Military Moral Injury and Spiritual Care (Nancy Ramsay & Carrie Doehring, editors) -- A Review

MILITARY MORAL INJURY AND SPIRITUAL CARE: Resource for Religious Leaders and Professional Caregivers. Edited by Nancy J. Ramsay and Carrie Doehring. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2019. Viii + 168 pages.

War has been with us from the beginning of time. We may dream of peace and even work toward it, but war and military service don’t seem to be going away anytime soon. Faith communities often struggle with how to respond to war and the military. Some communities embrace pacifism while others, while not necessarily celebrating war, give room for people of faith to serve in the military. Some bless the troops and others seek to exempt themselves from military service on the basis of conscience. For still others there is ambiguity. Whatever our position on war, compassion and grace would seem to require of us the provision of spiritual care to those affected by war. Those affected could include innocent victims of war, but it also might involve caring for those who have served in the military, some of whom may have killed others in the name of their country. How then do we respond?

Many have heard of PTSD (post-traumatic stress syndrome). It is common to hear about members of the military and veterans experiencing this syndrome, but that concept could be too narrow in scope to cover a larger segment of those who have served in the military and who require spiritual care. This broader syndrome has been diagnosed as military moral injury. This term serves as a recognition that war changes people. We may know people who have served in the military and come home changed. Maybe they don’t exhibit signs of PTSD, but their different than they once were. It’s quite possible that they don’t want to talk about what’s going on with them. This concept of moral injury has emerged in the context of the rising number of suicides among veterans. With the growing recognition of this reality, resources are being brought to bear on this crisis, including the resources of pastoral care and theology.

One of the resources that is now available is this book, Military Moral Injury and Spiritual Care. It is edited by Nancy Ramsay, Director of the Soul Repair Center at Brite Divinity School, and Carrie Doehring, Professor of Pastoral Care at Iliff School of Theology. The book is a product of the work of the Soul Repair Center at Brite Divinity School, which Ramsay directs. The book is comprised of eight essays, written by a religiously diverse set of authors (Jewish, Christian, and Muslim). They include professors of pastoral care, chaplains, and former soldiers. One of the valuable elements of the book is the stories told of military service, such as shared by Michael Yandell and Shareda Hosein. These stories are given support by discussions of ways in which spiritual care can be given to those who have experienced moral injury. These resources include psychological, spiritual, and scriptural possibilities.

So, what is moral injury? Perhaps Michael Yandell puts it most succinctly. "Moral injury is about human relationships." He speaks of it as a scar within him, "as well as an untended wound cut deeply into the institutions and conventions that shape social and political life in the United States." (p. 3). The question for faith communities is how do we respond? What resources might we provide? How do we acknowledge and support those who serve in the military and carry scars within them, even if we might support the idea of war? Perhaps the word that spoke most clearly to me came in the chapter by Kim Geringer and Nancy Wiener dealing with Soul Repair and Jewish texts. They write that "the great pain of moral injury results, in part, from the inescapable awareness, that one's choices have had a profound— perhaps irrevocable—impact on the lives of others. Acknowledging the specificity of those choices and taking responsibility for them to the extent possible are essential components of the Jewish healing process" (p. 27). This isn’t easy, but as they note taking responsibility is the first step toward healing.

The chapter by Shareda Hosein, one of the few Muslim chaplains serving the military is eye-opening. I think we don’t think much about the unique challenge that faces Muslim military personnel who serve in the armed forces of a nation that has been at war in predominantly Muslim countries for almost two decades. These members of the military, as Hosein notes, are often targeted for their faith because of terrorism in the name of their faith. This too creates moral injury. She writes that “it would serve the military well to discern how to normalize the presence of MMP so that they are not seen as a threat to their military colleagues but rather as trusted agents and assets.” Unfortunately, she also notes, there are few studies that explore how this MMP population is faring, and how they may need to experience healing (pp. 120-121).  

The essays cover a variety of concerns and opportunities. Some of these resources are clinical and others are congregational in orientation. Finding ways of providing healing support will not be easy, but congregations may find themselves called to serve in compassionate ways, so being prepared is important. Zachary Moon, a military chaplain and professor of pastoral care at Chicago Theological Seminary, writes that “Each community of faith is unique; therefore, each needs to know itself in terms of how it sustains its frames of meaning-making through practicing its particular traditions. Certain values, beliefs, practices, and partnerships will be great resources in nurturing authentic relationships and providing effective pastoral care, but others may prove to be stumbling blocks” (p. 131). Thus, it will take foresight to provide care to those suffering moral injury, which often includes a sense of guilt.

This book is written for religious leaders (including clergy) and professional caregivers. Some of the essays are more directed to pastoral care professionals, including chaplains, while others speak more to congregational leaders, including clergy. In either case, reading the book will open the eyes of many to the growing need for pastoral care not only for those who have served recently, but quite likely for those who carry wounds from long ago. Considering that the United States has been engaged in military action for nearly two decades and that many who serve may not have even been born on 9-11, this means there are many in our midst who deal with this form of injury. May we be attentive to their needs, that they might find healing. Military Moral Injury and Spiritual Care is a good place to start in making preparation.

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