This month, as we observe the 75th anniversary of D-Day, I’m preparing a paper for the International Network on the Study of War and Religion in the Modern World conference in Amport House (the UK’s Armed Forces Chaplaincy Centre) in July and I’ve been thinking about the connections between moral injury and eschatological hope.
More specifically, I’m drawn to the way that German theologian Jurgen Moltmann thinks about the resurrection of Jesus and its meaning for history.
Moltmann was conscripted into the German air auxillary during World War II, and survived the firebombing of Hamburg* before ultimately being pressed into service in the German army. After several encounters in which he experienced the loss of several close comrades, Moltmann found himself cut off from his unit, starving and covered in lice, and he surrendered to British forces in early 1945.
Moltmann tells this tale in his autobiography titled A Broad Place, describing the survivor’s guilt he felt at the loss of his friends. Moreover, though, his life was impacted by the crushing weight of collective guilt he experienced when his fellow German POWs were forced to confront the reality of the concentration camps while interned in Kilmarnock, Scotland. While making a long and compelling narrative short, Moltmann is drawn to Christianity in the camp, and studies theology upon his return to Germany, emerging in the decades that follow as one of the world’s foremost theologians.
The first of his 43 (!) works on Christian theology is, of course, Theology of Hope, in which he founds his theological discourse on eschatology, arguing that “The eschatological is not one element of Christianity, but it is the medium of Christian faith as such, the key in which everything in it is set, the glow that suffuses everything here in the dawn of an expected new day. (Theology of Hope, 16)”
For Moltmann, the resurrection of Christ serves as a pivotal moment in the understanding of history – it is the promise of God’s eschatological future which breaks into, transforms, and reorients the present towards it. The hope of resurrection means that death, usually the end and full stop of human endeavors, is not the end, and that the possibilities for lives, ambitions, projects, and hopes previously thought to be brought to an end are re-opened and given new hope.
In other words, as he will later write, “I would think that eternal life gives the broken and the impaired and those whose lives have been destroyed space and time and strength to live the life which they were intended for, and for which they were born. I think this, not for selfish reasons, for the sake of my personal completion, and not morally, for the sake of some kind of purification; I think it for the sake of the justice which I believe is God’s concern and his first option. (The Coming of God, 118)”
I’m moved particularly by Moltmann’s expression of hope here, and will explore what it might mean in terms of moral injury in the here and now: “the Spirit of eternal life is first of all a further space for living, in which life that has been cut short, or was impaired and destroyed will be able to develop freely. Even in this life before death we experience the Spirit of life as the wide space in which there is no more cramping. And how much more so will this be so after death? (The Coming of God, 118)”
I have considered carefully how to move forward after articulating the connections and resonances between the doctrine of original sin and moral injury. I think a careful and nuanced valuation of atonement, of forgiveness, of penance, of reconciliation in terms of moral injury would have great value. Yet I think what must be addressed first for those grappling with moral ambiguity and hopelessness might be: “What am I to hope for?” I’m compelled by Moltmann’s notion that eschatology is indeed the key in which other doctrines are set, and think this question bears particular weight for those who have experienced the full brokenness of the world.
* My description of this on p. 163 of Full Darkness, much to my chagrin, is erroneous. I state there that he survived the firebombing at Dresden, rather than the correct location at Hamburg.