We’re familiar with the concept of post-traumatic stress disorder (or PTSD) that can develop after someone has been harmed or threatened with harm. Recognized by psychiatrists, there are therapies that successfully address traumatic memories and their neurological and physiological effects. In some cases where PTSD might be diagnosed, particularly for veterans of military combat, it has become evident, however, that an individual’s continued suffering is not necessarily a result of physical harm or threat of harm; rather, it is a result of what has been termed “moral injury”, which may take place when a soldier participates (or otherwise witnesses) an action that profoundly violates their own sense of right and wrong.
Furthermore, treatments for PTSD are not necessarily effective for moral injury. Though both are “hidden wounds of war”, one is a fear of physical danger from the outside world resulting from a trauma of the body, while the other is a breaking of one’s internal, moral identity resulting from a trauma of the conscience. Thus, it has been argued, moral injury needs to be treated not as a conventional neuro-psychological disorder, but as a spiritual disorder. Rather than psychiatrists and group therapy, it calls for pastoral counselors and religious communities.
I have preached about the subject of moral injury, and the “soul repair” that is needed to address it, and I refer you to that sermon for further background. (I have also told the story of Philoctetes, according to the tragedy by Sophocles, given the modern use of the ancient play to draw attention to the seen and the unseen wounds of warfare.) In short, I am interested in this subject as it relates to our presence as a religious community in an area with many military facilities and hence many military personnel and veterans.
As part of my sabbatical, then, I plan to attend in September a three-day conference on the subject of “Moral Injury and Collective Healing”. A joint effort involving the Soul Repair Center at Brite Divinity School, the conference “provides advanced training for helpers and healers responding to moral injury, placing a special focus on supporting veterans and the formerly incarcerated. It will emphasize spiritual practices, the arts and ritual in community healing.” While my own research and reading on the subject is all well and good, there is nothing like being in a room full of experts to gain a much deeper perspective on a subject! My own understanding and ability will benefit from training, but I also hope that the emphasis on soul repair in practice will show how this could become an important congregational ministry.