I recently came upon the testimony of a man named Jim Zenner who is veteran from the war in Iraq. He was writing about something called moral injury. This occurs when a person experiences an internal conflict between his core values and his behavior; it’s a kind of crisis of conscience.
Recently, we’re becoming more aware of how veterans sustain and survive moral injury, but it’s not just veterans. First Responders experience moral injury, as do those who are incarcerated, as do anyone whose actions go against their values —think of the veterinarian who has to euthanize a cat or the manager of a shelter who has to turn away a homeless family because there are no more beds.
Zenner was part of a taskforce that invaded Al Diwaniyah in Iraq, quelling the violence from the insurgents and gathering intelligence. One day, Zenner was speaking to his wife on the phone when he heard a loud explosion. The laundromat had been bombed.
He ran toward the building and worked with a Polish soldier to throw water on the flames. He could hear a woman moaning inside, but he could not get to her. Once the fire team arrived, Zenner was ordered to step back. He obeyed and went back to his truck, but the team did not save the woman.1For further information on moral Injury, please check out the Shay Center at Volunteers of America. https://www.voa.org/moral-injury-stories/surviving-war-and-wondering-what-if
Now I have to tell you, when I first read Zenner’s account, it was not the kind of confession I was expecting. It is tragic that this woman died in the fire, but I mean it’s not like Zenner killed her. This is not Abu Ghraib. This is not a story of killing your colleague in friendly fire. This is not a story of sexually assaulting someone on your team. On any kind of ethical spectrum, failing to rescue someone from a fire is just —not that bad. And yet, my reaction misses the point.
As a soldier, Zenner understands himself to be a protector. When he did not rescue this woman, it called into question who he is. He feels guilty for leaving her, and he’s the one who is carrying this guilt. It might seem like such an everyday occurrence during a war. It is exactly not Abu Ghraib, but that’s just it. We don’t always realize how much the everyday occurrences weigh on our service members and veterans. We don’t even see their moral injury.
As a nation, we’re just beginning to understand the deep, reverberating effects of violence. We’re seeing how veterans’ children and grandchildren have been impacted by trauma from violence that occurred long before they were even born. We know veterans who have survived combat and come home safely only to die by suicide. We’re beginning to understand that children subjected to lockdown drills at school are exhibiting signs of trauma —not from a school shooting, but from practicing for one.2https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/04/us/politics/active-shooter-drills-schools.html
You and I can see the signs. We live in a world that is addicted to violence. Even as we’re becoming more aware of its harm, we keep trying to answer violence with more violence. We keep rehearsing violence while expecting a different outcome. One reason why addictions have power over a person is they hijack the neural pathways in her brain. Using drugs actually rewires the brain to crave drugs, and as a world, we have done the same thing with violence. So it’s no wonder that we believe in its power.
But what if we don’t have to? What if there is a power greater than violence? What if we could make a different choice…
Today the scripture Bob read comes from Second Isaiah. This is part of the book of Isaiah that speaks to the people who had been deported during the exile. Imagine being forced to leave your neighborhood and your nation. Conquering troops invade ordering us all onto buses, and trains, and planes, to God Knows Where. You know some of us will wind up homeless. Parents will get separated from their children.
Trauma from a military invasion reverberates for generations. It wrecks our prayers. Did the LORD our God fail the people? Or did the people fail God? Or was it both.
The scripture answers this question: “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.” Whoever wrote these lyrics was imagining a punitive God. The LORD had imposed a penalty, that’s why the city was stormed, but the good news is that God has decided to regard the penalty as paid in full.
Now it could be, the people invented this story of a punishing God in order to explain why the exile happened in the first place. You can hear the theory. Since all this horror is unfolding, surely we must have done something to provoke the wrath of God. It must be our fault.
It could be, the people came up with the story of a punishing God because we human people don’t know what to do with our own shame. You don’t have to kill a person to know this. You don’t have to leave someone behind to understand.
In each of us, there’s an impulse that makes it easy to become convinced that you are guilty, that I am guilty. We’re ready to hear that we are precisely as terrible as we fear. Sometimes people will turn to the church because they want the church to tell them, “Yeah, look I’m sorry. God agrees with your conscience. God will come in judgement, and you will pay.” And there’s something in all of us that’s ready to hear this.
Surely the power of God will be summoned to vanquish sin. Surely the righteousness of God demands no less. You and I can imagine the people in exile imagining the LORD our God who storms into the city. If the LORD opened her mouth to condemn, the mountains would tremble! If the Author of Life raised their fist, nobody would stand a chance.
Only thing is, that’s not what God does. Oh he shows up all right. He swoops onto the scene looking ripped in combat fatigues; he’s a military hero, sings the prophet. Then the LORD tells the refugees they can go home. He scoops up the baby sheep in his arms and nuzzles their itty bitty faces. This is the LORD for whom we have waited.
Whoever wrote this song knows something of the mighty power of God whose justice shall reign. And. Whoever wrote this has seen something of the gentleness of God. And what if these dimensions of God are not so opposite? What if the tenderness of God is not an unfortunate trait that we’re all a little embarrassed about? What if the compassion of God is her power…
In each of us, there’s an impulse expecting to hear condemnation. We’re so aware of our own shame, all of us are. We’re so ready to hear the LORD expose this shame and agree that it’s our fault. Only thing is, that’s not what God does. This keeps being not what God does.
God knows what we have done and failed to do. God knows the people broke the covenant. God knows the laundromat got bombed and a woman was not rescued, and I know that broke the heart of the LORD our God. And I know God answers our sin with tender mercy. We just have to hear it. It’s so hard to hear compassion and believe it’s true when we’ve been bracing ourselves to hear condemnation. Can you imagine if we could, though.
Can you imagine if we could hear God’s mercy so precisely that mercy became what we spoke into the world.
Imagine if we could see the grace of God so vividly that this grace exposed our own grace.
The power of God is compassion. If this is the first miracle, the second miracle is that you have this too. Do not be ashamed of your gentleness. Your mercy is your power.
You and I live in a world that expects people to sustain moral injury and walk it off like it’s no big deal. Nearly everyone is carrying some unspeakable grief, some piece of broken conscience. Sometimes people come to the church looking to hear condemnation, but what if we have something else to tell them. What if we know the truth of God is I love you and I’m coming to welcome you home. You and I know, the world is desperate for this.
The bad news is our world is addicted to violence. The brain of our world has been re-wired to keep trying violence again and again as though next time it will work. The good news is that addiction is not our destiny. Every time we practice compassion instead of violence, we’re rehearsing new patterns and re-wiring our brain. Violence has power because we keep practicing it, but so does compassion.
If the good news is that recovery from addiction is possible, the better news is that it’s already underway.
Imagine the day when a woman locked in prison will write a poem that accidentally sets you free, when you didn’t even know you needed to be set free! Already this is happening.
Imagine the day when a veteran returning from Iraq identifies his own moral injury then decides to create a program where other veterans can be listened to and supported, and what’s that? Already this is happening.
Imagine the day when Hollywood, the home of the superhero fantasy where violence gets vanquished by glitzier violence, imagine the day when Hollywood says, I know, let’s make a blockbuster about Mister Rogers. Now I’m sure I’ll never live to see that day, but a girl can dream.
Imagine the day when a group of caring people decides we will not be convinced that violence is our destiny. We will not give our lives to fearing it and practicing it. We have seen the power of God with our own eyes, and we have compassion here for the sharing. We will answer horror with mercy and carry the baby sheep home in our own arms, and this day is come. The day of God’s peace is right here.
Glory to God in the highest! Alleluia, Amen.