How can helpful, respectful conversation happen in the church? Who can speak? What are they allowed to say? How can words cause harm? These questions emerge from time to time in response to content in this magazine.
As a Christian community, we need to talk about hard topics, things that we value greatly and things about which we disagree. While it would be comfortable to deal only with the pleasant things all can agree on, that would not be an honest or fair way to live. Dealing in superficial agreements does not create a strong community.
Sometimes church publications use the metaphor of a mirror to explain their role. They aim to share content that reflects the experiences of their many readers and what matters to them in their varied locations and life experiences. We at Canadian Mennonite see this as both an honour and a responsibility.
A key place where that mirror-like quality expresses itself is in the letters section, which in this magazine is called “Readers Write.” That space does not necessarily reflect the views held by the magazine or by the Mennonite church, but it is open to CM’s readers, for expressing questions, concerns and opinions. In a spirit of dialogue, we welcome thoughtful responses to our content. Sometimes the letters in this section affirm what others previously said. Sometimes the letters add additional information or ask questions. Sometimes letters bring perspectives that differ from what was presented previously.
At times, people’s words there can cause pain, even though that may not have been their intention. Each sees—and interprets the world—through unique eyes. As the worldwide community struggles through the stresses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, our sensitivities might be especially heightened; our opinions might have some extra-sharp edges.
It’s no surprise that Canadian Mennonite receives criticism for publishing views that some readers find objectionable. Thank you to those who have told us—sometimes in very strong terms—about your concerns. We know that you care about how the content of the magazine might affect those who read it. We understand that some of it may even have caused pain for you personally.
We also have heard you, the ones who wrote the unpopular views. You too have cared enough to offer your thoughts and experiences with readers. Some of your opinions may also come from places of pain. You too are part of this reading community.
This is the challenge as this magazine seeks to reflect the wide variety of perspectives present in our church. There is a push and pull between the freedom to express one’s thoughts and the effect that free expression might have on others. Canadian Mennonite has a responsibility to be a place for all in the church. The practice of banning or silencing certain voices doesn’t lead to healthy community life. But neither does the pain caused by words.
Are there some opinions that should not be expressed? What is the nature of the harm done when people express their thoughts in a public forum? Is it possible to prevent or mitigate harm caused by words? These are hard things for all of us to ponder.
Here is CM’s commitment to keep striving to be a space for thoughtful and respectful conversation. Will you join us? For letter writers, here is the challenge to consider carefully the words you use, realizing that they can do harm to those who read them. For readers, here is the challenge to keep your mind and heart open to listen, even to those with whom you disagree.
At the risk of depleting the Readers Write pages, I offer these words from a letter writer in the early days of the Christian church, “Remember this, my dear friends! Everyone must be quick to listen, but slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). Let us all aim for words that build a healthy community.