In 1860, a 57-year-old woman named Keziah Goodwyn Hopkins Brevard took to her journal to joyfully make record of an answer to a prayer.
“The Lord has been pleased to bless my supplication,” she wrote. “For I always knew the work was too great for my feeble powers to accomplish, and I have left it to Him who does all difficult things for His creatures.”
The source of Brevard’s divine gratitude was the newfound obedience of the enslaved people, of whom she owned about 200. She was frequently irritated by their behavior and kept record of her efforts to be nicer to them. “Negroes are as deceitful and lying as any people can well be,” she wrote in another racist entry. “Lord give me better feelings towards them.”
According to her journal entries, it was the influence of a friend and fellow slave owner named Emilia that convinced Brevard to take the issue of her disobedient slaves to God in prayer. “When we teach our servants to serve God, they serve us, of course,” Emilia had said, according to Brevard’s recollections. “For obedience to their earthly master is one branch of their duty to their heavenly King.”
Emilia’s words impacted Brevard deeply. “I never omit to pray that God may give me good servants,” she later wrote.
This story, in which pious language and spiritual discipline are twisted into a thing of almost unspeakable wickedness, is far from alone in even recent church history. Prayer, like any other spiritual discipline, is a gift. And like any gift, it can be distorted. These distortions can be immense, and leave an ugly legacy that no amount of hasty rug sweeping can cover up.
I think repentance and lament for Christians go hand-in-hand.
“When something is damaged in the way that all things are because of the Fall, sometimes the thing is damaged in a way that appears to be arbitrary, and sometimes things are damaged in a way that is about the thing itself,” says bestselling author Lauren Winner.
Winner is an associate professor of Christian spirituality at Duke Divinity School, and she’s taken an interest in these sorts of damaged goods.
In her most recent book, The Dangers of Christian Practice, Winner examines the tainted histories of baptism, the Eucharist and prayer (from which the above journal en- tries were excerpted) and grapples with a question few are asking: What is the appropriate way to repent of these things?
A LEGACY OF BLOOD
For Winner, the question has a personal dimension. She was raised Jewish and became a Christian in the late ’90s. To hear her tell it, her research into the history of the belief to which she’d just converted threw her into a tailspin. “I knew in some general way that there was anti-Judaism in the Church and that the Church had done violent things to Jews,” she says. “I knew in a general way that there had been a lot of violence in the medieval era. But I knew nothing about the specifics.”
It’s true that a lot of the ugliest chapters in Christian history involve specific and systemic instances of of racism and bigotry, but it’s often underestimated just how deep the toxic legacy of prejudice extends into Christianity.
“I knew about blood libel churches,” Winner says. “But I didn’t know about host desecration.”
To define the terms, both blood libel and host desecration involve sinister rumors European Christians in the Middle Ages would spread about Jews to stoke racist animosity. Blood libel was the accusation that Jews would use the blood of Christian babies in the preparation of Pass-over meals. Host desecration was perhaps even more bizarre, involving high-minded medieval debates about the theology of Communion that could descend into church-sanctioned ethnic cleansing.
“There began to be a pattern in the Middle Ages of Christians falsely charging a Jew in their community or in their town with stealing a Eucharistic wafer and trying to destroy it,” Winner explains.
The story only gets more horrific from there: “The Eucharistic wafer magically or sacramentally resisted being destroyed, and then the false story would get told that Jews were stealing and trying to destroy a consecrated Eucharistic wafer,” she explains. “And that be- came the discursive rationale for Christians in that community to commit horrible acts of violence. Some- times just killing the one Jew in question but sometimes killing the entire Jewish community, often burning down Jewish buildings, homes or the synagogue, and building chapels in their place.”
Acts like this were tragically common for more than 500 years, with the most recent documented accusation taking place in 1836, in Romania.
When Winner began to explore the real history of Communion, she was rattled (“I think ‘devastated’ is not too strong of a word”) and anxious to know more. She became convinced that, “We have to find a way of talking about Eucharistic practice in a way that didn’t pretend that this history hadn’t happened.”
“I’m really glad that Protestants have recovered this category of Christian practice, but I felt like I needed to sort of critique my own sort of rosy use of the category,” Winner says.
As some high church practices like the Eucharist and baptism get more popular among younger Christians who find the sacraments refreshing, Winner is concerned not enough is being done to repent of their respective histories.
“I don’t think sin can be scrubbed out of any of our Christian communities until God is finished redeeming all of creation,” she says.
But, she says, the mistake would be to give in to cynicism and abandon the work of redemption altogether. And she says the first step is simply recognizing that something needs to be repented of.
“I think lament is a very important part of any response to noting patterns of patriarchy, sex- ism or noticing any other characteristic of sin,” she says. “I think repentance and lament for Christians go hand-in-hand. We hope to repent of those things for which we have responsibility and agency, but lament is a needed part of our whole choreography, because lament is what we do when we come face-to-face with the recognition that some of the sinful behavior is going to go on.”
Lament is a good start—a good deal better than doing nothing at all—but it’s just a start.
“Lament without repentance is a mistake,” Winner says. “But repentance or an attempt to change things without lamenting the inevitable brokenness of a fallen creation, I think is also a mistake.”
In other words, lament has to come with an attempt to be better. “If we can know which sins are characteristic for our communities, we can at least be on the lookout for them,” Winner says. “And we can at least then sometimes avoid falling into them or embracing them. And if we’re on the lookout for them, we can perhaps more quickly notice when we have nonetheless fallen into or embraced them and we can ask God to allow us to enter into God’s work of repair.”
Winner maintains that ancient Christian practices are good gifts, but that sin has damaged them. That doesn’t mean they should be abandoned, but that we should be aware of our ability to damage things—and own up to those ugly truths, how they’ve reared their heads in the past and how we’re determined to make things right. These are gifts worth fighting for.
“There’s no perfect church on Earth,” she says. “And there’s no escaping any of our characteristic sins. However, I do think that we can become attentive to the particular deformations that we are inclined toward. That’s what I’m really interested in.”
Tyler Huckabee is RELEVANT's senior editor. He lives in Nashville with his wife, dog and Twitter account.