Stand by Me: Memorial Day and the Healing of Souls
If you have to reassure people that you’re not abandoning them, it may be because they feel you slipping away. In John 14, Jesus is responding to the anxiety of those he loves. “I will not leave you orphaned,” he says, but it is not clear how he will keep that promise. In a few hours, his arrest, trial, crucifixion and death will all have been accomplished. It will feel as if he has, in fact, abandoned them or been torn away from them.
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Jesus loses his life, and he is not the only one to suffer loss. Those he leaves behind lose him, and without him, they lose whatever security they might have felt in the world. After his death, they take refuge by hiding. They are isolated from each other and afraid of everything on the other side of locked doors.
We rarely think of what happened to Jesus as an experience of combat, but the story of his arrest includes soldiers, weapons, and at least momentary hand-to-hand combat as Peter draws a sword to slice off the ear of one of those sent to arrest Jesus. Twenty-four hours later, those who could not watch with Jesus in the garden or save him from the enemy will themselves be lost without him.
This weekend, we observe Memorial Day. It began in 1868 as a remembrance of the dead on both sides of the Civil War. It remains a moment in our civic life to take seriously the human costs of wars exacted from those who fight them.
Just as the passion of Jesus resulted in more than the loss of its most obvious casualty, so the human costs of war have always been higher than we knew how to count. A couple of statistics illustrate the point: In 2013, fewer active duty members of the military committed suicide than in 2012 (the number dropped from 319 to 261). However, the number of suicides among National Guard and reserves troops climbed during the same period (from 203 to 213), and when the active duty and reserve numbers are taken together, in 2013, the U.S. lost a member of the military to suicide approximately every 18 hours.
One theory of suicide associates three factors with the cause of death: feeling that you don’t belong, feeling that you are a burden to others, and having the capacity to overcome the fear of pain and harm. Eventually the experience of social isolation and alienation is so strong — “my death will be better for my family, and I just don’t belong here anyway” — that it overpowers even the natural tendency to avoid harm.
Near the end of The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, Andrew Solomon writes, “So many people have asked me what to do for depressed friends and relatives, and my answer is actually simple: blunt their isolation. Do it with cups of tea or with long talks or by sitting in a room nearby and staying silent or in whatever way suits the circumstances, but do that” (437).
The promise of the Spirit to the disciples is a promise from Jesus to blunt their isolation. “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever” (John 14:16). The word “advocate” means one who stands alongside another. Under threat, we talk about someone having our back. In peacetime, the better image may be that someone is right beside you. You are not alone. To the disciples, Jesus’ gift of his Spirit with them says in effect, “It will be as if I am by your side.”
When the disciples experience Jesus as risen from the dead, they recognize his Spirit as gathering them into something new: they become a church, a community of people who are bound together by the Spirit in love for one another. The love of God, given and received in a community like that, offers healing and belonging where there was isolation before.
In addition to counting combat deaths and calling them to mind on Memorial Day, we are beginning to speak of the human costs of war in terms of moral injury. When the experience of survivor guilt, the trauma of combat memories, and the sense of having betrayed one’s own moral center threaten to leave one desolate, the community that Jesus breathes his Spirit into offers forgiveness, love, belonging, and good work to be a part of with others. It is a fitting memorial to the one who said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12).
Reflecting on healing after moral injury, Dr. Rita Nakishima Brock says, “I think the way a person is restored to a sense of their own goodness is that they participate in a life of the community where the things they do for other people are deeply appreciated and they have reflected back at them a sense that they are loved and appreciated for what they do.” That is the sort of community Jesus brings to life by offering his disciples an Advocate, standing beside them, the Spirit of truth.
The Soul Repair Center was set up to focus on moral injury and the terrible toll it takes on military veterans.
Mary Hinkle Shore is pastor of Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Brevard, N.C.
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