Practices Not Made Perfect: Topical and Contextual Considerations of The Dangers of Christian Practice
I remember the first time I read Stanley Hauerwas. I was in my junior year of college, and had only recently left the evangelical church where I had grown up. I had by this point discovered and what Christianity didn’t look like and wasn’t about for me—it didn’t look like a marketing campaign to the rich and popular or a celebration of patriotism, and it wasn’t about an excessive focus on the individual and their beliefs about abortion and homosexuality or about fear of eternal damnation. I picked up Resident Aliens after a professor recommended it to me, and reading Hauerwas and Willimon not only affirmed what I no longer believed about my faith, but it also helped me begin to articulate a different vision of Christianity and of the church.
What was most striking, most life-changing, for me was Hauerwas’ focus on the (trans)formative work of the church and how that both aligned with and differed from the evangelical church of my youth. Yes, the church was counter-cultural, but not because it sought to influence US politics. Rather, it was its own polis, one that was not delimited by the nation-state. Moreover, the church was not just a place of virtue, but “a school for virtue,” not merely a collection of individuals joined by shared (ostensibly right) belief, but where the “truth that is gospel is known only through practices such as preaching, baptism, eucharist—in short, worship.”1 Having been so preoccupied growing up with the rightness of my own beliefs, which were supposed to shape my actions in the world, the subtle yet radical shift to the church community and practices shaping my beliefs and actions was, well, a radical one for me.
Having been so captivated by this vision of Christianity and its transformative possibilities, I went to Duke Divinity School partly so that I could learn from Hauerwas directly. At Duke, I continued to be shaped by this vision of the church, which I continued to flesh out by learning from Hauerwas and his colleagues and indirectly from his teachers and students—John Howard Yoder and George Lindbeck, Tripp York and William Cavanaugh, and so many more. I continued to be captivated by the transformative potential of Christian practices, especially by the ways in which they could, and did, challenge dominant ideologies and practices—how the Eucharist could counter the violence of the nation-state in Chile during Pinochet’s dictatorial reign, or how baptism might offer a vision for inclusion of LGBTQ people in the church.2
At the same time, questions and concerns slowly started to arise for me about this vision. Who and what counted as the church? And how do we account for and make sense of the times and ways church practices themselves caused harm? It was around this time that I first heard of the women who were sexually harassed and abused by Yoder—of the eight women who came forward in 1992 and pressured the Mennonite Church USA to take action, and of the many, many other stories that continued to pour in after that.3 In such a light, “revolutionary subordination” no longer seemed revolutionary (to put it lightly). Yet, while more scholarship was emerging questioning the frameworks of the ecclesial ethics espoused by Hauerwas, his predecessors in the Yale School, and some of his students, less attention was given to practices themselves.4 Abuse and harassment were avowedly not Christian practice, and any kind of link between the two was the fault of the practitioner and could thus be delinked from the practice itself. Moreover, Christian practices themselves could be turned to as a useful resource for responding to these abuses—lament, confession, reconciliation . . . . While I continued to see the value and promise of Christian practice, I was increasingly struck by the lack of attention and interrogation to how they could go wrong, by what seemed to me to be a continued, unmarred allure.
In much of Christian theology and ethics, especially since the rise of the “Yale School,” practices do a lot of positive work. As Lauren Winner puts it, for “the Christian theologians of the past two generations who have been drawn to the category, ‘practice’ is neither a label, neutral with respects to ends, for thinking about how people organize life, nor a code for hegemony. It is, much more often, keen endorsement.”5 In The Dangers of Christian Practice, Winner takes seriously and grapples with the harm that has been done by Christian practices. I wish I had Winner’s book back when I was first grappling with the dangers and harms of Christian practice, and I’m so grateful for what it has brought to the conversation.
The Dangers of Christian Practice focuses specifically on three key Christian practices, offering historical case studies of damage each has caused— from how the Eucharist played a rather central role in the murder of Jews by the hands of Christians in medieval Europe via charges of host desecration, to the ways prayer in the antebellum South was wielded by slave owners (both their petitionary prayers seeking the preservation of slavery and the prayers they taught to those they enslaved, prayers that “explicitly narrate obedience to earthly masters as obedience to God,” ), to how baptismal practices, via the “christening party craze” of the nineteenth century, reinforced classism and patriarchal norms of domesticity (98).
In offering these case studies of deep harm caused by such beloved and important Christian practices, Winner does not argue for them to be done away with.6 They “are the only things we have,” Winner writes, and, “they are gifts from the Lord” (137). Yet a (if not the) key premise of her argument is that nothing, “not even the good practices of the church,” is untouched by the Fall” (1). As such, we “should not be surprised when lovely and good, potentially gracious Christian gestures are damaged, or when human beings deploy those gestures in the perpetuation of damage” (3). In fact, Winner argues, practices are deformed in ways that are characteristic of and intrinsic to the practices themselves. It is vital, then, to attend not only to the benefits such practices bestow on us, but also to “give accounts of, rather than evade, the damages Christian practice sustains by sin” (1). In doing so, Winner points out, not only will we be more truthful about Christian practices, but also be more alert to their potential, inevitable, deformations.
The essays that follow take seriously Winner’s challenge to look out for signs of Christianity’s characteristic damage, bringing different contexts and themes into consideration to further illuminate, extend, raise questions about, and offer challenges to the scope and shape of Winner’s claims. Starting off the symposium, Margaret Kamitsuka grapples with Winner’s argument by considering a particularly relevant, “less obviously egregious” example of a disordered use of one of God’s gifts: Christian beliefs and practices around abortion. Turning to an article by systematic theologian Eugene Schlesinger Kamitsuka outlines his “attempt to extrapolate a prolife message from the Eucharist as a factor of the mystery at the sacrament’s core,” illuminating how the Eucharist has been mobilized against women who have had or considered having an abortion. Drawing on Winner’s argument, Kamitsuka challenges Schlesinger’s Eucharistic claims as a troubling deformation of the sacrament, and goes on to consider how the misuse of church sacraments in relation to pregnant women’s bodies might also call for more complex, less romanticized interpretations of Mary’s faith during the Annunciation.
In the second contribution to the symposium, Lerone Martin considers the resources The Dangers of Christian Practice has offered to his own research on the religious culture of the FBI during the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover. Winner’s account of the Eucharist as a damaged gift helps frame Martin’s consideration of the FBI’s annual spiritual retreat, of how the Eucharistic practices at said retreat shaped how they viewed themselves and their labor. Martin offers a window into how particular “Eucharistic practices helped to affirm the Bureau’s self-understanding as the moral custodian of America’s white supremacist democracy,” ritualizing their labor—including activities like bugging the home of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammed—and thus marking it as sacred.
Reflecting on how reading Winner’s book has compelled him to think differently about his participation in the practices she names, David Clough considers additional potential characteristic deformations in the third response of the symposium. Specifically, Clough calls for us to also consider how baptism and the Eucharist “dismember the body of Christ through multiple exclusions” and the potential “capacity for intercessory prayer to substitute for moral responsibility.” Moreover, like Kamitsuka and Martin, Clough considers the implications of Winner’s arguments for a distinctive context: in his instance, that of theological education. Clough considers what characteristic deformations might look like in this context, focusing particularly (though not solely) on how these deformations might manifest in and through his own discipline, Christian ethics. Clough offers some possibilities of how this might take shape: a preoccupation with issues that inevitably impact the practice of others before oneself (such as, to cite one example Clough offers, a male ethicist focusing on abortion), or a failing to attend with the structural inequities that have resulted in the disproportionate numbers of white men in the discipline.
In the symposium’s forth essay, then, Nicole Symmonds reflects on reading this book both as “someone who still believes in and is committed to the efficacy of” Christian practices, and as an African-American who has “noticed that the brief history of the dangers of Christian practice that Winner highlighted all hinge on an othering by a dominant culture toward (what might be perceived as) a subculture.” The examples Winner offers are illustrative, she points out, of Christianity’s role in oppression across the intersections of race, class, and gender—in, to put it another way, the colonization of Christian practice. Given the ways that privilege and power shape—the ways they indeed damage—Christian practice, Symmonds presses on the importance of thinking critically about the identity of those who are inflicting damage through Christian practice. Raising questions about the ways exclusion is bound up in our Christian practices, Symmonds invites a consideration of what participating in a decolonization of Christian practices might mean and/or look like.
Finally, in the symposium’s fifth and last essay, Michael Brandon McCormack expresses particular interest in Winner’s historical scholarship on the prayers of white slaveholding women in the antebellum south. As a scholar trained at the intersection of homiletics and liturgics on the one hand, and black religion and cultural studies on the other, McCormack is struck by how Winner, “captures the horrifically mundane nature” of these daily prayers, demonstrating how violence and prayer become inseparable within and through them. McCormack considers how that The Dangers of Christian Practice will aid Christian communities in avoiding the perpetuation of further violence, and, moreover, explores potential implications of her work for making reparations as a practice of repentance. McCormack concludes his reflection by (re)considering why we do, and why, according to Winner, we should, continue on with these Christian practices, raising questions about whether such practices were, and are, all that we have.
Stanley Hauerwas, Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), 83, emphasis mine; Stanley Hauerwas and William H Willimon, Where Resident Aliens Live: Exercises for Christian Practice (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 18.↩
See William T. Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ (Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 1998); Elizabeth Stuart, “Sexuality: The View from the Font (the Body and the Ecclesial Self),” Theology and Sexuality 11 (1999): 9-20.↩
As Rachel Waltner Goosen later notes in “‘Defanging the Beast’: Mennonite Responses to John Howard Yoder’s Sexual Abuse” (Mennonite Quarterly Review 89 : 7-80): “Precise numbers will never be known, but two mental health professionals who worked closely with Yoder from 1992 to 1995 as part of a Mennonite church accountability and discipline process believe that more than 100 women experienced unwanted sexual violations by Yoder” (7-8).↩
See, for instance, Daniel Colucciello Barber, On Diaspora: Christianity, Religion, and Secularity (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2011); Nathan Kerr, Christ, History, and Apocalyptic: The Politics of Christian Mission (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2008). This is not to suggest that the ecclesial ethics espoused by Hauerwas and the “Yale School” versions that preceded them had not faced scrutiny before (they indeed were, particularly by the liberal theology of “the Chicago School.” For more on this, see especially the first chapter, on “Genesis of a Concept: Postliberalism and its Opponents,” in Paul Dehart, Trial of the Witnesses: The Rise and Decline of Postliberal Theology (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2006), 1-56.↩
Lauren Winner, The Dangers of Christian Practice: On Wayward Gifts, Characteristic Damage, and Sin (Yale University Press, 2018), 168. In the appendix of the book, Winner outlines how this positive turn to practices (what she refers to as a pristination of practices) manifests within theological scholarship, outlining the range of uses I reference above, amongst others. See Winner, “Appendix: Depristinating Practices,” 167–80.↩
As Winner puts it near the end of her introduction, “I write about these three practices—Eucharist, prayer, and baptism—because I love them, and lover wishes, in her rare mature moments, to know the truth of the object of her love, rather than to only know her wished for, projected fantasy” (17).↩