Prophetic Preaching After a War

Prophetic Preaching After a War: Revealing the International Dimensions of Christ’s Compassion

David B. Couturier, OFM. Cap.


Preaching before a war may be difficult; preaching after one may be even more so. Prior to the war preachers must engage the congregation in a thorough moral analysis of the conditions for a just entrance into battle (ius ad bellum) and an ethical conduct of it (ius in bello). But, it is after the war that preachers may be most needed for their prophetic message.

There are two reasons for this. First, there are the wounds of war that need healing, those congregational wounds that are often hidden by the rhetoric of victory (or the failure of defeat). Second, the war’s end often provides us with a new set of moral challenges, uncovering the disturbing social dynamics that gave rise and necessity to war in the first place. It is the preacher’s task to put these dynamics into gospel context. It will not be easy.

Usually preachers and their congregations are spiritually exhausted after a war. The debates leading to war are often intense and sometimes divisive. Often times they are conducted out of the earshot of the church. Congregations no longer get their news or share their views of the world in the local church. We live by our “all the news all the time” stations, bombarding us with screaming headlines and endless analysis. People come to church entangled in these images and messages. Increasingly they come to church in times of crisis not to make sense of their world; they have enough analysis at home. They come to find refuge from it.

This leaves the preacher in the middle of a world of “talking heads” trying to hold the unnamed anxieties and unspoken distress of the congregation. Like everyone else at war’s end, preachers can secretly wish for a “return to the normal” and months of safe and comfortable preaching.  But, then there are the five congregational wounds of war.

Congregational Wounds of War

I believe there are five congregational wounds to be healed when wars cease. The first is the congregation’s grieving for the victims of war. Every war produces an horrific list of casualties. Because of this we hold a moral obligation to honor those who sacrificed their lives and to bless those who return. Too often, however, congregations move past the rituals of remembrance in the attempt to retrieve a sense of normalcy. But, the spirit will always find ways to honor the needs for common and congregational grieving. It has been many decades since the end of the Vietnam War and people still come to “The Wall” to touch the stone, mark the names, and grieve in common. It is critical that the preacher help the congregation to remember the dead and remind itself of the sacrifices that freedom requires.

Just as important is the need to remember the unknown, unseen and often “permissible” victims of war. These are the millions of innocent people who have been killed, maimed, or disabled in today’s wars. According to a UNICEF report on the status of children, between 1987 and 1997, two million children lost their lives in armed conflicts and six million were maimed or disabled and another million orphaned.[1] They are often forgotten as the attention of our “news cycle” and moral attention shift. As Christians, we have a moral obligation to remember them. We live in the memory of the One who lets no sparrow fall from the sky without notice.

Also to be remembered are the refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced persons who roam the world in search of food, shelter, and protection. The number of internally displaced persons (those who cannot return to their homes because of civil wars but who are trapped inside their countries is estimated to be between 25 and 30 million). It is obscene to remember them as “collateral damage.” These people are in a legal, political and economic limbo. They are vulnerable to physical attacks, forced labor, sexual exploitation for food, and forcible recruitment into the army. It is the preacher’s task to turn the congregation from an ethic of collateral damage to collateral compassion.

The second congregational wound is the flaw of cheap reconciliation. In the rush toward stability, communities over gloss over the significant injuries and horrible injustices sustained on all sides during the course of the war. Treaties can bring a halt to hostilities. They cannot resolve resentment, overcome anger, and lead communities to true reconciliation. Too often, our social experiences of justice and forgiveness are antiseptic, largely because they fail to take in the true horrors of the offenses. While these experiences may redress past wrongs, they often do not create the communion between perpetrators and victims that is required for the full healing of all parties.[2] A situation that leaves the moral world still divided between the victors and the defeated, with communities who remain enemies to one another is a condition that fails to grasp the full truth of Gospel communion.

Mirsolav Volf reminds us that the starting point for reconciliation is “the will to embrace.” Rooted in the unconditional and indiscriminate love of God, “this will to give ourselves to others and to welcome them, to readjust our identities to make space for them, is prior to any judgement about others, except of identifying them in their humanity. (It) precedes any “truth” about others and any reading of their actions with respect to justice.”[3] This immutable and indiscriminate will to embrace, Volf maintains, requires righting the wrongs that have been done and reshaping our relationships so that they correspond to the requirements of justice. But, it is so much more.

The preacher after a war poses the eschatological invitation to a deeper Trinitarian experience. If one were to describe the inner life of God as a free communion of persons without domination or deprivation, then one can see that meeting the strict demands of justice is not enough as a conclusion to civil conflict. Congregations must be invited to assess the conditions of domination and deprivation that lie below the surface of every social transgression. Cheap reconciliation dissolves to pacification.

Reconciliation requires a social transformation of conflict that can only be harvested in the communion of God.

The third congregational wound is polarization within the Church. The declaration of war is never unanimous and it is not reached by consensus. There are always splits in the congregation between those who favor the declaration for war and those who oppose it. And these sentiments are often highly charged and deeply personal. An armistice does not automatically resolve the resentments that have boiled over in a church community struggling with the complex moral questions of international right and wrong. After a war a preacher must come to terms with those in the congregation who believe that the preacher could have said more and those who believe the preacher should have said less about the conflict. Those disappointments can run deep and the scars can be lasting.

Time along will not heal the troubled consciences of political interests. The preached word, however, can cut the cycles of vengeance, alienation, and isolation that often occur in politically charged processes. The preacher must call the community to the new relationships beyond politics and justice, those that do not atomize the congregation but draw it to a deeper communion by the socially significant dynamic of forgiveness.

The fourth and most difficult congregational wound that preachers must attend to is ambivalence, their own and that of members of the community.

The time after war should be a moment of assessment, not only of tactical measures but also of personal ones. Issues may be seen in a clearer light, outside the hot glare of media refraction and the distortion of political spin. Each congregation must face the awful truth of its participation in the war. Some in the congregation will have to come to grips with their cowardice. Others will face the realization that the war offered them a specious opportunity to project their own demons. All will face the judgment of their own consciences. No one more than the preacher.

After the war preachers must come to terms with the manner in which they took up the task and assumed the role of prophetic witness. Did they dilute the Gospel message to appease a congregation intent on comfort? Did they cheapen the Cross and refuse to “dip into the dish” of hostility and betrayal, as Jesus did with Judas? Did they stick to the lectionary because it was the safe and proper thing to do?

Ambivalence to social issues is a particular problem among priests and seminarians. For the past several years, I have been tracking the “social imagination” of those called to priesthood and religious life. Studies done on the capacity of priests and seminarians to enter empathetically into the lives of the poor and to promote justice indicate a mixed set of motives.[4]

Because preachers can reveal the new history set before the community, they must confront the secret shame that accompanies their own fears and insecurities before God. Naming their own ambivalence, they can help the community walk through its history and confess the social biases, national mythologies, and scripted silences that justify violence everyday.

And finally the last congregational wound to be addressed is apathy. For some people, civil conflicts are but distractions to their narcissistic pursuits.

They want sermons to steer as far away from this world as possible. But, apathy in the face of injustice is a serious moral disorder. After an especially exhausting period of national debate and trauma, personal recovery can easily slide into social apathy, But, those who conduct war cannot walk away from the moral obligations they assume for reconstruction when the war is over. Apathy is a form of “frozen violence” that continues the dynamics of war, by other means. Therefore, it must be treated in the same light of forgiveness, reconciliation and justice that we have been speaking of.

There is a second opportunity for preachers at the conclusion of war. A truce often exposes new moral challenges and unmasks social dynamics that have been buried under the weight of oppression and domination. These social revelations of war need to be understood and resolved in the light of God’s covenant with humanity. One “social revelation” today is the intimate connection between war and the social dynamics of global poverty.[5]

An alarming factor in the acceleration of poverty today is the rise in serious armed conflict, especially civil wars. Between 1989 and 1999, there were 110 armed conflicts around the world. We know that more than 80% of the casualties of war today are civilians, mostly women and children.

Those numbers fail to grasp the emotional damage experienced by those tortured, raped, displaced, handicapped or exposed to other forms of terror during war. Eighty-five percent of all conflicts are fought within country borders, creating a frightening legacy of psychological, social and economic trauma. Children are the most vulnerable. More than 300,000 of them are used as child soldiers and the sexual abuse of teenage girls has now become an unfortunate part of military strategy, as became evident (years ago) in the wars in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Violent conflict kills or disables millions of innocent men, women and children. It displaces tens of millions more and disrupts already fragile economies for decades to come. Many of these conflicts are now rooted in “resource wars,” conflicts unlike those of the cold war era “are less about ideologies and seizing the reins of state than about the struggle to control or plunder resources.”[6] These natural resources, diamonds, timber, oil, and coltan (used in our cell phones), now constitute a major risk factor in developing countries trying to compete (and falling further behind) in the crushing advance of globalization.

Jesus once turned over the tables of the moneychangers and toppled thereby the presumption that the Temple could be used as the refigure of the violent accommodators of Rome. So too must today’s preacher turn over the conditions of war and invite the congregation to see the underside of civil conflict. It is the preacher’s charge to demonstrate the wonder of God’s love and, without losing sight of grace, reveal the social dynamics that keep us from genuine communion.

Preaching the International Compassion of Christ

As preachers of the Word, we must take up our role as the primary teachers of the international dimensions of Christ’s compassion.[7] We must help men and women know how rich is the beauty and how wonderful is the diversity of God’s great creation all over the world. This will not be easy.

Religious congregations in the United States were built on the insights and work of the predominantly “parochial culture” of the 19th and 20th centuries. Our loose network of largely ethnic parishes served the national and diocesan interests of the times and was immensely successful. We built the largest and most successful private school system the world had ever seen. We built the largest and most effective private health care network the world had ever known. Up until now, our preaching has stood on this solid parochial foundation.

But we stand in a different place with a different set of needs. The globalized and diversified world of the 21st century calls us to move from the parochial culture of the 20th century to the international mission culture of the twenty-first. By that I mean that we must change the theological current of compassion that once swelled our local interests to one that deepens our attention and our commitment to the plight of our sisters and brothers around the world.

We cannot tolerate a church prayer and practice that is too narrowly tied to neighborhood concerns. Too often the stakes of international issues (even those of enormous import) escape our parishioners or are largely defined by the commercial interests of our corporations or the rhetorical devices of our governments, without any help from our inherited theological wisdom. We must stand beyond the national boundaries that circumscribe our preaching. This means immersing our words in the goodness of God, in the way that Francis of Assisi once did.

Francis was no stranger to the paradox and perils of war and greed. His childhood fantasy was to become a knight. But, he lost that dream when the reality of war revealed to him that he could no longer trust the God of his youth, the imperial God of the Crusades and the extravagantly dressed soldier-bishops of Europe. Having lost his adolescent fantasy and his spiritual moorings, he roamed the back alleys and poorer haunts of Assisi for meaning. He found it in the arms of a leper.

In that embrace, God gave Francis a new “social imagination,” one secured in the goodness of God. God is good, he taught, all good, supremely good, all the time and to everyone. In a world that justified the split of humankind into one’s neighbor and one’s enemies, Francis stitched a moral network based on courtesy and hospitality, forgiveness and reconciliation. To create a new society, men and women would have to give up their imperial images of divinity and replace them with an image of a God ready to empty itself of divinity in order to forgive sins, find the lost sheep and bring the prodigals home.

Francis revolutionized his age with this picture. He enlivened his world with the amazing insight that the brotherhood and sisterhood we share extends even to the smallest and most insignificant of creatures. In his famous Canticle of the Creatures, Francis reminded his followers of the intricate network of kindness that envelops us with every breath we take. We are plunged in a plenitude of differences created as an expression of God’s limitless goodness. It is a gracious network, Francis taught us, which can only be preserved and promoted by discipline, prayer, reconciliation, and the constant forgiveness of sins.

As preachers of the Word, we are ministers of the goodness of God. We believe that the inner life of God is a free communion of persons without domination or deprivation. It calls us to the creation of a new “fraternal economy” that challenges capitalism’s exclusive reign on our social and religious imagination. We propose that solidarity and a theology of mutual dependence are a more sure, lasting and just foundation for human security in a world that spirals through its cycles of violence and injustice.


First published in Touchstone in 2003, the article has been slightly modified to address the psycho-spiritual dynamics of preaching after a war as preachers experience them at the end of the twenty-year Afghanistan War.

Fr. David B. Couturier, OFM. Cap., is the Executive Director of the Franciscan Institute, Associate Professor of Theology and Franciscan Studies and Director of University Planning at St. Bonaventure University (New York). He holds two doctorates in pastoral counseling and pastoral psychology with a specialization in organizational studies.


[1] Albert Jongman, “World Conflict and Human Rights Map 2000,” (Upssala Conference on Conflict Data 2001, June 7-10, 2001),

[2] Miroslav Volf, “Forgiveness, Reconciliation and Justice,” in Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Religion, Public Policy and Conflict Transformation, eds. Raymond Helmick, SJ, and Rodney L. Petersen (Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press, 2001), 27-50.

[3] Volf, “Forgiveness, Reconciliation and Justice,” 42.

[4] David B. Couturier, “Seminarians and Social Justice: A Psychological Investigation of the Criteria for Admission to Orders,” Laurentianum 26 (1985): 31-72; David B. Couturier, “Structures of Ambivalence: The Institutional Dilemma of Religious Formation,” In-Formation 141 (April/May, 1992): 1-9; David B. Couturier, “Beyond Ambivalence: The Transformation of Religious Life in the Present Crisis in the American Catholic Church” (2003).

[5] David B. Couturier, “Minority and Poverty Eradication,” (May 25, 2003),

[6] Michael Renner, The Anatomy of Resource Wars (Washington, DC: Worldwatch Institute, 2002), 10.

[7] I treat this concept more fully in my paper on “Minority and Poverty Eradication.”