July 16, 2017
Church of Peace, UCC
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
(fifth in the series Church and State)
On the Sunday morning after the shooting that killed six people and injured thirteen including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, Reverend Victoria Weinstein posted a note of encouragement on her blog. She was telling all the pastors out there to go, take good care of your people, then she signed off with a chilling statement that has haunted me ever since. She wrote this: “Remember that in a world where all of us are interconnected, there’s no such thing as a lone gunman.”
What I find so chilling about this statement is I think she’s right. There’s no such thing as a lone gunman. Even at Sandy Hook. Even at Mother Emanuel. Even at Pulse.
Now I’m not saying all of us are just as guilty as the troubled young men who perpetrated massacre. But this does mean, it’s not so easy to blame evil on a few singled-out “bad apples.”
We’re all living in the world together, and what if sin is not simply an individual’s choice, but a condition that gets into all of us —like something in the water? What if grace is not simply an individual’s choice, but a condition that gets into all of us… What if we are somehow responsible for every child, every soul seeking sanctuary, every troubled young man who needs help? What if we are more connected than we realize…
Today we are continuing the summer series Church and State which corresponds with the Adult Forum’s study on supporting veterans and military families. In recent years, there has been a flourishing of research into a phenomenon that has been around since ancient times. It is called Moral Injury, and it acknowledges that those who experience combat are not only at risk of death, or physical injury, but also spiritual or moral injury.
Even if these service members have not broken any laws or committed any recognizable violation! Even if they are following orders, and doing their job, and making the best decision in a terrible situation, even if they are winning awards of excellence, the truth is, serving in combat can cause spiritual damage that doesn’t go away on its own. In this way, it is similar to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but it is not the same condition.
Michael Castellana is a psychotherapist at the U.S. Naval Medical Center in San Diego, and he identifies several causes of Moral Injury. He says this: “If you read the suicide notes, the poems and writings of service members and veterans, it’s the killing; it’s failing to protect those we’re supposed to protect, whether that’s peers or innocent civilians; it’s sending people to their death if you’re a leader; failing to save the lives of the injured if you’re a medical professional —[it has] nothing to do with the rightness or wrongness of war.”
You can understand why the military is actively working to find effective responses to Moral Injury; treating this will improve a soldier’s performance during harrowing operations. But there are other reasons to care about Moral Injury. If we are more connected than we realize, when one person assumes the responsibility of killing in war, that single act sends reverberations into multiple communities, down through multiple generations. And the question that keeps sounding is this:
Whether or not you are a veteran, if you have done something awful, how do you go on living with yourself? If I have done something awful, how do I go on living with myself? How can I ever look at my hands again…
Today our scripture comes from the middle of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, and I will tell you, this might be one of my favorite scriptures. (It’s a strange one to name as a favorite!) I first encountered this passage in a Twelve Step community with folks in recovery. So I invite you to consider addiction in hearing Paul name the difference between what we mean to do and what we actually do. (I mean really, addict or not, who among us doesn’t know about this difference…)
As Paul puts it, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…” He continues in verse nineteen: “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer that I do it, but sin that dwells within me” (Romans 7:19-20). Or addiction that dwells within me. Or war that dwells within me. In Paul’s view, sin is a condition that gets into all of us, which is why being a slave to sin is such a credible threat.
Now if we fall into the power of sin, if we find ourselves doing the very thing we do not want to do, if we find that we have done something awful, so the only prayer we can access goes, “O God. What have I done!” Then how do we go on living?
And I’m not sure there’s a better person to ask than Paul. Remember it was Paul who was breathing threats and murder against the Christians. He was breathing hate! Back before the blinding light that stopped him on the road, back before they called him Paul, back in his old behavior as we’d say, Paul raided houses. He dragged men and women from their homes, and took them to prison, and took part in their killing. Is this any different from being in a death squad?
Even after he was blind and then became able to see, even after he accepted Christ into his heart, even now… In this letter, Paul describes our chronic human battle with sin. “So I find it to be the case,” he writes, “that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.” A little later he utters this prayer: “[beat] Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from the body of death?”
This is the moment to notice exactly what Paul does not do. He does not become defensive. He does not offer an explanation or an excuse, or blame somebody else, or minimize the power of evil. None of that is in his prayer. His prayer is plain: “O God what have I done. Who will rescue me now?” As though maybe all of us could make this our prayer.
This prayer is where you and I come to stand next to those of us who are heroin addicts, and members of death squads, and parents who feel like we’re failing our kids, and everybody who serves in combat, and everybody who serves in government. We’re all standing in the need of grace, utterly unable to save ourselves, and who will rescue us now?
“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Paul continues: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Jesus keeps setting us free from the slavery of sin. Paul goes on to describe how the Spirit dwelling in each of us is both how we can go on living with ourselves, and why our living matters.
Please understand. This is not, “Believe in Jesus and hope for the best.” This is not, “Come on already and forgive yourself!” Nobody needs that! This is Paul saying, “If you aren’t sure how to go on living, I have been there too, but this is the moment to keep watching. God’s grace is going to save your life. It’s already gotten into you.”
And so I know there are practical reasons why the military wants to find an effective strategy for dealing with Moral Injury among service members and veterans. The suicide rates, alone, are a problem for the military. But I’ve got to tell you. As Christians, there is an even greater imperative for us to be on the front lines of helping people find healing from Moral Injury. It’s that we know what it is to be standing in the need of grace. We know how to stand before God with no defense.
It’s a strange thing to do this. The world says, “Protect yourself. Get it together.” But try standing in this prayer for a minute, and what happens is Jesus will come and stand next to you. Soon you’ll see the guilt turning into grief, and then the grief turning into grace. You will see grace shimmering out of the corner of your eye, and pretty soon it’ll get all over your hands, and one day you will find yourself starting to come back to life, as if the Spirit is saying: “See. This is how! This is how you can live.”
In researching Moral Injury, what I’ve been discovering is that it is not uncommon for a veteran to decide that she is unforgivable for her part in what happened. Every time I read this, it makes me feel like our churches are failing our veterans. As Christians, we know she is not unforgivable. But who is going to tell her? More importantly, who is going to listen to her talk about what happened and let it ring in the air without rushing to judge or comfort?
We could actually do this. We can sit down by our veterans, and listen to them, and sing with them. Take their hands in yours, and see there’s not just blood, there is the grace of God on their hands.
In this world, there is no such thing as a lone gunman. Or a lone commanding officer making a tough call. Or a lone hero who stays up all night with a crying child. Or a lone veteran coming back to life. There’s no such thing a lone resident of Friendship Manor. Or a lone child at the Academy. Or a lone savior in heaven. We’re all more connected than we know. Thank God. Amen.
 For the Huffington Post, David Wood offers an exhaustive, multi-perspective series on Moral Injury that is worth checking out (March 2014). http://projects.huffingtonpost.com/projects/moral-injury/the-recruits