Moral Injury and God’s Mercy - Message from January 24, 2021
Third Sunday after Epiphany
Preacher: Rev. Dr. Kristin Stoneking
Scripture: Jonah 3:1-5, 10
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Today we continue in our series entitled, “Why We Can’t Wait: Truth and Racial Reckoning.” Last week we opened the series with a message from Rev. Phil Lawson, a veteran of the civil rights movement, a slightly younger contemporary of Dr. Martin Luther King. The civil rights movement of the 50s, 60s and 70s was time of truth and racial reckoning, and now again, we are in a time of national, perhaps even global, reckoning. More time at home, coupled with a health crisis, political crisis and long delayed attention to racial injustice, have caused us to look inward with new honesty. Less opportunity for social distraction or activity gives space for us to gather the courage to acknowledge things that aren’t right. To see our place in how they are broken. And to consider how we might make them right.
Times of reckoning are important in our personal and collective lives. Though challenging and often painful, they are catalysts of growth. For many, mid-life is coupled with a time of reckoning—that’s why it’s often called a crisis! You’ve no doubt heard the phrase, “Don’t waste a good crisis.” Nobody wants to be in crisis. But crisis can lead us to reflect and self-interrogate. The reaching out for help that is precipitated by a crisis and reckoning is what can help us move into a new state of maturity and wisdom.
In the early 2000s, the scholar Rita Nakashima Brock formerly of the Graduate Theological Union, began her own journey of self-investigation and interrogation. She came to a crisis point where she needed to understand the harshness she had experienced from her step-father. She wanted to know why love and support were lacking in her early life. As a theologian in mid-life who had studied and written about the suffering of others, she turned her trained lens on her own suffering. What she found when she began to explore the story of the family she grew up in and her step-father, a Vietnam veteran, was what she named “moral injury.”
What is “moral injury?” Moral injury comes when a person has acted in ways that go against conscience. In war, at the command of officers or in order to preserve their own lives, we know soldiers have to act in the moment and then, sometimes even seconds later, regret the same action for the harm it caused or the life taken. The result is a moral injury, a wound to one’s sense of one’s self as a good person. Moral injury is a damaging of the ability to see one’s self as a beloved child of God. It can come as a result of war, but it can come as a result of other situations too.
We often talk about persons who have been in violent situations as having PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. What Nakashima Brock found was that a number of persons were being diagnosed with PTSD when they were really dealing with a moral injury. She says, “Moral injury afflicts ordinary moral people, [too], when no good choice is possible in situations where people must use the power they have to act, knowing they will cause harm, or violate their own core moral values. In those situations we actually don't lose our moral conscience, but in judging ourselves, we become both betrayer and betrayed. A soul divided against itself.”
I submit to you this morning that it is in times of reckoning, that we have the opportunity to become newly aware of ways in which we have caused harm or inherited harm caused, and of the ways in which moral injury lives with us, this sense of being irredeemable. The path of truth and racial reckoning, and the consciousness it elicits, can bring persons into this kind of state. Particularly for white persons, new awareness of the ways in which we have participated in protecting our privilege at the expense of persons of color, or furthered bias, acted on bias, or worse, can produce a state of shame and feeling beyond repair. In confronting the horror of one’s complicity in racism, one can feel one’s self impossible to redeem. This is the dawning consciousness of the white Appalachian songwriter that was expressed in the song Judy Kriege sang this morning. He wonders if this shame instead of being a catalyst for change will just result in yet one more chapter in a long violent history.
There’s no question that racism is violence to persons of color. And it is disfiguring to racists, too. Racism harms all of us. As a nation, we are in a state of moral injury. But as inaugural poet Amanda Gorman said on Wednesday, “Being American is more than a pride we inherit. It’s the past we step into, and how we repair it.” What Nakashima Brock found was that soul repair when the past has resulted in moral injury is a journey that requires both grace and mercy.
What is mercy? We hear a lot about grace as United Methodists, but much less so about mercy. Ephesians tells us that mercy and grace are two sides of the same coin: grace is love and salvation even when we don’t deserve it and mercy is not being punished even when we do deserve it. Susan Jardin gave us a beautiful example of mercy in her children’s message today.
Our scripture from Jonah today is a classic story about mercy. As the story begins, God has asked Jonah to go to Nineveh and deliver a message that God is displeased with Nineveh’s wickedness. Jonah doesn’t want to do this, so he boards a ship going the other direction. Then a great storm comes up, it’s chaos, the ship roiling and rolling, and nobody knows what to do. All on the ship are afraid for their lives. And Jonah lets them know, “this is happening as a result of my disobedience. Throw me overboard,” he says, “and things should get better.” But the sailors are wise enough to know that to do so would be murder, and they beg mercy from the God of Jonah.
They throw him over anyway. Jonah falls down, down to the bottom of the ocean, and there he is swallowed whole by some great sea monster. Miraculously, he survives. For three days, inside the belly of this whale, Jonah prays, praises God, repents. And God accepts his repentance and has the fish cough him up onto the shore. Whole. Saved.
God asks Jonah a second time to go to Nineveh and this time Jonah agrees. Jonah goes to the edge of the city, and says, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” It’s the most half-hearted, minimal effort one could imagine. And miraculously, the Ninehvites hear him! They repent and say, “Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”
And God does relent. The Ninevites are spared. You would think this would cause joy in Jonah, to have brought about the beginning stages of repair. But instead he’s angry! “You should have punished them!” He says to God. “I knew you were going to do this,” Jonah says. “That’s why I didn’t want to go on this errand for you.” But God says, “No, what good would it do to punish and wipe the Ninevites from the face of the earth? They have earnestly repented. Leave to me what is mine. I am a God of mercy.”
What Rita Nakashima Brock found was that in the case of moral injury, of being aware of the harm one has caused to the extent of feeling one’s soul is in shreds, in these cases, punishment is no solution. Now I want to be clear here. We’re not talking about cavalier lawlessness or hate enacted with no remorse. Moral injury is when a person is conscious of harm done and feels a deep responsibility for it. The person’s own sense of having violated morality and the associated self-judgment is punishment enough. What is needed instead is a nonjudgmental acceptance of the person as a human being who still has value and worth. What Nakashima Brock found is necessary is an openness to listen to that person’s truth, as horrible or challenging to hear as it may be. In a word, what is needed is mercy.
Did you notice how Jonah readily accepted mercy from God when he needed it, but is so unwilling for others to have it? This is so often the case: we’re grateful for mercy for ourselves, but frustrated when mercy gets extended to others. They didn’t deserve it, Jonah says, they’re not Jews, they aren’t even your people, and they never paid for what they did. But God says the work of soul repair transcends crime and punishment, and that God is not finished with us. We are “not broken, but simply” as the inaugural poet Amanda Gorman said, “unfinished.”
There’s been a lot of talk about healing over the last few weeks. Healing is important, essential, and if we are to heal, we will need mercy. Fortunately, we serve a Great Physician who understands the connection between healing and mercy. Healing is possible when we are honest about where we’ve been, where we are and what we’ve done. May we be honest, may we be open, and may we put ourselves in the great tradition of a God whose mercy knows no bounds. In this way, crisis gives way to truth telling which gives way to honesty. In honesty may we find repentance, grace and mercy, and finally healing. Amen.
Order of Service (Bulletin) - January 24, 2021
Third Sunday after Epiphany
Prelude - Rev. Jerry Asheim
Welcome & Announcements - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Opening Hymn: "There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy" UM Hymnal #121 - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Margot Hanson
Invocation - Barbara Stone
Scripture Reading: Jonah 3:1-5, 10 - Rev. Frank Stone
Children's Message - Susan Jardin
Anthem: “Long Violent History” by Tyler Childers - Judy Kriege
Message: “Moral Injury and God’s Mercy” - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Hymn of Response: “Depth of Mercy ” UM Hymnal #355 - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Margot Hanson
Call for Prayer - Alina McVey
Special Music: Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 17 "Tempest" - Max Sisk-Hilton
The Prayer Jesus Taught (Lord's Prayer) - Barbara & Frank Stone
Call for Offering - Sarah Bruno
Offertory Music: “Prodigal Son" by Robert Wilkins - Judy Kriege & Eiji Miura
WE GO FORTH
Prayer of Dedication - Rev. Carletta Aston
Closing Hymn: “We’re Marching to Zion” UM Hymnal #733 - Recorded in worship 10/27/19
Benediction - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Postlude - Rev. Jerry Asheim
Special thanks to:
Preacher: Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Contributors: Rev. Carletta Aston, Rev. Jerry Asheim, Sarah Bruno Margot Hanson, Susan Jardin, Judy Kriege, Alina McVey, Eiji Miura, Rory Schroeder, Max Sisk-Hilton, Barbara Stone, Rev. Frank Stone
Video editing: Anjuli Arreola-Burl
Video producer: Tai Jokela
Podcast producer: Ethan Toven-Lindsey
Livestream producer: Merrie Bunt