Symposium Introduction

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,” [69]), 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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. As Rachel Waltner Goosen later notes in “‘Defanging the Beast’: Mennonite Responses to John Howard Yoder’s Sexual Abuse” (Mennonite Quarterly Review 89 [2015]: 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).

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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).

Margaret Kamitsuka


Who Is Othered by the Church Today?

Lessons from The Dangers of Christian Practice

Lauren Winner puts her finger on the pulse of the church and tells us something that is not immediately evident: there are deformations in church practices due not just to creaturely fallenness but also due to tensions internal to the practices themselves. I think many theologians have suspected as much, but The Dangers of Christian Practice draws back the curtain to show explicit examples of how God’s infinitely good yet mysterious gifts became damaged. I applaud Winner for her illustrative snapshots of the Eucharist, prayer, and baptismal practices gone bad in different historical contexts. She has an uncanny ability to condemn egregious cultural practices while also gently suggesting that part of the problem can be traced back to Christian beliefs. For example, the medieval perpetrators of host desecration narratives may have been, in part, socialized—by the tensions internal to eucharistic theology itself—to develop cultural biases about Jewish bodies. Winner does not excuse anti-Judaizing in eucharistic practices but pushes us to think about how it’s possible for a sacrament like the Eucharist to have fueled a bias that resulted in violence toward the Jewish Other.

Winner challenges her readers to look out for signs of “Christianity’s characteristic damage” (155). I think we need to test Winner’s argument by looking at some less obviously egregious examples. After all, who today would defend slavery, racism, or slurs against Jews? I want to know more about how Christian beliefs are being used today, with the best of intentions, to combat perceived evils but with the unintended consequence of causing damage. Where might we find contemporary examples of a disordered use of one of God’s gifts? Winner touches briefly upon one such present-day instance in her discussion of how the sacrament of marriage has been used to exclude and denigrate same-sex love. The problem is, on the one hand, internal to how Christianity has defined the sacrament of marriage and, on the other hand, a factor of allowing homophobic biases to infect the sacrament. Winner speaks approvingly of Eugene Rogers’s work to rehabilitate (or repristinate, as she might say) Christian marriage in ways that encompass the mutual loving commitment of gays and lesbians. This discussion would be an example of exposing how the sacrament of marriage, when situated within a homophobic cultural context, has “funded toxicity” (33) by othering believers who fall outside of heteronormativity. How might Winner’s readers react to this analysis? Statistics show that while many Baby Boomer and older evangelical and Roman Catholic Christians still oppose same-sex love, Christian millennials are much more accepting, and in increasing numbers.1 That the cultural tide regarding homophobia is turning makes one hopeful about a more inclusive sacrament of marriage. But what about a contemporary issue that is still highly controversial in Christian circles? What immediately comes to mind for me because of my current research is abortion. The fact that many Christians, with good intentions, are adamantly opposed to abortion rights should not deter us from asking if there are tensions internal to Christian beliefs and practices that are funding toxicity and inculcating bias regarding women who get an abortion. I’d like to test Winner’s approach by indicating how the Eucharist has been mobilized to make the case that terminating an unwanted pregnancy runs contrary to what a believer’s eucharistic identity should be. From my perspective, this type of argument exemplifies a present-day biased and damaging reaction to the “doubts and anxieties, [and] tensions . . . inherent in the very nature of the Eucharist” (45).

Recall Winner’s point that one tension internal to the Eucharist that funded anti-Judaizing in the Middle Ages had its source in the mystery of the Incarnation: God became not just “Man” but a Jewish man. The Jewishness of Jesus did not sit well with most medieval Christians, thereby creating a tension during holy communion, which is “the moment when the church is most intimate with Jewish flesh” (36). The theological mystery of the Incarnation coincided with and fueled medieval Christians’ biases about the bodies of their actual Jewish neighbors. Anxieties about the meaning of the eucharistic body of the Christ were assuaged by being projected or displaced onto Jews down the street.

We see an analogous situation with abortion. Another aspect of the mystery of the Incarnation is that Christ has a divine “Father” but became human in a woman’s body. That the church from its origins has had anxieties about women’s bodies, in general, and women’s reproductive sexuality, in particular, is well documented. If we delve further, might we discover that anxieties about the meaning of body of Christ, born of a woman, have been assuaged by being projected or displaced onto the bodies of women with unwanted pregnancies? There is evidence to this effect in some prolife writings.

I point to one scholar’s attempt to extrapolate a prolife message from the Eucharist as a factor of the mystery at the sacrament’s core. Eugene Schlesinger (who, like Winner, is Episcopalian) wishes to reframe the legally contentious abortion issue by setting it in “the liturgical and sacramental life of the church,” especially the Eucharist.2 It is precisely in the mystery of epiclesis, the moment of consecration of the elements, that Schlesinger finds a prolife message: “The Spirit who overshadows bread and wine . . . to make them Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist is the same Spirit who overshadowed the virgin’s womb and there created the fetal body of Christ. This association between epiclesis and the incarnation in Mary’s womb surely ought to work at cross-purposes with the practice of abortion.”3 The gift of the holy meal becomes a means, Schlesinger hopes, for a spiritual reshaping of “the way women view the hitherto unwanted fetuses they carry,” so that a decision to give birth would be unavoidable yet also free of coercion.4 But is this prolife appeal to the Eucharist really noncoercive? For Schlesinger, having partaken of the bread and wine, a believing woman has no other properly Christian recourse than to give of her own body to nourish and sustain any embryo or fetus in her womb, “even when the cost of that donation is high.”5 Two mysteries about Christ’s body—as really present on the communion table and really divine and human in Mary’s uterus—are brought together as a basis for the moral policing of any communicant’s fecund uterus. I submit that this approach to the Eucharist constitutes a misprision, a deformation (to use Winner’s terms) of the sacrament. It is dangerous to claim to know how the sacramental Body applies to the concrete bodies of girls and women dealing with any unwanted pregnancy they might face in the three to four decades of their reproductive lifespan. This use of the Eucharist is a deformation of a very troubling kind, because girls and women who have an abortion (or even consider having one) are seen as Other to the meaning of sacrament itself.

If we follow Winner’s advice about attentiveness to evidence of damage in Christian practices, some of those signposts are very clear. Few today would dispute that the church has historically acted badly toward the Other in communities marginalized by race, religion, class, disability, undocumented status, sexuality, and so on. Is the church willing today to peel back the curtain of another long and disturbing history—namely, the history of the church’s hubris in claiming to know definitively God’s will for every conceptus? Is the church willing to recognize that compelling or even encouraging countless girls and women to gestate and bear children they do not feel they can safely birth, not to mention adequately raise, is profound misogyny masked as pronatalism? Statistics show that very few unwanted pregnancies that are carried to term result in the woman giving up the baby for adoption, so let’s dispense with the myth that compelling a putatively mere nine months of gestation will thereby make a wanted baby available to some loving, eager, adoptive Christian couple. No, the result of forced or coerced gestation and birthing is, more often than not, hardship and sacrifice for the mother and child. Did I mention that maternal and infant morbidity and mortality rates have risen in states with restrictive abortion laws?6

I don’t know if Winner has thought about the connection between the misuse of church sacraments in relation to pregnant women’s bodies. It took a long time, and probably the twentieth-century cataclysm of the Holocaust, for the church to come to terms with the long and sordid history of anti-Judaizing in its sacraments, liturgies, and theologies. America is still coming to terms with the racist legacy of the sexual and reproductive exploitation of enslaved black women’s bodies and the ongoing assaults on the procreative and mothering self-determination of women of color even today. Perhaps one place for the church to begin to come to terms with its blinders about forced or coerced procreation, birthing, and mothering is to dispense with a romanticized view of Jesus’ own mother. I detect a hint of romanticism in Winner’s own reference to Mary’s “Fiat mihi” (148). While I understand Winner’s wish to recognize Mary’s faith and chutzpah before the angel Gabriel, I interpret the Annunciation scene in Luke’s gospel very differently. I see a deeply ambiguous divine-human event. A young woman, who had little reproductive knowledge (she was not a Leah or Rachel who knew what to do with mandrakes), is abruptly told, “You will conceive in your womb” (Luke 1:31 NRSV). Since Mary was apparently without prior experience of intercourse, she must have been terrified. Betrothed but not yet married, she was vulnerable to societal censure and perhaps even severe punishment. As a poor young woman with a first pregnancy, she and her baby might die in difficult childbirth. It probably took the encouragement her older, pregnant cousin to help give her the courage to embrace fully her initial consent. Only after visiting Elizabeth does Mary praise God in the song we know as the Magnificat.

Women today with unplanned pregnancies might well turn to Mary, or the Eucharist, or prayer, or other church practices to help them accept a crisis pregnancy and bring a new life into the world. Moreover, it is good for society to prepare for welcoming and nurturing all natals, to use Hannah Arendt’s concept. But let us not harbor any allusions that using eucharistic theology to induce girls and women to gestate, give birth, and mother against their better judgment is an appropriate extension of that sacrament. In my opinion, using any sacrament in this way damages the moral conscience of the pregnant person and thereby damages the very fabric of the church. I would hope that anyone who reads Winner’s book will “learn to notice and fitly respond to the damage” (17).

  1. Robert P. Jones, Daniel Cox, and Rachel Laser, “Committed to Availability, Conflicted about Morality: What the Millennial Generation Tells Us about the Future of the Abortion Debate and the Culture Wars,” Public Religion Research Institute (Washington, DC), June 6, 2011,

  2. Eugene R. Schlesinger, “From Rights to Rites: A Eucharistic Reframing of the Abortion Debate,” Anglican Theological Review 94.1 (2012): 38.

  3. Schlesinger, “From Rights to Rites,” 47.

  4. Schlesinger, “From Rights to Rites,” 56.

  5. Schlesinger, “From Rights to Rites,” 46.

  6. Anusha Ravi, “Limiting Abortion Access Contributes to Poor Maternal Health Outcomes,” Center for American Progress, June 13, 2018,

  • Lauren Winner

    Lauren Winner


    Reply to Kamitsuka

    I am grateful for Maggi Kamitsuka’s generous appreciation of the book’s claim that, as she elegantly summarizes, “there are deformations in church practices due not just to creaturely fallenness but also due to tensions internal to the practices themselves,” and I appreciate her pressing the book’s basic framework toward “less obviously egregious examples” than, e.g., slavery and pogroms. The book tries to offer a set of questions that could be asked about, well, almost anything – what are the thing’s characteristic goods (that is, what particular beautiful blossomings does a practice or belief or thing tend toward?), and what are the characteristic damages or deformations toward which a thing tends? (Admittedly, the book focuses on the second – it’s really interested in the first insofar as the first can help us see the second.) Kamitsuka focuses our gaze on abortion, which she’s written about so instructively in Abortion and the Christian Tradition. I find utterly fascinating and generative Kamitsuka’s suggestion that the Eucharist has “been mobilized to make the case that terminating an unwanted pregnancy runs contrary to what a believer’s Eucharistic identity should be.” Kamitsuka wonders if I had ever thought about the ways the church’s sacraments have been misused vis-à-vis pregnant bodies, and indeed, prior to reading Kamitsuka, I had not. What I wish to ask, in light of Kamitsuka’s compelling analysis, is: what is it that is proper to the Eucharist that leads to the anti-abortion stance? I don’t have an immediate answer to that, but to pursue it one might first look at Eucharistic body and blood-talk, and one might look, too, at what the Eucharist suggests or stages about the individuation and symbiosis of bodies.

    Discourses and practices of reproductive freedom and their opposite numbers could both be usefully subjected to a “characteristic damage” analysis. If it is standard statement of the pro-life position (I’m ventriloquizing here, and though trying to do so neutrally, I realize I may not get the restatement right) to say that human life begins at conception and every instance of human life merits the same protections as every other human life, then to investigate the characteristic damages of the anti-abortion movement, I’d want to ask: What is there about that formulation that ineluctably leads to damage of one sort or another? It might be, for example, that such a formulation erases from view instances of human life that are in symbiosis with other instances of human life; symbiosis becomes irrelevant, and all that goes with it (including pregnancy’s capacity to kill a woman or damage her in other ways; including the ways the whole procreative business is articulated with social forms that are damaged and cannot be separated from damage) becomes invisible. (A “characteristic damage” analysis of this terrain might lead to the question “what are the characteristic deformations of the Enlightenment?”—one deformation surely being that we don’t see symbiosis in the womb because what matters about people is that which marks us as individuals.)

    That said, my own views, like Kamitsuka’s, are, to use the clumsy shorthand available to us, “pro-choice.” My views also include an axiomatic commitment to the notion that all of my own political commitments, political beliefs, and political practices must themselves be deformed, must tend toward particular ways of going wrong, and must carry particular damages in their train. So more urgent for me is not the task of subjecting the “pro-life” position to a characteristic damage analysis, but subjecting my own pro-choice commitments, practices, and discourses to such an analysis. I don’t really want to make that analysis – to even imagine it feels uncomfortable. And yet, the necessity of such an analysis seems one obvious fruit of the path Kamitsuka has begun to sketch. What are the ways support for, and practices of, abortion are likely to go wrong? How do pro-choice discourses tend, because of what’s internal to them, to go wrong? When I think about my own tendencies, I see the following—and perhaps this damage lurks in Kamitsuka’s analysis as well (it certainly lurks in a good deal of secular pro-choice discourse): my thought tends toward the conclusion that once I’ve shown that a certain position is toxic to or damages women, nothing good can be said for the position. But that is the obverse of the very kind of analysis I call for with the shorthand “characteristic damage,” for the framework of “characteristic damage” is interested in searching out the ways that the position under scrutiny is both good and damaged. I can see, with the help of Kamitsuka’s provocations, that abortion is one of the topics around which I most viscerally resist the invitation to search out characteristic damage. (And it doesn’t take psychoanalytic savvy to see that my very resistance indexes the need for me to undertake such an analysis. Perhaps the resistance is part of the damage toward which my own abortion-formulations tend.)

    One more note on Kamitsuka’s response: although it is not her central point, I’m particularly grateful for her reading of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth – a text so often adduced by Christians arguing Scripture’s opposition to abortion. It’s helpful to see this text read in a pro-choice light (in Abortion and the Christian Tradition, Kamitsuka takes the reading one step further than she does here, noting, over and against those who point to John’s fetal leaping as a latent anti-abortion argument, that “Mary felt no corresponding quickening or consciousness from the fetal Jesus” [95]). I am specifically glad for Kamitsuka’s pointing out that “Only after visiting Elizabeth” does Mary offer the Magnificat. This is an obvious feature of Luke’s chronology, but I confess I’d never noticed it as such. I believe Kamitsuka may have given me my third-Sunday-of-Advent sermon: Elizabeth’s blessing (Luke 1:42-45) as a necessary prelude to, and ingredient in, Mary’s singing the Magnificat. (Further, was the Magnificat Mary’s immediate response to her kinswoman’s blessing, or did unrecorded hours, days, weeks elapse between the two women’s bursts of praise, and what else might have transpired between them that nourished Mary’s song?)

    For connecting my book to an issue of immediate import, thank you.

    • Margaret Kamitsuka

      Margaret Kamitsuka


      Response to Winner

      Winner asks for a prochoice self-critical moment. I heartily agree. Critique of the prochoice position is well underway from opponents (prolife Christian sectors on the right) as well as allies (reproductive justice sectors on the left).
      But Winner is doggedly asking for more: Just as Christians should probe the ways in which their doctrines and practices go wrong (e.g., anti-Judaizing), so also prochoice proponents should probe how their prochoice position goes wrong. Just because prochoicers have shown that prolife discourse “is toxic to or damages women” that does not mean that “nothing good can be said for the [prolife] position.”
      Winner is asking us to consider something of an analogy: just as the Eucharist contains God’s truth prior to its anti-Semitic deformations, so too the prolife position may contain a truth prior to its deformation. Winner confesses that even entertaining this possibility makes her a little uncomfortable. I think I know why. The analogy does not work.
      The prolife claim is not just that human life from conception “merits the same protections as every other human life” but, rather, that human life from conception is inviolable. This claim is not a theological truth that has been deformed and become harmful. No, this core prolife position is a harm masquerading as a theological truth. The inviolable-human-life-from-conception claim harms pregnant people because it makes their moral agency not only irrelevant but unthinkable. There can be no exercise of moral conscience in the face of an inviolable right.
      And yet, Winner’s intuition that we should scratch the surface of one’s opponent’s ideology in the search of something good is spot on. It is hubris not to do so. A subtext within prolife discourse that I consider to be a good is this: unborn life has value. The goodness of existence is not, of course, a prolife creation. It is found throughout philosophy and, famously, in Augustine’s Confessions (Book VII, ch. 12). Not to affirm the goodness of human life in utero damages (to use Winner’s term) any person who is grieving a miscarriage. The affirmation of the intrinsic value of developing human life is, however, separate from spurious claims about inviolable personhood from conception. Affirming the value of unborn life does not annul the pregnant person’s moral authority but rather underlines its gravity.

Lerone Martin


The FBI Eucharist

Lauren Winner’s The Dangers of Christian Practice has been a great help in my research on the religious culture of the FBI during the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover. I have been asked, numerous times, a variant of the question: “How could Hoover’s FBI have a legitimate religious culture in light of the unscrupulous capers that have come to light?” While others have opted for the more conclusive, “There is no way religion in the FBI was sincere, it was all a ruse and a cover!” However, when Lauren raises questions such as “How does the Eucharist form practitioners?” “What judgements does it enable them to make?” and “What politics does it make possible?” It assists me in responding to the often-repeated doubts about religion in the FBI. Positing the Eucharist as a “damaged gift” helps to frame how the Bureau’s Eucharistic practices at their annual spiritual retreat aided and abetted how FBI special agents viewed themselves and their labor.

Under Hoover’s watch, FBI special agents took a spiritual retreat every year during a strategically orchestrated Spring weekend around the Easter holiday. In the para-military structure of the Bureau, Hoover strongly “encouraged” his white male special agents to attend the retreats to seek God’s will for their life and career. Black special agents who joined Hoover’s Bureau beginning in 1962 were excluded from these retreats, as were the white female administrative support staff of the Bureau. Each year a high-ranking FBI special agent, often from the Domestic Intelligence Division, served as the “Retreat Captain,” overseeing the year’s religious rally. These chosen men then anointed “section captains” from each of the divisions at FBI Headquarters. Special agents in the Identification, Training and Inspection, Administrative, Records, Investigating and Accounting, Domestic Intelligence, and the Technical Lab divisions each had a captain responsible for planning the retreat and steering their respective colleagues to attend. The special agents who embraced this were rewarded with continued employment, commendations, and promotions. However, those who bucked this uniformity found themselves on the fast track to a stifled career or termination. In Hoover’s regimented FBI, the best way for a man—whether Catholic, Protestant, Jew, nominal believer, or anything in between—to distinguish himself as a standout, was to simply fall in line.

The ecumenical brigade of special agents signed up for the retreat with their respective section captains and were assigned transportation. Some G-Men carpooled, while most boarded the Bureau’s appointed buses. The FBI connected with the Greyhound Bus Company to provide “special buses” at a discounted rate to take special agents from FBI headquarters to their spiritual retreat. The buses, commandeered using taxpayer dollars, made stops at the Washington, DC, and Baltimore field offices to pick up the faithful. Once the apportioned buses were full of federal spiritual seekers, the caravan made the approximate one-hour drive to the retreat house of Reverend Robert S. Lloyd, SJ.

The presence of the Bureau was almost omnipresent at the retreat house. Copies of Director Hoover’s autographed books were featured in the library, while Father Lloyd always kept on hand two awards he received for his pastoral service to the FBI: the “FBI’s Distinguished Service Cross” and a “beautiful plaque, setting forth the seal and the motto of the Bureau.” The prized gift, however, was an FBI engraved chalice. “From his own hands,” the FBI director presented Reverend Lloyd with “The Chalice of Salvation.” It was engraved with the Bureau’s insignia. After it was consecrated, Father Lloyd pledged that it would “be lifted . . . daily at the altar, for Director Hoover and all the wonderful men and women of the FBI.” “The FBI,” he continued “will be blessed daily in heaven and on earth. That is a true spiritual fact.” The anointed chalice was used at daily mass, a ritual Lloyd thoroughly enjoyed. “Every day as I hold it on high to God, I shall see the inscription from the FBI.” When the G-men received the Eucharist, they received it from the cup of the FBI.

The routine at the retreat was straightforward. In the morning, special agents of the FBI had Mass and Holy Communion, drinking from the FBI’s Chalice of Salvation. A priest led worship, but G-Men served as acolytes, participated in every aspect of the service. Special agents took care of the sacristy. Other agents infused the air of the chapel with incense by swinging the censer, while retreat captains led the gathering of soldier saints in the rosary and the Litany of the Sacred Heart and the Litany of St. Joseph. Highly regarded special agents were torchbearers for the stations of the Cross, while the most respected agents and captains literally bore the cross.

Such Eucharistic practices helped to affirm the Bureau’s self-understanding as the moral custodian of America’s white supremacist democracy. It helped to ritualize their labor as sacred, no matter how hideous the labor. Celebrity preacher Bishop Fulton Sheen made this clear during one Bureau retreat. After the men received the Eucharist from the FBI Chalice, the two-time Emmy Award–winning televangelist told the faithful agents that the “contemporary problems of our society such as the decline of morality, the lack of discipline generally, and protest for the sake of protest” were caused by “the general breakdown of society” caused by Christians who had neglected “the basic teachings of Christ.” If America was to be fixed, Christians had to confess their sins and return to law and order They had to recommit themselves to the very foundations upon which American society rested: the teachings of Christ. Special agent Churchill F. Downing, chief of the Cryptanalysis-Translation Section in the Laboratory Division, praised the retreat for emphasizing the role Christians should play in returning society back to God. SA Downing believed he played a vital role in this regard. He was in charge of translating and transcribing data obtained from one of the Bureau’s covert surveillance operations. Code-named “June Mail,” the program obtained information through “sources illegal in nature” such as illegal bugs, wiretaps, break-ins, and mail intercepts. Such intel was sent to FBI headquarters under the marker “June Mail.” It was routed away from the Bureau’s central record systems, placed in a “confidential file” in the Bureau’s Special File Room, where it was maintained “under lock and key” for authorized personnel only; for men like Special Agent Downing. Special Agent Downing, who was involved in countless June Mail operations including the bugging of the home of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammed, found Bishop Sheen’s diagnosis of society empowering. The weekend retreat served as a reminder that by monitoring and harassing black religious organizations, the FBI was working with and for God to save American society. “Those in attendance,” one agent from the laboratory division relayed, “advise that without a doubt his mediations were superb.” Special Agent Downing agreed, calling Bishop Sheen’s weekend of spiritual guidance unparalleled “in content and in presentation, and particularly meaningful.” “His discussions,” he concluded were “stimulating and will not be soon forgotten.” Indeed, following the retreat, Sheen was invited to headquarters to minister to special agents and their families. Receiving the real presence of Christ from the FBI’s chalice coupled with Bishop Sheen’s homily and direction assured special agents they were serving God in mind, will, and body; it also empowered them to enforce and defend existing societal arrangements in the name of the Lord.

The FBI Eucharist helped special agents to see themselves and their labor as sacred. It assisted them in adjudicating what was godly on the one hand, and what was bad religion on the other. It enabled them to judge who was patriotic and committed to God and country over and against those they believed were communist subversives and unpatriotic. It helped make possible the FBI’s politics of white supremacy and skullduggery all in the name of God and country.

  • Lauren Winner

    Lauren Winner


    Reply to Martin

    I take such sheer delight in the very title of Lerone Martin’s response: “The FBI Eucharist.” Who knew? (25 years into studying the history of religion in the US, I am still sometimes stunned by the unexpected places Christian ritual practice shows up.) I am counting the days until The Gospel of J. Edgar Hoover is released.

    I share with Martin the certainty that the FBI’s “unscrupulous capers” do not delegitimate the agency’s “religious culture.” If unscrupulosity delegitimates religion, then historians of religion very few fields to plow. More normatively, the suggestion that unscrupulosity delegitimates religion in fact exculpates religion. Though Martin connects FBI ritual practice to my discussion of the Eucharist, I see the historical description of a practice that Martin offers as more nearly analogous to my discussion of prayer—where I treat that the prayers offered by slaveowning women as deformed Christian prayers in part because to argue that they weren’t Christian is to let Christianity off the hook.

    Martin argues that the FBI Eucharist, and the retreat in which it was nestled, helped gloss G-men and their work as “sacred,” and helped Hoover’s agents discriminate between “what was godly….and what was bad religion,” between those they judged “patriotic and committed to God and country” and “those they believed were communist subversives and unpatriotic.” As Kamitsuka’s suggestion of a sacramental underwriting of anti-abortion politics inspires me to inquire more specifically into the properties of Eucharist that get deformed into an anti-abortion stance, so here I want to ask what proper goods of the Eucharist get deformed into the judgments Martin argues were eucharistically underwritten. Maybe it is proper to the Eucharist to admit some people to the table and not admit other people to the table. If so, is it that habit of judgment-making that gets characteristically perverted into the kinds of discriminations that Hoover’s agents made? I also want to consider how a set of Eucharistic damage with a long history – viz., the contortions performed by many white clergy and white laypeople to racially segregate the Eucharist (as when, in 1838, an Episcopal church in South Carolina commissioned a chalice and paten engraved “for The Colored People”; as when, to quote an article in the May 20, 1965, issue of Jet, after a campaign to integrate St. Paul’s Church in Selma, parish leaders began agitating to “discard the ‘common cup’ …in favor of intinction”) – is related to the exclusion from FBI spiritual retreats of Black special agents.

    When I wrote The Dangers of Christian Practice, I brainstormed a long list of practices around which I might build a chapter – silence, for example (in that hypothetical chapter, I was going to lean heavily on Rachel Muers, and, following the historical work of Jennifer Graber, I planned to look at the ways that Quaker prison reformers torqued Christian silence into an authorization of solitary confinement). But group Christian retreats were never on my list. Martin’s description of FBI retreats prods me to think about what a “characteristic damage” analysis of such retreats might be. FBI retreats – or, say, early modern Jesuit retreats, or even today’s corporate business retreats or divinity school faculty retreats – involve identifying a group of people who need to do something together, pulling those people out of their ordinary routine, and giving them some distinct space and time to get right with Jesus and with one another. FBI agents/Jesuits/faculty members temporarily withdraw from evangelizing Japan/running down perceived opponents of the state/teaching in order to, ultimately, be able to evangelize/run down/teach better. Perhaps a characteristic deformation of the practice might be pure instrumentality.

    One question I’m left wanting to post to Martin (it’s just a variation of the question about abortion that, as I summarized in my response to Kamitsuka, I want to pose to myself): is there some good to be ferreted out in the FBI Eucharist or the FBI retreat? If so, what is that good?

    For generating all these wonderings, thank you.

David Clough


Deformation-Spotting Closer to Home

It’s one thing to be reminded that your weaknesses make you vulnerable to doing wrong. It’s another to be instructed that you need to be on guard against your strengths. That’s the bad news Lauren Winner has for the Christian church in this book. She makes a persuasive case that three focal Christian practices—Eucharist, prayer, and baptism—make the church dangerously liable to sin in particular ways. As she notes, the book can be read as a critique of the recent theological fashion for emphasizing practice over belief, inspired by George Lindbeck’s reception of Wittgenstein and by Stanley Hauerwas, but also evident in the work of Eugene Rogers, Marcia Mount Sloop, Elizabeth Gandolfo, Bonnie Miller-McLemore, and Sarah Coakley. The book’s appendix surveys the repristination of practice these authors represent collectively and positions the book as an attempt to depristinate them. But it’s right that this is an appendix. The book is much more than a response to a theological trend. It’s a timely word for the church to reflect on how it goes wrong even—or especially—when it thinks it’s most obviously about God’s work.

Winner presents real horrors to her readers. She shows how the proximity of Jewish and Christian flesh in the Eucharist is plausibly connected to the maniacal concern of the medieval church with host desecration: false claims about Jews destroying Eucharistic hosts leading to riots and killing of Jews, often by burning, with numerous reported incidents from the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries in which thousands of Jews were put to death, and stories about the miraculous indestructibility of hosts leading to the building of churches on the sites of massacre. She takes us close to the practice of personal prayer by white slaveholding women in America, complaining of the cross they bear in trying to be patient with lazy and unruly black slaves, strengthened by their prayers in their complacent sense of their own superior virtue, making prayer a key part of the apparatus necessary for the maintenance of the slave economy. And she shows how baptism is co-opted in American fin de siècle domestic family rituals so as to reinforce the family to the virtual exclusion of the ecclesial. Winner convincingly demonstrates in each case that the disastrous results of the practice are not merely accidental but “characteristic deformations” of the practices. Once we have recognized the particular ways in which the practices may go wrong, we are better placed to be alert to their risks, and able to respond with gratitude, repentance, and lament.

As a result of reading Winner’s book, I am resolved to think differently about my participation in the particular practices Winner discusses. I will reflect on how my intercessions may be deforming of me, how the way my church celebrates Holy Communion functions as anti-Jewish, and how our celebration of baptism fails to maintain the tension between church and family. I’m also convinced there are additional potential characteristic deformations in relation to these three practices that need further exploration: the way in which Eucharist and baptism dismember the body of Christ through multiple exclusions; the capacity for intercessory prayer to substitute for moral responsibility. Winner’s work in relation to these three practices highlights the need for similar analysis of other practices. Practices of Christian welcome and inclusivity frequently reinstate logics of ownership of space and resistance to change. Appealing to the universality of God’s love in white and straight contexts is often a convenient way to avoid confronting racial and sexual difference. Charitable work is obviously frequently infected with condescension. More attention to these and other practices would uncover other instructive characteristic deformities.

I’m also struck by the application of the concept of characteristic deformities to academic specialisms. I’ve always included early in my teaching of Christian ethics attention to the ethics of doing Christian ethics. The need for this now looks to me to arise from a characteristic deformation of ethics: attention to the sins of others as a convenient distraction from one’s own moral failings. I propose the management strategy for this spiritual risk as taking logs before specks, which means being prepared to attend to the ethics relating to the logs in one’s own eye before addressing the ethical issues relating to the specks in the eyes of others. A preoccupation with issues that will inevitably impact the practice of others before oneself—such as a male ethicist focusing exclusively on abortion, or a wealthy ethicist on benefit fraud—would be a prima facie reason for concern on this count. There is characteristic deformation to this management strategy as well, of course. It could be used as an excuse for failing to confront systemic injustices that result from the action of powerful others. But once this is acknowledged and resisted the discipline of attending to one’s own moral responsibility must be part of doing Christian ethics ethically. There are other characteristic deformations of Christian ethics to resist: the disproportionate numbers of white men like me in most of the academic contexts in which I find myself suggests there’s something structural in the discipline that functions in discriminatory ways. I wonder whether the lure of being in the powerful position of setting the rules for others to follow is part of this, and leads to the setting of disciplinary norms to ensure those admitted to this space are sufficiently similar to reduce the risk of disruptive interventions.

It seems possible that there are particular characteristic deformations of other theological subdisciplines. The attractive potential of systematic theology to function as a powerful policing of orthodoxy may be part of the explanation that it too is dominated by white men. Perhaps it has a second characteristic deformation of pursuing esoteric abstractions in preference to the kind of risky theological thinking that would enable the church to resist the immediate evils that confront it. It would probably be unfair and unhealthy for me to speculate on the characteristic deformations of other subdisciplines with which I have less to do, but I’m convinced academic colleagues within each would benefit from parallel introspections.

  • Lauren Winner

    Lauren Winner


    Reply to Clough

    I appreciate David Clough’s suggestions of many avenues that might benefit from the kind of analysis I try to begin in The Dangers of Christian Practice – both further analysis that may be brought to bear on the three practices I consider, and additional practices to which the kinds of questions I try to ask might be aptly extended. I’m especially taken by Clough’s worry that intercessory prayer might collapse into a substitute for moral responsibility. That suggestion is surely right, and there’s long precedent about the worry Clough names, precedent grounded perhaps in the Old Testament’s periodic insistence that the Lord wants not new moon rituals but care for the widows, and perhaps in Jesus’ insistence that man was not made for the Sabbath but the other way around. For me, the naming of that particular damage opens up a number of questions about the relationship between moral responsibility and prayer – indeed, questions about prayer itself. Sometimes, surely, prayer quickens in the person praying a sense of moral responsibility – but it’s not immediately obvious that such quickening is a proper end of prayer, or, at least, that it’s always a proper end of prayer. There are some things prayed for about which moral responsibility seems a non-sequitur: I might, for example, pray for my dead friend. It’s not clear that there’s anything additional I might do vis-à-vis the object of my prayer. Or I might pray for someone’s healing; while one can imagine a further action to which my praying would prompt me (I might be moved to go to medical school), the relationship between praying for the healing of an ill person and seeking medical education is an attenuated one (or, at least, the instance in which it is not attenuated – a child moved by the experience of having, and praying for, a sibling or parent with cancer to pursue a medical career – is rare). I’ll follow Clough’s lead in mentioning teaching: I regularly teach “Introduction to Christian Spirituality,” and one of the class’s threads is the relationship of the contemplative and the active, which may be the umbrella under which the relationship of prayer to moral responsibility sits. 15 years into teaching this course, I’ve still not settled on a way of relating the contemplative and the active that satisfies me – I want, always, to claim the dichotomy false, but my persistent worries about quietism interfere with that impulse. On the other hand: does prayer only substitute for moral responsibility if we think prayer doesn’t actually do anything? Or, following the conceptual framework suggested in Corinthians 12, do we believe that some people are called to live lives wholly devoted to prayer? I am reminded of Teresa of Avila’s response to the nuns who worried about living a cloistered life, who wanted to be out and about doing corporate works of mercy – the best thing the nuns could do for the suffering ones beyond the cloistered walls, said Teresa, was pray for them. What are the felicities and what the damages in Teresa’s position?

    The logs-before-specks approach is provocative. To turn that critique toward myself: in writing about host desecration narratives, have I preoccupied myself with “issues that will inevitably impact the practice of others before oneself”? Have I diverted my gaze from my own problems and failings? In one sense, no: I am a priest who celebrates the Eucharist, so there’s a way in which I do exhibit the problem I sketch. In another sense, yes: to write about host desecration narratives is to write principally about a damage performed by gentile Christians, and I am not a gentile Christian. I did not offer, in the book, an analysis of deformations pertinent to baptized Jews. But I feel usefully prompted by Clough to consider what such an analysis might look like. It might include excessive delight in having a double mode of intimacy with the God of Israel. Or, it might include the baptized Jew’s deliberately obscuring her own Jewishness; she might seek to “pass” among Gentiles, to become one more among the baptized—which is to say, she might participate, in a mode not available to Gentiles, in supersessionism. Perhaps a characteristic damage of conversion is the tendency to make a scorched earth of that from which you converted, which is a particular problem for the baptized Jew.

    Clough meets his own call to undertake “deformation-spotting closer to home” by considering the deformations of academic specialisms. I’d love to hear his analysis of the deformations toward which theological and ethical studies of animals tend, or the deformations toward which non-academic Christian speech (e.g., devotional speech) about animals tends. Is one of the characteristic deformations toward which (some) Christian speech about animals tends sentimentalism? Or the (perhaps inadvertent) reinscription of the centrality of humanness by affirming animals in anthropomorphized terms?

    Thank you, especially for prompting the somewhat uncomfortable exercise of beginning to consider the characteristic damages of Jewish conversion to Christianity.

    • David Clough

      David Clough


      Concern for Animals as a Distraction from Racism?

      Thanks for this response, Lauren. You’re right to recognise that the case I make means I owe an account of characteristic deformations of Christian animal ethics. I’m all too aware of them, but sentimentalism and anthropomorphism aren’t top of my list. Anna Sewell’s 1877 novel Black Beauty certainly contains both, but seems to me to use them to expand the boundaries of our moral concern by recognising common ground between reader and the abused horses that are her main characters.

      I’m much more concerned that concern for animals can function to distract from or obscure issues of human social justice. Robert Beckford’s observation that there are more books by British theologians on whether animals have souls than on the issue of racism is a helpfully sharp way to frame the problem. What made me think that animals rather than racism should be my priority concern when I took up the issue 15 years ago? Surely, at least in part, an academic malformation at prestigious centres of theological learning that failed to recognise the need to engage race as fundamentally shaping theological and ethical preoccupations. I now see clearly, as I did not 15 years ago, that taking up concern for animals as a single issue without attending to questions of intra-human social justice is in serious danger of reproducing racism and misogyny. Recognition of this characteristic deformation is a necessary condition for any legitimate work on this area. It is now a core value in the way CreatureKind works to find ways to draw Christian attention to the creaturely disaster that is industrial animal agriculture in the context of attending to the intersections between the exploitation of people of colour, non-human animals, and our shared environment.

Nicole Symmonds


The Practice of Liberating Christian Practice

Every Christmas since childhood, I have compiled a list of the things I want to be gifted. From the handwritten list of the ’80s and ’90s to the emailed list of the early aughts, to the current vehicle of Pinterest, every year I petition my parents for exactly what I want each Christmas. Then on Christmas Day I participate in the practice of opening these gifts as if I never asked for them in the first place—because one must feign surprise as is expected in the dramatic liturgy of Christmas gift unwrapping. For thirty-eight years I’ve participated in the practice of making lists and opening gifts I’ve requested without question and uncritically so, never imagining for a moment that I am participating in anything other than a time-honored tradition. Lest anyone think I am a spoiled brat; I am not alone in this. This odd practice of requesting and receiving gifts extends to bridal and baby showers where people request only the things that they want as opposed to trusting the gift-giving capacity of the family and friends invited to celebrate the marriage or forthcoming new bundle of joy.

While list-making during Christmas and people scanning copious products onto a registry is not an explicitly Christian practice, it points to how the concept of the gift undergirds The Dangers of Christian Practice and how many of us have deformed the practice of gift-giving through the way we receive gifts. Lauren Winner explores three Christian practices, the divine gifts of Eucharist, prayer, and baptism that experience, what she calls, a “characteristic deformation” by way of the agents of each of the practices. As agents we consistently participate in the extrinsic damage of Christian practice, gifts that we were given by God for the purpose of binding us to Christian community. Given this, Winner posits that a gift has at least three characteristics: first it understands the triad of giver, recipient, and object given and received; second the object must be transmitted between giver and recipient in a particular way; and third there can be no recompense required or even possible. Failure in any one of those areas renders a damage in the gift, but there’s a fourth way that gifts can be damaged, and that is when “a recipient like this cannot help but damage a gift like that.”

This is the lot of us in the twenty-first century, those whose ancestors were, allegedly, responsible for desecrating the Eucharist or keeping it pure. We are those ancestors of the enslaved or the slave driver who prayed that we would remain obedient to our oppressor. We are those who are baptized into the body of Christ but celebrate our entry into the body with an exclusive list of family and friends gathered around a buffet of fine china and crustless finger sandwiches. The Dangers of Christian Practice hangs on the idea that there is a fine line between the gift and recipient, particularly that we, the recipients, are responsible for the characteristic damages of at least three divine gifts that God has given us, the Eucharist, prayer, and baptism. Winner asks, “What kind of God gives us a gift we can’t use well?” And she responds that it is not that we cannot use the gifts well, but that God gives us felix’d gifts—gifts that are a result of the Fall but not without the possibility of redemption. We may get damaged gifts not because that is what God gives, but because we are recipients like this that cannot help but damage a gift like that. Our receipt of the gift is what damages it.

I read this book as someone who still believes in and is committed to the efficacy of the particular Christian practices covered in this book as well as Christian practice broadly construed. I also read this as an African American woman who 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. Through these historical examples we discover that Christian possessiveness of the Eucharist enabled violence against Jews via the host desecration narratives; prayer was muddied by slave-owning white women who petitioned God for their slave’s obedience; and early modernity’s baptismal celebrations enabled exclusion. These examples illustrate what I believe might be the truest damage of Christian practice, and that is the way in which they reveal Christianity’s role in the intersecting oppression of race, class, and gender. I say this with trepidation but also in recognition of a question that haunted the pages of this book for me, “Is it possible that the dangers of Christian practice exist because of colonization of Christian practice? Can we really talk about the damages of Christian practice before we talk about whose Christianity damaged those practices?” That is, if we are talking about Christianity historically and contemporarily construed, we are largely talking about a tradition that has undergone countless iterations. A Christianity whose adherents have resisted its divine impulses because of the demands of culture and the overwhelming power of dominance.

Could it be that the Eucharist, prayer, and baptism have suffered blows because of colonization, they are touched by it and that is precisely why the danger and damage exist in the first place. Winner does not make this explicit, possibly because she thinks it’s obvious, or possibly because a book like this given to people like myself will render it obvious. But the persistent claim for me is that Christian practice and Christian faith can easily become tools for oppression because people presume the tradition’s virtue eclipses its vice. At once Keziah Brevard can call Negroes “trying creatures” and ask God’s forgiveness as if the latter wipes away the former, as if the onus was not on her to wipe the stain of hatred and racism from her heart. The Christian practices alone cannot grant us virtue if we refuse to act in virtuous ways when we get off our knees. I’ve homed in on an issue about this book that is rather particular to my identity as an African American woman, but in general it feels like the inescapable reality of Christian practice in the hands of those with more privilege then and now. That is why it is possible to write a book about the damages of Christian practices without close attention to the identity of those who have damaged the practices and, truthfully, those who continue to damage the practices to this day. If we are going to talk about how the Christian practices hurt people, as Winner largely does in this book, we must think critically about the identity of those who are hurting people in the first place.

As I read through the Dangers of Christian Practice I tried to resist the impulse to racialize it, but I could not get over the fact that every account of the deformity of Christian practice rests in the hands of those for whom privilege and freedom have been unquestionable. The foundation of the Christian practices for Winner are rooted in scripture, but the history of the utilization of those practices and the damages therein are rooted in a colonization particular to the subjects of privilege. The colonization refers not just to racial colonization but a religious one in which Christianity and its practices were overtaken by individuals who had their own ideas about the utilization of the practices. It refers to the maintenance of boundaries between people that sometimes pervades Christianity—cue the cliché but true “Sundays are the most segregated day on the calendar.” I return to the scene of Keziah Brevard praying for the obedience of women enslaved under her management. Brevard petitions God to give her good feelings toward Negroes who are “deceitful and lying as any people can well be” (Winner, 58), but her prayer cannot be removed from the fact that she comes from a line of men and women who twisted Christianity toward their own ends. Brevard’s heritage is that of people who misconstrued scripture to hold people in captivity, thus the attending practices would have to follow the same. How do we understand Christian practice in light of this? Winner thinks through this by analyzing the prayers of some of our most celebrated spiritual figures, and in pitting Augustine and Merton against Brevard we discover that our prayers are not always in tune with Christian virtue and may actually foreclose that virtue altogether. Yet we must continually ask, how do we understand Christian virtue and what does it take to obtain virtue?

How does the pursuit of Christian virtue become hindered by a religious tradition flawed by its adherents, adherent who always, in some way, depend on a level of exclusion? We carry this matter of exclusion into early baptismal celebration where baptism goes wrong in its failure to properly express the extraction of the baptized from the local into the ecclesial and vice versa. Again, what deforms these practices is the desire of the individual to remain particular to their local culture and within the reach of the privileges they have always benefited from. Here Winner locates these practices in what she calls a “failure to hold that affirmation of the local in judicious tension” (98). Though she is speaking of the tension that ought to be held when grafting someone into the body of Christ from their locality, I think that Winner directs us toward the fact that we must hold all things with judicious tension, especially the Christian practices. And maybe the reality is that in the twenty-first century, when the demands of culture impinge upon our ability to participate in Christian practices well, we have no choice but to loosen the grip on our beloved Christian practices, especially as we come to grips with the divisive nature of those practices. And in loosening our grip on Christian practices as we know them, we might be able to participate in a decolonialization of the practices that makes us able to accept gifts exactly as they were intended to be received, without spot or blemish and without trying to make them what we want them to be.

  • Lauren Winner

    Lauren Winner


    Reply to Nicole Symmonds

    Nicole Symmonds’s response to Dangers illuminates many vistas, but perhaps most brilliantly the relationship between damage and privilege. “Can we really talk about the damages of Christian practice,” Symmonds asks, “before we talk about whose Christianity damaged those practices?”  Her critique presses an inquiry into the ways power is required to damage a Christian practice.  That, it seems to me, is a necessary and urgent inquiry.

    One of the registers on which Symmond’s critique runs is inclusion and exclusion: “How does the pursuit of Christian virtue become hindered by a religious tradition flawed by its adherents, adherent who always, in some way, depend on a level of exclusion?” she asks.  In pointing to an analysis of exclusion as a necessary ingredient in any analysis of the damages sustained and inflicted by Christian practice, Symmonds is, it seems to me, directing our attention to (inter alia) the category of election, and to the characteristic damages toward which election tends.  Election means that some people are related to the God of Israel differently than other people; the deformation of that view is the idea that some people are related perfectly to God. (It seems axiomatic to me that no individual and no group is, or – on this side of the eschaton – can be.) A deformed election tends, I think, to tutor Christians in the malformed view that within the church there are, somewhere, some real Christians – and those are the ones who get the gift right and use it rightly.

    In 1845, various beachgoers in South Africa began to realize their dunes were eroding. Wishing to arrest and even reverse the erosion, they planted groves of Australian acacias, trees that were tops at stabilizing dunes.  The acacias succeeded at their appointed task – they stabilized the dunes. They also began to thrive in many local grasslands—and their presence there lowered the water table, which in turn reduced the available water supply, a reduction whose effects were still being felt in 2018 when Cape Town almost ran dry.

    That arboreal and aquatic note may seem wholly unrelated to Symmonds’s critique, but as I was trying to understand my hesitation about Symmonds’s closing note, the acacias came to mind.  Symmonds writes that “in loosening our grip on Christian practices as we know it, we might be able to participate in a decolonialization of the practices that makes us able to accept gifts exactly as they were intended to be received, without spot or blemish and without trying to make them what we want them to be.”  At the very least, I’d wish to underline “might.” The church should move toward the decolonization Symmonds is calling for.  But I’m not optimistic that such a move will result in the capacity to “accept gifts exactly as they were intended to be received, without spot or blemish.” As illustrated by the acacias, our well-intended acts of repair – including the repairs represented by decolonization – carry unintended damage in their train (those acaias really did do reparative work, and, in ways their planters had not foreseen, they brought about new damage).  To note that is not to say the church should not pursue a decolonization of its practices – it is only to say that I am pessimistic that such an undertaking will allow the reception of gifts “exactly as they were intended to be received, without spot or blemish.”

    I am leaving Symmonds’s essay thinking, among other things, about how to pursue the loosening of the grip for which she calls in specific locales.  My immediate context for the pursuit of such grip-loosening is the Episcopal Church; I wonder what such a loosening there would entail.  As suggested by the several examples in my response to Martin, one of the persistent deformations of the Eucharist in Episcopal churches in the American South is the use of the Eucharist to underwrite chattel slavery and Jim Crow, and what some in the Episcopal Church might see as a loosening of the grip – e.g., changing the canons of the church to permit Eucharistic reception of the unbaptized or to permit lay Eucharistic presiders – seem somewhat far removed from those deformations.

    And, though it wasn’t her central point, I am also leaving Symmonds’s essay captivated by her opening snapshot of Christmas wish-list-making.  That snapshot illuminates quotidian American habits of gift exchange.  (Recently, my aunt asked me what I want for my birthday.  I felt incredibly uncomfortable answering the question, but I hadn’t quite seen, until reading Symmonds, how the question and my reply participated in damaging the gifts.)  And Symmonds’s depiction also raises a question for me about Christian gift-giving:  is surprise a characteristic of gifts, and do we somehow damage our receipt of gifts from God by trying to evade the element of surprise?

    For pointing me toward power, surprise, election, thank you.

Michael Brandon McCormack


Repentance, Reparations, and Reasons for (Not) Continuing Christian Practices

I appreciate the invitation to engage Dr. Lauren F. Winner’s important work, The Dangers of Christian Practice. This work offers a necessary and welcome critique of contemporary scholarship on Christian practice(s)-scholarship that has often presented accounts of Christian practices that have failed to seriously reckon with the history of violence associated with such practices. Winner’s work is intended to intervene in this scholarship by offering a sobering account of the harmfulness of presumably good practices that have been “deformed” and “damaged” by human agents corrupted by “sin.” For Winner, however, such deformation is not simply external, but rather there is something intrinsic to each of the practices she examines that make them susceptible to certain “characteristic damage.”

Winner’s work aims to help Christians better understand the propensity of their religious practices to be deformed, anticipate such deformations, and work to avoid further damage. With reference to sacramental practice in general, and the Eucharist in particular, Winner argues “a constitutive part of practicing Eucharist—and of an account of that practice—is the tension between acknowledging that, on the one hand, the Eucharist has gone, and inevitably sometimes will go, wrong, and, on the other hand, articulating the reason to go on doing it” (46). It is this tension, which we might name as holding together a mode of confessional critique and critical apologetics, that runs through this important work.

In my view, Dr. Winner has done a remarkable job in demonstrating the ways Christian practices have and will “go wrong.” Furthermore, if her work is taken seriously, I suspect The Dangers of Christian Practice will, indeed, aid Christian communities in avoiding the perpetuation of further violence. We might even hold out hope that a serious reckoning with the implications of Winner’s work might even lead to more radical Christian practices of repentance through redressing—or making reparations—for prior damage. For these reasons alone, Winner’s work is of inestimable value. With the value of this work firmly in mind, however, The Dangers of Christian Practice leaves me with unresolved questions concerning Winner’s more daunting task of articulating compelling reasons to “go on doing” Christian practices that have been so demonstrably harmful and violent. Before turning to those questions, however, I want to reiterate and call attention to the significance Winner’s impressive historical, theological, and critical account of Christian practices.

While the entire monograph is a fascinating read, as a scholar trained at the intersections of homiletics and liturgics and black religion and cultural studies, as a fellow in a program in Theology and Practice, I am particularly interested in the chapters on “Prayer” and “Damaged Gifts.” Winner’s account of prayer is intriguing in that it analyzes the written prayers of Southern, white, slaveholding women in the antebellum period, with an eye toward their interactions with enslaved Africans (and primarily enslaved African women). To be sure, these prayers, recorded in the personal diaries of plantation mistresses, were not lifted as intercessory prayers petitioning their god for the well-being of black women. Neither were these prayers generally imprecatory prayers inviting the wrath of the Southern slave-sanctioning god upon African “savages.” Rather, these prayers read as something simultaneously more innocuous and more insidious. On Winner’s account, these prayers were petitions for both increased power over, and patience with; domination over, and docility of; restraint towards, and respect from; prayers of accusations against and affections towards the enslaved. Winner argues these power-laden prayers constitute a mode of “household management” that were directed towards a deity imagined as “a God who ordered a hierarchical world and who would inspire and demand of any slaves who knew and loved him obedience both to him and to their earthly master” (66).

Winner captures the horrifically mundane nature of these morning prayers. Such prayers were routinely written as the daily diary entries of white women slavers, sometimes after episodes of intense brutality and violence against enslaved black women, men, and children. Indeed, Winner argues that for “pious slave-owning women” such violence “became inseparable from prayer” (72). For example, she explains, “After whipping, after poking an enslaved woman’s eyes with a fork, mistresses were moved to pray—for a more obedient workforce or for patience or for protection from what they perceived to be the corrupting influence of slavery” (72). While it can certainly be argued that such prayers evince the moral depravity or “sinfulness” of the individual women articulating the prayers, Winner shows how these individual prayers are deformed by both internal and institutional logics that render them simultaneously damaged and damaging “Christian” practices.

Among Winner’s principle claims throughout the text is that Christian practices are not merely damaged because of external pressures exerted upon them by sinful human agents. Rather, she claims that inherent to the practices themselves are internal logics that render them vulnerable to deformation. In the case of prayer, and prayers of petition in particular, the danger of the practice lies in the notion of praying according to the particularity of one’s personal desires—desires that are shot through with “sin” (defined, in large part, by Winner, as “misdirected desire”). Of course, “individual desires” are shaped, at least in part, by external and/or “institutional logics.” In terms of the institutional logics that pressured and deformed the individual desires articulated in white slave-owning women’s prayers of petition, Winner points to the ways that such prayers were always already, consciously or unconsciously, prayed as a means of legitimating and reinforcing the political economy of the slave regime (76). Here, we see that the “desire” motivating the Christian practice of petitionary prayer made by the individual subjects of Winner’s study is deeply shaped by the institution of chattel slavery and the exploitative labor demanded by a Southern plantation economy.

More specifically, the desire is for obedient “slaves” that would work to maximize the profits of capitalists in a slave economy, while also reinscribing the superiority, power, and authority of whites in a white supremacist social order (and, ironically, also men in a patriarchal order). Here we observe the ways that the seeming piety of “Christian” practices of daily devotion through petitionary prayer are shot through with the violent desires of hetero-patriarchal-white-supremacist capitalism. To be sure, such Christian practices not only caused untold suffering for enslaved Africans throughout the history of the antebellum South, but also legitimated sociopolitical and economic systems that continue to perpetuate such suffering into the present.

With this argument in mind, I see in Winner’s work possibilities for reframing, in theological terms, more contemporary social-political-economic issues, such as the recent reparations debate. While those on the political right have cast all such discussions as evidence of godless, radical, leftist socialists, Winner reminds us that notions of “repair” are always already bound up with Christian theological notions of repentance, which is demanded by acknowledgment of sins that have deformed Christian practice. As Winner puts it, “Repentance also involves trying to redress the harm you caused.” Further, she insists, “Although there is never a one-to-one correlation between repentance, on the one hand, and redress and repair on the other, redress and repair often index the sincerity and depth of repentance, and some effort at redress is usually a sign of repentance to one’s larger community” (155). Thus, with reference to the dangerous Christian practice of prayer, for instance, where prayer has been used as an instrument for establishing the legitimacy of a socioeconomic hierarchy, where blacks are by divine necessity on the bottom, and where prayer has been used as a practice to sanction a political economy where white-American wealth is built on the exploitation of labor from enslaved Africans, there are significant theological grounds for taking up discussions of reparations as an explicitly Christian response to the recognition and repentance of a practice deformed by sin and damaging to those who were (and continue to be) the objects of such Christian prayers. Thus, I appreciate Winner’s work, in part, because of its usefulness as a critical tool for an explicitly theological reframing of debates on contemporary socio-political-economic issues linked to the damages wrought throughout the history of Christian practice.

So far, I have discussed the significance of Winner’s account of Christian practices as inherently dangerous and attempted to extend the implications of her work for contemporary discussions, such as reparations. In closing, I would like to wrestle with lingering questions that remain unresolved after reading her important work. Here, I want to think about the latter part of her initial assertion concerning the task of the book. Specifically, I want to consider Winner’s aim of holding “the tension between acknowledging that, on the one hand, [Christian practice] has gone, and inevitably sometimes will go, wrong, and, on the other hand, articulating the reason to go on doing it” (46, emphasis mine). While Winner has nailed the task of carefully articulating the dangers of Christian practices, when it comes to articulating reasons for continuing to participate in Christian practices that have demonstrably “gone wrong” and done considerable violence to others, especially marginalized communities, I am left wondering whether Winner offers a compelling case for going on with these practices. If I have read Winner correctly, her argument can be put succinctly, as follows: Christian practices, such as Eucharist, prayer, and baptism have gone wrong, and violently so. So, why keep doing these practices? “Because they are the only things we have, and because they are gifts from the Lord” (137).

I do not necessarily wish to quibble with the latter theological claim of whether these practices are “gifts from the Lord.” Besides, Dr. Winner gives ample attention to unpacking her understanding of the giving and reception of gifts. Rather, I am interested in the former assertion, which is asserted, but left unpacked. I am unsure what Winner means when she says these practices “are the only things we have.” Because space is limited, I am interested in thinking through the implications of this statement with reference, not only to those enslaved African women and men on the receiving end of those deformed practices of prayer, but also to contemporary descendants of the enslaved. To be sure, many enslaved Africans appropriated and continued the Christian practice of prayer in spite of the deformation and damage of the practice in the hands of their enslavers. Yet, if pressed with the question “Why go on doing it?” I wonder whether Winner’s conclusions would have been satisfactory. They may well have agreed that prayer was a “gift from the Lord,” but certainly this and other Christian practices would not have been “all they had.” To the point, enslaved African communities had access to the memories of African-derived religious practices that often supplemented and augmented “Christian” practices in ways that were sustaining to enslaved communities. Practices of divination, conjuration, amulet making, herbalism, and the like offered protection to the enslaved that was often deemed equally, if not more, potent than the practice of praying in the Christian tradition. Indeed, “prayers” to West African deities and ancestors were often held together simultaneously with Christian prayer. This is not to mention any number of ostensibly nonreligious practices, from work slowdowns to violent revolt (which, of course, for some, were conceived as alternative Christian practices!). The point being, of course that Christian practices, such as prayer, were not “all they had” in their quests for survival, freedom, thriving, and religious meaning making.

Of course, the deformation and damage of Christian practices, such as prayer, in the hands or on the lips of white supremacists is not relegated to the antebellum past. Each continued petition for God to bless America, whereby “America” becomes a signifier of a dangerous ideology and practice of white Christian nationalism, is yet another instance of the invocation of divine sanction upon an anti-black sociopolitical hierarchy. Indeed, the emergence of the contemporary movement for black lives has provoked the renewal of a perennial question in black America concerning commitments to Christian belief and practice. For many young, black, millennial activists, and everyday folks concerned with black lives, especially those who wrestle with existentially and politically fraught identifications with Christianity, Winner’s query, “Why keep doing these practices?” takes on particular urgency. Unfortunately, I am not sure that Winner’s response, as articulated in The Dangers of Christian Practice, adequately addresses the urgency or angst of the question for such individuals.

It is here, then, that I look forward to continued conversation with Dr. Winner. Beyond claims that seem to presume ongoing and/or unquestioned identifications with Christian tradition, what theo-ethical, pragmatic, and/or political significance might be claimed for “going on” with Christian practices? Are there reasons why these particular practices, and not others, do certain kinds of work that might be compelling to communities who continue to grapple with the ongoing violence bound up with the history of Christian practices? Might these practices be able to effectively intervene in the seemingly intractable injustice, violence, and suffering that damaged and deformed Christian practices have wrought and continue to perpetuate? Can theologians put forward alternative constructions of these practices that might lead to convictions concerning the efficacy of these practices in bringing about a world in which we can all thrive? These questions seem especially relevant for those communities that have historically been marginalized by Christian practices and on the receiving end of the violence of these practices. However, these questions require wrestling among all Christians who have inherited the legacy of such violent practices, especially those who seek to be “allies” in ongoing struggles for justice.

  • Lauren Winner

    Lauren Winner


    Reply to McCormack

    I’m grateful for McCormack’s critique – he’s right, I think, that I don’t adequately argue for continuing on with practices that have been so damaging. His pointing out that enslaved African communities found sustenance in the practices of, e.g., “divination, conjuration, amulet making, herbalism” is a helpful criticism of my rather pat claim that we go on with intercessory prayer and Eucharist because they’re “the only things we have.” McCormack is making, first, a historical point, and an important one: enslaved people availed themselves of not only ecclesial practices like baptism and intercessory prayer, but also of “African derived religious practices that often supplemented and augmented ‘Christian’ practices.” But several normative points issue from this historical description. First, I’m pressed to spell out the question McCormack implies – who is the “we” in my “the only things we have”? Second, my attention is drawn to McCormack’s verbs – supplement and augment. He does not seem to be suggesting the wholesale replacement of “Christian” practices by, in this case, “African derived religious practices.” The image that comes to my mind is a salve, and the question I wish to ask, then, is: might Eucharist and baptism be salved by conjuration and herbalism, and if so, how? And how might such a salving be related to the decolonization Symmonds calls for?

    McCormack’s pointing out the inadequacy of my own account of why the church continues on with these practices also presses me to ask whether, if one abandons baptism and Eucharist, one has abandoned Christianity? (And how, I might add, is the church’s thinking about the giving up of such practices related to how the church reads Paul to the Corinthians; related, that is, to what the New Testament is or is not saying to baptized Jews about the continuation of halachic practice?) I rather think one has abandoned Christianity if one abandons baptism and Eucharist, which is why in the book I treated the three practices I did and not, as aforementioned, silence. Silence is important to Christianity, but I think we could have (an admittedly impoverished) Christianity without it.

    McCormack’s discussion of reparations adds something concrete and important to my discussion of redress. Christianity– insofar as it generates practices like penance that are intended to deal with its own failings – is recursively self-reflexive. And it seems right to argue that – insofar as the sacrament of penance involves a public acknowledgement of a fault and an identification of what is to be done by the penitent in response to that fault – reparations are a practice that is proper to Christianity. Which is not to say that reparations are a perfect mode of redress; they are imperfect.

    That my own ecclesial home, the Episcopal Church, is, in fits and starts, pursuing that mode of redress – for example, Virginia Theological Seminary’s establishment of a $1.7 million endowment “dedicated to the payment of reparations, and the intent to research, uncover, and recognize Black people who labored on-campus during slavery, Reconstruction, and segregation under Jim Crow laws” – makes it a matter of some exigency for me to think about the ways reparations might characteristically go wrong. Perhaps one trajectory of damage toward which reparations inclines is contractual self-righteousness on the part of the supposed penitent: I’ll write you a check, and we’re done. That’s a stance is wholly at odds with what the sacrament of penance requires, viz., a recognition that an acknowledgement of fault and a concomitant penitential acts that might redress does not remove the wound – indeed, cannot remove the wound. Perhaps the practice of reparations needs to be paired with another Christian practice: that of representing wounds on the statues of martyrs, and devotees’ kissing and licking those wound-representations.

    For such judicious and compelling criticism, thank you.

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