Moral Injury, Marxist Organizing and Christian Grace

The personal, social and psychic trauma of capitalism is well-understood by Marxists. But there's no pan-Marxist framework for "moral injury" and amends. Could Christian grace be a resource for healing the wounds of the working class?
Among soldiers who return from war, there is an emerging language to describe the trauma of doing something one knows to be wrong: moral injury. This concept would be easy for me to dismiss as a secular Marxist, this sort of quasi-idealism of saying the oppressor can be injured by doing the oppressing.  The most serious discussion I’ve found on the topic is theological and Christian rather than materialist. Nevertheless, the moral injury framework has stuck with me. I believe it has implications for both secular Marxists and for my Christian comrades, especially for organizing.

Marxism has a complicated relationship with soldiers. American troops are, of course, the human, day-to-day enactors of imperialism. This boilerplate denouncement doesn’t capture the reality of shooting children or the smell of bodies in the heat. Frankie Boyle, who I believe is an anarchist, tells a joke: “Not only will America go to your country and kill your people, but they’ll come back twenty years later and make a movie about how killing your people made their soldiers feel sad.” Telling very sad stories about soldiers in the “alas, poor asshole” tradition goes back two and a half thousand years. Greece was at war for seventy years solid, and everyone was at war. Every able-bodied man went. And they dealt with that mass trauma by putting on plays. The plays provided catharsis (purification), which was considered medicine in a very literal way. Most of the plays were written  by the army’s elected generals and you might assume they are, therefore, propaganda. But the plays—at least the ones we’ve preserved—don’t speak highly of generals or war.


I graduated later in life, at twenty-six, at the height of the Great Recession. My first job out of college was at a facility for developmentally disabled people. I was the only person I knew with a full-time job. Better, I had overtime. Some friends lived with their families, but most of the people I knew weren’t on those kinds of terms with their parents. I helped people with rent. I bought groceries for an acquaintance who lived in a shed. I didn’t know him well or particularly like him, but when someone lives in a shed and you know his name, you feed him without a second thought. That was just how it was.

I ended up working in a violent section of the facility. Neither developmentally disabled people nor mentally ill people are more likely to be violent than anyone else. But at a statistically insignificant intersection, among those who could not be placed in the community, there were violent people. I’m good with violence. Very, very good. I could take a client digging their fingers into my forearm and tearing the skin without screaming. I followed procedure. And so, I was placed where I was useful, where I got to practice being good with daily violence.


The ancient Greek play I think about the most is Sophocles’ Philoctetes. Philoctetes is a wounded archer who is abandoned by Odysseus on an island to die immediately after a battle. Philoctetes survives for decades, all the while in agony because of a foot wound that festers. He has a magic bow that always hits its target. That’s how he feeds himself despite being on his own and barely able to walk. But Odysseus, now a general, needs Philoctetes and his skill to put an end to the war, whom he knows will never agree to help after Odysseus betrayed him. So Odysseus has Neoptolemus, a young naïve soldier, pretend to be on Philoctetes’ side so they can steal his bow and coerce him into coming with them. Ancient Greeks believed in a version of evil that was tied to their concept of disease: miasma. You didn’t need to have bad intentions to do evil, because evil was like radiation. You absorbed it; it changed you and contaminated everyone else.

The inciting incident in Oedipus Rex (also by Sophocles) is a disease stalking Thebes, the city Oedipus rules. He sets out to investigate its source, only to find out it’s himself. He has unknowingly killed his father and married his mother. The plot ends with Oedipus gouging out his own eyes, seeking exile, and looking for a patch of earth to die on that would accept his unholy corpse. It doesn’t matter that he didn’t mean to harm anyone. That doesn’t reduce his responsibility. Also worth noting: the ancient Greek word translated as “sin” in the New Testament—ἁμαρτία—evokes an archer missing his mark. It’s more accurately translated as error.

Back to Philoctetes. Neoptolemus is naïve. He doesn’t understand what he is doing or has done until he meets Philoctetes, and sees how wretchedly grateful the man is to have someone who will sit with him while he screams in pain—pain which the ancient Greeks saw as potentially catching, which is why everyone before Neoptolemus had fled. Neoptolemus says (in  Bryan Doerries’s translation), “Your pain is painful to observe.” The simple act of sitting through a fraction of Philoctetes’ discomfort and bearing it—for the wrong reasons! —wins Philoctetes’ trust. Neoptolemus steals the bow and then immediately feels the horrible moral weight of what he’s done. He tries to return it and offer Philoctetes passage back to see a doctor who can cure him. But Philoctetes is so hurt by the betrayal he (rightly) doesn’t trust Neoptolemus’s intentions. This is both completely correct and understandable: Philoctetes has lost his means of eating and has nothing left. He simply can’t afford another betrayal of that magnitude. The play ends when Hercules descends from heaven to reassure Philoctetes of Neoptolemus’ good intentions and that everything will be alright Only then will Philoctetes accept help off the island to be healed and put an end to the war.

Hercules’ intervention is a deus ex machina. It’s one of the three ways Greek tragedies ended for its heroes, the other two being death and exile. Deus ex machina is a modern term for a lazy ending. In its original context, far from it. There’s a degree of emotional realism, a depth of betrayal and impossible-to-overcome loss, absent from works that must stick to the possible. It is in this cultural context that Christianity took root. People live horrible, complicated lives, and then must continue living. Christian grace as a means of catharsis and restorative justice was a solution to a problem Christianity didn’t invent.


I learned about Philoctetes from Bryan Doerries’ memoir, the Theater of War. Doerries has a charity that puts on his translations of Greek plays for people who do particularly brutal work. The professions he cites in his memoir are soldiers, prisoners (and their guards), and hospice workers. I find this grouping clumsy. It equivocates between class traitors and the oppressed. That said, I would encourage you to read the book. These plays don’t offer anyone uncomplicated comfort; they’re searingly and specifically critical of oppressive structures and people who participate in them. But rather than making people feel worse, they feel seen. They already had guilt. These plays use a dialectic, a dialogue between multiple parties, to present systemic problems as systemic. Rather than walking away feeling all better, the viewer is affirmed that something is terribly wrong, that it’s their responsibility to fix what’s wrong, and that they’re armed with the language to talk about it.


Robert Emmet Meagher is a theologian whose 2011 book, Killing From the Inside Out, uses roughly the same literary structure as the influential 2003 book Salt: A History of the World. Rather than chronicling the history of a commodity, however, Killing from The Inside Out is a history of an idea. It traces the theology of just warfare. It draws a line from the perpetual war of ancient Greece through early Christendom’s wars to modern soldiers killing strangers, who then come home divided from their humanity and the humanity of their families, and subsequently shoot themselves in the face. In the book, just warfare is repeatedly shown to be a lie and a heresy. Meagher doesn’t shy away from the specific violence and personal cost of that lie. He names who stood to gain: states, the church that allied itself with those states, and the individual leaders of those institutions. Meagher wrote a gorgeous little blister of a book. I am in awe at how little and how much rage makes it onto the page.


Simone Weil, in her essay “Reflections on The Right Use of School Studies,” says, “The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle. Nearly all those who think they have this capacity do not possess it. Warmth of heart, impulsiveness, pity are not enough.” (trans. Emma Crauford, 1942/1959) I once thought I had that capacity for attention. My love language is duty; I have 1st John 3:18 memorized and repeat it daily, and did even then. “Love in actions and in truth” is who I tell myself I am.

You should know that a shocking number of our clients at the facility where I worked had hepatitis. This is a problem across America. At my facility, probably over half had it, although comparing notes and looking at trends was both above my pay grade and taboo. It felt like half. There’s a HIPAA mandated silence that prevents you from centering yourself or generalizing, and there needs to be. Each client has their own needs, our training emphasized, and it was crucial to see the person in front of us. Still, most of them had hepatitis.

How the hell do you give hepatitis, a bloodborne illness, to half a population?  Let’s say, hypothetically, fully staffed for a home is eight direct care workers. Management gives you six. Three come in today. You, by yourself, need to lift six fully grown clients out of bed, change them or help them to the toilet, get them dressed, make their beds, help them brush their teeth, and feed them. You have an hour and a half to do that before they go to work or therapy or a doctor’s appointment. Each client is medically fragile, or prone to hitting, or prone to falling , or is lonely, or actively dying.  In a perfect world, everyone’s toiletries are in the sink cabinet, organized and labeled. Practically, they aren’t, because yesterday whoever was doing this was in just as much a hurry as you are. You could go to the storage closet and get new toothbrushes for everyone. You don’t have a key, but your supervisor does. She’s also changing six people, also bug-eyed and panicking. Someone’s going to fall today.

You can’t be everywhere at once. Someone’s going to get seriously hurt because there aren’t enough staff on hand, and there’s nothing either of you can do to stop it. You can’t afford to have two of your three people in a supply closet scrounging for toothbrushes. If someone gets hurt, it’s your fault. You will be fired, you will be prosecuted for neglect, you will never work with children or vulnerable people again. It will be your fault. So you grab a toothbrush, any toothbrush. When you brush your client’s teeth, you have to wear gloves because there’s so much blood. Then you rinse the brush off and put it back under the sink. This is also your fault.

This is the first ten minutes of your workday. My workday. Take it as my confession. There were forty-seven more units of ten minutes in my day, and I have a confession for each of them.


People used to thank me for my work with developmentally disabled people in this saccharine way that I found, privately, offensive. If you really cared about our clients or us, I thought, you would be howling at anyone who would listen that we were short staffed. I later moved up to administration. When we lost private offices to a need for space, one of my co-workers asked, “But where will we go to cry?” Our trauma was perhaps less, but it was there. I found myself also thanking direct care workers profusely. What else is there to say? There’s nothing to say.

Part of becoming a Marxist is seeing the pervasive violence that capitalism is built upon. Police shootings, institutionalization, forced prison labor, perpetual warfare. Slaves catch our fish. Our video games are made by artists who refer to photos of corpses for research, and it’s traumatizing them. Facebook moderators are developing paranoia and flashbacks from hours of looking at conspiracy theories and troll images of gore. Whatever minimum wage job you work will be short-staffed, and the cost of short staffing is often life-altering injury. If you don’t work a minimum wage job, you buy coffee from someone who does.

Capitalism is  ceaseless, downward economic pressure, a boot on our necks. There are very few jobs aimed at minimizing harm within capitalism that don’t also serve to keep that harmful system from falling apart. We are forced by our personal limitations to betray and be betrayed and are sheared away from one another. To be a Marxist is to be aware of the inherent contradictions in capitalism, of the gap between workers and other workers, workers and management, workers and capital. That gap is an open wound; an injury.

This probably reads like the personal testimonies my mother wrote in her evangelical phases. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of Marx; a performative washing of hands masquerading as accountability. I’d like to say I quit my job at the facility for developmentally disabled people because I felt I was complicit in upholding the systemic violence against my clients. The truth was, I stopped sleeping. I went to work until I physically could not. The truth was, the day after I quit, I was the reason they were short staffed. If you’re suspicious of my motives, you’re right to be. To paraphrase Neoptolemus, I have violated my own nature, and now all is disgust.


The open wound between workers created by capitalism is an obstacle to organizing. How could it not be? Our material interests as people divide us not just into broad social classes, but into races, into disability classification, gender, orientation—divisions which exploit us based on our individual material conditions, and therefore in viciously specific ways. These are not merely mechanistic divides. They are personal and traumatic. Unification of the working class is the ultimate solution to overcoming capitalist oppression, but there is a well of hurt and mistrust that must be addressed.

Solidarity immediately after a betrayal isn’t quite enough. What’s called for is atonement. Grace, frankly, would be the most elegant solution. A community that believes in the daily miracle of transforming sinners into saints has an ideological foundation for restorative justice, which secular Marxism does not share and rarely practices. So I envy Christian Marxists. I encourage them to use that advantage in their personal organizing. I can imagine that a Marxist Christian’s relationship with God would only be deepened by the knowledge that grace permits them to forgive and be forgiven and therefore work together far, far more easily than I can work with people who’ve wronged me. There’s no accepted pan-Marxist framework for amends, and so that’s a promised land where I can’t go. For the rest of us, I would like us to value our Christian comrades and learn what we can from them.


Jessica Price, herself Jewish, did an excellent Twitter thread on the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax collector (Luke 18:9-14) as a tangent to her argument that Jesus himself was probably a Pharisee. She provided additional historical context: Pharisees were radicals. Pharisees were popular, and they were the backbone of the resistance to the Roman occupation of Judea. In the earliest gospel, the Pharisees argued with Jesus (because argument was part of the life of a public intellectual) but warned Jesus that the Romans wanted him dead. Tax collectors, however, were despised. They were given free rein to collect a certain amount by whatever means they pleased. They did it through violence and extracted from the poorest of the poor. Class traitors, through and through.

The popular interpretation of the parable is that the Pharisee is a sanctimonious jerk for thanking God he’s not the tax collector because the tax collector is secretly very sorry. But the Pharisee isn’t wrong. As far as we know, the tax collector is going to walk out of the temple and go back to his life of brutalizing people. So maybe we should be Team Pharisee. Why include the Pharisee in the story at all, then? If this were just about the hypocrisy of someone repenting before God so he can go out and keep hurting people, there’d be no need to include a counterpoint. Jesus was already a popular person in a position of religious authority—himself a Pharisee if Price is correct. Telling the story would have sufficed. The portrait painted of the Pharisee, however, is of a man who is thankful he’s not been put in the taxpayer’s position. He’s good, but he’s untested. Price calls parables “bear traps.”

Resolving the tension misses the point. Narratively, having both men in the same room implies a relationship. What is that relationship? Bringing this back to the concept of moral injury: What do the people who find it easy to be good owe the people who’ve had to do evil to survive? Nothing? What do we owe people who do wrong and are sorry? What if they stop doing wrong? What if they can’t? Perhaps the most creative interpretation of this parable forces the question: What do we owe one another?

I think that question is more interesting for us as Marxists than any quick answer we might come up with. Maybe I’m wrong, though. Perhaps there’s no mass trauma resulting from what we’ve been coerced to do. Maybe I’m simply a bad person saying “alas, poor asshole” for myself, dithering and confusing my own lack of moral clarity for complexity. Perhaps catharsis itself is an opiate of the masses, sating pain without solving the root injury. In any case, I’m not dead yet. Won’t be for a while. So sit with me a minute in this unresolved question, this unsolvable pain. Let’s see if we can’t find a little grace here.


Thank you. Now, let’s get to work.

M. K. Anderson is a writer from Austin, Texas. You can find her on Twitter @QualiaRedux, at Protean Magazine and at her website mk-anderson.com.


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