ancient sacred texts and the communities that created and preserved them, particularly the reality of human pain caused by loss, death, moral violation, and betrayal. …

“The other part of my thesis suggests that the study of the Bible, especially as undertaken through the academic field known as biblical studies, can contribute to the ongoing efforts to understand and work with moral injury being done by psychologists, veterans, philosophers, chaplains, and others…. Perhaps the most readily apparent contributions involve perspectives related to faith and spirituality. First, however, I would note that the chapters that follow hope to show that the critical study of the Bible can also contribute a distinctively humanities dimension to moral injury work. So far, moral injury study has been dominated by mental health, psychology, and related therapeutic contexts…creating, at times, a kind of clinical and scientific reductionism…. [But] the perspectives of historians, philosophers, theologians, sociologists, and textual scholars can provide different dimensions by allowing access to human experiences and reflections that can help modern persons see and articulate more clearly their own experiences. The biblical texts in particular—as ancient writings from historical communities and cultures—purport to describe human lives and experiences that point to the historical and cultural breadth of the moral struggles involved in war. The biblical writings can place moral injury into contexts of human experience that clinical psychology and even moral philosophy cannot—contexts of rituals, penance, confession, and narratives about complex moral agency and characters. …”

I then go on to summarize the flow of the book.

“From the starting points discussed in this introduction, the following chapters will explore the two-fold thesis that moral injury can be an interpretive lens that brings new meanings out of biblical texts and that the critical study of biblical texts can make substantive contributions to the ongoing attempt to understand, identify, and heal moral injury…. [One] chapter will explore how the story of King Saul (1 Sam 9–31), with its often-cited tragic dimensions, might be read as the tale of a morally wounded warrior and how biblical interpretation might, in turn, contribute to moral injury work that seeks new and illuminating readings of literary, especially tragic, characters…. [The next] chapter will focus on postwar rituals and practices that appear in the Old Testament, including especially the ritual purification of warriors, captives, and objects after battle (e.g., Num 31) and the various kinds of redistribution of spoils from battle (e.g., Gen 14:17–24; Num 31:25–47; Josh 22:7–9). The discussion will look for textual elements in the rituals and practices that suggest the recognition of and need to deal with the experiences now associated with moral injury.

“In an extension of the rituals and practices trajectory, ch. 5 will single out the practice of lament, especially as expressed in the Old Testament’s lament and penitential psalms (both individual and communal). The discussion will explore the possible connections between ancient Israel’s expressions of lament and the emerging emphasis on imaginative confession or disclosure, compassionate dialogue, and forgiving moral authorities within current moral injury work. Chapter 6 will then move to a broader question on which perspectives from moral injury may provide new insights for biblical studies: ‘Do the biblical warfare and violence texts morally injure their readers?’ This discussion reconsiders the perennially difficult issue of the interpretation of the Old Testament’s texts depicting divine and divinely sanctioned violence by exploring whether elements within moral injury yield a new way to understand what is theologically troubling about these biblical texts (especially for Christian readers) and whether any of the proposed ways to heal moral injury in soldiers can help with interpretation. …

“In the end, then, I hope that what I’ve tried to do with the biblical texts and moral injury in this book becomes an invitation, especially for those whose primary vocation is biblical interpretation. The invitation is, first, to allow perspectives from moral injury to keep us honest about the fact that the Bible contains narratives, rituals, prayers, and poems that depict the moral harm that so often accompanies the experience of war. When seen through the lens of moral injury, the Bible isn’t a legitimation of war but an indirect acknowledgment that war is morally injurious (at least potentially, and perhaps necessarily). But I hope my work here is also an invitation to all biblical interpreters—professional, scholarly, ministerial, devotional, and more—to engage in ongoing reflection on the roles our interpretations play in how people think about war and its effects—morally, ethically, personally, and communally. Given the stark realities attested by the notion of moral injury and the Bible’s overall emphasis on the love for God and others, our interpretations of the biblical war and violence texts should help people have a more fully orbed understanding of war, including the moral burdens and wreckage it involves. The goal of such interpretation isn’t to hide from these realities of war, but to face them full-on with the hope of moral repair. As we consider the dialogue between the Bible and moral injury, we study war and its injuries in order to work for peace and its possibilities.”

As these excerpts show, I encourage all interpreters of Scripture—and especially those engaged in the preparation for or practice of congregational ministry—to consider how the emerging understandings of moral injury from various sources might bear on the reading of biblical texts, and how the interpretation of Scripture might contribute to serious engagement with moral distress and efforts toward moral repair. Clearly, faith communities can offer perspectives on moral theology and communal practices to supplement the work being done in psychological study and practice. And the Bible can aid those concerned with moral injury by providing texts that allow deeper explorations of how persons of faith experience moral violation; what the effects of such experiences are; and what role may be played by honesty, grief, theodicy, forgiveness, and healing.

I don’t mean to suggest that preachers and teachers should look to the Bible to find a simplistic set of moral principles or values. Rather, those engaged in the proclamation of Christian Scripture should attend carefully to how its diverse stories, poems, prayers, teachings, and rituals depict complex moral characters and situations and invite all readers to new ways of imagining what it means to be a human being made in the image of God and living in a morally vexed world. I hope all those who preach and teach the Bible in our current moral moment will appreciate that they take up the biblical texts in the midst of a larger cultural conversation about the moral questions of human agency and actions, the social responsibility for morally damaging experiences, and the possibilities of meaningful ethical and spiritual life after moral injury. This kind of biblical interpretation and proclamation may ultimately save the lives of those whose sense of moral self (or even a moral God) has been shattered by their actions, the actions of others, or the circumstances of a morally injurious world.

[Adapted from Brad E. Kelle,Scripture, Ministry, and Moral Injury among Veterans,” Circuit Rider (2019). ©2019 Circuit Rider Used by Permissions. All rights reserved.]

Posted Sep 29, 2021