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Fixing Moral Injury

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Fixing Moral Injury

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Have you heard of the term moral injury

Moral injury is a fairly recent phrase used to describe a crisis of conscience. Psychologists are coming to realize that soldiers have faced this for centuries. It is the internal suffering resulting from doing something against your moral code—against your conscience—a wound to the conscience.

In a combat situation the damage done to a person’s conscience may result from following or issuing certain orders or from witnessing something that is deeply offensive to the soldier’s moral sense.

Moral injury occurs when he or she has transgressed their most deeply held personal beliefs and moral values. But it’s not just something that affects soldiers. The average citizen can commit moral injury too.

The Morphine Overdose

Let me tell you about Sergeant First Class Marshall Powell, retired. He served in Iraq for the U.S. Army. He tells the story of being diagnosed with moral injury. Here are some excerpts from an article written by him in Guideposts:

“Just after midnight on August 12, 2007, we heard a bomb go off . . .

“Trucks pulled up, loaded with casualties—Iraqi civilians, badly burned, blood everywhere. Some already dead. We had only 10 beds. There were at least three times that many casualties. It was on me to decide who would be treated . . .

“We tended to the most urgent cases. Nearly an hour passed before I saw her. A tiny Iraqi girl lying on a blanket in the hallway. She couldn’t have been more than six years old. Burned, covered in blood. She was dying, and I could do nothing. She let out deep moans. Even in agony, she had a sweetness to her face that reminded me of my niece . . .

“I have to ease her suffering, I told myself. This girl’s really hurting. I got a syringe filled with morphine, several doses. I set up an IV and pressed dose after dose into it, enough to . . .

“She smiled at me. I smiled back and told her it was gonna’ be okay. Then she took her last breath and was gone. I killed that little girl.

“I took her broken body to the morgue. Then I went to my office and sobbed. I tried to tell myself I’d done the right thing, but I was besieged with doubt. This innocent child who should have never been in the midst of a war zone . . . I’d stolen her last moments. As if I were God. Yes, there was absolutely nothing we could have done to save her. She was suffering horribly. I knew what I was doing with that syringe loaded with morphine. But wasn’t “do no harm” the first principle of medicine? Wasn’t my purpose to heal?

“Three months later, I was home in Hawaii. I struggled to get back to my old routine. But my work no longer had the same meaning . . . I was angry all the time. I felt so alone.

“One night, in my sleep, I saw her. The girl. Her face looking up at me, just before she died. I woke screaming. Night after night, the girl haunted my dreams, until I was afraid to go to sleep. There was no one I could talk to. Others hadn’t been there. They wouldn’t understand” (“An Iraq Veteran Comes to Terms With Moral Injury,” Guideposts, April 18, 2017).

This type of story could be repeated many times over by soldiers who have had similar feelings of guilt from what they were required to do in a time of war. This is just one example of many. But soldiers are not the only ones who can be affected by moral injury.

Numerous psychological studies have revealed that most people are fully capable of doing terrible things to one another. In fact, some studies have concluded that given the right circumstances—like starvation, national catastrophe and one’s family being threatened—that the average person is just six days away from committing murder.

The Experimenter

Have you heard of Stanley Milgram? He was an American social psychologist who lived from 1933 to 1984. He is best known for his controversial experiment on obedience conducted in the 1960s during his professorship at Yale University. Milgram was influenced by the events of the Jewish Holocaust, especially the trial of Adolf Eichmann, in developing the experiment.

An article in American Psychologist in 1990 summed up Milgram’s obedience experiments:

“In Milgram’s basic paradigm, a subject walks into a laboratory believing that she or he is about to take part in a study of memory and learning. After being assigned the role of a teacher, the subject is asked to teach word associations to a fellow subject (who in reality is a collaborator of the experimenter). The teaching method, however, is unconventional—administering increasingly higher electric shocks to the learner.

“Once the presumed shock level reaches a certain point, the subject is thrown into a conflict. On the one hand, the strapped learner demands to be set free, he appears to suffer pain, and going all the way may pose a risk to his health. On the other hand, the experimenter, if asked, insists that the experiment is not as unhealthy as it appears to be, and that the teacher must go on. In sharp contrast to the expectations of professionals and laymen alike, some 65% of all subjects continue to administer shocks up to the very highest levels” (Moti Nissani, “A Cognitive Reinterpretation of Stanley Milgram’s Observations on Obedience to Authority,” American Psychologist, 1990.)

You see, whenever the student made an error, the teacher was told to press a lever to shock the student. For each mistake levels of shock would be increased up to a dose of 450 volts (which was really only imaginary). The teachers were told the higher level shocks could be lethal. At a teacher’s side a researcher in a long white coat—standing calmly and confidently with an air of authority—commanded the teacher to administer and increase the shocks.

All of the volunteer teachers shocked the students repeatedly—and 65 percent went all the way to the lethal shock level, despite the screams and pleas from the student actor to stop.

This experiment horrified the average citizen because it seemed to demonstrate that the average person was not so different from German citizens in World War II who participated in atrocities under the influence and command of the Nazis.

In these and other similar experiments, we find that otherwise good and responsible people can be induced to act against their conscience and injure or potentially kill others.

A Seared Conscience

The Bible talks about a seared conscience.

Paul wrote, “Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron” (1 Timothy 4:1-2, emphasis added throughout). He also wrote, “To the pure all things are pure, but to those who are defiled and unbelieving nothing is pure; but even their mind and conscience are defiled” (Titus 1:15).

People are capable of doing horrific things to one another. In the heat of the battle of war we see people capable of doing terrible things to other human beings—searing their conscience. Soldiers sometimes perform actions that they later find hard to explain and understand after the fact. Many are consumed with guilt and regret.

In times of stress, even outside of war, people can act against their moral code.

Our world has experimented for the past 6,000 years and taken from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It has been a very sad ride. It has been a painful experiment. This world has become injured—morally injured.

A very good example of moral injury from the Bible is that of King David, Uriah and Bathsheba. King David committed murder against Uriah that would haunt him for the rest of his life. Another would be that of Judas Iscariot, who committed suicide, being plagued with guilt after betraying Jesus.

The Ultimate Solution

So what is the ultimate solution to the pain, suffering and injury humankind has inflicted upon one another for a millennia? How will the healing of the mind and seared consciences begin?

The only true way to eradicate moral injury is through the restoration of all things, the restoration of the law of God! It’s the removal of sin and the installation of a new way of doing things. It’s a spiritual solution. It’s a return to holiness.

Upon the “restoration of all things” spoken of in Acts 3, the law of God will be restored throughout the whole world. “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days [the end time], says the Lord: I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people” (Hebrews 8:10).

The global solution to spiritual healing, to overcoming moral injury and sin, is the instilling of the law of God into every person’s heart. And it will begin to fully take shape upon the return of Jesus Christ to this earth. A new society will be born.

We Must Be Cleansed Now

The blood of Jesus Christ our Savior is what cleanses our conscience, is what cleanses our sins, is what cleanses us from immorality and moral injury. It’s a spiritual solution.

As people who fully understand the plan God has for the world, we must take our calling seriously and act upon it. We must have a clean conscience and remove sin and all types of moral impurity that can injure our minds.

“Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh, and having a High Priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:19-22).

We understand that, even though tragic events lie ahead, the good news is that God will intervene to save humanity and guide mankind into His abundant way of life. Jesus Christ will return to raise us, His followers, from death, and establish God’s perfect rule over the earth.

Christ taught us to pray to the Father, “Thy kingdom come.” How urgently we need the answer to that prayer and the healing of this world from sin and moral injury

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  • Michael7771

    This was such a well articulated and perfectly illustrated article. My heart goes out to Sergeant Marshall Powell. I can feel his pain. The article's relevance is playing out on a daily basis In light of the many stories of men's predatory treatment of women; stories of child abuse; DUI injuries and deaths, etc. Who can escape the finger that points out our accountability for moral injury to our selves and the impact on the lives of others?
    I grew up in the era of the Vietnam War. In my circle of friends, those that were there did not come back unscathed. We human beings all need to set time aside for soul searching.
    Thank God that He makes access to restoration and peace available.
    Thanks and please revisit this topic again.

  • Peter Eddington

    Thank you Michael for your encouraging comment. This is a very important subject that does need revisiting from time to time. Much appreciated.

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