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The Worshiping Community and Healing from Moral Injury

An abbreviated version of Duane Kelderman’s opening presentation at a Soul Repair Center conference for church leaders held Feb. 8, 2013 in Fort Worth, Texas

The focus of this presentation is how the church can be a critical instrument of healing for veterans who suffer moral injury.

Distinct from physical injuries or PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), moral injury is damage to the soul that occurs when war combatants violate deeply held moral beliefs in the conduct of war, even “just war.”  Not limited to people of faith, moral injury results from heinous acts of war that “unmake the character” of soldiers.

Be the church

The point I want to make in this presentation is simple:  If the church is to be a vital healing resource for veterans suffering moral injury, it must understand clearly and believe deeply in the spiritual resources the church itself has to offer. Put more simply, the church can be a powerful agent of healing and hope for veterans suffering moral injury if it will authentically be the church.

Behind my assertion here is a concern that the founders of Soul Repair Center, and many others, have expressed, that the church, though it has unique and powerful resources to offer our returning veterans and society at large, often has unwittingly lost confidence in these resources and, in so doing, lost opportunities to bring healing and hope to many that only the church and faith organizations can bring.

Historically, the church of the first millennium had the practice of requiring rituals of penance for warriors returning from war. It was understood that, even in what we today would call “just wars,” soldiers had done things, particularly killing other human beings but not limited to that, which violated their conscience, violated the moral order, the way things are supposed to be, and hence caused pain and offense to God and deep moral pain to the people involved. Further, it was understood that rituals of confession, contrition, and absolution were simply appropriate; these rituals were fitting for what had happened in war. For a number of reasons, the church abandoned that practice.

Fast forward to the last hundred years, and to the rise of what’s come to be called a therapeutic culture, and suddenly we are in a situation where the church almost reflexively turns to the therapeutic community, nearly exclusively, to help soldiers deal with any and all struggles of mind and heart and emotion and soul. But, as people like Bernard VerKamp, in his book, The Moral Treatment of Returning Warriors in Early Medieval and Modern Times, point out, the therapeutic community, as vitally important as it is in this overall project, has a different approach to concepts like sin, evil, guilt, conscience, moral pain, contrition, confession, and absolution.

And so we have soldiers who have moral injury, soul injury, who need spiritual healing, but aren’t getting it from either the therapeutic community or the church.

Three questions for the church

So what exactly is the “more” that the church, particularly the church in worship, has to offer?  In what ways must we more intentionally “be the church?”  I’d like to suggest three ways, framed in the form of questions.

First, what do we believe?  In particular, what do we believe about God? Is our God big enough to be relevant to people who suffer moral injury?  The church, when it’s being the church, offers a vision of a holy God who is just and merciful, all knowing and all loving, a God to be approached with awe and child-like trust. A God who has created a moral order, who has created us to obey it, who compels us to obey it, who links our obeying it to being fully human, and yes, a God who graciously receives us and forgives us when we fail.

The Catholic Peace Fellowship, a ministry of the Catholic Church, recently reported that Sgt. Mathew Gonzalez, an Army Ranger and an Iraq veteran, received a lot of heat for the decal he had made for his truck: "Lord, please forgive me. I have committed sins for our freedom."

Gonzalez, a committed Catholic, said his message is in no way meant to dishonor the military or other soldiers. However, his strong Catholic faith led him to believe that his actions in Iraq were indeed sinful. "I'm proud to be a vet, he said, but being a Catholic, I acknowledge that I committed sins."

Now, Sgt. Gonzalez is fortunate to go to a church that cared about him enough to talk about a God who is holy and just; to talk about a moral order and sin, and how we don’t break the moral order, the moral order breaks us; and yes, of course, to talk about a grace and mercy and forgiveness available when we do sin.

Why has the church lost its nerve when it comes to offering a vision of a holy God who has created a universe with moral order, and to using the “s” word (sin) to describe our violation of that moral order?  

One reason is that we live in a culture where tolerance is the first and greatest commandment, and where a vision of a holy, exacting God and a moral order can so easily be misconstrued and marginalized as being intolerant and judgmental in ways that simply end the discussion. And of course, there are so many ways in which the church has been inappropriately intolerant, judgmental and hypocritical, that it’s easy to over-steer and, in our defensiveness, boldly stand for nothing. Or to put this the way CS Lewis put it once, we over-steer and portray a God who is not a father, loving and strong, but a grandfather, who with “senile benevolence” expects nothing, tolerates everything, and is ultimately irrelevant.

Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist, two sociologists, have addressed this diminished view of God in their book Soul Searching:  The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. In this landmark research project, they interviewed thousands of teenagers throughout North America, and came up with this term to describe the religious framework of teenagers today:  “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. ”Moralistic—you should be a good person. But therapeutic—religion exists to help me feel good about myself; it’s a tool of self-fulfillment. Deism—there’s sort of a God out there somewhere, but Deism is that view of God as the clock maker who makes the clock, gets it going, and leaves it to itself; now the clock just runs on its own. God really isn’t involved, unless it therapeutically helps you to think he is.

“Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” is not just the religion of teenagers. It is the air we breathe today in our culture.

But Sgt. Gonzalez knows there is more. He wants to feel good about himself and wants to feel self-fulfilled, but he knows that in order for that to happen, he must contend with a God who is holy and just and a moral order that ultimately we don’t break, but that breaks us if we do not contend with it.

Second, how do we worship? The church, when it’s being the church, practices Christian worship in a way that communicates both the awesome transcendence of God and the tender mercy of God. Christian worship must give worshipers a sense of awe, a sense that we have entered into the presence of one who is greater than we are; and then also a sense of the grace, and love, and forgiving mercy of this God.

Eugene Peterson says that people have two great spiritual needs that every worship service must address:  transcendence and intimacy. Christian worship must give Sgt. Gonzalez the experiential framework to encounter a God who is much bigger than Sgt. Gonzalez, mysterious in his power and authority and expectations and claims upon humanity; and the experiential framework that enables Sgt. Gonzalez to trust this great God so much that he has the courage to name his own failings and sin before this great God, and to receive, by faith, the tender mercy and forgiveness of God.  

Do we plan and lead every minute of our worship service prayerfully believing that the people who will be in church Sunday need to meet this God, this big God—big in holiness, big in mercy?  Or are we functional therapeutic deists, who plan worship to merely service people’s needs, with needs defined in a very small and truncated way?  Do we worship and live together as a church in ways that are so spiritually vital and authentic that people make the decision, deep down, to take their brokenness to church with them and offer it up to God in worship, not leave it home, hidden in a closet?  Do we as worship leaders and pastors have deep empathy for those who come broken, weighed down under the burden of, among other things, their own sinfulness and moral failure? 

I would submit that worship leaders do not foster this sense of transcendence and intimacy when they begin a worship service with three minutes of chatter about what we’re going to do today and how awesome God is and how much God loves us: they essentially preach a sermon in every transition of worship. I love the note I received from an older lady when I left a church I had served for 13 years. She wrote, “I will remember many things you said in your 13 years at our church, but I will remember most the simple words with which you began every worship service:  ‘We have come to worship God.’ Thank you.” 

A church’s theological convictions about what’s actually happening in each element of worship are also important. Take, for example, the celebration of Holy Communion. Chaplain Keizer of the Soul Repair Center has spoken and written often about his practice of offering the sacrament of Holy Communion not only in Sunday worship but also on the battlefield, on lonely posts along the road, on night watches. Herm speaks eloquently of the sustaining and transforming power of the sacrament to so many soldiers on or near the field of battle.

Do we actually believe in the “real presence” in the sacrament?  That in the sacrament, Christ is present, our union with Christ, our “in Christ-ness” is affirmed once again. Do people apprehend Christ’s presence in worship the way Chaplain Keizer testifies soldiers apprehend it in the field of battle? 

Do we believe worship matters, and that how we worship and what we believe about worship matters, if people are to be healed in worship?

Third, how do we live together?  The church needs to embody Christ in its life and community. The theological issue here, of course, is that ultimately the unconditional love and grace and acceptance of Christ that heals moral injury is not merely a truth proposition one must agree with, it is a reality one must experience. The church must be the church day in and day out, and offer a healing community, day in and day out.

Here is where we need to be honest with each other and admit that the church in North America isn’t well equipped to offer community for people who need continuous community, not just an hour of worship on Sunday, with 30 minutes of genuine caring after that service.

Consider the veteran who has lived a highly structured military life for years, and now, overnight, has none of that structure. This veteran must deal with that radical change at the same time she may be facing any number of other challenges—from economic to emotional to spiritual to relational to medical—and sometimes with nearly all of these challenges, all at once. These individuals need the kind of intensive, extensive support and love and attention that the church, to be very honest here, in 99% of cases, simply isn’t structured to provide.

Now, lest we get all upset at the church, we have to realize that this isn’t only a church problem, of course. It’s a societal problem. A significant book on this score is Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, by Robert Putnam. It was developed from his 1995 essay entitled Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital. Putnam argues that in our culture there is decline of social capital; that is, meaningful, sustained social interaction that makes us thrive.

Putnam uses the image of “bowling alone.”  We have more bowlers today, but fewer leagues. People bowl alone. When a particular bowler Putnam knew needed a kidney transplant, and needed the kind of support that goes beyond hospitalization, he was in deep trouble. He lacked the social capital to get him through that difficult chapter in his life

Not only must the church ask radical questions about how it can be the church in more continuous community that goes beyond an hour of worship and an hour of programming here and there throughout the week. The church must also look for ways to go out into the community and be church in new, creative, and contextually shaped ways. The fact is that younger people in general, and specifically veterans, aren’t standing in line to come to church, much less think of going to church on Sunday morning. We’re going to have to wrestle deeply with what it means, in its essence, to be church, and go out into our communities and be church in new and contextually shaped ways that may look very little like our grandmother’s church.


I have proposed that we can offer more meaningful ministry to veterans suffering from moral injury as we contemplate more deeply three questions:  What do we believe? How do we worship? How do we live together? These are theological questions, not questions of technique. They go to the heart of the church’s identity and mission.

The church’s challenge to minister to veterans suffering moral injury is also the church’s opportunity to renew itself. This is the irony we always encounter in ministry. We do ministry thinking that we are helping someone else. But those to whom we minister end up ministering to the church; in this case, they end up helping the church be the church again, and renew our vision of God, our vision of worship, our vision of community.