The Winklers

Yesterday, Mary Winkler was convicted of voluntary manslaughter — a lesser charge than the first-degree murder the prosecution was pursuing — for the shotgun death of her husband, a Church of Christ preacher in Selmer, TN. The story has captured the attention of many because the Winklers had, from all outside appearances, the “perfect marriage.” Deeply involved in their church and community and raising three young children, this was the last couple you’d expect would endure such a tragedy.

So why did Mary fire a single shot into the back of her husband while he was sleeping, then take the gun and her children and flee the scene? She said this week as she took the stand that she only meant to aim the gun at her husband â&emdash; something he did to her on occasion â&emdash; to “force him to talk to her” about their marital problems. Problems she said included verbal and physical abuse, the threat of greater harm to her and her children, sexual problems (she testified that Matthew made her dress “slutty,” perform acts that made her feel uncomfortable, and watch pornography), and a husband who treated Mary like owned property. (she said he greatly restricted her friendships and activties)

As I was watching Mary’s testimony earlier this week while jogging on the treadmill at lunch, I reflected on what we can learn from this case. Certainly there is no excusing what Mary did, but there were clearly some unresolved issues — both personal and marital — that were not dealt with in a healthy manner.

My reflections:

1) The Winklers were a Christian couple â&emdash; paid ministers, even â&emdash; with problems. Every couple, no matter how spiritual or religious, has issues they must deal with. No couple must be put in a position, either by themselves or others, to hide the fact that they have problems.

2) The Winklers clearly had little true community accountability with whom they could share their struggles. Sure, they ministered with and were a part of a small Church of Christ in rural Tennessee … but was/is this a safe place to be authentic about who they really were?

3) Deeper than that, Mary Winkler had few, if any, individual women in whom she could confide. My guess is that Matthew was the same. We need the basic cellular building blocks of the church — the groups of 2 and 3 — for mutual edification on the journey. We cannot do this alone.

4) Many marriage issues need a third party, a mediator, to help us slog through the issues typically buried or glossed over. Did the Winklers ever see a counselor about their problems or talk to an elder or trusted person about any of it?

5) Finally, and most importantly, the Winkler case underscores the fact that our Christian faith is at its most basic level about being formed into the image of Christ. We do not sit back and wait for Heaven when we are baptized; baptized people begin to live differently, looking to the source of all Life as their model. Faith systems that do not put spiritual formation at the center of the Christian faith (instead elevating the afterlife, for instance) are severely truncated. How might the Winkler case have turned out differently if both Matthew and Mary were radically pursuing Christ?

Those were a few of my reflections … additions? Rebuttals?


12 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by from Memphis on April 20, 2007 at 9:42 am

    Coming from an abusive marital relationship myself, I will tell you how alienating “good church people” can be. I did go to an elder who told me I was being ridiculous. I think it’s especially difficult in the south where keeping up appearances is so important. Abuse is a slippery slope that starts out “not so bad”, so you cover it up, then you find yourself in a really bad place not really knowing how your got there. It’s makes it all the more difficult for people to believe that bad things are going on because you work so hard at making things ok. When I finally got out of my abusive marriage, that action cost me dearly within my “church family”. I went from being a deacon’s wife to someone who was suddenly not asked to join any gathering involving “friends” from church. Don’t think it’s as easy as going to an elder, or friend. I lost lots of “friends” when I came out of abuse because divorce was a “worse sin” than abusing your wife and children. I believe God has been merciful to Mary Winkler by providing a pro bono defense team and a relatively light verdict. I pray her prison time of a 10 year abusive marriage and time served plus some intense psychotherapy will be her sentence. I pray that she and her girls can be reunited. I pray for her girls now because Matthew Winkler didn’t become an abuser in a vaccuum; his family of origin gave him those roots and that is where those little girls are living now. I praise God for the evidence of His care for Mary.
    I’m sorry that Matthew Winkler died in the mess that he helped create. I’m thankful that my sins have not resulted in a death sentence like his did. I know his family is hurting and I pray for them as well.


  2. Posted by Steve on April 20, 2007 at 9:49 am

    from Memphis –
    I am so sorry you went through what you did. I have heard from women like you that no words can adequately describe the horror of situations like yours and Mary’s, and that patch solutions or easy answers are just that — only a patch. Rarely helpful.

    I should have been more clear in my post that the “church culture” that exists so many places is as much to blame as anyone or anything in the Winkler case. There is no question about that. You are correct in saying that the solution to these problems is often not as easy as going to an elder or friend.

    I was reminded of this last night watching North Country with Charlize Theron, who played a woman fighting a culture of sexual harrassment and oppression in a Northern Minnesota mine. When she visited her parents with a black eye (after being beaten by her husband and leaving him), her dad asked her if he’d caught her with another man. Many times, the ones we go to for help often turn our concerns back on us, placing the blame on our shoulders. My impression is that these abusive situations often make women whose psychies have been beaten and bruised for years on end blame themselves, when it is always a two-way road (and sometimes a one-way road, in the cases of especially mean men).

    So I hurt with you, from Memphis, and all those women like you. I pray that the church will once again be the community that hurting and broken and imperfect people can run to, because all of us are all of those things. (whether or not we are open about it)


  3. “How might the Winkler case have turned out differently if both Matthew and Mary were radically pursuing Christ?”

    I’m not sure I understand this question. Are you suggesting that this murder could’ve been prevented if the Winklers had just made up their minds to be a bit more “Jeezus Freeky”?

    If you are, I disagree. I think Memphis’s observation is a little truer to life: “Matthew Winkler didn’t become an abuser in a vaccuum; his family of origin gave him those roots”.


  4. Posted by Steve on April 20, 2007 at 10:41 am

    Matthew – I certainly wouldn’t nuance my statement you quoted in exactly the same way, but I do stand by my assertion that the pursuit to be more like Christ changes everything. It may be predicated by a thorough “working through” of one’s own psychological and familial baggage.


  5. Posted by Mandy on April 20, 2007 at 10:47 am

    Here’s a wild thought – we’re only hearing her side here. What if Mary Winkler was just as abusive? Men are not the only ones who can be abusive in a relationship, and that includes all forms of abuse – physical, mental, emotional, sexual, etc. We have no idea how SHE treated HIM, you know? Just like we can’t assume that it’s the woman’s fault if the husband is abusive, we also can’t assume that abuse in a marriage always comes from the husband.

    Perhaps she denied him, sexually, and he was trying new ways to make their bedroom life interesting. There’s a website somewhere, I think it’s called “The Marriage Bed,” that discusses the questions of what’s “okay” to do in bed as a Christian couple. If Mary was uncomfortable with performing “certain acts,” they should’ve sought counseling. Same with their other problems.

    So let’s not crucify Matthew Winkler just yet – perhaps it wasn’t just him.

    My concern here lies mainly with the children. How are they going to be affected by this? Who is raising them now?


  6. Posted by Steve on April 20, 2007 at 11:03 am

    Mandy – Great point. It is rarely one-sided. In fact, I’d say that on some level, it is never one-sided. We obviously don’t have the whole story … one critical side, Matthew, is not able to speak in his defense.

    But the woman I have seen testifying in court seems to be (and, in all fairness, she could be putting on an act) a broken, caged person. Her testimony is consistent with marriages I’ve witnessed where the husband dominates in every way — sexually, physically, and emotionally — the wife. Ironically, the Bible is often used as the rationale for this extreme form of chauvinism, with men (and a surprising number of women) citing all the New Testament “submit” passages, as well as the Creation account, and then throwing a little manly “because I said so!” behind it.

    Mary admitted in court this week that her sexual appetite was not as great or as broad as her husband’s, and she said he had a problem with pornography. Did she “deny him sex” as a result of the overall way he treated her in the rest of their life together? I do have doubts that his treatment of her was a result of her denying him sex … like Matthew said, these patterns of domination by husbands are formed over many years and often reflect the husband’s own family of origin. (on the other side of the coin, a wife’s willingness to put up with said treatment also often reflects her family of origin)

    Your point is very valid, though, Mandy, and his perspective must also be taken into account. Unfortunately, all we have is hers.

    (I, too, grieve for the children. One of the daughters testified last week that she heard a big “boom” and then a thump, and went into her parents’ room to find her dad lying on the floor, facedown. Can you imagine seeing that? Thankfully, the children are with grandparents or close friends, I believe. But they now have scars that will never fully heal.)


  7. “It may be predicated by a thorough “working through” of one’s own psychological and familial baggage.”

    That just doesn’t sound like a standard definition of “radically pursuing Christ” to me. It sounds more like, “attempting to be psychologically healthy” … which I think is great … but doesn’t really have the glitz of Radical Christian Discipleship.


  8. Posted by Steve on April 20, 2007 at 12:31 pm

    Matthew – You don’t think that working through one’s psychological and familial baggage is a part of one’s being formed into the image of Christ? Don’t we all do this to some degree?

    I happen to think this is a vital part of a person’s discipleship.

    Ever been in a small group at church with someone who hasn’t worked through their wounds with a professional? Not fun…


  9. To echo a few statements:

    1) We do not have all of the facts because half of them are lying in a grave (to be frank.)
    2) The Christian life IS fundamentally about having life to the fullest NOW (with the completion to come later.) So, yes, physchological, mental, emotional, and relational evaluations and corrections DO in fact coincide with the transformative nature of Christ.
    3) We live in a very fallen world that is in dire need of redemption.

    By the way, Matthew, you are correct when you say that this is not the STANDARD definition of pursuing Christ. However, it is a better one.


  10. “You don’t think that working through one’s psychological and familial baggage is a part of one’s being formed into the image of Christ?”

    Not really. I think I divide these things into separate categories … I think of Christian discipleship as being primarily about moral behavior, and psychotherapy as being primarily about mental health. Basically, I don’t think psychologists would categorize Jesus as a paragon of mental health … although I’m sure that the diagnosis would depend on who you ask.


  11. “…baptized people begin to live differently, looking to the source of all Life as their model.”

    I would add that true disciples must also begin to think differently (I know you imply that, as well). And I am amazed at the number of “Christians” I know who do not think any differently than those who don’t know Jesus. They still live “eye for an eye,” still look for ways to cheat (i.e. taxes), still speed, still gossip, still take their spouses for granted, but think nothing of those things because they “go to church.” Somehow religious folks are not hearing the part about everything being different…heart, soul, mind and strength. Yes, I think when people begin to really pursue putting on the mind of Christ, things like this tragedy can be avoided.

    In our local newspaper (Memphis) today, there is a story about the how the good folks of Selmer (generally) think that the trial was a sham because Mary didn’t get the chair. I don’t think that attitude reflects the mind of Christ.


  12. Posted by Steve on April 21, 2007 at 8:37 am

    Matthew – Interesting perspective. I was under the impression that we were to love the Lord our God with our whole “heart, soul, mind, and strength.” It appears that mental health (to the degree that each person can achieve it) is indeed part of the spiritual formation process, at least according to God.

    I see what you’re saying, though … I too am wary of the Christianese-Synchronistic-Psycho-Babble that often pops up, and I am usually one of the first to distinguish between pop psychology and actual Spiritual Formation. But in this case, I think the Winklers’ mental and emotional health was in fact a part of their spiritual formation, as they clearly needed to work through some things in order to be as effective as possible in the Kingdom.

    Methinks that we mostly agree here, Matt … it may just be a difference of wording or degrees.



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