WorshipWeb: Braver/Wiser: A Weekly Message of Courage and Compassion

The Sea of Moral Injury

By Karen G. Johnston

“We are swimming in this stream together / Some in power and some in pain/…We’re all swimming to the other side.” 
—Pat Humphries, "Swimming to the Other Side”

Here I am again, stopped at a traffic light, a sea of cars surrounding me, a handful of vehicles ahead of me. Stationed on the median strip, someone visibly in need, likely unhoused, walks the line of momentarily-stopped cars, cardboard sign in hand, asking for money.

I find myself praying. Not for their wellbeing. Not for solutions to our broken housing system. Instead, I perversely pray that the light will change before they arrive at my rolled-up window.

A person is curled up, sleeping on a slab of cardboard, with a bag and cup next to them. They're on a sidewalk near a busy street with traffic and pedestrians.

Perhaps you follow the dictum of the 19th century poet Walt Whitman, “give alms to everyone who asks,” and this frees you to know you have done your part. Perhaps, because you intentionally support community organizations that provide direct service or address systemic issues, you pass by and experience no unease. Perhaps.

Personally, I swim clumsily between these two approaches. I find myself struggling to keep my head above these ethical waters.

Because any liberation must be collective liberation, I know it’s critically important to keep at the center of our attentions those most directly, most direly impacted. That being true, I have also come to believe that, no matter one’s privilege status, at this point in late-stage capitalism with its rot of the social safety net, we are all constantly swimming in a sea of moral injury.

No matter our social location, we regularly witness—or fail to prevent—harm caused by systems not of our making. This causes us to grapple with not only our place in the shadow sides of the interdependent web of all existence, but also the harm we experience.

In response, I sometimes turn away, scroll on-and-on, numb out. Sometimes I pray for the wrong things. Yet my faith, values, and principles tell me that there is a different option: to turn towards. And when I turn towards that sense of complicity—that pain of moral injury—it becomes a message from the interdependent web of all existence: harm of one is harm of all.

When I can pause, even for just a moment, I can recognize my unease for what it is: not a reason for disconnection or seed of resentment, but a niggling hello from the interdependent web of all existence, reminding me of a deep connection with my fellow earthling; a dogged attempt to stir me from the illusion of separation; an abiding call to save me from the false promise of safety by materialistic individualism.

When I can position myself to hear this universal and universalist message, I am better able to know which direction to swim.


Spirit of Life and Love, may it be true that there is a moral arc of the Universe. May it be true that when we come together, centering those most harmed, we can bend it towards justice. May we recognize each other as we swim in these roiling waters of late-stage capitalism, being for each other rafts and bridges and islands of respite til we make it to the further shore, til we make it to the other side.

About the Author

Karen G. Johnston

Rev. Karen G. Johnston (she/her/hers) is the Senior Minister at First Unitarian Universalist Society Burlington in Vermont. Before becoming a minister, she spent 20+ years as a clinical social worker....


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