“I guess you never forget the face of the guy you kill,” he said to me in a flat voice. I had been listening intently about what happened on that awful day when he pulled the trigger and killed the kid. “He was just a kid,” the man said over and over again, as if it would change the truth of it somehow.
Stories of killing, either accidently or on purpose, are held closely by veterans. The fear of misunderstanding can cause a silencing shame, and that shame can be deadly. There were more of these stories than I expected when we started the Episcopal Veterans Fellowship in 2014. It seemed like everyone had one, deep down in their rucksack, waiting to be told.
The feeling of shame about something veterans have done or left undone is often called Moral Injury, an injury to one’s own sense of morality or goodness. Killing children or non-combatants is right up there at the top of the stack. And so, as I listened to this story of killing I knew there was only one way to find any good news for this person who had done this.
Evangelism in the veteran community begins with trust. Veterans often feel out of step with the communities that sent them to war. After experiencing betrayal in war and homecoming, trust becomes harder and harder to give, and isolation is a common symptom for veterans. I’ve found that the best way to build trust is vulnerability. If I’m willing to trust, if I’m willing to share what I’m feeling, others are more likely to follow. Jesus said the truth shall set you free. The truth about our moral injury, the things done and left undone may take years to work its way to the surface, but it is a necessary step in learning and feeling the good news.
Evangelism in the veteran community must include a profound contemplation of the crucifixion. The word “Good news” or “Gospel” is used often in the New Testament, and the first four books of the New Testament are called “Gospels” in their opening lines. Mark begins, “The beginning of the good news, of Jesus Christ, the son of God.” So, the whole book was written for us to experience this good news. For me, the most profound encounter with the Good News of Jesus Christ, the son of God happens in Chapter 15. Here, the crucifixion is complete as Jesus “gave a loud cry and breathed his last.” Mark tells us the veil of the Temple is then torn, and the next thing he records is a cryptic statement by the centurion who is in charge of the crucifixion. The Roman centurion, who is standing up and facing the crucified Jesus, sees that he has breathed his last and says, “Truly, this man was God’s son.”
This Roman centurion’s job was to crucify three men on a Friday afternoon. He not only supervised the initial torture of nailing these men to wooden beams, but he also stayed there the whole afternoon, watching every move and hearing every sound. He would have seen how people reacted to Jesus, how some wept and others mocked. He would have heard Jesus cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” And so, this man, who was just doing his job, stares at the face of the man he has just killed and makes the most powerful statement of faith in the entire gospel.
It is only when a veteran, or any of us for that matter, contemplates the sufferings of Christ, and our part in his suffering, that we can fully experience the good news of Jesus life, death, and resurrection. This Roman commander knows he has participated in something immoral, feels the full weight of his moral injury, and knows the only one who can fix it is the man on the cross, the man who he just killed. This centurion knows better than anyone that you never forget the face of the guy you kill.
And so, the good news, for veterans is to know that we can take our moral injuries to Jesus. We do this in the Episcopal Veterans Fellowship by educating veterans and the church about moral injury and showing how the sacramental life of the Church can heal it.