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Gospel Work: The need for nonviolent communication

2.22. 2018 Written By: Malinda Elizabeth Berry 330 Times read

The February issue celebrates 20 years of The Mennonite, and looks forward to what the next 20 might hold. Read more reflections online or subscribe to receive each monthly issue in your mailbox or inbox.

Malinda Elizabeth Berry is a member of Fellowship of Hope Mennonite Church and assistant professor of theology and ethics at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, both in Elkhart, Ind.

As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of our denominational magazine, this is an occasion for us to think about communication in all kinds of ways. As a teacher whose subject areas center around theology and ethics, I would like us to consider communication, especially denominational communication, from theological and ethical angles. I don’t want to spiritualize or moralize communication—this isn’t about how “good Christians” communicate compared to “bad Christians”—I want to get us thinking about the way communication is one more venue for us to reflect on how we Historic Peace Church Christians, hoping to glimpse God’s great shalom, bear witness to and testify on behalf of the gospel.

Many Mennonites who are committed to an understanding of the gospel in which peace, justice and love are central to Jesus’ ministry struggle with how to communicate their beliefs. For some, praying for peace, participating in relief sales1 and assembling relief kits, and simply enacting their Mennonite faith are how they communicate. Others add to these activities by signing petitions, organizing or participating in political rallies and engaging in political advocacy. Mennonites whose commitment is to the proclamation of the gospel through words may also do these things, but with the concern that our activity not eclipse an affirmation that Jesus is Lord and Savior of the cosmos. This is the classic struggle between orthopraxis (right, good, faithful activity in service of the gospel) and orthodoxy (right, good, faithful belief in service of the gospel). But what if we stop arguing with each other about which approach is better and more faithful? What if we communicated differently? Might we find more acceptance for ourselves and each other in how we communicate what we communicate?

Let me say more about two of the phrases I use above. I have found that owning the legacy of “historic peace churches” and the imagery of God’s “great shalom” have given me an imagination for understanding the role and function of denomination-based journalism and publications like The Mennonite.

Mennonite Church USA, as a successor denomination to the General Conference Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Church, is part of the “Mennonite” of the Historic Peace Church table along with Quakers and Brethren. In the 1959 Mennonite Encyclopedia, Melvin Gingerich explains how the term came into relatively common use in the United States in the 1920s, when Quakers held a series of conferences called the Conference of Pacifist Churches, which morphed into the Conference of Historic Peace Churches in 1935. (H. P. Krehbiel, from General Conference background, was a significant leader of this movement.) These conferences were places where Mennonites and Quakers were able to articulate their commitment to a pacifism that wasn’t merely political (pacifism is effective) or social (pacifism is cool) but theological and ethical (pacifism is an ideological stance grounded in biblical interpretation, beliefs based on those interpretations, and a lifestyle shaped by those beliefs).

Because it is rarely sung, many likely don’t recognize the phrase “great shalom” from a hymn by Harris Loewen in Hymnal: A Worship Book: “O God, Great Womb.” I love this hymn and this phrase because they paint a song picture of creation that is both the beginning and end—the twofold mystery of how God created and what God will restore reality to. In my work as a peace theologian, I use “great shalom” interchangeably with or in place of phrases like “kingdom of God” and “reign of God” because it describes with greater theological clarity what I believe Jesus lived, died and rose to proclaim: God’s desire that Earth be a habitation where everything is at peace and unafraid.

Swiss theologian Karl Barth is known for describing the starting point of all theology and theological reflection as a communication—God’s self-revelation to us in and through Jesus Christ isn’t just “incarnation”; it’s also “communication.” The dictionary tells us an incarnation is “a person who embodies in the flesh a deity, spirit or abstract quality.” The dictionary also tells us “a letter or message containing information or news” and “the successful conveying or sharing of ideas and feelings” and “social contact” all constitute communication. To describe Jesus as “incarnation” makes a faith claim, but if we see that he’s also a “communication,” a whole new horizon opens up for considering the manner and style of incarnation. When incarnation meets communication, breaking old, harmful communication habits and creating new, connective communication patterns is gospel work. Again, it’s not about communicating with perfection, it’s about communicating with feeling, listening to others and being heard without harmful judgments. But most of all, it’s about being accompanied by the Holy Spirit because holy work is rarely easy work.

If you have followed my writing and reflections on Mennonite life, you will know that I am passionate about nonviolent communication (NVC). In his book The Joy of Compassionate Connecting: The Way of Christ through Nonviolent Communication, Jaime Prieto offers a clear, heartfelt and winsome account of the way NVC has brought Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount alive in new ways. More than that, Prieto links NVC with the “third way” thinking so important for 20th- and 21st-century Mennonite theology. He writes: “Our natural tendency, when presented with a stressful situation, is to fight, flee or freeze. More often than not, I have chosen to fight instead of to flee. My experience tells me that everyone suffers when I choose violence—when I choose to sin.”

Prieto says that what becomes good news—a communication full of hope and new options—is Jesus’ invitation to us “to connect to his spirit” so that we might “let go of our worldly strategies and engage each other in a heartfelt conversation, discovering the truth of our collective experience” so we can meet the challenges facing us and Christ’s church.

Prieto’s work brings to mind Glen Stassen’s study of the Sermon on the Mount. Stassen argues that Jesus contrasts traditional righteousness with vicious cycles of judgment, and between those two options, Jesus proposes what Stassen calls transforming initiatives that deliver us from cycles of harmful judgment for participation in God’s great shalom. NVC can be such an initiative.

I have found owning the legacy of “historic peace churches” and the imagery of God’s great shalom has given me an imagination for understanding the role and function of denomination-based journalism and publications like The Mennonite. This magazine, if we allow it to be, is a forum for the “third way.” Instead of choosing between an active stance of fighting or fleeing or a passive stance of freezing or going numb, we can choose compassion and curiosity: What happens if we do something different, something that takes seriously our history, our complicity in violence, our favorite teachings from Scripture and our hope for the future? I have a hunch we might encounter the incarnation in our communication, and that is good news indeed.


[1] Relief sales are events hosted by volunteers to raise money for Mennonite Central Committee’s work in relief, development and peacebuilding around the world.

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