Thursday, February 20, 2014

Bringing Them Home: Warriors Becoming Citizens, Citizens Becoming Companions

Thomas Swann shares his thoughts on Earlham School of Religion’s 2014 Willson Lectures featuring Rita Nakashima Brock:

A person can be hard pressed to pigeon hole Rita Nakashima Brock into a single label: feminist, theologian, reverend, protester; she moves with intention but also with the grace of an adventurer that knows the road often brings us to the unexpected, which is a gift of grace.  Her arrival to her current work as the co-creator of the Soul Repair Center at Brite Divinity School brings her journey to an issue exploding on our country's fabric of moral wholeness.  This year alone some 140,000 soldiers are expected to return from Afghanistan and start the journey back towards becoming the individuals they once were. “Without a new social, emotional, spiritual system that can help veterans of war move from a military system to civilian life, we sentence many of them to military cocoons or lonely states of limbo from which transition is nigh impossible.”

Bringing the warrior back home to their family starts at the end of the gateway at a local airport each and every day as deployments come to a close. Familiar scenes of joy, tears and relief are just the start however. Brock believes that bringing them to a place of wholeness is a journey demanding the cultivation of long-term friendships, which are as intentional as the course that molded them into the effective soldier that they became during 8 weeks of warrior formation known as boot camp.  As the soldier is trained to act upon a moral code of conduct essential to successful war campaigns with automatic response to orders of destruction, “moral reconditioning creates new moral systems” that does not eliminate the warrior code but lays upon it a new set of understandings that can bring healing and repair to the moral injuries of war.

In a series of lectures delivered at Earlham School of Religion she developed layers of understanding as to what is necessary to accompany returning soldiers in the often foreign journey of reentering a peacetime culture.   The tools to accompany this traverse come from a diverse palette ranging from the latest neuroscience to the ancient rhythms of ritual as displayed in the Navajo “way” blessings that draw a community into a 9-day healing focus of singularity and commitment. At the heart of moral injury is a brokenness that goes well beyond the body of the individual and leaves families and cultural institutions in a shambles. However it is the soldier with the broken soul who often reaches a place of lifeless existence and in alarming rates takes his or her life to end the pain.

Brock sees the church as a place where communities can step into a common energy of decompression and healing.   “The church is the only institution that commits to an individual from life to death” and thus has the potential to walk as a companion in this uncharted territory. At a time when the church seems to be seeking redefinition as its relevance is questioned by declining participation, the opportunity of forming new alliances and ways of bringing comfort to anguished souls cannot be missed. A warrior nation that does not return its warriors to full societal participation does not sustain itself. Hopefully, the sharing and acknowledging of the deep spiritual injury to our humanity may also shift the paradigm of aggression that dominates our current measures of choice in conflict resolution.

No one must look far into his or her own family or along the street to see the consequences of our country's inability to welcome back our soldiers to a world of wholeness, hope and possibility. We, even if a conflicted we, drove them into a place that has horrors that must be released and relived towards a place of return to something new and full of the marrow of life. The journey, as for Brock, has interesting turns for each of us and moves across boundaries of comfort. 

Rita Nakashima Brock is an accomplished woman of substance who finds a certain irony that her life has led her into conversations of partnership with people that once were on the other side of protest lines and now she sits with them at tables looking into the same pool of neglect and carnage. Generals and poets, scholars and citizens all can help to bring these injured souls back into the presence that they left behind not all that long ago. As we learn to serve these wounded warriors with our deep listening to their stories we may actually be taught by their companionship that good work can lead to new creation, bringing old and new into a flow of formation, which heals beyond our imagination. This is not a journey for the meek or self-absorbed. Anger will accompany this journey; silence, bewilderment and amazement. The narrative stories of these warriors are piling up on the shelves but so also are their bodies. The bodies, the loss, comes from not embracing “our body”, not to treat, but to walk, heart to heart, one single step at a time until they truly are home. Until our morality shifts and becomes inclusive to the wounds of moral injury their lives are bleeding a slow death.

Rita calls out in many directions, firmly and with penetration. One of her convictions is “that congregations are one place that should be welcoming veterans home, but few have committed to this work. It should not be undertaken with just simple good intentions, though good intentions matter a great deal. To welcome veterans into a community's life, we need to understand how to assist the transition from the values of military life to religious life. We must advocate for better services for treating PTSD, and we must support veterans' families and all they go through to welcome veterans home.” If we can spend endless resources to make them warriors what is the fair equivalent upon their return?

After sitting through a day of captivating and thought-provoking presentations the truth is that it is estimated that another 24 victims of moral injury have taken their lives to ease the pain. Yes, one an hour, day after day. I am left wondering if I can I say this is important enough to my sense of morality, important enough to move out of comfort and join in the discomfort. It only matters if my yes is followed by a step towards this new walk in a way different than we have chosen to this point in this war and all the others that have occupied our history.

Thomas Swann is a member of the Earlham School of Religion community and studies writing as ministry. This piece is a combination of information noted during the Willson Lectures and the reading of a series of posts by Rita Nakashima Brock in a BeaconPress Broadside. Thomas may be reached at and

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