On “Moral Injury”
A few things I’ve read over the last 24 hours or so have me thinking on a quiet Saturday morning…
Yesterday, I came across a term I had never heard before via someone in the world of counseling: “moral injury.” In this case, the term was located in the context of a conversation about how to treat soldiers returning home from war, but it could obviously be used more broadly as well. Here’s how the term was being used:
By moral injury, I mean when you either do or witness things that go against your profound moral code of how one should be in the world. It puts ethics up for grabs in impossible ways. The result of moral injury is usually profound sadness, grief and guilt.
My initial sense is that this is a useful term. I think “moral injury” captures something unique that other words like “remorse” or “guilt” or “dissonance” do not convey. For me, it seems to get at the fact that when we go against our moral convictions, we are injuring ourselves— we are going against the most important part of who we are. Just like physical injuries come about when we do something that crosses the limits of what our bodies can do, so when we cross moral boundaries we go against the grain of how things are supposed to be in the world and between human beings. And this causes pain.
But does the word “injury” serve to push these experiences, however subtly, even further from the realm of personal responsibility? After all, injuries are often things that happen to us. Our actions are often the direct or indirect cause of injuries we experience, but we tend to speak of “getting injured” or being the “victim” of an injury. Does describing the crossing of moral boundaries as causing “injury” just add further lexical ammunition to a culture already fleeing from personal accountability at every turn?
This morning I re-read the first chapter of Dallas Willard’s Renovation of the Heart. I read this book a decade ago when it first came out, but decided to pull it out again this week. Willard’s language around the call to discipleship is bracing and uncompromising—particularly in the opening chapter where he lays the human propensity toward self-idolatry and reticence to admit our “lostness” bare:
Much of what is called Christian profession today involves little remorse or sorrow over what we have been or even for what we have done. There is little awareness of having been lost, or of a radical evil in our hearts, bodies, and souls, which we must get away from and from which only God can deliver us. To manifest such awareness today would be regarded as being psychologically sick. It is common today to hear Christians talk of their ‘brokenness.’ But when you listen closely it is clear that they are talking about their wounds, the things they have suffered, not of the evil that is in them. Few today have discovered that they have been disastrously wrong and that they cannot change or escape the consequences on their own.
I have to admit, this is me. I am far more likely to use the language of “brokenness” than I am to talk of the “evil” or the “sin” that is deep with us. And I think this is true in the broader Christian world, as well. I frequently hear “brokenness” language in reference to the human predicament or the state of the world, but rarely hear anything about the “sin” that lurks in the human heart. It is much more tolerable to think (and speak) about ourselves as victims of some abstraction called “brokenness” than it is to acknowledge that we are active and willful contributors to the evil in our world.
I do think that we have other options besides bouncing back and forth between the extremes of “I’m nothing more than a victim of generic brokenness” and “I’m nothing more than an evil, guilty wretch.” And perhaps “moral injury” is as good a term as any for describing our multifaceted relationship to the evils of our world. We are responsible agents who are accountable for our actions. We are also victims of evil outside of us. We injure ourselves when, through choices we make, we violate the deepest part of what we were created to be. We are also injured by the deeds of other moral agents and systems and structures that we cannot control. We wound ourselves and are wounded by others. Perhaps “moral injury” is a term that can accommodate both realities.
In the conversation cited above, one participant had this to say:
I think [moral injury is] a wonderful term. It gives due respect to the best part of our humanness.
I think I agree. The wrong that is done in the world—by us and to us—wounds the most important part of who we are. And, conversely, the right that is done in the world—by us and to us—heals and honours the deepest part of who we are as human beings and what we were made for.