I first encountered the concept of moral injury during my MDiv program at the University of Chicago in an anthropology class called Humans After Violence.
The MDiv program required each of us to intern at a site of our choosing for the middle year of the program, and I’d opted to work with the clergy at my church. Earlier that year, our church had discovered reports of our priest’s abuse of power, and he was removed from leadership.
Initially, my school supervisors worried it might be a bad idea for me to work at a church where so many of us still felt betrayed and uncertain. But I wanted to conduct my internship at a church that was asking questions about how to do community and how to steward power well—rather than at a church that could gloss over these conversations simply because they were functioning better.
Halfway through the internship, I signed up for the class hoping it would help me understand what our community was experiencing. The professor told us she aimed to explore “where violence leaves us—or rather, how violence doesn’t leave us.”
Through examining various case studies, I learned that trauma is not necessarily about the way someone is hurt but about how they carry their hurt. I also discovered that the concept of PTSD was developed by mental health professionals who worked with Vietnam veterans.
What captured me the most, though, was the concept of moral injury—a term developed by these military therapists after they noticed that some classic PTSD symptoms in vets were sparked not by a reminiscence of physical threat to life but by a profound violation of their moral sensibilities. Moral injury could occur, for instance, after obeying a trusted superior’s order to carry out an act the vet believed to be reprehensible.
And while classic PTSD and moral injury share many of the same symptoms—such as anger, anxiety, sleeplessness, nightmares, dissociation, and self-destructive coping methods—emotions like regret, sorrow, grief, guilt, and shame are typically more central to moral injury than PTSD.
Theorists debate the nuances of how to precisely classify moral injury, but what most of the literature seems to agree on is the fact that we all have “fundamental assumptions about how things should work and how one should behave in the world.” And when we witness or carry out harmful actions incompatible with these deeply held assumptions, we can suffer moral injury as a result.
Such actions could be our own or those of someone else, a group, an organization, or a combination of the above. This means we can understand a potentially morally injurious event as a betrayal of ‘what’s right’, either by a person in legitimate authority or by one’s self in a high stakes situation.
Ultimately, moral injury can replace a person’s capacity to trust themselves, others, and transcendent beings with “the settled expectancy of harm, exploitation, and humiliation.”
It struck me that what our church and I had experienced fit the bill for a potentially morally injurious event. In fact, the abuse of power in religious settings might even be the ultimate example of moral injury. Our leader’s misconduct was a betrayal of what is right—and it took place in the church, an institution that aspires to guide its members’ moral formation.
Many of us had considered our leader to represent a legitimate authority on who God is, what God is doing, and what God would have us do—the most important spiritual facts of life. And for many, the stakes of church life could not be higher for our relationships with God, our community with other believers, and our very souls. In fact, many theorists agree that traumas attached to one’s sense of the sacred are intensified.
It was a relief to think in these terms about the disruption to our church and to me. I had wondered for months, What’s wrong with me? With us? Didn’t I know Christians do bad things? Didn’t we know leaders can be misleading? But understanding moral injury reminded me of the simple fact that human beings aren’t built for betrayal—that God did not create us to betray and be betrayed.
Instead of judging our grief at experiencing spiritual abuse as a sign of foolish naïveté or a source of shame, we recognize that betrayal hurts and disrupts us so profoundly because we were made for goodness and a mutual, unbroken trust as God’s creatures—for this is our hope and our glory.
Broken trust is one aspect of the “enslavement to decay” that all creation suffers (Rom. 8:21, NRSVUE). For “we know that the whole creation has been groaning together as it suffers,” Paul writes, “and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. … Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with groanings too deep for words” (8:22–23, 26, NRSVUE; emphasis mine).
As those who possess the first fruits of the Spirit, we groan alongside the Spirit’s own groaning and the groaning of a suffering creation.
Could the PTSD symptoms of moral injury be a kind of groaning too deep for words—a way for our bodies to communicate a depth of brokenness that we feel but cannot articulate? What if the way our bodies carry grief is aligned with God’s heart for creation rather than a source of shame?
Such a perspective does not resign us to the havoc such grief might wreak on us. Instead, it allows us to wait expectantly as we participate in the redemption of our bodies. Not only that, but seeing things this way might help us be gentler and wiser in dealing with one another’s grief as well.
Understanding moral injury can help us look out for it in ourselves, our churches, our relationships, and our ministry efforts. Recognizing and treating our own wounds without shame is crucial if we are to meet others’ wounds without blame.
With the abuse of power as rampant in our churches as it has been, we can expect many people both in and out of our communities to be suspicious of our offers to come alongside them—having been manipulated by those means before.
I think of one CT headline from 2019, “1 in 10 Young Protestants Have Left a Church Over Abuse,” and countless others since that reckon with the rise of deconstruction and the sizeable exodus from evangelicalism.
Many Christians today are skeptical of anyone’s sense of hearing God’s voice (including their own), after being abused by false prophets. Some are furious at church leaders for being betrayed by those who wear the same cloth. Others feel disgusted with themselves, bearing guilt for having perpetrated or been a bystander to abuses of power. Still more are outraged at God for their suffering wrongs done in his name as unprotected victims.
But we can expect to find God with and among these abused and disabused men and women.
At Lent during my church internship year, I was asked to do some artwork for the Holy Week devotional material at another local church. They asked me to portray any moment of the week leading up to Jesus’ death. Without thinking, I chose the moment Judas meets Jesus and greets him with a kiss—identifying him to be handed over for torture and execution.
Later I realized I’d depicted exactly the image I needed that Holy Week: a savior who, just like us, was betrayed by a friend and handed over by religious leaders. A savior whose life, death, and resurrection were precisely for the sake of that same friend and those very leaders.
I think of Judas’s horror after what he had done as a moral injury he clearly suffered, which led to the end he chose for himself—not seeing the end to violence offered and promised us in Christ.
In the meantime, may we take seriously the responsibility to love our neighbors with the power we wield. May our yes be yes, our no be no, and our kisses be real signs of blessing and not markers of coming harm. And may the worship of our just God signal deference to the justice he stands for.
Otherwise, our faith without works is not only dead but also brings death. And while we await God’s redemption, we’ve still got work to do.
A native Texan, Wheaton College alum, and recent UChicago MDiv grad, Laura Howard is now based in Wheaton, Illinois, and seeks to promote Christian education in Scripture, theology, and culture. Her MDiv thesis consisted of a theological response to abuse of power in evangelicalism.