Moral Injury & Biblical Archetypes, Ten Years after 9/11

We all have our 911 stories, where we were when it happened. These stories are often minute by minute accounts, and not only where we were, but who we were with, how long we stayed watching.

I’m not going to share my 911 story with you. Instead I want to tell you where I was a month later, in October 2001. At the time I was working as a writer for a magazine that covered international affairs. For some time I had had tickets to a conference in New York City. I had planned to stay with a college friend at his apartment in Tribeca, just a few blocks away from the Trade Center complex. It turns out my friend was one of the lucky ones. On the news footage he was one of the people seen running away from the growing cloud of debris. He ran to his apartment and sheltered there for about a week after the event, the view outside his window a swirl of paper and ash.

I thought about canceling my trip but my boss wanted me to go to my conference and also write a first-hand account of ground zero. I went to a few sessions at the conference, my heart really wasn’t in it, and spent most of my time downtown near where the fires were still burning. The smell was everywhere, in my clothes, my nose. I sat with my friend for hours as he processed the trauma of escaping the blast and fallout. I ate lunch at the diner across the street from the main entrance, bearing witness to all of it. I interviewed a few of people, mainly at the diner and the growing memorial at St. Johns up the hill, but I stayed away from the men and women going in and out of the site. In the past, I would have been the guy with an audio recorder to catch comments and quotes. That week my recorder never came out of the bag. I realized quickly that I was no longer on a professional quest for a good article, but on a spiritual one to bear witness to how our country had just been impacted and, I knew then, forever changed. When I got back to the magazine’s Chicago offices, I sat trying to write my account. I’m a writer by training and trade. I do not suffer from chronic writer’s block, and I seldom have nothing to say. I had nothing to say.

My boss wanted to know how the article was coming. We had worked together a long time, so she knew my work ethic and productivity. So when I said, “Boss, I’m not going to be able to write a first-hand account of this,” she didn’t question it. For the next year I worked on a number of articles about the geo-politics of the bombings, the roots of terrorism, and so forth, but until this weekend, I have never written a word about that experience. It’s taken me 20 years.

Where are you in this story? Not where you were at the moments of impact, but in the weeks and months after. Maybe you were a child, or not even born. Maybe you were in the Middle East. Maybe you were home waiting to hear news of a deployed spouse. Where were you? How did it change the direction of your life?

It didn’t take 20 years for the events of that day to change the direction of my life. After 911 I almost immediately realized I didn’t want to be an editor and enrolled in seminary. I tossed aside a 10-year career in journalism to enter ministry. I knew I no longer wanted to be reporting on people’s lives from the sidelines but living life with them. I knew I no longer wanted to drive a desk but to be actively a part of helping people process all that this life holds for us.

After 12 years in parish ministry I decided to go into military chaplaincy, but that’s a different story.

This story would be wasted if you weren’t also thinking back on your experience of 911. Where were you? How did it impact your family, your view of the world? Many of us have had to grieve something lost after that day, friends, companions, a sense of safety in the world. All of these are real losses.

There’s a new way of understanding how these losses and hurts impact our souls. It’s called “Moral Injury.” Moral Injury is a term that has been around since the 1990s when psychologist Jonathan Shay coined the term. But after 911 he revised the term and defined it an injury to the soul stemming from the “betrayal of ‘what’s right’ in a high-stakes situation by someone who holds power.” This reflects the experience of many combat veterans who, following orders as we all do, leads to some violation of a previously held value. This can happen when our values are in deep conflict as well. For instance, I believe what I’m fighting for is right, AND, I believe that taking life is wrong.

Modern warfare has shifted how we fight so significantly that new types of moral injuries are appearing in our veteran population.

Several years ago a friend came to me with a good example of this. He had previously been a RPA pilot (these are unmanned aircraft sometimes called drones in the media). He had flown hundreds of missions and was proud of his role in combatting terrorism. Ten years later he began having nightmares and uncharacteristic bursts of rage. He had the wisdom to trace his behavior back to conflicting feelings he harbored from his time in service. He struggled to reconcile the safety with which he flew his missions, in an air-conditioned trailer somewhere in Nevada, while his aircraft was doing the killing in the Middle East–and while other U.S. service members were in danger.

Here are some other instances of moral injury can come from acts that transcend deeply held moral beliefs and expectations, following bad but authorized commands, failing to prevent harm to our buddies in combat, bearing witness to violence, or escaping harm when our friends didn’t.

This is not a sermon against war. This is an appeal for us to care for the warrior and the wounds he or she endure fighting for freedom and the safety of our world.

This isn’t a new observation but a new understanding of how we are impacted by violence, says Ed Tick and his partner Kate Dahlstedt who run the non-profit organizations called Soldier’s Heart. We’ve known for literally millennia, since Biblical times, of the psychic wounds of war–but moral injury allows us to look at it differently.

Moral Injury isn’t Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is a defined psychiatric disorder. You are diagnosed with PTSD, or you aren’t. Moral injury, like physical injury to the body, takes many forms. There are deep wounds, surface wounds–wounds that fester, scab over, heal, receive care.

I bring this up today in the hope that if you’ve experienced moral injury, or have some of the symptoms and have wondered their origins, you might reach out and get some care and attention. On an anniversary of a significant event such as this, moral injuries, when present, are especially likely to emerge.

The books of Samuel contain some great examples of warriors who experience various states of injury following war. I’m grateful to Jan Grimell of the Amsterdam Center for the Study of Lived Religion for her work on this Biblical study.

Let’s first look at Saul, Israel’s first king. As the first great king, he was expected to primarily be a great warrior. Saul quickly defeats the Ammonites but then is mired in a morally ambiguous conflict with the Philistines. His prophet and advisor Samuel declares Saul’s war to be immoral. Saul is exposed to a constant cycle of war that, because he respects Samuel’s counsel, conflicts with his faith, sense of duty, and loyalty to country. It’s written that an evil descends on Saul, which David soothes with a harp. Saul’s behavior escalates into recklessness and paranoia as he turns on David and hunts him down. When David kills Goliath, ending the conflict, Saul chucks a spear at him. Saul is unable to sustain friendship or normal relationships, he has attacks of aggression and panic, he withdraws, and eventually commits suicide.

Today, we would say that Saul is a competent warrior who has a psychological break. His symptoms are consistent with complex post-traumatic stress more than moral injury.

What about David? He is certainly a competent, deeply flawed, efficient and brutal warrior who also acts out in appropriately. Maybe he’s the one with moral injury. We all know of his affair with Bathsheba and how he tries to hide her pregnancy. Give hubby Uriah some emergency leave so he can be with her and take credit for the baby. But Uriah won’t touch his wife. The code of Hebrew warriors prevents his sleeping with his wife because his battle buddies are still in danger! He can’t have pleasure until everyone’s safely home. When his plan fails, David has Uriah killed on the battlefield. Uriah is an example of the dutiful soldier who suffers in silence. Had Uriah survived, because his sense of honor was betrayed by a superior officer, he might have had to deal with moral injury. But up until his life ended, Uriah showed a remarkable amount of spiritual resiliency. His behavior and values align in a way that made him both strong and flexible.

But back to David, who also engages in what we would call leadership malpractice when one of his top commanders, Abner, kills Joab’s brother, a youth with no combat experience. David is duty bound to sentence Abner to death for such an offense, but when he has the chance, David doesn’t kill Abner. David betrays an expectation of military code and friendship. Joab can’t take the stress. In a subsequent military operation, David orders Joab not to kill a rebellious officer named Absalom, who is also David’s son. This again violates what Joab believes is the soldier’s code, so he does anyhow. David confronts Joab, who tells his boss, essentially, “suck it up buttercup.” Joab’s insubordination turns to disobedience when he kills David’s nephew Amasa who is promoted over him.

Let’s look at these two men, David and Joab, for the best example of what moral injury might look like. Even though David has violated a number of laws, ethical and moral, he also is spiritually resilient. He has healthy outlets like music, art, and dance. He is able to express emotions in a healthy way, is able to forgive, has the ability to change his mind, and is faithful to God. David sins but he also knows how to reconcile and seek forgiveness–especially of himself. When I’m counseling a David in my office, a warrior who has healthy outlets and connections, I’m usually just letting them talk themselves back to all the healthy aspects of their lives. I’m pointing them back at the coping skills they have. On a good day, they’ll just sit there and answer their own questions. As a chaplain, that’s a great day at the office.

It’s the Joabs that I worry about. The warrior who feels betrayed and hasn’t been able to forgive. The warrior who is unable to accept the failings of others or himself. Those are the ones I worry about. So many of our soldiers, sailors, Marines, Airmen, and Guardians don’t have the coping skills we see in a David. David has his own spiritual advisors all around him, taking care of his soul.

Joab is a classic case of moral injury. He experiences social withdrawal, disconnection from his spiritual roots, loss of meaning in life, aggression, and anxiety. In my work, signs might include alcohol abuse and sleeplessness. It is to feel victimized by acts that deeply transgress our moral sense. The wounds are especially deep when they come at the hand of legitimate authority.

This is another distinction between PTSD and moral injury. PTSD is often the result of a physical experience such as being under constant bombardment, or seeing a buddy killed in battle, or endless rotations into combat. These are classic causes of post-traumatic stress. Moral injury, on the other hand, is the spiritual disconnection between war and our core values.

Being morally flawed isn’t the issue. We all fall short. We all sin. We have to learn to forgive others, ourselves, and a flawed human world. Spiritual resiliency allows us to grip onto a new normal and recognize where we need help.

This anniversary of an event that changed my generation’s view of the world is a good moment to take stock of our own spiritual resiliency and to identify the moral injuries we carry. The current withdrawal from Afghanistan is also bringing up a lot of stuff for a lot of us. It’s a trend I’ve noticed this month in counseling Airmen. Injuries that we bandaged over with the belief that what we were doing mattered may again be exposed. We might find ourselves angrier than usual, more inclined to drink, or withdrawn. I invite you to pay attention not only to how you think about our withdrawal, but how your gut is feeling. It’s very common for us to think one way and feel another.

I encourage you in this time to be gentle with yourselves and those around you. Old wounds are being touched. Ask for help. Call up a chaplain, a pastor, an old friend from deployment. See how they’re doing. You have the perfect excuse: “Hey, I was thinking about 911 and wondering how you’re doing.” Or, “I’m watching planes fly out of Afghanistan and I thought of the last time we were there. How are you doing?”

And as people of faith, we have additional resources. You are blessed with a way to talk to your spouse and family about what’s going on under the surface, without talking about the facts, which we may not be able to talk about. What do I mean?

“Hey honey, would you pray with me as I remember some old stuff? Would you pray for my wholeness? Would you help me reconnect with Christ? Would you pray for forgiveness between us, for how I brought stuff home? For the people we want to be.” You don’t need to talk about what you saw to ask for spiritual support. Go home tonight and pray as a family. You might even add in prayer for our country and world. God knows we need them right now.

In our scripture this morning we are reminded not to “be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” This is a part of being a human alive on planet Earth in the 21st Century. But our scripture goes on to encourage us to rejoice “insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.”

And there is another truth: We do not need to suffer alone, in silence. We have each other, we have our faith, we have our community–all God-given supports for times such as these. And so let us pray:

Almighty creator,

Let us be humble under your mighty hands,

So we might cast our anxiety into them

And feel your care for us.

May we be disciplined and alert,

Like lions in the midst of danger

Let us resist the demons that haunt us

be they from remembrances of fallen friends or family

Or the inner turmoil of reconciling the imperfection of human will

Or demons of our own making.

Let us resist this illusion that we are alone

Let us feel the brothers and sisters

With us in this fight for the restoration of our souls and all souls.

Let us be steadfast in faith,

Knowing that others share in our suffering,

And that after a little while,

We will all be strengthened through you,

Supported and restored in your sight.

To you be the power and glory forever.


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