April Research Update

Greetings!

This post, sadly, finds the world in yet another situation where the idea of ‘betrayal’ articulated by Jonathan Shay finds new expression and vitality.  The Russian invasion of Ukraine, and particularly the way it has been conducted, certainly illumnates the ways in which the concept of moral injury as betrayal, which can often describe the experience of direct combatants in profound ways, also provides a framework within which to understand the experience of Ukrainians, Russians, Europeans, and others at differing levels.  Certainly, in the brutal killings of civilians, many Russian forces may experience this sense of betrayal, as may the Ukrainian forces who respond and have to endure the distortions the war brings to their own senses of morality in fighting an enemy that targets civilians.  The Ukrainian people may feel that their European allies have betrayed them in failing to prevent the killings and destruction unleashed on them, their country and way of life.  Citizens of European nations, and indeed the US as well, may feel a sense that their own governments have betrayed their own moral principles in their inability to prevent the destruction they see from afar. 

This is not to suggest that there was necessarily a better alternative for European nations, as more determined involvement may have resulted in a broader, even more destructive conflict.  For me, Augustine continues to provide a helpful framework, noting that our identities are bound to our historical, cultural, religious frameworks and that the way that these factors impact our worldview are tremendous and extremely difficult to extricate ourselves from.  Moral Injury, in other words, doesn’t simply result from making bad moral choices that violate our core values, but proliferates in scenarios in which there are no good moral outcomes.  

And while the war in Ukraine continues to be horrific beyond words, it is worth noting that in our part of the world, there is news we are excited about, as we’re excited about some of the things happening here that we think can ultimately make a real difference in helping those who suffer from moral injury.  

We have received a generous seed gift to start up a digital centre exploring moral injury in more academic and pastoral depth.  Our concept was recently ratified by the University, so I’m proud to announce that the International Centre for Moral Injury (ICMI) will launch in the autumn.  The centre will be guided by its vision, which is to deepen understanding of the causes and impacts of Moral Injury and explore sources of recovery.  It will do so by developing and highlighting innovative research, education, resources, and practices, fostering collaboration, and building networks of scholars, clergy, and caregivers through cooperative partnerships.  Through it, we will be able to broaden the work I’m doing on moral injury through the fellowship, connecting with the work being done on MI by so many others, and hopefully incorporating models of pastoral and spiritual care that will be helpful for those directly working with those experiencing moral injury.  I will have plenty more to say about this in the future as we build our website, announce upcoming webinars and symposia, collaborations and partnerships with other organizations.  

There are several projects that I’m already working on with other researchers around the UK, and will be excited to bring more news of those as they develop beyond infancy, but each will, I’m confident, be enhanced by the ICMI and the network of researchers, clinicians, theologians, ethicists, philosophers, historians, chaplains, clergy members, military officers, veterans and many others that it will bring together.

I’d also like to report that I’m working on several articles, the most prominent has just been accepted by the American Academy of Religion for their annual meeting in November.  In this paper, I’ll present a new typology for moral injury that is based on my Augustinian conception of agency.  I’m arguing that we are entering a dangerous space in which a few of my colleagues have already suggested that some who are morally injured “shouldn’t get to be” considered as such because they deserve explicit blame in settings where they are perpetrators of violence.  I argue, in contrast, that moral injury is evidence of a functioning moral conscience (something discussed by several of my colleagues, Zachary Moon in particular) and that as such, an Augustinian framing in which we are each guilty but not exhaustively guilty presents a rare opportunity in an increasingly polarized world, to see the complexity of situations, locate ourselves within them, and seek meaningful ways to make amends and to forgive.  

December Research Update

Greetings – I wish you all a blessed advent!  

In my last post, I talked about one particular conversation that had happened between myself, Kelly Denton-Borhaug and Rita Nakashima Brock about moral injury.  Just a couple of weeks ago, the largest gathering of religious scholars in the United States took place in the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion.  It took place both in San Antonio, Texas and online (I took advantage of the latter option and participated from Durham).   During these few days, papers were presented and discussions took place within the thriving Moral Injury and Recovery in Religion and Society unit of this much larger group.  

In a year that saw the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban (once again), many conversations and papers revolved around Jonathan Shay’s conception of moral injury as “betrayal” of shared moral values – particularly by authorities whose decisions carry enormous consequences.  While Shay develops this idea about military members specifically, it is now being usefully applied to describe the loss of meaning and social trust that can occur in other contexts when authorities regularly are seen to betray basic principles of justice, legality and ‘what’s right,’ particularly to the detriment of certain groups of peoples.

One paper, for example, presented the case that inaction on climate change in the current generation was eroding social trust in a younger generation whose communal, national and international struggles will likely be characterized by the effects of a warming world.  Two excellent papers looked at the effects of repeated police violence towards African-Americans and a lack of accountability for perpetrators of it within the justice system as a profound betrayal that breaks social trust and produces moral injury, inculcating an expectation of injustice and a difficulty in finding a moral framework of meaning within which to process one’s experiences of the world.

This idea of moral injury as betrayal, as broken social trust, sticks in my mind as we encounter the advent narrative and perhaps its darkest moment – Herod’s slaughter of the children in Bethlehem in an attempt to kill the infant Jesus and prevent a threat to his rule over Judea (Matthew 2.16-18).  Certainly, this horrific event of mass murder is one of many that would break any remaining vestige of social trust in authority – in a personal and traumatic way – for those who witnessed the violent death of their children (and recalling the military ideas of moral injury again – were helpless to prevent it).

This betrayal of social trust certainly sets the stage for the passion narrative, where the tensions between the people and both the Romans and Judean governors resonate through the story.  Read through the lens of moral injury, the now middle-aged parents amongst the people perhaps become more sympathetic in their rejection and scoffing at a ‘messiah’ who will not directly answer their expectation of justice for corrupt and murderous leaders.  

And yet both narratives – nativity and passion – remind us that at the heart of the Christian story is the advent of Jesus into an unfaithful world that is deeply wounded and scarred by betrayals, and the promise of healing is held out in the faithfulness of Jesus and his refusal to betray.

My work continues in explicating this further in examining the ways that we might recognize the profound brokenness of the world in the lament uttered by those who grieve the its violence, death, moral betrayals and agony and in the ways these characterize the hope expressed in the resurrection of Christ.  

Edit – Due to an error I’ve only just discovered, this post showed on my view as posted, but was not visible to anyone else. I’ve thus just reposted it. An April Update is coming shortly.

Webinar Recap – MI and society

As a follow-up to the advertisement below for the SRC webinar, I can say that it was a wonderful discussion with my colleagues, a stimulating conversation and one that left me thinking about the way we conceive of moral injury for some time after.

One part of the conversation about moral injury that has lingered in my thoughts in the days since that both Rita Brock and I discussed was its difficult typology. We both acknowledge that clinicians (psychiatrists, psychologists and healthcare workers) had identified a key aspect of trauma in distinguishing MI from PTSD, but are equally adamant that what they’ve discovered is not something that is not a medical or clinical, or even necessarily a psychological problem. In fact, we were both in agreement that it isn’t necessarily a problem with an individual at all.

As values are formed in our societies and communities, all three panelists pointed out different ways in which the individuals who suffer from moral injury reflect a societal and cultural problem, not one that is contained in the individual veteran. I expressed what has been a growing discomfort in my own mind in using the term moral ‘injury,’ as I’m worried that it conveys that something is “wrong” with the person suffering moral agony as a result of their experiences in the combat zone.

In my view, and in the view of many of my colleagues, a person who suffers from the negative moral emotions of guilt, shame, embarrassment, anger, contempt and disgust at the violence, death and destruction of war is evincing a fully intact conscience. In other words, their reactions to the experience are deeply human and “normal” reactions to abnormal situations.

For me, this is a pivotal point in my more recent research – in the beginning of my monograph in progress, I spend some time making the case that those who are morally injured see the world authentically – fully aware of the vulnerability of our lives, the randomness with which they can be destroyed, and the moral deformations that pervert good intentions into terrible outcomes. Moral injury is, in many ways, a demand for justice – the pain of the victims of war manifested through the suffering of its combatants and survivors, and a call for all – civilian, military member, and veteran – to look without blinders at the real costs of war.

Soul Repair Center Webinar

I’m honoured to participate next week in a free webinar hosted by the Soul Repair Center at Brite Divinity School in Texas. They provide monthly webinars around the topic of moral injury and issues related to it. I’m presenting a bit of my work in this one, then joining a conversation with two other brilliant theologians, Kelly Denton-Borhaug and Rita Nakashima Brock, about the trajectory of theology as it pertains to combat trauma and military moral injury.

If you’re interested, you can find a bit more information below, and register for the webinar, which takes place on October 20, 2021 from 6.45 pm to 8.30 pm BST here.

The Soul Repair Center offers free monthly webinars of use to religious leaders and professional caregivers supporting veterans and their families.

“Current Theological Reflections on Military Moral Injury”
Wednesday, October 20, 2021
1:45-3:30 EDT

Rita Nakashima Brock is an American feminist scholar, Protestant theologian, activist, and non-profit organization leader. She is Senior Vice President for Moral Injury Programs at Volunteers of America, headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia, and a Commissioned Minister in the Christian Church.

Kelly Denton-Borhaug has long been investigating how religion and violence collide in American war-culture. She teaches in the global religions department at Moravian University. She is the author of two books, U.S. War-Culture, Sacrifice and Salvation and, more recently, And Then Your Soul is Gone: Moral Injury and U.S. War-Culture. She recently wrote “Why Are So Many Military Brothers and Sisters Taking Their Own Lives?” for TomDispatch.com. See her faculty website for information about additional publications and podcasts about her work addressing religion and moral injury.

Brian Powers is the inaugural William Bernard Vann Fellow at Durham University, a former Special Operations Weather Team officer in the U.S. Air Force and a veteran of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. He holds a Ph.D in Theological Studies from Emory University and is interested in the ways that Christian theology shapes and also fails to shape our thinking about contemporary moral, ecclesial and political issues – most notably those involving violence, moral injury, identity and justice. His monograph, Full Darkness: A Original Sin, Moral Injury and Wartime Violence contends that a modified Augustinian conception of original sin holds deep explanatory power to illuminate the nature of wartime violence, particularly through the lens of moral injury and veteran trauma.

Moral Injury and Afghanistan

It has been nearly three weeks since the Taliban toppled the central government in Afghanistan and completed their takeover of the country on the heels of the rapid withdrawal of US and coalition forces.  Like tens of thousands of my American countrymen and my sisters and brothers in the UK, Australia and other ISAF nations, I served in Afghanistan 15 years ago.  

In the intervening years between 2007 and today, I’ve been fortunate to have access to nearly every imaginable resource necessary to work through my own sense of moral injury from the conflict – a loving and patient family, a faith that will not let me go, an extended support structure of relationships with pastors, professors, experts, researchers and clinicians, the financial ability to spend 9 years in graduate school gaining the tools to interrogate my own experience in a theological context and to develop the skill to research and write in a way that I think might be helpful to others.  Yet despite this, it has taken me some time to work through my own internal reactions to the dramatic and catastrophic end of the 20 year war in Afghanistan. I share the following thoughts, ideas and reflections in several groups.

The first is a raw expression of what I’ve felt as a veteran of this conflict.  

First and foremost, I have experienced a deep sense of agony, devastation and heartbreak for the people of Afghanistan.  I remember the faces, voices, welcomes and hard gazes of people I met there.  The US and our coalition partners spent the better part of two decades asking them to trust the future we were attempting to create – to collaborate with us to build something from which they and their children might benefit.  The return of the Taliban is more than the return of a brutally oppressive regime – which is horrific enough on its own, as many people will be killed in reprisals.  It also represents the collapse of a political system, an educational system, and a system of labor into which an entire generation of people invested their lives.  Women and young girls will suffer the most, just as they bore the brunt of the economic devastation of our initial invasion.  We seem to be finding new and inventive ways to victimize them. 

Second, and related, is a strong sense of guilt and shame at the promises we broke to them.  When I was in Afghanistan, the operative strategy was to “win hearts and minds” to our mission there – which was ultimately about US security and was clearly going to benefit the people of Afghanistan in a secondary sense at best.  The phrase “winning hearts and minds,” however, implies a building of trust – that we were going to establish safety for the Afghan people, help them to secure a future of dignity and self-determination.  While this entire endeavour can and should be critiqued for its imperialist arrogance, those of us there committed ourselves to it in varying capacities, along with our individual and collective senses of honour.  To leave Afghanistan now to the Taliban feels like an enormous betrayal of that commitment.  We failed, and abandoned them – and expressing regret, saying ‘sorry’ feels as hollow and self-serving as our mission there was.  

What surprised me most, however, was the amount of anger – bordering on rage – I felt, and the things that brought it out.  I felt a surge of anger at the current administration, the past one, everyone who took part in the awful strategy that resulted in this mess.  That some of us who went over didn’t return, that we committed our own senses of honor and responsibility to this seemingly throwaway endeavor.  At the online postings of civilian friends expressing outrage for the current situation, as though they were shocked about how things were going.  Where have you been for the past 20 years?  Veterans have been dealing with varying amounts of moral injury for the past two decades, and you are just now waking up to the sense of guilt, shame, and betrayal that many of us have dealt with for years?!?  Did any of you vote for public officials with US policy in Afghanistan in mind?  I have felt enraged at the sense that this brief expression of shock and outrage will simply join the standard cycle of such emotions and be soon forgotten, while many veterans will be unable to leave behind their sense of guilt, shame, and betrayal.  This can change to a feeling of resignation and sadness that nothing will change – that no one listens until it is too late to do anything meaningful.

I share this, not because my own feelings are of any import, but because I’m guessing that others might feel similar surges of emotions, though the particulars may be very different.  Everyone’s experience is, of course, different.  Though like many veterans, I’ve found value in writing out what I’m feeling, and hope others might also.

Speaking as someone who studies moral injury, I can say that the large-scale collapse of our Afghanistan mission is likely to exacerbate moral trauma for veterans of the conflict and bring morally injurious experiences back to the forefront of their minds.    

Jonathan Shay, the US VA psychiatrist who brought the term ‘moral injury’ into modern parlance, argued that it was present when there had been “a betrayal of what’s right by a person in a position of authority in a high-stakes situation.”[1]  While subsequent researchers have augmented his understanding of moral injury with definitions that highlight additional facets of it, Shay’s definition still highlights the most central root of MI – a sense of moral betrayal.

The swift retaking of Afghanistan by the Taliban, and the scenes of chaos, agony, desperation and tragedy that have been broadcast worldwide have perhaps engendered a similar sense of betrayal in many civilians in the U.S., the U.K., Australia, and many of the other nations that contributed to the ISAF effort there.  It may remind them of the more personal betrayals they experienced, the more directly painful experiences of moral injury that they may have carried for some time.  

The “high-stakes situation” Shay refers to is most often one that involves the life, death, or intense suffering of another human being.  Obviously, combatants encounter these situations in varying degrees of intensity a great deal in combat situations (in a different context, healthcare professionals have faced and continue to face these situations over the course of the pandemic as well).  The fall of the Afghan government also involves enormously high stakes for the people of Afghanistan, and many veterans will understand this as a negative outcome for them that might have been prevented.

It certainly will represent a betrayal of “what’s right” to many veterans – a betrayal of what’s right for the people of Afghanistan, of the sacrifices made there by combatants, of the service of those who were committed to the ISAF mission.  

Another definition of moral injury points to the “spiritual/existential problems, and social alienation that emerges after witnessing and/or participating in warzone events that challenge one’s basic sense of humanity.”[2]  It focuses on the inability of some veterans who have suffered morally injurious events to continue to find meaning in their own actions in combat, with difficulty in finding a moral codex by which they can understand and make sense of their own values, beliefs and participation in the world.  One of the primary moral stressors cited by this study is “witnessing human suffering and the consequences of violence and injustice in the regions to which they deploy.”[3]

Many veterans who have suffered moral injury previously may feel an additional layer of moral stress and agony at watching and being made aware of the suffering and injustice in Afghanistan both this week and to come in the future.  Many might be aware of our own participation in the suffering, violence, and injustice, and perhaps feel an increased unmooring of their own moral sense of order at what can only be understood as the ultimate failure of the ISAF mission.  

From a theological perspective, it strikes me that the only authentic response to these events – and to the moral injury they further engender – is to lament.  Lament for the primary victims of our intervention – the people of Afghanistan, who will bear the brunt of the failure of our mission, just as they have borne the brunt of our conflict with Al-Qaeda and the Taliban for 20 years.  Lament for those who have sacrificed their lives, those who have endured and continue to endure mental, physical, moral and spiritual agony for a cause seemingly now abandoned.  Lament for those we know whose mental and spiritual anguish led them to take their own lives.  Lament for our own moral failures over the course of the long conflict, lament for all the ways in which we fail to care about or even regard how people outside of Western nations will suffer for our military endeavors.  

Many brilliant scholars and theologians (for example – Rita Nakashima Brock, Gabriella Lettini, Larry Kent Graham, Carrie Doehring, Kathleen O’Connor, and Brad Kelle) have written about the value of lament in situations of moral injury, yet it also strikes me in surveying the biblical literature that with the exception of Paul, perhaps, there are few laments from the perspective of the Romans – from inside the empire.  

I have found it compelling in my own mind to imagine a lament of Pilate – lament for releasing Jesus Barabbas, a violent insurrectionist, to the crowd and washing his hands of the torture and crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.  Lament for failing to risk his own power and position for the sake of what he judged to be right.  Lament for his indifference to the human consequences of his own wielding of violence in ordering the crucifixion.  In lamenting our own failures in Afghanistan, perhaps we might reconsider our use of power in the world, and how badly things may go wrong with our nationalistic and imperialist military endeavors.  

The third and early fourth century theologian Lactantius argued that as Christians claimed that we are created in the image of God, the characteristic that demonstrated the imago Dei most directly was kindness.  “Kindness is the greatest bond of human society,” as “man should protect, love, and cherish man, and both receive and afford assistance against all dangers.”  The bond of kindness and love knit all peoples into one fabric of humanity.  To harm another person was to rend this fabric, negate the divine image within ourselves and to revert to a less divine form of life – a more animalistic being which lacked the wisdom, kindness and love that God shared from God’s own being with humanity.  

This language gives voice to the pain of our own rending of the bond of humanity, regardless of how “legal,” “responsible,” or “necessary” we may find it.  It strikes me as a helpful way of conceiving the consequences of violence to those that are its victims as well as those who wield it.  There have been few times that I have felt more strongly the sense that we have rent the bond of humanity through our use of violence than the way in which we have left Afghanistan.  Perhaps in lamenting the situation, we might also see the humanity in those to whom we have – of late – closed our doors (certainly in the US, but to a lesser extent in the UK as well).  Those fleeing the Taliban are refugees, a term that politically has meant ‘not like us’ and ‘potential terrorist’ in recent years, rather than human beings to whom we have a responsibility by virtue of the common human life we share from God. 

In finding language to lament, I should note that unlike many, I do not see a disconnect or tension between unreserved lament and the hope of the resurrection.  Jurgen Moltmann describes the resurrection as the hope “for everything that wants to live but has to die,” as the promise of God’s eschatological redemption, in which everything and everyone will be liberated from the sin and death that has infected us.  God’s final eschatological judgment is the cleansing of history of the violence that poisons our relations with each other.  In the eternal future in which everything has been put to rights, Moltmann contends 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.”[4]

To witness to the vision of God’s ultimate “Yes” to life, to reconciliation, to justice and renewal in our own world of violence, war, injustice, broken faith, and oppression is to authentically and unreservedly lament.  In doing so, we acknowledge our complicity in the pain and agony of violence, war and injustice, our solidarity with all peoples, and our refusal to become cynical in accepting the world as it is.  In Moltmann’s words again, in light of the promised end of God, “[Hope] sees reality and [humanity] in the hand of him whose voice calls into history from its end, saying ‘Behold, I make all things new,’ and from hearing this word of promise it acquires the freedom to renew life here and to change the face of the world.”[5]  

Unreserved lament is not simply a static mourning – it is an act of resistance and defiance because it holds implicitly that the world can be other than it is.  As we mourn the situation in Afghanistan, lament our own individual and collective moral failures and our rending of the fabric of humanity, perhaps we may find ways to embody God’s eschatological justice, healing and ‘yes’ to life in our here and now.  


[1] Jonathan Shay, “Moral Injury” in Psychoanalytic Psychology 31, No. 2 (2014), 183.

[2] Joseph M. Currier, et al., ‘‘Moral Injury, Meaning Making, and Mental Health in Returning Veterans,” Journal of Clinical Psychology 71.3 (2015): 229-240 (229-230).

[3] Currier, et al, ibid.

[4] Jurgen Moltmann, The Coming of God:  Christian Eschatology, trans Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 1996), 118.  

[5] Jurgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope:  On the Ground and Implications of a Christian Eschatology, trans Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 1993), 16-17.

July Research Update

Greetings, and I hope this long-overdue post finds you well.

It has been a weighty few months, with decisions about the future looming over much of my research efforts.  I am happy to announce that I will be extending in the Vann Fellowship and will remain in the position for another 3 years.  I remain very excited about this work and will continue it with a focus on moral injury and theological resonances – I will explain my plans for the second term of my time here in a bit more detail in the next post.


My family and I moved house in the past few weeks, and even though it was literally just around the corner, I was reminded about how the event of moving from one home to another can bring up a wealth of emotions.  For those who have experienced traumatic events, and for those who have found growth and a (relatively) peaceful and happy home, leaving that place can be intensely stressful.  When I left the military in 2007, my wife and I had a house built just outside of Atlanta, Georgia.  We lived there for over 11 years, and each of our children spent their first weeks, months and years in that home.  When the opportunity came for us to move to Durham, we were extremely excited for the adventure, and yet as our final departure dawned, I experienced a significant amount of anxiety about leaving that it took me some weeks to work through.  I believe this is a common experience, particularly for those who have experienced war and have found security in a place, routine, or particular way of being.


This is all to say that as we enter a season of transition and one that promises to be a joyous renewal of our public lives together after a long pandemic, we may also need to be gracious to ourselves and others when we struggle with the change and recognize the anxiety it might bring, particularly to those who bear the weight of moral injury.


To more formal matters in terms of the research of the Vann Fellowship, it has been a busy spring, and fortunately, continues to be a productive one.  As I noted in the last post, I wrote an essay published on the Political Theology Network’s symposium centered around a book, The Business of War:  Theological and Ethical Reflections on the Military-Industrial Complex.  The chapters within it are largely critical of the uniquely American marriage of military influence and private business, but I think readers in the UK may find resonances with cognate situations here as well.  My contribution to the symposium is a response to a small set of the essays found within the larger book, and I use both moral injury and the theological frameworks of sin and the imago dei to hopefully illuminate and enhance the views of the authors.

I continue to work on my monograph, an exploration of lament, resurrection and eschatology as they provide a framing for the issues of justice that arise in moral injury and have found a great deal of value and inspiration in presenting key portions of the research and my arguments with my colleagues in academic setings.  

I’ve just presented a paper that encapsulates one such argument at a (live!) academic conference at the Armed Forces Chaplaincy Centre at Beckett House in Shrivenham last week with the International Network for the Study of War and Religion in the Modern World.  My paper, entitled “Losing and Finding Faith:  Frameworks of Justice after War and Moral Injury” highlighted several recent studies that demonstrate that many veterans who experience moral injury also experience a concomitant loss of faith in their religious traditions.  I used the example of a young German soldier in the second world war – who was raised in a secular household, who found faith after the war in a POW camp in Scotland and would go on to become one of the world’s pre-eminent Christian theologians – to argue that the language of faith, which often mediates the experience of moral trauma in wartime, also has a tremendous capacity to frame our experiences of violence and loss in the hope of the resurrection.   Jurgen Moltmann does so by offering a communal vision of resurrection in which our sense of justice is restored through the renewal of life.  

As always, the work continues…

January Research Update

A belated happy New Year!  

As this year dawns, and many, if not all of us, are ready to turn the page on 2020, we are sadly confronted with many of the same challenges that plagued us last year.  We can see how the continued virulence of COVID-19 has given rise to increasing moral concerns among healthcare workers, who now worry that if healthcare systems become stretched beyond capacity, they may face many of the morally injurious situations that confront combatants – having to choose an action that will bring death to some even as it attempts to save the lives of others.  

We also have already seen in the early days of this year, the consequences of years of extreme political speech and divisiveness in the United States, where a violent mob breached the capitol building for the first time in over two centuries, intent on stopping the final step of the process by which a new President is elected.  This affects military members in a particular way, as members of the National Guard are now called to defend the inauguration of Joe Biden against threats from groups with which some soldiers may (at least to some extent) share political views.

In my view, these crises birth a moment in which we might examine how our underlying frameworks of meaning affect our modes of thinking and acting in the world, in our personal, professional and political lives.  They expose, particularly in the case of American culture and society, an epistemological crisis – a questioning of the very foundations of how we come to know things and understand what is true in the world.  I’ve always held that theology lies at the heart of how we process things, make judgments about right and wrong, what is acceptable and what is not, what is particularly sacred (a word used by one of the capitol police officers to describe the chair in which the presiding officer of the Senate sits, urging a rioter to move from it) and what is profane.  

In this sense, I have finished a response essay, coming out in the next few weeks, for an online Political Theology Network Symposium dedicated to a recent edited volume entitled The Business of War:  Theological and Ethical Reflections on the Military Industrial Complex (edited by James McCarty, Matthew Tapie, and Justin Bronson Barringer).  The essays in the volume and on the symposium site certainly reflect on a particularly American institution and the ways in which its bellicosity has tendrils that influence many social ills.  Yet I think it is still valuable to see how each of the authors present frameworks in which to think about the interconnected way that an economic interest in warfare affects life and creates situations of moral injury in contexts far from the field of battle, and frustrate political discernment.  My own contribution to the symposium develops the ideas that I’ve discussed in Full Darkness on original sin, as well as Lactantius’ description of the Imago Dei as providing a conceptual vocabulary which can expand our capacity to understand our experiences in the the context of American culture and race, the differences in economic and military ethical principles, and the rise of Private Military Security Contractors in the prosecution of US wars.  

In each, my intent is to use these theological conceptions to give voice to trauma borne by these situations and to contextualize it in order that we may both heal individually and move to build better and more load-bearing systems of understanding for those who come after us.  I will post a link to this symposium on this blog as soon as it is available.

As a late reminder, the Vann Research Lecture Series continues its online presentations on the 20th of January (the evening of this posting) at 7 pm, and we are pleased to welcome Dr. Gina Palmer from the U.S. Naval War College, who will give the lecture titled “Urakami Catholics, Memory, and Meaning of the Atomic Bomb at Nagasaki, August 9, 1945.” If you are interested, please contact admin.cas@durham.ac.uk for a link to the lecture.

Symposium Information and Resources

The inaugural Vann Fellowship Symposium, “Trans-Atlantic Perspectives on Religion and Moral Injury” took place on Friday, and there was a wonderful discussion that took place amongst all our participants – leading scholars on moral injury and religion, chaplains, clergy, and many others.  

If you attended the symposium and are interested in following up on some of the information presented, please find some good resources below.  

Link to Rita Nakashima Brock’s Book, Soul Repair

Link to Joseph Wiinikka-Lydon’s Book, Moral Injury and the Promise of Virtue

Link to Zachary Moon’s books, Coming Home:  Ministry that Matters with Veterans and Military Families and Warriors Between Worlds

Link to Nancy Ramsay and Carrie Doehring’s Edited book, Military Moral Injury and Spiritual Care:  A Resource for Religious Leaders and Professional Caregivers

Link to Brad Kelle’s Book, The Bible and Moral Injury:  Reading Scripture Alongside War’s Unseen Wounds

Link to brad Kelle’s Edited Book, in which all of the speakers authored a portion, as did I – Moral Injury:  A Guidebook for Understanding and Engagement

Link to my own work, Full Darkness:  Original Sin, Moral Injury and Wartime Violence

Soul Repair Centre’s Upcoming Webinar Information can be found here.

Below is the link to Carrie Doehring’s slide presentation.

Thank you to again to all of our speakers and participants for an engaging and thought-provoking symposium! If you attended and would like any more information discussed, please don’t hesitate to contact me at brian.s.powers@durham.ac.uk, and I will be happy to follow-up.

October Research Update

Greetings!  As this strange new academic year dawns, it brings with it the challenges of teaching, research and public scholarship in a time of pandemic.  I have several exciting aspects of Vann Fellowship news to share, and a brief personal reflection on the capacity of animals to mend some of the more pernicious aspects of moral injury.  

In terms of upcoming events, there are two worthy of mention.  First, Canon Professor Michael Snape will give the inaugural lecture in our Vann Research Project lecture series on Remembrance Day, on the 11th of November from 7pm to 8.30pm, entitled “Anglicans, Remembrance and the Memorialization of Military Service in the British Isles and the United States after the First World War.”  If you are interested in attending this lecture, please email admin.cas@durham.ac.uk and you will be sent the link to the event.  

The broader Vann Research Project lectures will continue on a monthly basis from January next year through Epiphany term, and will feature speakers with expertise and experience at the intersection of Christian faith and armed conflict.

Secondly, the fellowship will host a virtual symposium entitled “Trans-Atlantic Perspectives on Religion and Moral Injury” on the 20th of November.  It will feature prominent scholars working today in religion and moral injury including Drs. Rita Nakashima Brock, Brad Kelle, Nancy Ramsay, Carrie Doehring, Joseph Wiinikka-Lydon, and Zachary Moon.  This is a rare chance to examine how the cultural differences between the American and British contexts might nuance our understandings of moral injury.  Each will present their recent work, and I will moderate a discussion with these scholars, authors, and caregivers that will hopefully produce a lively exchange of ideas.  In order to effectively manage the discussions, space is limited for the event, but if you are interested in attending, please contact me at brian.s.powers@durham.ac.uk .

In terms of published research, the new volume on moral injury to which I’ve contributed a chapter has now been released.  It is entitled Moral Injury:  A Guidebook for Understanding and Engagement, and my chapter is titled “Moral Injury and Christian Theology.”  The chapter explores the resonances between the Christian doctrines of original sin, imago dei, and eschatological redemption with the experience of guilt and shame after combat.  It is, unfortunately, “priced for libraries,” but is an important and unique volume that brings clinical researchers – psychologists and psychiatrists – into conversation with religious scholars and trauma theorists on the issue of moral injury.  

Moral injury is, of course, something that is felt in a deeply personal sense.  In this way, I close with a quite personal reflection on my own journey, and in particular, something that researchers have begun to pay particular attention to (as seen here) – the power of our animal companions to help us heal from trauma.  

My wife Jennifer and I were married in 2005, just two months before I deployed to Afghanistan, and while I was gone, she brought home a Yorkshire terrier puppy we named Molly.  I met Molly when I returned, as Jen arrived at Fort Bragg with her in tow.  I arrived home in a difficult place, struggling with what I now recognize as moral injury – I was frequently angry, often experienced a hopeless cynicism, and felt my capacity to feel empathy for others slipping away.  

Molly’s innocence and outsized personality helped me, over the next weeks, months, and years, to recover.  In the soulful eyes of this dog, I came to know a creature that would give grace continually, even as our family grew and our time to spend playing with her slowly diminished.  The close and easy relationship I enjoyed with her enabled me to relate once more with empathy to other people in my life, and – hyperbolic though it may sound – helped greatly to renew and restore my faith in the goodness of the divine life that we all share with God.

Last month, after nearly 15 years of life spent together, we had to say our final goodbye to our beloved girl.  Painful though this was, as time takes us inexorably further away from Molly’s death, I’m left with a profound sense of gratitude for her companionship, and particularly the way in which she rescued me from my own moral suffering.  Importantly, I know that I am not alone – there is something in the presence of pets that has a profoundly beneficial effect on our capacities to give, show empathy, demonstrate compassion, and envision a life of flourishing.  

Moral Injury and Covid-19

In the past few years there has been an increased attention to instances of what seem to be moral injury in non-military contexts. Recently, papers presented in the moral injury group at the annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion have applied many of the findings and categorisations that we’ve developed for veterans to identify moral injury in contexts of policing, the legal system, and – perhaps most saliently at the moment – in healthcare.

Each of these contexts does have at least one important correlate with the military: people serving in each deal in high-stakes situations in which the consequences of poor decisions, whether morally deficient, due to inexperience or simple mistake, are life-ending or life-altering for other human beings. Jonathan Shay notably defined moral injury as present when there has been a “betrayal of what’s right by a person in a position of authority in a high-stakes situation.” Perhaps it can be said at the outset that professions that deal in such situations are potentially rife for moral trauma.


In the healthcare setting, the decisions about how to handle Covid-19 have, and will continue to have, significant moral impact on healthcare workers. As we’ve seen, the decisions made by nations at both macro and micro levels have significant consequences. In the UK, the initial decision to adopt a strategy that would achieve “herd immunity” had consequences for the spread of the virus within the country. The decision to clear out hospitals in anticipation of a wave of Covid-19 patients meant that treatments and interventions for non-Covid patients were inevitably postponed, likely to the detriment of those patients’ health. As the hospitals began to see those waves of Covid-19 patients arrive, public health officials and healthcare workers had to develop and enforce policies and rules that would govern the treatment of those patents.

Decisions made in a conflict about overall military strategy and the rules of engagement can (and should) be analysed and reevaluated for their efficacy, legality and morality. Similar debates will no doubt take place about the strategic, operational and tactical public health decisions about how to tackle the healthcare pandemic. Yet apart from these necessary reviews, those healthcare workers on the front lines of treating the ill may perceive the decisions that guide their behaviour as betrayals of what’s right.

At the more intimate level, in Intensive Care Units, when hospitals became overwhelmed and when ventilators became scarce (in northern Italy in particular), doctors and nurses had to make agonising choices about who receives treatment, knowing that those who do not will almost certainly die. The process of triage, which in less intense times simply determines a patient’s wait time based on the urgency of their medical need, became the process of determining which life was most worth saving.

The front-line care workers who have to make these impossible decisions about whose mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, sons and daughters get the chance to live bear the immense moral burden of watching the others die. What is more, the rules that prevent any visitation to Covid-19 patients almost always result in patients dying alone, without loved ones present, and with healthcare workers serving as surrogates for family members – saying goodbye, and providing the dying patient with a modicum of human intimacy as they pass away. The combination of responsibility for the care of those patients and the experience of witnessing death on such an intense and intimate scale is, indeed, traumatising. Many healthcare workers will undoubtedly question the decisions they made, wondering if differences in the care they provided would have meant the difference in life and death, whether alterations in local, national, and global strategy would have resulted in fewer casualties and better outcomes. Moreover, as enforcers of the rules that force patients to die alone (and which, undoubtedly save more lives and prevent transmission of the disease), many will likely feel that signature combination of guilt and shame that characterises moral trauma and moral injury.

US Army psychologist Dave Grossman argued that it in combatants, it is not simply the experience of observing death that is psychologically troubling, but the weight of the responsibility to actually take life. Healthcare workers seem to bear a correlative, if seemingly apposite responsibility – to save lives. This important difference notwithstanding, however, in acute medical situations, the psychological result seems to be similar – a sense of deep responsibility for those who have died.

One element of moral injury, and perhaps its most pernicious trait, is that these experiences often engender a breakdown in the capacity of the morally injured person to make meaning of anything in their lives. Amidst the high-stakes situations they have faced, and amongst the intense amount of dead and dying people, the small successes, failures, struggles, achievements even relationships which constitute our lives and by which we define ourselves may cease to have meaning. Those suffering from moral injury often feel as though their actions have no impact in the world, as if the machinery of institutions – whether those related to war or a global pandemic – render their agency as ineffectual.

There are no quick or easy answers to such moral dilemma, of course. Yet in the clip below, my friend and mentor Rita Brock talks with CNN about the experience of moral injury among healthcare workers and how what we’ve learned from veterans may be of help for healthcare workers today in attending to their own experience and rebuilding a sense of agency and meaning.

https://www.voa.org/videos/moral-injury-affects-healthcare-workers