Moral Injury, Lamentation, and Memorializing Rituals as Pastoral Care

June 28th, 2018

The pastoral caregiver, as a recognized moral authority and ritual leader, has a significant role to play when it comes to communal ritual practices in response to moral injury and moral healing. Understanding the dynamics of ritual practice and using them to ameliorate conflict, prevent injury, and heal from soul wounds is an indispensable element of the caregiver’s role.

Moral injury, sometimes referred to as moral trauma, is the burden of harm and the diminishment of vitality that arises in individuals and communities when we (or others) violate our moral compasses. Our moral compasses refer to the internalized organization of our moral identity (ethics, values, and moral codes). Moral injury comes about when our lives and the lives of our social groups diverge from what we believe to be the best in ourselves, or when our moral actions lead to a diminishment of value for self and others. Moral injury also occurs when others violate us and impair our moral sensibilities about right and wrong.

There are two sources of moral injury: agential moral injury brought upon ourselves by our own agency, and receptive moral injury caused by the agency of others. Agential moral injury arises in the gap between our aspirations and the consequences of our actions. When we do the wrong thing, or fail to do the right thing, or when our actions lead to unintended harm, we feel diminished morally and carry some measure of burden as a consequence. This burden, often felt as shame and guilt, is what I mean by agential moral injury, even when we are unaware that it exists.

Receptive moral injury is the diminishment to our moral compasses and our sense of personal goodness that results from the actions of individuals and communities against us. Victims and survivors of sexual and domestic violence, for example, may have their moral compasses about life’s goodness and their own sense of personal worth broken by what happened to them and the moral assessments they make of it. Or individuals and groups shattered by war, natural disasters, and other cataclysms may wonder if there is a good God running the show or if the universe is a trustworthy moral environment.

"Moral Injury: Restoring Wounded Souls" (Abingdon Press, 2017). Order here:

The notion of moral injury also points positively to the potential of a changed outcome: healing. The notion of healing implies that we are not destined to perpetual impairment based on the past but can join those powerful life forces dedicated to renewal, repair, and restoration. In short, removing stigmatizing and judgmental language about our moral actions lifts unnecessary burdens of conscience so that we might better heal and bear with strength the moral pain we are carrying.

Our moral injuries are engendered by our direct and indirect immersion in the events of history, including natural disasters, war, and the dynamics of cultural hegemony. They are not simply

past events. They are virulent ongoing diminishments. Moral injuries arising from war, for example, refashion our geographies and identities forever. We do not simply get over our entanglements in the world. We carry them, revise them, and live out of them. In the words of poet Edwin Muir, “war makes and remakes [us] . . . still.”[1]  

When morally injurious disaster befalls us and lives are threatened or lost, two things occur at once: there is an instantaneous shattering of the world and there is an instantaneous survival reflex that responds to the shattering. The world that is coming apart is also a world that responds to hold itself together. We humans must find life-giving means of coping with existential threat and traumatic loss if we are to survive and thrive as individuals and communities.

Cataclysmic experiences, whether from natural disaster, sexual and domestic violence, or moral injury and PTSD from war, initiate a new history for the victims and the community. A trauma history is comprised of three sequential processes, that also feedback on one another. First there is shattering of one’s world and soul. Second is the emergence of survival mechanisms. Third is the press for recovery and rebuilding. Religious communities and their leaders are intimately inscribed into the shattering, survival, and recovery plots of the trauma and moral injury narrative.

Lamentation and memorializing are among our greatest contributions to the healing narratives we attempt to create from our wounding. Lamentation and memorializing address the initial shattering by the way they help us share our anguish together. They assist with survival needs by mobilizing resources to provide strength and refuge. They guide the recovery process through assessing causes, protesting injustices, sharing memories, reclaiming lost values, and reinvesting hope.

Lamentation is a strength-inducing religious resource. It is by no means simply “wallowing in pain” and “being stuck in weakness.” The central purpose of lamentation is to provide a way for individuals and communities to truthfully express the sorrows of the world that have come upon them and to register protest, complaint, and anger at those responsible for it. As we fully name the truth of our affliction, paradoxically, that affliction becomes bearable and the way is opened toward healing.[2]  According to Kathleen O’Connor, when we reflect back the suffering we hear from one another through lamentation “it restores the humanity of the victim because it validates their perception of the way the world has fallen away from their feet.”[3] 

Pastoral theologians and caregivers, along with our religious and secular communities, are compelled by corporate catastrophe to become immersed in efforts toward rescue, relief, and recovery. Along with the total community we become immediately inducted into God-inspired and life-ensuring efforts toward human survival and flourishing when trauma befalls us. In addition to the spontaneous upsurges of grace, power, and caring community that come into being the instant disruption occurs, we also have available to us a variety of cultural products that have arisen over the centuries to help human communities endure and transform the evils befalling or caused by us. Religious thought and ritual practice are central elements in this repertoire of human coping and healing. Lamentation in the context of public memorials offers immediate and long-term resources for survival and healing wounded individuals and communities.

Religious and other communal sites [especially public mourning sites like the 9/11 museum in lower Manhattan or the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington D.C.] become safe refuges for the displaced, injured, and dead when the storms of life are carrying everything away. Religious and other corporate rituals [including special Eucharist services, memorial/funeral services] organize meaning, give voice to anguish, and call forth the values that sustain community and focus its responses over the long haul. Religious symbols and religious teachings, along with secular values and conventions, anchor the heart and mind within the enduring values of courage, sacrifice, and collective efforts for the greater good. All of this comes together in the processes of lamentation, mediated by a range of memorial options, where anguish is named, comfort shared, victims honored, memories constructed, questions asked, conflict focused, forgiveness mediated, and hopes invested in writing a morally viable story of a future worth having.

[1] Edwin Muir, “The Wheel,” in Collected Poems (New York: Oxford University Press, 1960), 105. Cited in Donald W. Shriver, An Ethic for Enemies: Forgiveness in Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 12.

[2] Kathleen M. O’Connor, Lamentations and the Tears of the World (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002), 3, 96.

[3] Ibid., 102.

This article is adapted from Larry Graham’s book Moral Injury: Restoring Wounded Souls, available from Abingdon Press.

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