How can the church heal moral injury?

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photo credit:  Jay Thompson
photo credit: Jay Thompson

Psychologists have long worked to treat the symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Bishop Jay Magness believes the church needs to do much more to minister to combat veterans and others who have experienced extreme violence.

As vice chair of the Standing Commission on Anglican and International Peace with Justice Concerns, Magness helped draft Resolution A047, aimed at raising awareness of the emerging recognition that actions taken in war time or under extreme circumstances can cause moral injury, or “lasting trauma to one’s soul.”

Magness, bishop suffragan for Armed Services and Federal Ministries, says his work on Resolution A047 is borne of his own 30 years of active military duty. He recalls sitting in a bunker in Vietnam in 1968, with his hand on the trigger mechanism of a machine gun, as he pondered acts he had committed to provide security for himself and his fellow soldiers. “Looking at my hand, I thought, ‘My God, what have I done?’ I realized I had breached an internal code.

“I was 22 years old, estranged from the church, but I came to realize that what could hold my life together and ensure forgiveness and recovery was the entity, the being I had known as God.”

The resolution seeks to create a consortium of representatives from Magness’ office, the Office of Global Partnerships; the Office of Diversity, Social, and Environmental Ministries; and Episcopal Migration Ministries, along with individuals appointed by Executive Council, to study this issue and help chaplains, clergy and lay ministers provide effective pastoral care to people suffering from “spiritual and moral injuries.”

“This is about understanding the cognitive and psychological dissonance that occurs between someone’s actions and their values,” said Brenda Hamilton, a clinical social worker from Maine and chair of the Standing Commission on Anglican and International Peace with Justice Concerns.

“This is something that we in the faith community must deal with,” Magness says. “This is a resolution that could actually have some impact on the way we do our jobs.”

The resolution would authorize $20,000 to facilitate meetings and cover potential administrative costs. “It’s a starting point,” Magness says.

When someone has been involved in trauma, or has “performed acts of violence that are morally reprehensible to them,” Hamilton says, “it is a spiritual injury, and to treat this as PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] takes us only partway. There is a host of spiritual practice and healing that needs to happen as well, if we are talking about regaining wholeness as children of God.”

Hamilton believes many clergy and parishioners are ill-equipped to help those in their parishes who are recovering from extreme trauma, and sometimes move too quickly to suggest that the person forgive those who harmed them.

“To ask people to simply forgive either themselves or others often diminishes their experiences and retraumatizes them,” she says.

Magness was working inside the Pentagon during the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and says he felt intense anger for a long time afterwards, anger that affected his work and his relationships for weeks and caused him to have lingering doubts and anger against God and humanity. “It had a debilitating faith effect. If on 9-12-2001 someone had told me, ‘you just have to forgive,’ I’d have thought that person was a raving lunatic.”

The commission hopes eventually to facilitate the implementation of curriculum and creation of training materials for pastoral caregivers. Both Magness and Hamilton believe the church, through sacraments and liturgy, has particular gifts to offer the spiritually injured.

“The work of trauma healing is so liturgical,” Hamilton said, “because trauma is so non-verbal … When you are a street child in Haiti who has been abandoned at the age of four, there are no words. The only healing is sacramental.”

And liturgy, Hamilton says, “is a beautiful thing about being an Episcopalian.”

In 2004, Magness worked with Sudanese refugees in the Diocese of Kentucky. “Every single one of them bore scars,” he says, “spiritual scars. What do you do with the memory that someone has killed members of your family and tried to kill you? The reality is it catches up to you.”

He recalls that the drumbeat of their native music and dance was key to the healing process for the Sudanese refugees, highlighting the importance of healing through ritual practice and sacramental acts. Walking a labyrinth or doing yoga can be similarly restorative.

It’s important, Magness says, that pastoral caregivers are able to understand the symptoms of moral injury and how to address them, “to help those trying to regain equilibrium.”

“We do not want to take away from the good work of clinical social workers and psychologists,” Magness emphasizes. “We are saying there is also a spiritual component to this … We need to set the whole issue in the context of how we understand faith development. It’s not a straight-line trajectory.”

“Clinicians are limited in how much we can bring to the realm of spiritual healing,” Hamilton adds. “We are talking about something deeper and more spiritual than PTSD.”

Hamilton and Magness stress that Resolution A047 is meant to address the needs not only of military veterans, but also anyone who has experienced deep trauma, including refugees, victims of famine and natural disasters, and survivors of domestic abuse and other violent crime, such as those who witnessed last week’s church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. Survivor guilt is especially powerful and painful, Magness says.

“To be around someone who is firing a weapon in a situation like that,” Magness says, “that smell of cordite (gunpowder) will be with them for the rest of their lives.”

Magness and Hamilton look forward to the upcoming discussion on this measure among the 25-member committee at General Convention. “The resolution is so dynamic,” Magness says. “The theme and the name will stay the same, but the essence will be reflective of the conversation.”

“I’m very interested to see where this goes,” Hamilton says.

Theresa Johnson is chief communications officer at FreshMinistries, Inc. in the Diocese of Florida. She is former managing editor of the Wichita Eagle and was a reporter and editor at newspapers in Missoula, Montana, Kansas City and Philadelphia.