All Souls Kansas City

“The Thin Veneer,” November 8, 2015, Rev. Kendyl Gibbons

Our own Unitarian hero Theodore Parker said it, back before America’s civil war, in a sermon on the moral condition of Boston:

What keeps you from a course of crime?  Your Morality?  Your Religion?  Is it?  Take away your property, your home, your friends, the respect of respectable people; take away what you have received from education, intellectual, moral, and religious, and how much better would the best of us be, than the men who will tomorrow be huddled off to jail, for crimes committed in some bar today?  The circumstances which have kept you temperate, industrious, respectable, would have made nine-tenths of the men in jail as good men as you are.


So let’s be clear:  if you haven’t been to prison, you cannot imagine what prison is really like.  If you have not been in combat, you cannot imagine the hellish truth of combat.  If you have not been a refugee, you cannot imagine what that means.  I try, but I know I can’t.  We skate together on the thin ice of civilization, you and I, as blithely as if it were solid ground, while just below our feet, the waters churn.  Ancient waters, dark and fathomless; hunger, sickness, violence; no food, no medicine, no shelter, no police…  Think of all the work, by all our ancestors, to get us past that; all our parents and grandparents who spent themselves freely so that you or I could walk into any drugstore and make our baby well again, or lock our doors at night and mean it.  It takes so little to crack that ice open and fall through — one good hurricane can do it; just ask the folks in New Orleans.


Or a handful of bombs will work.  Both Baghdad and Damascus were vibrant, contemporary urban centers fifteen years ago, with infrastructures that would have been recognizable as parallel to here in Kansas City.  Now they are filled with bullet holes and bomb rubble, more ancient than modern in their amenities, facing uncertain futures.  And the folks who happened to be living there are no stupider than you or me; no more evil or lazy or primitive.  But the thin veneer of civilization broke apart beneath them, and now either they cling amidst the wreckage and ongoing warfare, or they wander, dispossessed of everything, seeking refuge.  Which is what makes you a refugee.


Nine million of them, at last report.  Nine million refugees, from Syria alone.  More than fifty million, if you count them all, from everywhere, both internationally and internally displaced.  More than fifty million, this year for the first time since the end of World War II.  That is more than the total populations of Shanghai, Sao Paulo, Tokyo, and New York; the world’s four largest cities combined.  In 2013, at the beginning of the Syrian crisis, the United States accepted 90 refugees from that nation for resettlement here.  As of this past September 1,500 have been resettled, which is a significant increase.  Also in September, the Obama administration announced that in 2017, the U.S. will settle 100,000.  Again, a huge increase over previous numbers, but still dwarfed by the magnitude of the need.  Somewhere off the coast of Florida, the cruise ship St Louis is even yet sailing slowly past the glittering lights of Miami, on its way back to the camps of Nazi Europe, while the survivors of the Great Depression anxiously guard their American jobs.  The veneer of civilization is thin, my friends; very thin.


No one knows how thin better than the veterans we honor today.  And that awareness sets these men and women apart from those if us they fought to protect – to protect not only our lives and our freedom, but our innocence; our not having to know how fragile the boundary is that separates what we think of as ‘normal’ from the desperate and dehumanizing urgencies of survival.  It is important to remember that there are many veterans who have done important work on behalf of our country, who never saw combat, or faced an enemy soldier.  In fact, each soldier or sailor or airman has a unique story, and even the shared experience of war affects each person differently.  And yet, here is what we know:  we have become so technically proficient at the work of war, and so skilled at treating and healing its physical injuries, that it is no longer the identified enemies who are killing our troops.  Instead, they are doing it to themselves.  While there are many contextual and methodological caveats that make the study of suicide among veterans difficult, the one plain fact is this: that since 2012, more current and former military personnel have died of self-inflicted injury than have died of injuries received in battle.


Let’s be clear:  The majority of men and women who serve in our military return to civilian life and continue to be productive, contributing members of society; parents, spouses, friends, employees and employers, volunteers; admirable citizens.  Whatever scars or memories they carry are manageable, and their bonds to the comrades with whom they served are often profound.  It is neither helpful nor appropriate to stigmatize an entire generation of veterans as traumatized, dysfunctional, and suicidal – and it’s not true, either.  At the same time, it seems to me that there is an important message addressed to all of us as a civilization encoded in the desperation experienced by the minority of those who cannot find their way back across that thin veneer once they have seen it shattered.  I believe that what they have to teach us offers an important clue about how we might better understand the situation of refugees, and even the challenges of trying to live and grow up in our own most blighted urban neighborhoods.


The scene is one you have probably seen fictionalized on TV, or in the movies.  An Arabic family is asleep in their city home when American soldiers in combat gear burst through the door, screaming in English, aiming and perhaps firing automatic weapons at them.  Baffled and terrified, the adults are made to lie prone on the floor, while the soldiers ransack the house and the children watch, wide-eyed, tearful, and helpless.  The invaders themselves are scared, full of adrenaline, hair-trigger.  If everyone is very lucky, the soldiers find nothing, take what they want, depart as suddenly as they came, leaving destruction and humiliation in their wake.  If any little thing goes wrong, they leave blood and bodies.  Either way, the thin veneer of civilized humanity is blasted apart.  According to both low-level troops who participated in them, and upper-echelon commanders who ordered them, such scenarios were real, and frequent, in both Iraq and Afghanistan.


Two years after he came home from his second combat tour, Marine Staff Sgt. Felipe Tremillo is still haunted by images of the women and children he saw suffer from the violence and destruction of war in Afghanistan. “Terrible things happened to the people we are supposed to be helping,” he said. “We’d do raids, going in people’s homes [to search for weapons] and people would get hurt.”  American soldiers had to act that way, Tremillo says, “in order to stay safe.” But the moral compromise, the willful casting aside of his own values, broke something inside him, changing him into someone he hardly recognizes, and does not admire, according to a 2014 report in the Huffington Post.


The people who work with and study returning veterans have a term for it now; they are calling it ‘moral injury.’  Although it can accompany post-traumatic stress disorder, moral injury is a separate phenomenon.  Post-traumatic stress is about living all the time in high alert, unable to feel safe from imminent danger, and what that does to the human body’s equilibrium.  Moral injury does not have this kind of physical manifestation; it is a wound of the spirit and the psyche.  It is what happens when people do things, or see things, or don’t prevent things, that violate their most essential human values, leaving them deeply ashamed, and bewildered about their own identity.  “If I can shoot a child,” they wonder, “who am I?  I am clearly not the person I thought I was.”


Who we think we are is to some extent a function of the thin veneer.  You do not know, and cannot know, what you might do in some desperate situation, what values you would jettison in order to survive, or to protect someone you care about.  The veneer of civilization defends us not only from physical hardship and violence, but also from the need to make frantic moral decisions with irredeemably tragic consequences.  Nevertheless, we have an intuition, and I am inclined to think it is correct, that our values are only as real as our ability to hold on to them even when the thin ice of civilization does break beneath us, and we find ourselves overwhelmed by primitive necessity.  The dilemma of moral injury is real, and is not resolved by superficial soothing later in the context of recovered safety.


This is the dilemma; either we are responsible moral agents, or we are not.  Either we have some control over what we do, or else our lives are random and meaningless.  Here on the safe side of civilization, we teach each other to take responsibility, to be accountable for our actions.  We have choices, and choices have consequences; it is proper for us to feel shame when our behavior creates suffering for others.  The culture of war necessarily intensifies this attribution of responsibility; soldiers must fulfill their assignments, complete their missions, look out for each other, follow orders.  Unlike civilian life, where do-overs are allowed, in a war zone carelessness may be lethal.  And yet, doing what you are commanded, and achieving the objective, can put you in the position of causing suffering, too – often, in urban guerilla situations, to innocent, terrified people; to children, and women, and sick or wounded people, and frail elders.  Or the demands of the mission may put you in a position where you cannot help your comrades as you should.  Medics often suffer moral injury from not being able to save patients, or regular troops from watching helplessly as their friends die.  “It ought to have been me who was killed,” is a frequent observation on the part of those trying to articulate the agonizing guilt that follows them home from the battlefield, and invades their dreams.


While post-traumatic stress grows out of not being able to feel safe, moral injury arises precisely from the recognition that one is safe, but can no longer claim the moral identity that was once an essential part of that safety.  One must choose between two devastating alternatives – either I have no moral power of my own, and my actions are wholly a function of what others tell me to do; my own agency and will are irrelevant to my effect on the world, or I am the kind of person who leaves his friends to die, or watches torture and doesn’t stop it, or throws a grenade that blows up babies.  At some point, suicide might indeed seem preferable to coping with either side of that equation for the rest of your life.


Back in the day, and not so very long ago, it seems to me that the military in particular, and the culture in general, tried to give our soldiers some perceptual protections against this kind of moral injury.  I don’t think this was a good thing, and I wouldn’t want us to go back to it at all, but it may help to explain why we are seeing this kind of woundedness so much more clearly now.  For one thing, we told our fighters that the enemy was less than human, different from us; that they were brutal, vicious, without feeling, implacable; that they didn’t care about dying, and killing didn’t bother them.  And then we told them (and ourselves, by the way; and ourselves) that our warriors were engaged in protecting the people they loved, and their way of life; that something of ultimate value depended on their success; that they were serving God, and that God was on their side, no matter what they did.  That sort of dehumanization of other people seems facetious in today’s global village; most of us just don’t buy it any more, though some are attempting lately to make this case about Muslims in general, or on the other side, against Americans.  And possibly we might even have begun to reach a tentative consensus that any religious interpretation that preaches and blesses war discredits itself by that very act – may it be so.


The issue for our veterans is that the more the thin veneer of civilization withdraws its moral sanction from war, the more problematic their experiences become.  Yet I think they are not alone in this.  I think that when the bombs start falling in your neighborhood, and you flee with the clothes on your back and find yourself in a squalid and dangerous refugee camp, you are also likely to find yourself doing things you never thought you would do, seeing things you never thought you would see, and powerless to prevent things you never thought you would allow. And then I wonder, too, if people do not come out of our prison system, whether for-profit or state run, both prisoners and guards, also with moral injuries, wondering who they have become, now that they have seen things, and done things, that they could not have imagined before the thin veneer broke under them.


Now I would like to talk for a minute about god; can that be okay?  And I don’t mean just telling you about the god I don’t believe in, because you pretty much already know that.  I want to talk about the god that is not on my side or your side or anybody’s side, and definitely not the god that helps us shore up the thin veneer by telling everybody to do things his way.  I want to talk about something that maybe is left in us when the thin veneer does shatter; that call to human decency that persists even when it isn’t safe anymore, and people are dying, and tragic, unfixable things happen, and you still have to make choices, and go on.  Because there is the moral identity that we think we have, while we are skating along on the ice, before it is challenged by anything but what I have learned to call ‘first world problems’.   But there is something else, something that makes us weep for the blown up mothers and babies even when there was no way to stop it; that makes someone risk their own life to try to drag their wounded comrades or even their enemies to safety, even if it can’t be done; an impulse that teaches us to share the scarce water, to give the new inmate a word of advice; something that stubbornly calls us to a better self, and a better way.  You can’t prove it with logic, that much is clear; you can’t make an argument out of it; you can’t put it in a box and hand it to anybody.  You can try to ignore it, but it is hard to get rid of.  As the mid-century Unitarian minister A. Powell Davies once said, “The good we would not love returns to break our hearts.”  It is that heartbreak that we are talking about when we speak of moral injury; the brokenness that goes with finding out that you are not who you thought you were, and then having to decide who you are now, and what, if anything, still makes your life worthy, and worthwhile.


We don’t teach much about repentance and forgiveness in this culture anymore; mostly the only folks who talk about that stuff are the ones trying to tell you what not to do in the bedroom.  And that’s too bad, because it’s a skill we all need, both for ourselves and to offer others.  It seems to me that the wounds of moral injury can only be healed when we learn to recognize, first of all, how much the thin veneer protects us from knowing, and having to face  And second, that healing happens when we begin to come to terms with the limits of our power, and how much, in truth, we do not control – in spite of which, our capacity for human decency still matters, on whatever scale we can manage.  There never are any easy answers, in this struggle to live into what it means to be human beyond the fragile crust of safety, and choice, and entitlement that is our shared social construct.  I certainly don’t know how to make whole those moral injuries that are killing our vets.  They say, and it makes sense, that the only people who can reach them are other veterans, those who have been there in the chaos themselves.  The rest of us don’t know; can’t know; can’t imagine.  Can’t really understand, and I guess that’s right.  But I think we can acknowledge, even if we can’t totally understand.


Each of us walks around with an image of ourselves in our heads – an image that lets us know who we are, what we deserve, how we matter, the values we believe in.  When the thin veneer of civilization breaks apart beneath our feet, all that assurance is up for grabs, and we have to re-frame everything about ourselves in terms of impossibly tragic alternatives, as our choices and resources narrow to the vanishing point.  How could that experience not change you?  Yet I believe that there is something irreducible within each of us – not an old man living in the sky, but within each of us – that keeps urging us toward the largest humanity available to us in the circumstances, whatever that might be.  In the end, if we didn’t have that inner voice, and that loyalty, how would moral injury even be possible?  We would just be reduced to survival, pure and simple, and success in that would be its own total justification.  It is only because we want more than that, and want to be more than that, that it hurts us so deeply whenever we fail.  If there was not something in us forever willing the good, there would be no agony when we don’t reach it.  You needn’t call it god, if you don’t like the word – it really doesn’t matter what we call it.  But I think that is what grown up, rational people mean by it when they use that word – at least one of the things they mean.


That sacred spark lives in all of us – even in those we come to call our enemies, which is part of what makes war and violence such a damnable proposition in the first place.  And in all the horrible things we have ever come up with to do to each other, we may have given it only the tiniest of crumbs to work with, but we have never been able to snuff that impulse out altogether – thank goodness!  So yes, I invite you to consider how much of your moral identity is predicated on that thin veneer of culture and prosperity, and also to spare a thought for those of our veterans, and others, whose confrontation with that paradox of responsibility and powerlessness has left them in spiritual despair.  But I also invite you to notice the moments when even out of chaos and desperation, someone obeys the beckoning of their better nature, for in that moment something enduring, and hopeful, and holy, is present. It’s like they say in the song; we see god, walking beside us, going our way.


Rev. Kendyl Gibbons

All Souls UU Church

November 8, 2015