(Flickr/Don Sniegowski)

How the concept of self-sacrifice fuels US militarism

Author and scholar Kelly Denton-Borhaug discusses the collision of religion and violence within American war culture.
(Flickr/Don Sniegowski)

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On this episode of Nonviolence Radio, Stephanie Van Hook and Michael Nagler are joined by Kelly Denton-Borhaug. Kelly teaches in the Global Religious Department at Moravian University and has written extensively on issues of war culture, moral injury and the ways that sacrifice can be used as a means to dehumanize and oppress marginalized people. Kelly traces the celebration of sacrifice — so pervasive in America today — back to the Bible and Ancient Greece and Rome, revealing the deep roots of this powerful and destructive rhetoric. Her work encourages us to think seriously about its damaging consequences and to be aware of how religious language can be misused to support, sustain and normalize a culture of war.

We need, Kelly insists, to listen to the voices of those who have been unjustly pushed into lives of violence and battle. More broadly, we need to push back against this worldview and reckon with the impact it has, not only on soldiers but on all of us, collectively, as human beings.

What I would like to call for is for members of the nonviolence community to really become much more sophisticated in terms of seeing these kinds of dynamics and calling them out, calling out the exploitation of the use of sacrificial verses in the Bible and the way that they are used in war culture; calling out the language and the logic of sacrifice, and actually lifting up the destructive consequences of actual sacrificial dynamics that are endemic to war culture.

I think that as people who care about nonviolence and who are, frankly, so often characterized as naïve about the world and about the dangers of the world — nonviolent actors — I would love to see them become much more sophisticated about calling out the naivety of those who claim that violence works, and those who unashamedly resort to these kinds of references to religion, to sacralize, undergird, and frankly, conceal the real process and the real consequences of the use of violence.

Stephanie: Well, good morning everybody and welcome back to another episode of Nonviolence Radio. I’m your host, Stephanie Van Hook, and I’m here in the studio with my co-host and Nonviolence Report news anchor Michael Nagler.

Today on the show we’ll be speaking with Kelly Denton-Borhaug. She’s been long investigating how religion and violence collide in American war culture. She teaches in the Global Religious Department at Moravian University, and she’s the author of two books, “U.S. War-culture, Sacrifice and Salvation” and more recently,” And Then Your Soul Is Gone: Moral Injury and U.S. War-culture.” So, we want to welcome Kelly to Nonviolence Radio this morning. Good morning, Kelly.

Kelly: Good morning. Thank you so much for having me on your program.

Stephanie: Yes. And this is a very important topic for us to discuss; war culture in America and the violence that it does to the people, not only that it encounters on the outside, but from the inside and how we can then apply nonviolence to this formula, to what is happening, in order to get a broader picture of why nonviolence is so urgent and important in our world today.

Kelly: Absolutely.

Stephanie: Yeah. So, what got you interested in the field of religion and war culture, and how do those two things come together, actually?

Kelly: Thanks. That’s the place to start, isn’t it? You know, I have been working in this area for a long time, since not long after the events of 9/11. As we know, we are going to be remembering the 20th anniversary of 9/11 this coming September. But I was really exploring the collision of religion and violence related to U.S. war culture, also more specifically related to the experience of marginalized populations, specifically women and also immigrants and people of color.

Just prior to 9/11, I had been examining theological literature that was raising important criticisms about the rhetoric and the logic of sacrifice in Christianity and the way in which that language and that logic often has devastating consequences for people who are marginalized. So, I was very sensitized to these ideas and to this language.

Stephanie: I would love for you to say more about that. How does the language and a logic around the sacrifice affect people that you’re researching?

Kelly: Well now, the continuation of my research over these years has taken me to the point of a similar sort of investigation, but with respect to active duty military service members and veterans so there’s kind of a continuum. What I discovered and what I studied was that there really was a growing body of what I would call a “ social analysis” of the way in which Christianity has really played a destructive role in the lives of far too many people and relegated them to a kind of dehumanized status, to people who will disproportionately bear the brunt of the costs of ways of violence in the world.

And then that same kind of dynamic is sacralized by way of connecting it to, frankly, Jesus’ sacrifice, to the language of Jesus of Nazareth’s experience on the cross. What I discovered was once that kind of sacralization, once that connection has taken place, it has a way of completely blocking any further critical analysis because once something is made sacred, it becomes untouchable. It becomes removed from the possibility of criticism. People tend not to criticize things that they hold sacred.

And I was reading literature and really learning so much from other scholars about the way, for instance, that these kinds of formulations have impacted Black women, or particularly, the poor in many parts of central and South America and others as well. And you know, as I say, it really did sensitize me to an incredibly important problem in Christianity. And simultaneously, a problem that both then and now has not begun to be addressed by mainstream denominations of any sort. So, that’s where I was 20 years ago.

I was planning to kind of continue that work. But then, as we all know, the events of 9/11 took place and there was an important shift that took place in the culture of the United States that I really noticed. It was like a frontal assault to my awareness. Again, I think that my own experience had sensitized me so that I saw an experience that’s maybe much more powerful than many other people, as people of my age or older will recall, who had conscious awareness at that time. I think that’s important to say because now, particularly in the context of teaching in an institution of higher education, the people that I’m teaching don’t – they don’t remember this shift.

The world of post 9/11 war culture that we live in is the only world they’ve ever known. And that’s really a daunting and sobering reality that I face as a teacher in the classroom. But at any rate, I remember very distinctly that the United States very quickly determined that it was going to war. All of a sudden, the language of needing to go to war as a necessary sacrifice was everywhere. It was on the lips of U.S. political leaders. It was certainly the language that was surging to the surface in military cultures, but also in popular culture. All of a sudden, all of the kinds of civil religious rituals that connect what happens in churches with what happens in civic spaces emphasized this kind of language.

I was really, frankly, confused but also disturbed. And I started looking into it. I really wanted to understand what was happening here. What was this surging connection between the determination to embrace a violent response and this rhetoric, and the logic of sacrifice that was so seamlessly connected with it? That was what really launched me on the path of the investigation and work that I’ve been doing now for the last 20 years.

Stephanie: That gives us a really good basis from which to jump into a lot of different areas. I want to invite Michael Nagler to ask the next question. You seem like you’re moving around a bit in your chair over here, Michael.

Michael: You know me so well, Stephanie. Good morning or good afternoon, Kelly.

Kelly: Good morning, Michael.

Michael: I had a friend that’s actually a teaching assistant of mine in that 9/11 period, when the President of the United States proudly announced, “I’m the war president.” And this young fellow said, “You know, we have a war economy, a war president, and a war culture.” I’m wondering if you would agree with me in seeing that as both, perhaps, a cause and an effect of mass traumatization. To put oneself on that path is hurtful to us, regardless of what else we do to other individuals and other cultures. It just seems like such a recipe for mass traumatization. And what would be the way out of it?

Kelly: Yes. Right. I think you’re so right in identifying that. But that is an insight – and I wonder if you agree with this – that I see remains incredibly hidden, incredibly concealed, incredibly absent from wider awareness in our culture. Maybe we can get into talking a bit more about moral injury, but what I came to understand about moral injury was that it had the potential to be a flash point to reveal exactly what you’re talking about, Michael, the kind of deep traumatization. And I would say moral traumatization that attends the embrace of violence.

For that reason I realized that exploring and broadening the discourse about the realities of moral injury on the part of active duty and military veterans, perhaps had the potential to break through that wall of denial and concealment that is so powerful, that is so strong. It’s like it’s like a cement wall in U.S. culture. I also believe that that’s not accidental, that “attend” the reality of war culture itself, is necessary. It’s necessary for the maintenance of war culture for there to be that kind of barrier, that kind of denial, that kind of concrete wall.

Michael: If I’m not mistaken, there was an Army psychiatrist who was talking about what we now call moral injury. He actually said, “We do not dare talk about this in the military because it would compromise or cancel an absolutely essential activity, namely war.”

Kelly: Well, it’s been very enlightening to me to explore the range of responses to the phenomenon of what is now called moral injury across members of the military. I find a range of responses. I write about one high-ranking military commander who described the language of moral injury as an insult because he believed that it suggested that what people do in the military is morally suspect. For him, that was absolutely wrong and dangerous to even consider that kind of an idea. That from his perspective, what people in the military do is ethical, it’s moral. And even to raise the specter of moral injury could damage that perspective; it was an insult and dangerous.

But I’ve also encountered the writing and the thought of other members of the military, for whom the language of moral injury is incredibly important and revealing. You know, these – I’m thinking, for instance, of Douglas Pryer who is co-editor with Bob Meagher of Moral Injury: A Reader. I so appreciated and learned a lot from Douglas Pryer’s writing over the years because he really understands that moral injury names a very important experience that so many, including himself, have had. It raises really uncomfortable questions that, once again, military institutions are having a difficult time dealing with adequately.


Stephanie: Well, why don’t we dive into that, Kelly. What is moral injury?

Kelly: So, I have a number of definitions that I like to use. One definition comes from my colleague, who is a military chaplain with the VA in Philadelphia. He describes moral injury as a kind of betrayal, which is really fundamental to the experience of moral injury. Moral injury as a betrayal of one’s own deepest moral values, as well as a sense of being betrayed by others.

I take that a step further because I really want us to think about moral injury, and it’s embeddedness in what I call, “U.S. war culture.” I talk about moral injury as something that arises out of participation in the moral distortion of the world that is created by war.

In that sense, I really want to encourage us to think about moral injury not only as an individual experience, but as something with much deeper roots in collective world building. Collective human world building.

Michael: That is a superb definition, Kelly. I really like that very much. Very helpful.

Kelly: And there’s one more that I might just share with you that I’ve recently come across again and just so appreciate. This comes from Michael Yandell, who is a veteran of the Iraq War, but also a PhD. I’m not exactly sure the area of religious studies that he’s a PhD in, but he describes moral injury from a very personal point-of-view, as despair of myself and of the world. And I just find that to be such a powerful definition.

Stephanie: Well, I’d like to explore too, the idea of – back to the betrayal, not just of the act of having somebody betray you, but Michael has written a lot about this relationship between nonviolence and what’s known as, “the new story of human nature.” Michael, I wonder if you could speak to that here as well. How you would define, you know, that betrayal as betrayal of human nature.

Michael: Exactly. That is my approach, and that’s why sometimes – you may agree with me here also Kelly, that the term “moral,” it’s not the most descriptive. And it doesn’t sound scientific. One of our regents at UC Berkeley once said, “Science is still the knowledge validating information system of our culture.” So, a term like “moral” or “soul,” you know, they’re very hard-hitting and they hit you right in the gut, so to speak. But they’re a little bit – they’re hard to get a handle on. I wonder if you’ve had that experience too. I know exactly what you mean by moral injury, and that betrayal of who we think we are, is where I fit into this kind of thinking. Because my work, most recently, has been on the overlap between nonviolence and what we call, “The New Story of Human Nature” which is that we are body, mind, and spirit. And on the level of spirit, we are all connected, to say the very least. It’s that tearing of that connection in a very deep internal way that it ends up being what we call “moral injury.” So, please respond to all of that.

Kelly: You know, I come from the perspective that the best learning we can do about this is actually to listen to the voices of people who are willing – who have gathered the courage, despite the disapproval of war culture – actually to speak honestly about their experiences. And what I have found is that they are the ones who use this language of soul, and they are the ones who use the language of feeling as though this deepest sense of who they are as human beings has been eviscerated. And they use the language of soul to describe that.

So, I followed them. And as someone – as a scholar and a teacher who has been deeply rooted in the humanities my entire life — I believe that in addition to everything that the sciences, both social and natural sciences have to teach us, we have learned, and especially in this recent age of the pandemic, we have learned that ignoring or in any way diminishing the power of the humanities, comes only at our own peril. We need to listen to human existential stories, narratives, experiences, the arts. And so, that’s really the approach that I bring to the table.

Stephanie: I’d love to step back to something we were talking about at the beginning of this interview, and that’s the topic of sacrifice. I guess I want to sort of throw this on the table for both you and Michael because I know Michael has some things to say about it. I’ve worked with Michael for some time, and there’s an initiative in Catholicism right now called, “The Catholic Nonviolence Initiative,” and they’re trying to get back, essentially, to the nonviolent Jesus. In Christianity, you know, the act of sacrifice, it is sacred. The crucifixion is sacred symbolism. How it’s been misrepresented or co-opted, I think, starting with, I think, the Emperor Constantine, was turning the Roman Empire into the Holy Christian Empire where the sacrifice of Jesus became war culture.

How can we still appreciate the sacred process of spiritual sacrifice, of self-sacrifice for a cause that’s bigger than one’s self without getting entangled and injured in war culture? How do we engage with sacrificing or this sacred process of sacrifice that does connect one to a prophet? To a clear spiritual leader, in a way, that somebody that you look to for guidance without getting enmeshed and entangled in war culture?

Kelly: I might start by just putting on the table a really important phrase that is at the heart of this deep connection between war culture and sacrifice — and I’m sure you both know it: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori: It is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country. That goes back to the Roman poet, Horace, but it’s been a regular theme that has emerged especially across the pages of Western history. And it certainly frames, I would say, the core of U.S. nationalism, the way that people understand what it means to everybody a citizen of the United States, right?

So, this is extremely troubling because of the way that then is lived out, the consequences of that, the demands of that. And, you know, I’m well aware of a whole range of responses to the dangerous actualities of sacrifice among Christian theologians and practitioners. I will say that I tend to follow one thinker in particular on this, and that is Delores Williams, a womanist theologian who is no longer with us, but whose work from the 1990s and on, I have learned so much from and just find truly powerful.

Delores Williams mobilized a social analysis of the effects of sacrifice and surrogacy in the lives of Black women. What she was asking was, “How do these notions of a supposedly altruistic sacrifice that Jesus makes on the cross, how do these notions find application to the actual lives of Black women?”

And what she discovered was that those religious ideas, in practice, reified, cemented, exacerbated Black women’s unjust suffering in the world. They were required to emulate Jesus through incredibly ugly racist formulations: as the mammy, as the sexual surrogate, or as the field slave, in each way, finding themselves at the mercy of racist social patterns that were then sacralized and reified by these religious patterns. That’s really a powerful, powerful criticism.

And where she arrived after sitting with that and writing about that and thinking about that, was that she ultimately could only say that what happens with Jesus on the cross is that it shows the ugliness and the power and the destructive consequences of sin, of human sin, of human evil. That’s what the cross exemplifies. She really did not want to attribute some sort of positive or worthy of emulation sort of dynamic coming out of the cross, at least for her and for the lives of Black women for whom she was writing.

In other words, the dangers outweighed any potential for finding something positive or worthy of emulation.

Stephanie: Perhaps, the structural violence, the institutions themselves that we’re living under have co-opted sacrifice to such an extent — seems to be what I hear you saying — have made it impossible for sacrifice to represent anything else other than an oppressive action because what’s the highest for of sacrifice is helping to keep people oppressed. It’s helping to impose sacrifice for state and nation through war. And it goes on and on.

Kelly: I think you’re right, Stephanie, that this is deeply embedded in all sorts of structural forms of violence. One finds it, again, especially on steroids in military cultures. But I’ve traced it in every presidential administration, in speeches, in rituals. It’s in popular culture. I write about this at length in my books. This is, in fact, over the 9/11 period began what I began to refer to as a perverse hobby of collecting examples of sacrificial war culture.

Because it’s not only structural violence, it’s also very, very deeply cultural violence. And cultural violence is the hardest kind of violence for people to actually see. It’s normalized. It’s legitimated. It’s the water that we swim in as fish in a watery culture. And so, we typically tend to take it for granted. It’s pre-reflective, in other words. We are born into it and absorb it, even though it’s simultaneously a human construction. So, yes, it’s incredibly destructive, incredibly costly.

Stephanie: Wow. I feel like I’m finally – it’s finally landing on me, all of the things that we’ve been talking about. I was looking at a former president’s website, or his blog that was then stopped; he stopped writing for the blog a while ago. I won’t say who it was. But he imagined this great American nation, he said as “a Christian nation.” And that image of the United States as a Christian nation, there’s an intentional logic there because of the way that sacrifice plays and fuels nationalism and fuels racism and fuels oppression that benefits those in power.

Kelly: Well, this is true. And just as one brief example, John, I believe it’s 15:13, “There is no greater love than this than to lay down one’s life for a friend.” This is a verse that is continually exploited in political cultures, in military cultures, in popular culture, as a way of referencing what happens in the fields of war, when soldiers are wounded or when they die.

There are a number of problems with that. First of all, it’s completely wrong-headed in terms of association with the actual life of Jesus of Nazareth who, as biblical scholars agree, rejected militarized violence. So sometimes I have asked, how did a nonviolent messiah become the template for what soldiers do in war? That’s really a cognitive distortion, but it’s one that, again, because it’s so normalized, we tend not to ask those questions.

It’s really wrong-headed on that score, but I have found that it’s common practice in war culture for biblical verses like that one to be exploited in the service of war culture. I can point to lots of examples in terms of how that has happened. One really powerful example comes from the administration of former President Trump and his first speech to both houses of congress. Just a short while before that time, Navy SEAL Ryan Owens had died in an order for armed coerced force that Trump had ordered in Yemen that resulted in deaths and the loss of military equipment and Owens’ own death. There was a lot of criticism that surged in the culture, including from Ryan’s own father, who was also a military veteran.

Trump knew that he was in trouble, and his advisors got together and this speech was planned. At a key moment in the speech – and by the way, I should say that only Owens’ widow was invited to have a special seat in the balcony, but not the father who had raised this criticism.

At a particular moment in the speech, Trump turned to the widow and reiterated that verse from the Gospel of John. And she raised her eyes to the heavens. Her eyes were held with tears. It was a very, you know, gut-wrenching moment. But what happened was that all of the criticism then just simply died. It was a very effective use of this sort of sacralization process to quell criticism and to change the narrative. And this is what happens and over and over again — and it’s intentional. It’s effective. Even members of the media after that speech began to refer to Trump as having done something that was really presidential.

What I would like to call for is for members of the nonviolence community to really become much more sophisticated in terms of seeing these kinds of dynamics and calling them out, calling out the exploitation of the use of sacrificial verses in the Bible and the way that they are used in war culture; calling out the language and the logic of sacrifice, and actually lifting up the destructive consequences of actual sacrificial dynamics that are endemic to war culture.

I think that as people who care about nonviolence and who are, frankly, so often characterized as naïve about the world and about the dangers of the world — nonviolent actors — I would love to see them become much more sophisticated about calling out the naivety of those who claim that violence works, and those who unashamedly resort to these kinds of references to religion, to sacralize, undergird, and frankly, conceal the real process and the real consequences of the use of violence.

Michael: Kelly, that is really, really thought-provoking. You have awakened the slumbering classicist in me by quoting Horace. And so, I wanted to share another quote that would shed some light on exactly what we’re talking about. Unfortunately, because I’m not a functioning classicist right now. I can’t remember where this comes from, but it’s Corruptio optimi pessima. That means the perversion, if you will, the corruption of that which is best becomes the worst. Precisely in the way that you were describing.

That we use the sacral nature of violence to sacralize exactly what Jesus was trying to show us, was an offense against the order of the universe. I’m speaking somewhat now as a Jewish person. It took me decades to finally discover Jesus underneath all that rhetoric and distortion, and it just seems to me that he allowed himself to be taken in that horrendous act in order to show how bad it was. And that you should never do it.

And yet, as Stephanie was pointing out, we have all these institutionalized forms for preserving the victimization of others rather than the sacrifice of oneself when necessary. I add that last part as a nonviolence person because there is a trend that you sometimes see, people who want to validate their own moral standing by letting themselves be victimized without realizing that they’re just perpetuating the system.

Kelly: Yeah. You know, Michael, I think you and I could have a long conversation. I bet I could learn a lot from you because I also am a student of nonviolence philosophy. One of the questions that I struggle with has to do with what I perceive to be a conflict among some of the principles of nonviolence. For instance, one of the principles has to do with honoring all life, right? And another has to do with the ends needing to – the means and the ends needing to cohere, right?

But it seems to me that self-sacrifice conflicts with those principles. And so, I really have questions about – I honestly – this is something that I’m still really thinking about and I hope to write about. I wonder when and if we ever want to really recommend self-sacrifice.

Michael: Boy, that is a really good question. I don’t go around recommending it. I think the important difference, unfortunately, between the optimum and the pessimum is what you go into it for; if you go into it in order to be martyred, you’re participating in the sacrificial system. Because as you know, and as René Girard has pointed out, when you sacrifice an animal in ancient cultures, you had to get the animals’ approval. So, you say to sheep, “Is it okay? Would you like to be sacrificed?” And then you sprinkle some water on the poor creature’s head. And it shakes its head left and right, which if you’ve traveled in Greece, you know that’s a way of saying yes.

Kelly: So, that’s essentially a fantasy.

Michael: Oh yeah.

Kelly: The sheep never really offers any kind of ascent to this process. I guess I wonder — I really have learned so much from sociologists of religion with respect to sacrificial systems. And so, I guess it raises for me the question that’s living in – I have never lived other than in a war culture. I’m a citizen of the United States. I was born here. War culture definitely precedes the United States, but it seems to me that ours is the largest and the most dominant war culture that the globe has ever known.

Sometimes I say that the war culture of the United States makes what happened in the Roman Empire look like child’s play. So, I wonder, given that, given my own embeddedness in this culture, is it possible for me ever to sort of rise above and find some sort of way to participate in self-sacrifice that truly demonstrates my consent. I’m not sure that there is.

I think all of us are so deeply affected by this. And for that reason, again, I would follow Delores Williams in really trying to underline and emphasize the cost of sacrificial war culture. I think that’s where we are in our culture with the need to underscore these dangerous consequences, these dangerous practices. And I’m not sure that there’s really a way to demonstrate active and pre-consent in terms of self-sacrifice.

Stephanie: Well, when I think of sacrifice, just to expand it slightly, living and being born in a war culture like the United States, I think of people who at some point decide that they just – they do not want to live any longer in a world like this. And so, they’re going to give their entire life to changing it. And there’s this kind of focus that people get, a one-pointedness. It’s almost a despair that no longer can I live in a world like this. And instead of going the route of direct suicide, people then decide to dedicate themselves to a cause for the rest of their lives, or to ending and to putting themselves in the way. Going into other war zones, going into places where the United States imperialism is doing acts of horror and bearing witness.

I see that as a kind of sacrificial life, in a way. But maybe I’m confounding it with just the sense of the word courage. I mean how do we distinguish between moral courage and sacrifice?

Kelly: As I listen to you, what was coming to mind for me is that the individuals that you’re describing or searching for, a pathway of authentic living. How does one find an authentic life in the midst of a culture that is so anti-life? And you know, the other thing that comes to mind for me is that – and I’ve often been quizzical about this — why is it that we, so much in the United States, as well as in other places, we tend to define what we most value by our willingness to die for it? The people that you are describing are searching for a pathway of living, not necessarily dying.

Stephanie: Right. Exactly.

Kelly: And every chosen pathway comes with foreseeable and unforeseeable consequences and events, right? So, we can never foresee in advance exactly how it’s all going to turn out. But it still seems to me as though the individuals that you are describing are really searching for a way to live and to live fully and to live authentically and wholy.

That reminds of at least some of the voices of morally injured veterans that I’ve been listening to in these recent years who find themselves now on a pathway of searching for a different way to live. And there is, for instance, in this moral injury program that is based in the VA hospital in Philadelphia, the Michael Crescenz VA Hospital, a moral injury leadership group that has formed, of veterans who have worked their way through that program.

They are searching for a different way of living than that which they were acculturated into and shaped so deeply by over their years of military service. One of the things that they have dedicated themselves to is challenging the military industrial complex. So, they are coming – they have come to the understanding that this is not simply an individual problem, but a problem that is rooted in much deeper systems and structures that have to be challenged and called out and changed. That’s authentic living. It might not be easy living, you know. It might not be painless living, but it’s living.

Michael: You know, Kelly, this is – thinking now of some other work that’s been done on the value of work and how working together with others is the greatest form of bonding, of forming a beloved community. I have been thinking all along in this conversation that the only way out for morally injured people, is to take up some reparation work. And that’s why you see Vietnam vets, you know, going back to Vietnam and building schools and hospitals and things like that. I do have the feeling that there’s got to be a way out for those poor people, who in a way, are victims of our war culture, the injured veterans that you’re describing, they have to find a way of repairing the harm that they’ve done. And that was the only way, I think, that they can repair the injury that they’ve experienced in the course of doing it.

Kelly: Right. I agree with you. I’m hearing that so profoundly in the stories as I’m observing the lives of, again, some of these people who I have learned about from this particular moral injury group in Philadelphia — and from moral injury literature overall. In this moral injury program in Philadelphia that has been developed by a remarkable chaplain and psychologist, it’s a 12-week program. In week 10, they have a community ceremony, and the purpose of this ceremony is to bring together – and really, it’s symbolically, all of the different sectors of society — to address this reality and respond to it.

So, there are veterans there, but there are also members of their friends and families and then other civilians. What’s important is that the civilians and the friends and family have expressly dedicated themselves to be willing to listen. So, you know, a huge part of the problem for those returning veterans, as well as people who are in active service, is that we in the United States – and this is also a consequence of our war culture, we engage in what this chaplain, Chris Antal, and psychologist Peter Yeomans call, work avoidance — we find ways not to face the voices, the stories, the realities that these people might otherwise share with us.

But in this ceremony, the central act is for these people to stand and to give testimony to their experiences. And along the lines of precisely what you’re saying, Michael, this means lament and it means also honestly confessing and speaking publicly about things that are incredibly difficult to talk about.

What they’re asked to share is shaped around two questions.They are asked to share, in response to the question, “What do you most need to unburden yourself of?” And then the second question is, “What do people most need to hear?”

This ceremony then also involves people, civilians like me, who come to listen and who are asked not only to listen, but to figure out how to take more responsibility for this reality. I think the phenomenon of moral injury – again, it’s complex. Because yes, it involves individual choices that people have made in their lives, but it also involves much deeper systems and a much deeper culture that also bears responsibility for our reality.

And so, I would say that all of us need to be involved. And it’s not only lament and reparations that need to happen on the part of those who were at the tip of horrific things that have happened, but all of the rest of us as well, who equally bear responsibility. Naming that shared responsibility and then taking it on and dealing with it is what is called for, I believe.

Michael: Wow. You know, Kelly, that puts me powerfully in mind of a principle that was discovered by René Girard, which I’m sure you’re familiar with, in his work Violence of the Sacred, and so forth, that is the entire machinery of sacrifice is designed to be certain that you never hear from the victims. And the minute you hear from the victim, the system collapses. He takes the Book of Job as what should have been the turning point to get us out of all of this.

When Job actually says, “Hey, you know, you guys, you can do whatever you want to me, but I did not do anything wrong.” To hear that kind of pulls the foundations out from under the sacrificial system. Unfortunately, we haven’t quite gotten it. The reason I’m very encouraged by our conversation here today is it seems to me that — you know, I go back a ways and I can’t remember moral injury ever being talked about, and so, the fact that it’s coming out in the open now means that we are doing that one thing that you have to disestablish the system of sacrifice, which is to listen to the victims, which is what you’re doing.

Kelly: That’s beautifully said. Yeah. I think you put that really well, Michael.

I really appreciate that because, yes, the whole system depends on the violence somehow being concealed or somehow being hidden. And once you begin to bring that to the surface – I think you’re right, that the whole system begins to fall apart.

I also wanted to say that the terminology of moral injury was coined by Jonathan Shay around 2009. But the phenomenon that the terminology of moral injury refers to has been traced by scholars all the way back to Ancient Greece. So, moral injury is understood by scholars to probably be as old as war itself. But the coining of this language for it really has been an incredibly important step forward in terms of understanding, but also in terms of addressing, this reality.

And what happened after Shay initiated this, is that research and investigation of moral injury just began to take off. And there still is just this amazing tsunami, really, of moral injury research that is going on all over the place. I see that as an incredibly positive step toward naming and then claiming a different reality, insisting that something different has to be done.

That’s why I really see this as a flash point. What I have tried to do in my own work is to emphasize that as important as it is to investigate and try to ameliorate moral injury on an individual basis – and that has happened especially through methodologies of psychology.

As important as all that is, that’s just a starting point. If we’re really going to address moral injury, we have to look at its deeper-rootedness in the structures that we human beings are responsible for having constructed, and then our cultures. That’s the deep work that I hope more people will take up.

Stephanie: Thank you so much, Kelly, for joining us today on Nonviolence Radio. It’s been a pleasure to have you.

Kelly: Thank you so much for having me.

Stephanie: You’re at Nonviolence Radio, and we’ve been speaking with Kelly Denton-Borhaug. She’s been investigating how religion and violence collide in American war culture. She teaches in the Global Religions Department at Moravian University. She’s the author of two books, “U.S. War-culture, Sacrifice and Salvation,” and more recently, “And Then Your Soul is Gone: Moral Injury and U.S. War-Culture.”

We want to thank our mother station, KWMR for hosting Nonviolence Radio. We want to thank Matt Watrous for transcribing the show, Bryan Farrell at Waging Nonviolence for sharing our show with the wider public, our friends at Pacifica who help syndicate our show, and all of our listeners, thank you very much. We want to thank Kelly for joining us today. And to everybody out there, please take care of one another. Have a good weekend.

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