Guns don’t kill people,” goes one popular slogan. “People kill people.” In other words, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a gun. It’s an object, just like a butter knife or brass knuckles. The object itself isn’t the problem, but rather the self-centered, broken, and vile sinners who find relief or satisfaction in putting it to wicked uses.
This saying carries commonsensical force, but it isn’t always true to experience. A gun can discharge accidentally, without its handler having evil intent or a fidgety trigger finger. Guns, after all, are designed to go off, not to thwart the will of their owners. And the bullets they fire are crafted to wound or damage their target. So while guns, on one level, are inanimate objects that aren’t inherently violent, they have certain properties and tendencies that make eruptions of violence more likely.
In her book, The Dangers of Christian Practice: On Wayward Gifts, Characteristic Damage, and Sin, Duke Divinity School’s Lauren Winner makes a similar point regarding treasured Christian practices like baptism, prayer, and the Eucharist. Like guns, there is nothing inherently wrong or “sinful” about them—in fact, they are designed to work against the sinful and broken patterns of the world. But as Winner argues, these practices can malfunction in characteristic and predictable ways, leaving trails of oppression and destruction in their wake.
Winner uses historical examples to support her claim: In the Middle Ages, she notes, a high view of the Eucharist gave added potency to accusations of desecration by Jews, prompting waves of anti-Semitic violence. In the 19th century, slave owners corrupted the practice of intercessory prayer by praying for slavery to be preserved and for their own slaves to remain obedient. And at the turn of the 20th century, domestic christening parties in England took something inherently communal—baptism—and turned it into a privatized (and exclusionary) affair. In each case, Winner highlights in detail how the specific practices contributed to groups of people being mistreated. They went “wayward,” as she puts it. The good gifts that God has given, it turns out, carry the seeds of sin and brokenness.
How, Winner asks, is it even possible that Christian practices can be used to hurt others? Her answer is that they are “characteristically damaged.” In other words, they can go wayward because they are “deformed” by nature. They have a “propensity” to go off and wound others. She writes, “Things become deformed by sin in ways that are proper to the thing being deformed, and when those deformations have consequences, you cannot separate the consequences from the deformed thing itself, because it belongs to the thing potentially to have those very consequences.” On this understanding, the practices themselves are as much the problem as the sinful practitioners. They are, as Winner puts it, “damaged gifts.”
Winner offers a healthy reminder that Christian practices can be abused and misused. In my own writings, I have argued a similar point regarding spiritual disciplines. We can hijack and manipulate any Christian practice or belief to serve our own selfish ends. In our pursuit of getting in touch with God or doing what he’s asked, we end up doing the very thing that he calls us not to do: oppress, hate, or violate our neighbor.
And yet, I’m not entirely persuaded that baptism, prayer, and the Eucharist are destined, by their very nature, to yield the abuses that Winner attributes to them. If, in fact, these practices are fundamentally deformed, then what stops them going wayward every time they are observed? That Christians sometimes abuse Christian practices—taking what God intended for good and perverting it to sow hatred and violence—is beyond dispute. But we shouldn’t overreact to this tendency by making the exception the norm or treating possible abuses as probable abuses.
But let’s suppose that these practices do have the “propensity” that Winner describes. How, then, shall we then practice them? If these practices do indeed go wayward—sometimes, frequently, consistently, or to varying degrees—then what should we do in response?
As I read Winner’s book, I thought often of Meursault, the lead character in Albert Camus’s novel The Stranger. In the story, Meursault, a Frenchman in colonial Algeria who feels alienated from his society, somewhat nonchalantly kills an Arab man on a beach in Algiers. I imagined him smirking, chuckling, and nodding in affirmation at Winner’s portrayal of “deformed” Christian practices. As Camus styles it, Meursault didn’t pull the trigger; the gun simply “went off.” And one wonders if the killer took a perverse comfort in the exculpatory nature of that passivity. There is a subtle spiritual movement that occurs in us when we realize that our sins could be the fault of someone (or something) else. Meursault’s gun had a mind of its own; apparently Christian practices, too, have a mind of their own. When the wayward movements occur, who really is to blame?
In a culture in which we increasingly seek to absolve ourselves from any wrongdoing, an emphasis on the “deformed” nature of the things we do can supply a convenient excuse for overlooking our guilt. There’s not much difference between “The woman you gave me made me do it” and “This gift you gave me made me do it.” When core Christian practices have a “propensity” to violence and oppression, can we really blame the indulgent slave owner or the racist priest for enlisting them in the fight to preserve slavery? If they are “characteristically” damaged, doesn’t this end up blurring the line between victim and perpetrator and making our guilt a little less heavy to bear?
Curiously, Winner refers to baptism, prayer, and the Eucharist as “gifts” time and again. Gifts they are, no doubt. They have been given by God. But two of them are more than this. Baptism and the Eucharist are sacraments. I think we miss something essential about them when we primarily see them as gifts. These are not only good things that God has given. They are not merely practices that each of us take up. They are means of grace that God uses to work on our individual consciences and reconcile us with others.
Winner’s picture of these practices indirectly brings to the fore something we could always take more seriously: the communal parameters that surround sacraments and the integrity of how we practice them. Are our practices consistent with the beliefs they symbolize? For example, we believe that the church is one and should be one (John 17:21), but do we welcome all to the Communion table? We claim that Jesus gave his body for all (2 Cor. 5:15), yet we often see racism, misogyny, and hostility in the pew.
Before partaking of the Lord’s Supper, we are called to examine ourselves (1 Cor. 11:28). We are called to investigate whether our thoughts, wishes, feelings, and doings match those of Jesus. We profess our faith alongside others when we are baptized, and in various Christian traditions, those same people are often invited to testify that they will hold the newly baptized accountable and support them as they strive to keep the faith.
In my experience, many congregations and parishes no longer take these safeguards seriously. They aren’t taught in Sunday school, preached from the pulpit, or stressed in discipleship training. Maybe they should be. For these parameters are in place precisely to prevent using the sacraments to bring damage to our own lives and the lives of others.
Kyle David Bennett teaches philosophy at Caldwell University, where he is program director of the Spirituality and Leadership Institute. He is the author of Practices of Love: Spiritual Disciplines for the Life of the World (Brazos).