November 8, 2015
First Parish Church of Groton
audio version here
Spirit of Life, breath of our breath, source of humility and deep ground: be with me as I preach this sermon.
When a minister preaches on a topic about which she knows little and has only a tenuous connection – a father who served in the Pacific Theater during World War II, but did not talk much about it when I entered his life some thirty-odd years later; an uncle who served in Viet Nam who never talked about it – it is tricky to get a sermon into the realm of right.
It is tricky, which is to say it is complex, because also, there are so many powerful and tender feelings when it comes to the myriad topics associated with veterans. Respect. Sacrifice. Honor. And shadows: increasing incidences of suicide and sexual assault; inadequate medical care and quality of life issues for those with traumatic brain injuries and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
So let me walk here gently and not talk about the Contributions of Veterans, but instead, speak to you about the contribution of one veteran: Unitarian Universalist minister and army chaplain, Chris Antal.
(Before I even begin, let me say that Chris would likely not be pleased to be the center of this sermon’s attention, though he would welcome the attention to the topics and people he cares about, so I invite you to listen to the stories I tell in that spirit.)
I first met Chris in early 2013, when he spoke to a class of mine in seminary. He hadn’t counted on being back in the States but as described by the congregation where he currently serves – the UU congregation at Rock Tavern in New York State – his “ stint as a military chaplain in Afghanistan […] came to an abrupt end when the Army officially reprimanded and summarily banished him for preaching a “politically inflammatory” sermon.”
The sermon he preached, titled “A Veteran’s Day Confession for America,” was preached three years ago tomorrow. Well received by the congregation that evening, it upset the brass when it was published on the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Larger Fellowship web site, where Chris was community minister (that’s how community ministers in an online church deliver their sermon: they publish it.)
[It was temporarily taken down from the CLF web site while Chris and the brass were working out their concerns. For part of that time, Chris’ Confession was published on this blog. That story can be found here.]
Chris was sent home from active combat – which saddened him greatly – though he was not discharged. He remains a Chaplain Captain in the U.S Army Reserve.
Chris is the very embodiment of his values. He has a steady, penetrating gaze. He asks questions and names quandaries with which most of us either aren’t familiar or fear to engage.
- Such as, what does it say about our nation that by abandoning the draft, we have further concentrated the ravages of modern wars disproportionately on individuals from communities of economic disadvantage?
- Such as, do we really understand the toll and tragedy of drone strikes? And do we have enough integrity to know the names of the people killed, and to know who loved them?
- Such as, do we acknowledge moral injury, and commit to responding and responding well?
You might find yourself asking, “what is moral injury?” Some call it “an affliction of the soul.” It is not PTSD, which is a specific mental health condition, though there well may be overlap. Moral injury arises in extreme circumstances, like soldiers (whether in combat or not) face, where someone’s actions may violate deeply held moral beliefs. t has been been described by Nakashima-Brock & Lettini in the following way: “Veterans with moral injury have souls in anguish, not a psychological disorder.” Moral injury is ages old. In recognizing its existence, we acknowledge the deep and complex wounds not only of body and mind, but also of spirit.
Chris’ active duty ministry was what I call “UU-eclectic.” In a play on an army routine named “sick call,” Chris instituted “Soul Call,” a kind of open chapel when soldiers could drop in to pray, meditate or study with him. He handed out pocket stones for soldiers to carry with them: stones with words of like “hope” or “faith” or “courage” engraved on them. He even conducted a traditional Japanese Zen tea ritual based on the ancient wisdom of Samurai warriors. All this in order to help soldiers stay “mindful of the soul dimension.”
This is not fluff. This is life-saving – in combat zones, in the field, and once back home. This is about reducing the risks of harm to veterans and their families by helping to maintain moral coherence, rather than relying on traditional techniques which demand that soldiers downplay, numb out, deny, and mentally block. Chris believes, and these are his words now, it means
paying attention to the ways we shield ourselves from painful truths, deny the real horror of warfare, and morally disengage from the consequences of our actions. Yet in order to prepare our souls and care for our souls we need to pay attention to the human cost of war. … When we do that, when we embrace tragedy rather than deny or avoid it, …we keep our hearts alive.
Though Chris is no longer in a combat zone, he continues to serve veterans whom he loves mightily. In addition to parish ministry, Chris works at a stalwart organization called Soldier’s Heart, founded by Dr. Edward Tick, tending to the needs of veterans. Among the many things Soldier’s Heart does is hold retreats, some of which are for both warriors and community members – creating safe space for veterans to tell their stories and for civilians to listen and learn. The goal of these retreats and all the work that address moral injury is “to create a place for grace to help [veterans] unlearn violence.” (Antal/Winings) The operate on the premise that “looking straight at the past may help restore …hope in the future.”
On this Sunday before Veteran’s Day, may we all be able to look straight at the past and in so doing, restore hope for the future. May we offer what we can to keep alive the hearts and souls of those who have known military duty, who have known war, who have learned violence and must now unlearn it.
Antal, Chris & Kathy Winings. Moral Injury, Soul Repair, and Creating a Place for Grace, Religious Education, Vol. 110, #4.
Freedman, Samuel. “Tending to Veterans Affliction of the Soul,” New York Times, January 11, 2013