Journal of Christian Ministry | 2022: Understanding Racism Through the Lens of Moral Injury

2022: Understanding Racism Through the Lens of Moral Injury

2022: Understanding Racism Through the Lens of Moral Injury


Understanding Racism Through the Lens of Moral Injury

by Gene M Gordon (EdD, DMin), Pastor at Capital Presbyterian Church in Harrisburg, PA

For African Americans the year 2019 was designated as a Year of Return. The president of the Republic of Ghana had invited Africans in the diaspora to return there “to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first recorded enslaved Africans in Jamestown Virginia in America.”[1] I paid homage to the invitation and visited Ghana in August of 2019 as a member of a group of academics and other African Americans. It was a spiritual and birth-right journey and also a time to remember those who were forced to leave Africa without their consent. The chosen beginning date of 1619 in counting the four hundred years may be debatable, yet it is important as a focal point for the establishment of what white southerners later called the peculiar institution.

What is not debatable is that the most significant experience of my trip to be with sister and brother Africans in Ghana was my visit to the Elmina and Cape Coast Castles—known to Ghanaians and members of the African diaspora as dungeons. In those sixty vaults of terror along a three-hundred-mile coast, Africans were subjected to extreme conditions of inhuman degradation and disdain. The Elmina facility was built and populated by the Portuguese while others were erected and maintained by the British, the Spanish, the French, the Dutch, and the Danish. At first the castles were erected as fortified deterrents to war-based attacks and as points of trade. However, trading gold and other merchandise resulted in unprofitable returns, making way for the castles to become dungeons for the African Slave Trade. Ownership of those places of horror changed hands between the often-warring Europeans, yet the evolved purpose for them and their conditions never waned.

The Europeans at first considered Africa to be a Dark Continent whose inhabitants were non-human cannibals devoid of any real intelligence, the equal of lower animals. This and other lies they told themselves no doubt made it much easier for them to cram hundreds of African people together on dank, dungeon floors reeking of gunpowder in the midst of the stench of human bodily waste and fluids for months on end. The cells were devoid of light, and food was scarce, while water was almost nonexistent. Often, some reasonably healthy women were washed, clothed, and presented to the governor to do with as he wished and thrown back into the mix after being used. At some point, men and women who survived thus far were forced in chains through the door of no return for the long oppressive middle passage to the West and to the Americas. Symbolically, the 2019 return was on their behalf, a return to a home to which they had no chance of returning.

The unthinkable trauma that the African natives endured did not end with their departure.  Instead, it intensified in several ways. Their enslavement became a chattel system, from which there was no escape. They and their children were the property of others unto death. In North America the institution of slavery morphed into Jim Crow and the denial of the basic human needs of liberty and self-actualization. Unrestrained lynching of black men and women culled thousands of white men, women, and children from their homes to watch with opprobrious laughter and delight—as people do in stadiums, signaling the acceptance by all of the inferiority of those then called negroes. In consideration of their attitudes, biases, fear of black bodies, and belief in their superiority over others, whites have precipitated the realities of economic, educational, cultural, systemic, and institutional racism. This morally disruptive history affects  me as transgenerational trauma.

Ongoing incidences of stress as a result of pernicious racism touches African Americans deeply in their souls. Racism has placed a tremendous burden on those who have been oppressed by it. Black people have and are suffering their own unabridged edition of moral injuries—mental, emotional, and spiritual struggles akin to those affecting combatants in war.[2] The consequences of the Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome are inherited by subsequent generations such that the injuries, the wounds, the trauma, the anomie, since they have neither been treated nor healed, persist. The effects of racism upon those who were ripped from the fabric of their habitats on the continent of Africa and sown into the patchwork of the Americas has been and continues to be deleterious for black people. Furthermore, a corollary holds true: racism has seriously wounded the perpetrators themselves and indeed their descendants who consciously or unconsciously suffer their own moral injury.

The purpose of this article is to introduce the concept of moral injury as a beginning conversation on “Exploring Racial Diversity in our DMin Programs,” as racism and Moral Injury have been my thesis in my own DMin process. I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to reflect upon life in America from the vantage point of an African American. This vantage point has provided me with perspectives on life concerning its intersectionality and often divisive understandings. In addition, my education and interests have melded the areas of Christian theology, chaplaincy, military service, teaching, and parenting, as well as the pastoring of churches. As a chaplain patients rejected me for Caucasians and as a professor university students dropped my course when they met me on the first day. These hurts and others, though I tried to diminish and deny it, precipited sleepless nights and diminished self-confidence. All of these experiences are bound together, compelling me to interrogate racism as a root cause of moral injury. Much as this paper rcognizes the many applications of Moral Injury to broad facets of human life it should be especially relevant in DMin programs. It is high time that the church militant fully take on the presence of racism and its pernicious effects and it is through the understanding of and the informed response to racism that parishioners will be transformed into truly following and imitating Jesus as he has taught us to love one another.

Moral Injury

Jonathan Shay, is a clinical psychiatrist who worked with United States Vietnam War veterans and coined the term moral injury. Among those who showed symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Shay observed something other than the usual PTSD signs. Shay later described this ‘other’ as expressions of moral injuries. It was not long before researchers and investigators began their own work on the concept of moral injury. Brett Litz and his associates in 2009 published what has become known as the Perpetration Model definition of moral injury. It is widely accepted and states that it is, “The lasting psychological, physiological, spiritual, behavioral, and social impact of perpetrating, failing to prevent, or bearing witness to acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.”[3] This definition works well for soldiers and veterans who kill others and commit egregious acts most often against their own moral codes and convictions. Individual atrocities this model claims, perpetrates a moral injury that results in serious maladies. “This may be manifested as deep and lasting anxiety, guilt, shame, and self-condemnation that can lead to a view of the self as “immoral, irredeemable, and unrepairable.”[4] As the concept of moral injury began to be applied to the civilian world, other definitions emerged.

A second model of understanding is recognized as the Betrayal Model. It is more in keeping with the original idea formulated by Shay as expressed in his books, Achilles in Vietnam and Odysseus in America. In those writings Shay expressly described moral injury as developing from, “the betrayal of ‘what’s right’ in a high-stakes situation by someone who holds power.”[5] The divergence between the two models is that in the first mentioned, the individual is the one who does the harm to herself or himself while in the second the harm comes from an external source over which the individual is hapless.

This latter definition does not close the door on understanding the varied dimensions of moral injury; the concept is still developing even as a valid candidate for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). In a melding of both models, Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini stipulated that moral injury takes place “when soldiers violate their core moral beliefs through their own actions or omissions, but also when they witness someone else violate core moral values or feel betrayed by persons in authority.”[6] Furthermore, moral injury is, “The deep spiritual pain experienced by those who suffer under systems of injustice that harm their sense of self, human dignity, and integrity.”[7]These considerations among others, have led to the removal of the concept of moral injury from the sole domain of the military and allowed it to be applied within civilian and everyday life.

The literature on moral njury now includes personal stories about the trauma resulting from the Holocaust, marriage and divorce, caregiving, spouse abuse and other human foibles.[8] Missing in this literature is the notion that racism has inflicted an enduring trauma on the lives of African Americans that needs to be acknowledged and addressed.

Racism and Moral Injury

The horrors of the dungeons in West Africa, the subsequent transatlantic humiliations and the tragedies of Reconstruction, Jim Crow, discrimination and microaggressions continue to be endured as an often-invisible moral injury. The expressed fear of receiving a vaccine because of the events years past when black men were purposefully infected with syphilis is testament that the wound persists.[9] The suppression of defensible black histories being taught in schools furthers the pain. Police interactions with blacks and white resistance to any appearance of wrongdoing all continue the festering and metastasizing of the wound. Moral Injury results in shame, anger, low self-esteem, guilt (including survivor guilt), depression, grief, and other debilitating emotions. These are human excitements to which all are subject yet are neither as readily obtained nor sustained by the majority. Consider the ascriptions of black rage, black anger, and black over-sensitivity. Black rage has even become an accepted legal defense for a committed crime. How else might the malady be addressed?

Moral injury is considered to be an injury to the soul. Brock and others have asserted that moral injuries are best engaged through spiritual considerations and that clergy, chaplains and other spiritual workers are best suited to address the issue. As an injury to the soul, it requires mediation from sources that are capable of transcending the body and penetrating into the inner self. A spiritual process is required. “To be ‘spiritual’ from an African American perspective, is to live wholly from the divine soul center of human existence. This center is the core of the universe and the quintessential impetus driving the quest for human fulfillment.”[10] When punctured, that soul requires spiritual unguents.

Moral injury has been shown to be a transgenerational trauma, especially in terms of historical trauma, which is trauma “experienced by a specific cultural group that has a history of being systematically oppressed.”[11] While there is indisputable oral transmission of the hurt, epigenetic transmission needs to be explored as it has been for Holocaust victims and Indigenous Americans. A growing body of research shows that extreme trauma due to forces that are beyond individual control can be passed down from generation to generation. I did not experience Jim Crow laws in their heyday, yet I still wonder whether I am in the right place when in the company of Caucasians. Oftentimes, I feel transported to some by-gone time and spend a visceral moment there. The question, “How did you get here?” is often asked and reinforces my unreadiness based upon my history.

In an excellent disquisition from the lens of neuroscience entitled Race, Trauma, and Home in the Novels of Toni Morrison, Evelyn Jaffe Schreiber found robust and compelling theses on slave trauma, its shared memory, and its generational impact within the writings of Nobel Laureate Morrison. I contend that Schreiber is on point when she stated, “Black Americans, as Morrison shows in adept and nuanced ways, suffer from specific historical, contextual, and inherited trauma.[12] And so the old order does not change but refurbishes itself time and again in the tragic enactments of harm to Sandra Bland, Rayshard Brooks, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many more.

Doctor of Ministry Programs

It has been my observation that, absent the presence of black or brown bodies in any gathering, their concerns and feelings go overlooked or unnoticed. As those who are directors of Doctor of Ministry programs steer their craft though ever changing diverse and rolling seas, they would do well to consider the effects of racism, as it has proffered direct and indirect traumatic harm to African Americans. Concurrently, racism may also have engendered anguish to whites. DMin instructors need to be made aware of the wounds carried by African Americans and, I dare say, other brown and indigenous peoples as they engage them in their classes. DMin managers and educators must be the kind of advocates that, absent black bodies from planning meetings and decision-making, address their needs and include them nonetheless.

There is a growing library of good work being written and discussed on spiritual prescriptions for treating moral injury. There is consensus that moral injury cannot be cured per se, yet it can be mitigated especially with spiritual tools. Soong-Chan Rah, the plenary speaker at the 2018 conference of the Association for Doctor of Ministry Education (ADME), spoke about “the temptation of a dominant culture to overlook the importance of lament, which is an important expression for minority cultures.”[13] There, I concur, is an excellent place to begin in adjudication. DMin educators should not only allow the lament necessary for victims of moral injury but should also put themselves in an intentional position to lament with them. The practice of lament, I submit, is even better than requiring them to quote John Calvin or Søren Kierkegaard. That lament should irrevocably be connected to hope: hope that seminaries celebrate by listening and accepting; hope that permits serious attention to the soul soothing expressions of Black Liberation and Womanist Theologies; hope that allows black learners to express their motivations and emotions in a space where they feel they are heard and where their stories are valued.

Awareness of the scourge of racism and its effects on African Americans would help to ensure that efforts towards so-called Multiculturalism might intentionally include attention to their wounds. Vazquez Torres speaking as a Latinx, “articulates how white supremacy pushes different oppressed groups to silence and to compete with each other instead of fighting white supremacy.[14] These kinds of results obtain from the trauma of racism born as a means to justify slavery and to promote white supremacy, for which seminaries and churches are not guilt free.

Racism has also harmed Caucasians, who suffered and are suffering from their own moral injury within the definition of the Perpetration Model. This notion is expressed in Hidden Wounds by Wendell Berry, who recounted as a white man, his own wounds which he claims stem from the effect of racism on the American identity.[15] He grew up in the American South and later looked back on the trauma he experienced. The wound is hidden, said Berry, because it is a condition that the white man chooses not to acknowledge. I call the wound of which Berry speaks a moral injury from his days growing up in the Southern United States where he observed and lived out the superiority of his privileges at the expense of the humiliation of black bodies.

Moral injury once again, ought not to be regarded as a malady to be cured. “The most effective responses to moral injury may involve assuming responsibility—responsibility as both the admission of culpability and the ability to respond to violence and injustice.”[16] DMin instructors may be well served to permit vigorous attention to hearing the stories of African American DMin students, accepting those stories, and encouraging biblical exegesis to inform their expressed lamentations. The Black Church has helped Black people to mitigate their fear, doubt, bewilderment, anger, and shame, which are some of the fruits of moral injury. Those traditions including the tenets of Black Liberation and Womanist Theology need to be visibly present in all areas of study.

Once I was told by a Christian retired white professor that I as a black man had drawn the short straw and I just had to live with it. One desire given for incursions into Africa was to take Christianity to the heathens. Over the door of the Christian Church in the upper tier of the Elmina dungeon, Psalm 132:13 is written, For the Lord hath chosen Zion; he hath desired it for his habitation.” Could the Christian invaders have been suggesting that God had chosen this den of iniquity as God’s Holy Place in which God wished to dwell? The reading of scripture through the lens of the often-unseen wounds of moral injury, as is being done in other areas, is essential for the realization of the kingdom of God on earth for black seekers and their colleagues. May it be so at least for those who study for the Doctor of Ministry.

[1] “2019: Year of Return for African Diaspora,” Africa Renewal, December 7, 2018,

[2] “Moral Injury describes the effects of acts of commission or omission in war that result in mental, emotional, and spiritual struggle.” Kent D. Drescher, Jason A Nieuwsma, and Pamela Swales, “Morality and Moral Injury: Insights from Theology and Health Science,” Reflective Practice: Spirituality in Formation and Supervision 33 (2013): 51, accessed August 6, 2018.

[3] Joseph McDonald, “What Is Moral Injury? Current Definitions, Perspectives, and Context.” In Joseph McDonald et al., Moral Injury: A Guidebook for Understanding and Engagement, ed. Brad E. Kelle. Kindle (Lexington Books, 2020).

[4] Brett T. Litz et al., “Moral Injury and Moral Repair in War Veterans: A Preliminary Model and Intervention Strategy,” Clinical Psychology Review 29, no. 8 (December 2009): 695–706,

[5]Shay Jonathan, John McCain, and Senator Max Cleland, Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming (New York: Scribner, 2003)240; see also Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character: (New York: Scribner, 1994).

[6] Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini, Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War (Beacon Press, 2013).

[7] Joseph McDonald et al., Moral Injury: A Guidebook for Understanding and Engagement, ed. Brad E. Kelle Kindle(Lexington Books, 2020).

[8]Volunteers of America, The Momentum of Hope: Personal Stories of Moral Injury (Volunteers of America, 2018).

[9] See for example, Rafiou Agoro, “In the COVID-19 era, let’s keep an eye on clinical trials in Africa.” Journal of global health vol. 10,2 (2020): 020312. doi:10.7189/jogh.10.020312


[10] Carlyle Fielding Stewart, Black Spirituality and Black Consciousness: Soul, Culture and Freedom in the African- American Experience (Trenton NJ: Africa World Press, 1999). 2.

[11] “Trauma,” accessed November 9, 2021,

[12] Schreiber, Evelyn Jaffe. Race, Trauma, and Home in the Novels of Toni Morrison. Kindle edition. Baton Rouge La.: LSU Press, 2013.


[13] “Journal of Christian Ministry | Ministry in Diverse Communities,” accessed November 4, 2021,

[14]Gabriella Lettini, “Moral Injury and Its Causes, Symptoms, and Responses.” In Joseph McDonald et al., Moral Injury: A Guidebook for Understanding and Engagement, ed. Brad E. Kelle. Kindle (Lexington Books, 2020)..

[15] Wendell Berry, The Hidden Wound, Second edition (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2010).

[16] Gabriella Lettini, “Moral Injury and Its Causes