Guest Essay by Theologian Ted Peters: Is America Suffering from Moral Injury?

Guest Essay by Theologian Ted Peters: Is America Suffering from Moral Injury? January 9, 2021

Guest Essay:

Is America Suffering from Moral Injury?

Ted Peters (American Lutheran Theologian)

During the storming of the Capitol on Epiphany, January 6, 2021, one QAnon activist, Ashli Babbitt, was shot to death by police. She had tweeted the day prior to the assault, “It’s all I dream about and pray for! What is dark will come to light!” (QAA Podcast) Ms. Babbit died as a martyr to the light of truth.

QAnon’s conspiracy theory regarding an anti-Trump deep state is said to be a mistake by critics. It is a colossal lie. A dangerous lie. Roger E. Olson contends that this lie is a “mass delusion about voter fraud.” It leads to social hysteria. (Olson) Such hysteria leads to death.

America is engulfed in a conflict of interpretations between those upholding conspiracy theories over against…whom? Those who believe there is a conspiracy to promulgate conspiracy theories? Or, the rest of us who believe the truth? It’s nice to be confident that we believe the truth while those others are subject to false narratives. Even so, with Pontius Pilate we might pause to ask: what is truth? (John 18:38)

Now we are ready to ask this question: is America suffering from moral injury? I answer: no and yes.

On the one hand, no. America is not suffering from moral injury in the same sense America’s soldiers suffer. Many veterans returning from the battlefield in Iraq and Afghanistan bring PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) home with them as a prize of war. Within this group of PTSD victims, we find some suffering from moral injury. The majority of those suffering from moral injury commit suicide. In recent years, the suicide rate has risen at times to 20 per day. This means more of America’s soldiers die at home from suicide than from battle in the war itself.

Moral injury expert Jonathan Shay lists three prerequisites to moral injury. (Shay)

  1. There must be a betrayal of what is morally correct.
  2. Someone who is in a legitimate position of authority must do the betrayal of what is morally correct.
  3. The betrayal must occur in a high stakes situation.

Who is the authority who betrayed these soldiers? Their immediate military supervisors? The Pentagon? The President? The American people? If Americans were more morally sensitive than they are, Americans would ask: what have we done to our own precious men and women that they would want to commit suicide? This question goes unasked.

Let me dig a bit deeper. Once moral injury takes hold of a soldier, here is what happens. The soldier’s moral universe disappears. It is not simply a matter of acting immoral when shooting civilians, torturing the enemy, shredding human bodies with mortars and machine gun fire, or engaging in some other atrocity.

It is more than that. One’s very standard of morality seems to evaporate. Trust in the cosmic and eternal standard of justice vaporizes. It disappears. Once the eternal standard of justice disappears, so also does the person’s soul. Your and my soul are centered on the eternal, whether we think about it or not. The loss of one means the loss of the other. Without a center, our personality disaggregates into meaninglessness and suicide follows.

That’s moral injury in the classic and most tragic sense. Families who have lost a returning soldier to PTSD leading to suicide feel profoundly the horror of moral injury.

Does America suffer moral injury in this sense. No. But, might it be the case that America is suffering moral injury in the sense of a dulling of zeal for what is correct. Like a gasoline tank with a leak, might America’s high-minded resolve for justice and compassion be dribbling away into a pool of explosive potential?

Now, let’s ask: is tolerance for unabashed self-interest replacing social solidarity? Is this the kind of moral injury America is suffering after four years of White House incompetence, malfeasance, lies, deceit, corruption, and disorientation? Certainly in my lifetime the Trump era gets the prize for betrayal of what is correct on the part of an authority where the stakes are high. The prerequisites for moral injury at a national level are present.

Yet, America is not even close to committing national suicide. Why not? Because the moral universe is thought to remain in order. Keep in mind that immorality all by itself does not cause moral injury; rather, it is the loss of the moral universe followed by the loss of the soul that causes moral injury.

Have America’s leaders lost their soul? Apparently not. They march on undaunted, confident that they are on the right side of democracy and everything else that is correct.

Immediately after Capitol police restored order on January 6, Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell announced with as much pomp as he could muster: “the United States Senate will not be intimidated. We will not be kept out of this chamber by thugs, mobs, or threats. We will not bow to lawlessness or intimidation….The clockwork of our democracy is carried on.” (McConnell) There is no sign here that the senator’s moral universe has been lost, or that McConnell’s soul is de-centered. I wonder why?

America is not suffering from moral injury. But truth is.


“McConnell: They tried to disrupt our democracy. They failed.” CNN News;

Olson, Roger E.“Social Hysteria: A Suggested Explanation of a Social Phenomenon,” Patheos (January 7, 2021) .

Peters, Ted. Sin Boldly! Justifying Faith for Fragile and Broken Souls. Minneapolis:. Fortress, 2015;  252-262..

QAA Podcast;

Shay, Jonathan. “Casualties,” Daedelus 140:3 (2011) 179-88.

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