A flurry of online comments on a recent sexual misconduct story, an email from a reader despairing of having meaningful dialogue through letters to the magazine, and my congregation’s first online business meeting—these got me pondering how we, in the church community, struggle to have good conversations.
Part of Canadian Mennonite’s mission statement reads: “foster dialogue on issues facing Mennonites in Canada as it shares the good news of Jesus Christ from an Anabaptist perspective.” The CM team strives toward that goal in a variety of ways through our print pages, website content and social media posts.
Yet, there are times when it feels like a good conversation is hard to find. A reader misunderstands what the writer intended. Someone reacts in anger to the tone of a Facebook post. In web comments, people talk past each other and hurl unkind remarks at those they disagree with. We’re tempted to focus on winning arguments or even on silencing each other.
Things are complicated when most of us can’t share the same space for face-to-face conversation. Living in a time of pandemic upheaval, we may be extra sensitive to criticism or, as a pastor recently remarked, “It’s like we’ve all lost a layer of skin.”
Many of us are finding that the computer screen doesn’t really cut it for in-depth sharing. And some of us don’t even have the technology for that kind of conversation.
As we at CM try to foster dialogue, we don’t always get things right. Sometimes we miss bringing potential partners into the conversation, or we allow the discourse to get off track. For that, we apologize and we resolve to do better.
What does good conversation look like? Think of a time you’ve spent chatting with friends, maybe sipping a hot drink together at a table, lounging in lawn chairs around a campfire, or walking together outdoors. You gave each other the gift of your attention, sharing in the give-and-take of facts, opinions and feelings. You asked thoughtful questions; you listened. You each tried not to make assumptions, but if you did misunderstand each other, you worked to get the conversation back on track. An unspoken rule was that you would not attack or shame each other. Sometimes you and your companions agreed to disagree, with your relationship still intact.
Can these practices work in our communication within the church, even with people we don’t know personally or who live at great geographical and ideological distances?
There’s plenty for us to talk about. CM’s articles and reflections offer glimpses of Mennonite disciples seeking to be faithful in their own neighbourhoods. In this issue alone you’ll find articles on the nature of the church, the creativity of writers and song compilers, and about meaningful relationships. There are stories of people facing personal challenges and a report of pain caused by misused power. Recent articles have addressed personal spirituality, peace, justice, service, Mennonite identity, pastoral ministry, the Bible and more.
This magazine takes inspiration from Hebrews 10 for building up the church: “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds . . . encouraging one another . . .” (Hebrews 10:23-25). Our guiding values include seeking and speaking the truth in love; opening hearts and minds to discern God’s will; and maintaining strong relationships and mutual accountability.
A recent guest in the podcast, “On Being,” was Arlie Russell Hochschild, author of the acclaimed book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. As a sociologist of emotion, Hochschild seeks to listen to and understand attitudes of people quite different from hers. She stresses the importance of “emotional intelligence,” the ability to look beyond the issues being debated to the feelings and stories behind them. (To listen to the interview, visit onbeing.org/programs/arlie-hochschild-the-deep-stories-of-our-time/.)
Hochschild says that, when we get curious about a person who thinks differently, and we make ourselves available for conversation, we can gain insight into their deeper story and into their present reality. Then together we can look for common ground and possible ways to move forward.
Maybe we in the church need to imagine ourselves as old friends sitting around the campfire holding a cup of hot chocolate. We could call on the best practices of in-person real-life friends engaging in life-giving dialogue. Can we have that kind of conversation?