Words are powerful

April 5, 2010 | Editorial | Number 7
Dick Benner | Editor/Publisher

Speech seems to be on the public mind these days.

As I write this, much of the Canadian press and Ottawa University seem to be in a spat over the sanctity of free speech springing from the invitation, then the cancelling, of right-wing American pundit Ann Coulter, who was to speak to the students.

“The university itself loses out when it lacks the courage to be a social laboratory,” opined the Globe and Mail. “The University of Calgary is a ‘beacon of light’ compared to Ottawa’s ‘darkness,’?” droned Rex Murphy, CBC’s silver-tongued pundit, in praising the Calgary institution for actually following through on its invitation to let Coulter speak there.

South of the border, political leaders opposed to the newly passed health care reform bill have become so incensed that they have taken to employing the language of violence, such as John Boehner, the House minority leader, who declared that the passage was “Armageddon.”

The Republican National Committee put out a fundraising appeal that included a picture of Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House, surrounded by flames, while the committee’s chair declared that it was time to put Pelosi on “the firing line.” And Sarah Palin put out an online map literally putting Democratic lawmakers in the cross hairs of a rifle sight.

While this war of words engulfs us, it might be instructive to examine how we use words in our own settings. We Mennonites, too, sometimes resort to the force of words to diminish each other rather than, as the Apostle Paul instructed the Ephesians, to “speak the truth in love . . . so as to build up the body.”

Having just returned from visits to three of the area churches’ annual general meetings, I have heard a lot of words. Many of them were inspiring, the imagery rich, oftentimes moving. I am remembering specifically Don Rempel Boschman’s wonderful analogy of comparing God’s “chosen people” to a “parade in which all participate and there are no spectators,” when leading Mennonite Church Manitoba delegates in worship.

Or when Alan Kreider urged the MC Saskatchewan delegates to move from “exhortation to incarnation” in formulating witness language as they relate “authentically” to an increasing number of non-church-going neighbours.

Or when Terry Schellenberg, speaking to the MC Alberta delegates, compared so vividly the powerful influences of the dominant Roman Empire on new Christians in Paul’s time to our consumer-driven culture of today.

But I also heard some discouraging words. I heard references to “rumours” floating around regarding styles of leadership and an area church described as “still a patient in critical condition” after recovery from a “near-death” experience of division and strife. As a newcomer to the Canadian scene, I had to be brought up-to-speed on these histories.

That, perhaps, is a good thing, because I can bring a fresh set of eyes to these settings. Still, regardless of the past, the language bothered me. No stranger to conflict, I know all too well the destructive dynamics of church members walking away from each other when failing to agree on what is often camouflaged as “doctrinal” or “spiritual” issues. Our predisposition, as faithful disciples, to hold fast to our beliefs often trumps the call to keep in covenantal relationship with our sisters and brothers.

Let me suggest two antidotes:

• First, it might be helpful to see all of our work as, in the words of Alan Kreider, “God’s kingdom-coming.” He urged a spiritual discipline that he practises himself of praying that portion of the Lord’s Prayer “your kingdom come, on earth as in heaven” three times daily—morning, noon and night. He asks God to show him where and how he is working rather than the other way around.

• Second, take heed of the words of Betty Pries, who, in working with churches through their lifecycle stages, says congregations should consider conflict as an ongoing dynamic. What matters is not that it exists, but how it is managed. Faithful people can disagree respectfully. She believes the church to be a place of “risk, searching, questioning and listening.”

These constructs should give us some framework in choosing our words carefully for the building up of the body.

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