Moral Injury: Restoring Wounded Souls

Moral Injury: Restoring Wounded Souls

by Larry Graham


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If we can share our burdens, we can bear them. If we can bear them, we can change the circumstances that brought them about. In a world where anything goes, people have a hard time deciding what is right and what is wrong. Pastors have a hard time helping people discern right and wrong because the church’s theological language of sin and redemption have so little currency and even less cultural relevancy.

How can pastors help people deal with their feelings of guilt, shame, and responsibility when most many people don’t believe in sin and have a limited or “flexible” moral framework?

People need help assessing moral alternatives, reconciling what they have done with what they think is right, recovering from burdens of guilt and shame, and imagining moral options to serve the common good. It is the call of pastors, chaplains, and other spiritual caregivers to help people move from moral injury to pardon and, eventually, to sustained recovery and resilience—in essence this book will help pastors reclaim their pastoral tasks of soul care and moral guidance without succumbing to the temptation of moralizing.

Using vivid examples, the author will look at how various religious communities seek, promote, and achieve personal wholeness and realize the common good. This understanding will inform pastors, so that they can help their congregants and communities become vital agents in a sea of, often, conflicting moral voices. The book will provide resources for identifying core assets, and how to assess the various codes and moral claims interacting within the kaleidoscopic climate in which we live.

Drawing upon neuroscience, narrative spirituality, and collaborative communal engagement, the author gives tools to aid pastors, chaplains, and spiritual caregivers ameliorate the distress caused by dissonance and resulting in moral injury. The book will also provide resources for helping people bear the burdens of moral responsibility and for navigating the sometimes unbearable consequences of particular moral actions. The author concludes with suggestions for helping people suffering from injury to their integrity from misdeeds they endure, either as a result of their own actions or from those actions of others, move toward sustained resilience and more mature moral imagination.

"There is no better guide, or collaborative partner, for navigating the moral territory of post-traumatic living than Larry Graham. In Moral Injury: Restoring Wounds Souls, Graham sounds a clarion call for religious leaders to cultivate habits of mind and body to meet the complex situations of our day. Rather than offering a birds-eye-view of the moral terrain, Graham invites readers to feel the earth under their feet and attune themselves to the climate of their moral environments. With his careful definitional work and theological acumen, he revivifies theological ethics for progressive Christians. [And beyond this audience, Graham displays the importance of theology in contemporary discussions of moral injury.]" – Shelly Rambo, Associate Professor of Theology, Boston University School of Theology

"Larry Graham has created an extraordinary workbook for moral resiliency and healing. He restores hope for the excruciating pains of a broken conscience. A treasure house of timely and practical applications sure to enrich pastoral conversations!" - Paul W. Dodd, Chaplain (Colonel), U.S. Army (Retired)

"This book is a must-read if we care about recovery from moral injury, not just in the wake of immediate trauma, but also in historical legacies that haunt us. Larry Graham illuminates how questions of God can be addressed in that process with grace and compassion, and he shows, via the experiences of people from a variety of cultures and faiths, how moral injury can be healed." - Rev. Rita Nakashima Brock, Ph.D., Senior Vice-President for Moral Injury Programs at Volunteers of America. She is the former Research Professor of Religion and Culture and Director of the Soul Repair Center at Brite Divinity School, Texas Christian University, Fort Worth, TX

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781501800757
Publisher: Abingdon Press
Publication date: 07/18/2017
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 514,849
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Larry Kent Graham is Professor of Pastoral Theology and Care at Iliff School of Theology in Denver.

Read an Excerpt

Moral Injury

Restoring Wounded Souls

By Larry Kent Graham

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2017 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5018-0075-7


Setting Our Course

Judging a Book by Its Cover

The title of the book and the cover image of a shattered compass can be read in at least three ways. The most common reading is that individuals and communities have accurate moral compasses but they have become broken through life events and life choices. We need to repair the compass. And this book will certainly be helpful to those who have broken their compasses and lost their way.

There is a second equally important reading of the cover. The second reading implies that our moral compasses need to be broken if we are going to heal and find the right path for ourselves and our communities. Our souls and the souls of our communities are injured because we rely on faulty compasses to guide us. To repair wounded or misdirected souls sometimes means that we need to break and remake our moral orientation, or at least reset our moral compasses. When the rich young ruler asked Jesus what he had to do to be saved, Jesus broke the young man's compass and offered another: "Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor."

Third, the cover could be read as though moral compasses and wounded souls are references to individuals, and that there is only one moral compass to worry about. Such a reading could not be more wrong. Moral compasses are given to us by our communities and cultures. They arise within our souls from our past histories and our present contexts. They always establish us at a place in time and history and point our journeys into territories inhabited by other people. The people traveling toward or with us are sometimes friends, companions, families, and associates. The individuals and social groups we encounter are sometimes strangers, competitors, rivals, and even enemies. They have moral compasses too. We continually struggle to identify the compasses we need to read the moral dissonances that arise as we travel through a peopled world. We constantly need to reset our compasses to take us toward healing of the injuries that have been inflicted upon us as well as those we have brought about because our compasses have been set wrong or we did not follow them. And we need compasses to help us track through a world of people and groups following compasses that may not point in the same directions that we are obligated to travel.

The core idea of this book is that healing soul wounds arising from moral injuries requires sophisticated and courageous embracing of our moral pain, and the pain of changing our moral compasses and moral directions as required by the actual circumstances of our lives. The moral challenges we face are here to stay. We should welcome them because, though difficult, they provide occasions to engage one another in collaborative processes by which we might create healthy alternatives within the moral landscapes we inhabit. This book proffers specific strategies to help ministers and laypersons be clearer about our moral centers, the True North of our moral compasses. It provides guidance for more productively handling the irresolvable moral conflicts between us, and for contributing to the moral betterment of our social communities. The book offers assistance for understanding and healing the moral injuries we inflict and receive as we move in varying directions across the moral territories of our lives.

Starting Points

There are five dominant influences on my decision to enter the morass of moral conflict, moral injury, and resilience. They illuminate why I became a guide in this territory. The maps and compasses I recommend derive from a complex array of factors.

First, my work as a professor, caregiver, and writer in the field of pastoral theology and care exposed me to a number of contending moral values in my own ministry and the case studies presented for consultation. In my theorizing about the person-world relationship constructing our ministries of care, I realized that contending moral values are an ineluctable part of our existence. One simply cannot teach and practice pastoral care without facility in recognizing and helping others to address moral issues.

Second, my research and teaching specifically on the impact of war on family pastoral care led to an awareness of the pervasiveness of trauma, moral injury, and the power of healing soul wounds through collaboration, truth-telling, forgiveness, and reconciliation. I interviewed families in the United States, Germany, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Vietnam about their experiences of war in order to find out more about the moral ambiguities of fighting wars and rebuilding family lives after war. In all cases, moral dissonance, moral dilemmas, and moral injuries were front and center in their narratives. I learned from families around the world the powerful ways that forgiveness, lamentation, and community solidarity sustained them in the face of war's cruelties and empowered their recovery.

Third, my colleague Carrie Doehring and I accepted an invitation from the United States Air Force to establish a new Master of Arts in Military PTSD for active duty Air Force chaplains. We worked with six Air Force chaplains over a three-year period on resiliency training and healing from the wounds of war. Following this, Dr. Doehring and I participated in the Soul Repair think tank sponsored by the Soul Repair Center at Brite Divinity School. The Soul Repair Center has become a leading national resource in research, treatment, and education related to healing moral injury in the wounded souls of veterans and their families. Much of the work in this book derives from my participation in these programs and my collaboration with Professor Doehring and colleagues in the Soul Repair think tank.

Fourth, during 2015, I coordinated workshops with the endorsed community of United Methodist specialized ministers and conducted focus-group conversations with parish-related ministers on healthy living in the face of moral dissonance. Working with about two hundred military, hospice, and healthcare chaplains, pastoral counselors, life-coaches, parish ministers, and police chaplains made me realize that moral injury can accrue from accumulated stress in morally dissonant environments as much as from failure to act in accordance with one's own moral codes. Parish ministers and ecclesiastical leaders responsible for the moral vitality of their churches report soul-numbing stressors from the conflicts inherent at all levels in their work, and in the discordant moral visions at work in their denominations. I draw on their experiences to illustrate how moral dissonance, dilemmas, and injuries might be positively used in addressing moral challenges.

I also write from the standpoint of a married, heterosexual, white, male, financially secure, North American liberal, and progressive Protestant Christian. I am a retired theological professor and a senior citizen, born during World War II and coming into my core adult moral narratives during the Vietnam War, and the Civil Rights, gay, and feminist liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s. I am a brother, uncle, husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. I address or assume an audience of Protestant Christians, but I also seek to write with a nonsectarian pluralistic public theological accent. This writing may prove to be inadequately Christian for some readers and too infused by Christian moral themes for others. But I hope that the engagement with what is presented here will help readers clarify the moral mirrors into which they gaze and to help them see better what is there to see in themselves and around them.


This book has three audiences. First, it is oriented toward ministers and religious leaders who, as moral human beings, face and struggle with the same moral dissonances, injuries, and conflicts as the rest of humanity. This book is not just to help ministers aid others but to engage their own struggles and wounding. We, as ministers, need to engage our own moral conundrums. There is truth in the ancient adage "physician heal yourself," though this book will give that old wisdom a decidedly social twist.

Second, the audience for the book is not just the minister as engaged in his or her own conflicts. It also seeks to aid ministers as they work with individuals and communities around moral conflicts. Thus the audience is also ministers who are moral healers and guides. The point of this book is that ministers cannot be adequate moral healers and guides without also engaging the conflicts and stresses of their own moral worlds.

A third audience is laypersons. All of us are moral beings and all of us need to consider our moral situations and find better and more creative processes for navigating the tensions, conflicts, and choices that continually present themselves. There is no opting out for humans having to participate in our interconnected world.


This writing covers a broad moral landscape. The ethical and value options are beyond enumeration. I do not enter this landscape with a single moral or ethical standpoint that presumes to lead the reader to a moral advance on any particular moral dilemma or conflict compelling our response. I do not presume to regard myself as a moral exemplar of any or all of the issues I take up in this writing. What I attempt is to portray a variety of approaches to naming, framing, enacting, and revising the moral dissonances we face, as well as reenacting the moral dilemmas and injuries in our concrete lives through a variety of tools. I will draw on theology, ethics, psychology, pastoral and spiritual care, journalistic investigation, editorial analyses, personal autobiography, pastoral case studies, and various literary traditions to understand, engage, and advance moral options in concrete or everyday circumstances. Informal conversations, pastoral anecdotes, and web-based discourse will be woven into the conversation.

The presentation of this book will be circular rather than linear, kaleidoscopic instead of monocular, collaborative rather than individualistic, embodied rather than principled. It will be messy and edgy, but not incoherent. Rather than a painting, I offer you a pastiche: a collage of moral engagements fashioned from the materials we find in our everyday living that shape our moral standpoints and provide tools for our moral responses. But I do offer what I believe are some very important and useful ways of enacting our moral dissonances, dilemmas, and energies as responsible, resilient, and morally concerned individuals and communities.

As you can tell from the Contents, this book is not a linear work; it is circular and redundant, like most of our thoughts and actions. You can start almost anywhere and read forward or backward from there. Themes, examples, and methods of engaging moral challenges do build on one another. You may read the book through from the beginning with a positive cumulative effect. Or you can read each topic, strategic example, and habits-of-mind exercise as a standalone entry. In postmodern terms, this is an exercise in multi- partiality. In the words of the main character in Don DeLillo's short story "Sine, Tangent, Cosine," "Ordinary moments make the life. ... I inhale the little drizzly details of the past, and know who I am. What I failed to know before is clearer now, filtered up through time, and experience belonging to no one else, not remotely, no one, anyone, ever."

This book is about a way of life, not a point of view. I hope that my approach will bring color, richness, and vitality to your way of being in the world as a moral agent. I hope that there are a few passages in serious sections that make you laugh. I hope it empowers you to bear your moral burdens, heal your moral injuries, and forbear in love the moral failures of others. I invite you to read on to see what this might mean.


Doing the Right Thing

The fabric of the moral life is woven from threads spun in our everyday interactions. We continually ask ourselves what is the right thing to do in our unique circumstances. Every inner dialogue that we have with ourselves, and every verbal and behavioral conversation that we have with others, is a social process infused with moral elements. We are moral beings through and through and can never shut off the moral turbines that idle and roar inside and around us.

When as Christians we commit to the moral obligation to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, we commit to standards of action that aim to result in morally positive outcomes such as healing, beauty, and justice. Though the call to be intentionally engaged in receiving and giving beneficence to one another can be inconvenient and overwhelming, it is truly gratifying — and sometimes even exhilarating — to feel that we have done the right thing. In these circumstances we begin to sense the meaning of the aphorism that "it is more blessed to give than to receive." And, looking deeper, we begin to recognize that moral engagement is not only a matter of linear or one-directional giving and receiving, but a complex interaction and mutually enhancing process of simultaneously receiving through giving. Moral action is not so much an act of individual agency from one to another, but a complex social interactional mixture of engagement by people living in the same or intersecting moral matrices in which all parties are receivers and givers. Each is enhanced beyond what they give and receive because the goodness generated by the collaborative process of giving and receiving reflects the power of grace and the creativity of loving. Such giving and receiving spin a rich and enduring web of life that holds and nurtures us and all other living things.

Healing, Sustaining, and Guiding

This book seeks to engage the Christian moral task from my perspective as a pastoral theologian, caregiver, and psychotherapist. Pastoral theology combines caring and theologizing to develop both theory and advances in practices of care suitable for ministry and the common good. Its scope is personal, relational, social, communal, political, and cosmic.

The three dominant functions or aspects of pastoral theology, classically understood, have been healing, sustaining, and guiding. To these have been added surviving, liberating, transforming, and envisioning. I believe that this book's focus on moral guidance and healing from moral injury combines all of these aspects of pastoral theology in a coherent and usable manner.

Healing in the context of moral injury, as I will develop it, reorients persons toward the consequences of past harm perpetrated by them or upon them. Surviving egregious harm and trauma is a form of healing and sustaining life in the face of its negations. Liberating persons and groups to refashion their moral landscapes is itself a dimension of healing and moral engagement and requires guidance. Envisioning is a form of letting go of harmful moral codes and instituting new modes of personal and communal practices. Healing of past harm perpetrated and received comes into place by naming one's moral truths, reframing those truths in actionable terms, enacting moral alternatives, and revising one's moral engagement in the world in more vital terms.

The emphasis upon moral guidance that this book brings to pastoral theology and care will prove novel and challenging for some. Guiding has probably been the least appreciated — and the least developed — aspect of pastoral theology. Guiding was too closely associated with "advice-giving," "problem-solving," "authoritarianism," "mind control," "evangelization," "indoctrination," "moralizing," and "intellectualizing." The field of pastoral care has tended to regard moral concerns as moralistic and judgmental rather than an inherent part of pastoral care and counseling.

However, more recently, pastoral theology has become newly oriented toward the moral dimensions of life. This development has built on the recognition of the intricate relationships and dynamics between individuals and their contexts. Accordingly, there has been an important push for pastoral theologians and caregivers to orient our theory and practices toward liberating and transforming the pervasive structures of intersecting oppressions of gender, sexual orientation, race, and class.


Excerpted from Moral Injury by Larry Kent Graham. Copyright © 2017 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Preface: Our Morally Saturated World xi

Part I Mapping the Moral Landscape

Chapter 1 Setting Our Course 3

Chapter 2 Doing the Right Thing 9

Chapter 3 I Am as We Are: From Hierarchies to Ensembles 19

Chapter 4 Anchor Points 25

Part II Moral Challenges

Introduction to Part II 39

Chapter 5 God as Moral Conundrum 43

Chapter 6 Dissonance and Dilemmas 55

Chapter 7 Moral Injuries and Wounded Souls 77

Part III Reckoning and Repair

Chapter 8 Healing the Wounded Soul 97

Chapter 9 Healing Collaborations 109

Chapter 10 Healing Rituals and Memorials 135

Conclusion 153

Notes 159

References 171

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