Ordinary 4, Year C
Num. 31: 1-7, 25-31 and Mark 5:1-20
Scott has told me that St. Andrew is doing intentional work around being a good neighbor in your immediate community. When he invited me to preach to the question of how the church might be called to extend that neighbor love to military veterans in the area, I felt honored and excited, and I was, once again, reminded of the remarkable way that the Holy Spirit moves within us and between us.
You see, that very question has been at the growing edge of my ministry as a VA Chaplain for the past couple of years, as my clinical focus has shifted into outpatient mental health and substance abuse treatment. Through specialized training in the areas of PTSD and Moral Injury, and with deepening experience working with veterans, I am coming to understand the essential role of community in the healing of our wounded warriors. As a representative of the Church within the secular setting of the healthcare clinic, I’m sad to say that I’ve been made aware of ways in which we have fallen short of our call to embody Christ’s compassion and prophetic love in our communities. But I am also hopeful and energized by the potential we have to step up and step into our call to be agents of healing and reconciliation in the world.
Scott’s preaching invitation brought to mind a ceremony I attended at the Philadelphia VA back in May, at the invitation of another colleague in ministry, Chaplain Chris Antal. Chris, who served as an Army Chaplain in Iraq, is doing important work in the area of moral injury, particularly in the context of the suffering experienced by our country’s combat veterans. The ceremony was the culmination of a months-long therapeutic group, in which veterans had been unpacking complex experiences of moral injury sustained during deployment. The chapel was full of veterans, family members, VA staff, and assorted others, everyone sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in the pews. Seated behind Ch. Antal in the chancel area were several veterans who were invited, in turn, to share something of the burden of war that they continue to carry.
I was deeply moved by the courageous testimony of a young veteran named Andy. He spoke of having enlisted in the Army out of high school, ready to serve his country, and eager to escape an abusive home, where he had developed a strong desire to always protect those who are vulnerable and defenseless. Assigned as an intelligence operative in the Sunni triangle area of Iraq, one night on a mission Andy ‘called air’ to deliver a strike on a house after a burst of sustained gunfire broke out from a second-story window. Expecting to find evidence of a clear military target, when the smoke cleared and he inspected the rubble, Andy recalled, “I see instead the wasted bodies of 19 men, 8 women, 9 children….bakers and merchants, big brothers and baby sisters.” Andy began to sob as he told us that he has relived this particular memory nearly every day since, concluding through tears, “I confess to you this reality in the hope of redemption, that we might all wince and marvel at the true cost of war.”
The invisible wound of moral injury needs to be figured in to the true cost of war. Although often coexisting with, but distinct from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), “moral injury” is a contemporary clinical label for an ancient human experience. It’s what results when a person violates his or her own deeply held moral beliefs, values, and expectations. Whereas PTSD is rooted in the fear of bodily harm, moral injury is driven by shame. Those suffering with moral injury experience a crisis of identity, often losing the capacity to see themselves as decent human beings. They come to believe that the world is no longer dependable, nor is life meaningful. The result is a sense of profound alienation. Common manifestations of this deep wound to the soul include rage, insomnia, substance abuse, depression, isolation and self-harm. And, it seems likely that moral injury, rather than PTSD, is the real source of despair behind the alarmingly high rate of suicide deaths of veterans and military personnel.
Such is the anguish of the man in our Gospel story this morning, someone existing in the netherworld between the living and the dead. A fresh reading of this text by pastor, theologian, and Iraq combat veteran Michael Yandell, suggests that the familiar figure of the Gerasene demoniac may well have been one of the many veterans of the Roman Imperial army who had settled in the area on land received from the Empire as payment for services rendered – a distribution of the “spoils of war.” This man, perhaps haunted by what he had seen and done as a soldier, presents as one suffering the effects of moral injury - both a perpetrator and a victim of imperial oppression and violence.
In the man’s curious singular/plural response to Jesus’s demand for a name, “My name is Legion, for we are many,” Yandell sees reflected his own experience of having “become one with the uniformity of the Army as a whole,”(137) as each morning he slipped into his fatigues and laced up his boots. Reflecting on how his personal identity became conflated with that of the military institution, he notes that his “actions and the actions of the US military were one and the same.”(137) He acknowledges that separating himself from his Army identity after discharge was a long and difficult process.
So what if this tortured, wild-eyed man who rushes toward Jesus, and then screams at the “Son of the Most High God” to leave him alone, was a military veteran? What if, in Jesus, the man recognizes the face of an innocent victim of Imperial violence? What if his madness is the result of bearing the unbearable weight of individual and collective guilt for state-sanctioned military action?
This man’s conflicted approach toward Jesus echoes the longing I hear from veterans for moral and spiritual restoration, even while they are held back by shame and fear for what God may have to do with them. Ultimately, we know this is a story of liberation, of good news for the demoniac as Jesus sends the unclean spirits into the herd of unclean swine, and they rush off headlong to perish in the sea.
But what about the community? Where is the good news for those whose financial interests have just taken a nosedive over the cliff? What are the implications for the people afraid of disruption to the status quo? As long as the man had been relegated to the role of “identified patient,” there had been no need to face and take responsibility for their own participation in a system of oppression and violence. But with the evidence of Jesus’s transformative power sitting in front of them, clothed and in his right mind, they can no longer deflect their own culpability with a breezy “Thank you for your service.” They promptly beg Jesus to get out of Dodge.
It is unnerving to be confronted with our complicity in systems of oppression. It is hard to acknowledge our own capacity for violence and evil. Combat veterans know something about the nature of being human that those of us who have remained insulated from the horrors of war do not. Moral reckoning is a painful process, but one that must take place before true reconciliation can be realized. It is the Gospel truth that individual and communal healing are inextricably bound together. Jesus knew this, and so when the newly-restored veteran begged to stay with him, Jesus gave him marching orders instead: “Go home to your friends and tell them what you know.” With a nod to the title of Chris Antal’s doctoral dissertation, the Gerasene demoniac has been transformed, from “patient to prophet,” and he has work to do.
It is becoming increasingly clear to those involved in the healing work of our wounded warriors that the path of restoration runs through community, and involves citizens taking on their share of the collective responsibility for war. Perhaps the wisdom of ancient prescriptions for proper division of the spoils of war had something to do with the right distribution of moral burden and responsibility among soldiers, leaders, and non-combatant members of the community. All would benefit, thus all participated, and so all shared the responsibility for actions taken on behalf of the whole.
So, back to Scott’s wondering about how the church might be called to be a neighbor to veterans in your community – is there a meaningful role for the church to play in the healing of individual and communal wounds of war? Yes, absolutely!
That day in Philadelphia, after Andy finished speaking, with hands shaking and tears streaming down his face, he proceeded to light 36 candles, one for each of the lives lost that night in the air strike in Iraq. Then Chaplain Antal invited civilians in the assembly to come forward and surround veterans in a Circle of Reconciliation, as he led us in a litany of confession, lamentation, and ownership of shared burden. Finally, our outer civilian circle moved slowly in unison around the inner circle of veterans, making eye contact with each one through mutual tears that were flowing freely. It was a powerful acknowledgement of our shared brokenness, common dignity, and human potential for healing and transformation. What an invitation. What a gift.
 “Do Not Torment Me”: The Morally Injured Gerasene Demoniac, by Michael Yandell, in Exploring Moral Injury in Sacred Texts, ed. Dr. Joseph McDonald, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2017. 135-149
 Patient to Prophet: Building Adaptive Capacity in Veterans who Suffer Military Moral Injury, Antal, Chris J., Hartford Seminary, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2017. 10673402.
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