Speaking truth in love
by Julien Hammond
In more than one of our One Body
articles, my fellow bloggers and I have emphasized the importance of deep, prayerful, heartfelt listening as essential to ecumenical ministry and engagement.
Such listening orients us to the voices of sisters and brothers from other churches and ecclesial communities; it invites us to consider the real (not our perceived or imagined) situation of their lives and calls us to be attentive to the ways in which the Lord may be speaking and working through them, for our sake (and theirs), and for the sake of the world.
This emphasis on listening, while essential, is only one of the attributes needed to engage a proper ecumenical ministry. Another equally important, but sometimes taken for granted, attribute is the manner and form of our speaking together as Christians, particularly within the context of ecumenical dialogue. St. Paul describes this in his letter to the Ephesians as “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). By such speech, the Christian community discerns what is and what is not properly of God for the express purpose of building up the body of Christ, and our sisters and brothers, in love.
An earlier blog entry
by Sr. Donna Geernaert applies this notion to the ecumenical context:
In some ways, dialogue, which is essentially talking, seems a very simple thing to do. Yet, we all know there are various ways of talking. There are words that hurt and words that heal. The Epistle of James (3:1-12) clearly names the challenge. The tongue, he says, is “like a fire” and no one can tame it. “With it we bless the Lord... and with it we curse those who are made in the image of God.” So the kind of talking we do makes a difference. What is distinctive about dialogue, and which makes it potentially prophetic, is that in dialogue, unlike in a debate, words are used not to dominate, control, or defeat another person but to build bridges of understanding. Words can divide or connect; in dialogue, the intent is to establish connections.
As an ecumenist and as a Christian, I think about these things a lot. In particular, I try (often without success mind you) to remain conscious of the words that I use, and even more precisely the sentiments that I convey, whether in written or verbal form. This is both for the sake of clarity (one of the central purposes of ecumenical dialogue), but also for the sake of charity (i.e., expressing love for one’s neighbour, which to my way of thinking is a still more important purpose for ecumenical dialogue).
Of course, thinking about these things and putting them into practice are quite distinct realities. It is easy enough to “speak truth in love” when we have the luxury of considering a question and preparing our response ahead of time or when we are actually in agreement about something (even if we express ourselves differently about it) or when we actually care about our dialogue partner. The closer the relationship, the more likely we are to want to engage our partner with kindness and respect and not wound them through harsh words or a destructive tone.
But Jesus’ own words caution us against loving only “those who love us” (cf. Luke 6:32ff). What’s more is that we do not always have the benefit of time or distance to choose our most loving words and we don’t always know the people or group we are called to dialogue with; or sometimes we do know the people we’re in dialogue with but we know that they don’t like us (or our Church) for some reason or other.
How do we “speak truth in love” to persons or communities or situations where we have had negative experiences or to whom we (or they) may have already expressed open dislike or perhaps hostility towards us?
Personally, I find wisdom (if not solace) in biblical passages like Proverbs 15:1: “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger”, or 1 Peter 3:9: “Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called—that you might inherit a blessing.” But I also must admit that in the heat of the moment – like when someone slags me on social media or mocks my words in a public manner – biblical passages such as these do not immediately spring to my mind.
I think self-knowledge is essential here, and also, to the extent that it is possible, an attempt to arrive at an “objective” understanding of the situation. What are my triggers? Why did that person’s words or actions affect me so negatively? Is this person just “trolling” or is there a condition here for authentic dialogue to take place? To a friend, you might ask, “Did I hear so-and-so correctly?” Or “When I spoke at the meeting this morning, did my words sound overly harsh or critical to you?” Equally helpful may be to try to place yourself in the shoes of the other person: Why would s/he have said that? I wonder why what I said brought out such a reaction?
When our words or the tone of our words become obstacles to dialogue, it is likely time to step back and consider what really may be going on. Sometimes it may be necessary to go back to that person, community, or situation and ask for forgiveness for words (or perhaps tone) that were hurtful or at least did not lead to building up the body of Christ. Sometimes, especially if the root of the tension is a systemic wound in the history of the church, it may require an even more concerted effort at seeking institutional forgiveness, enacting corporate penance, and working toward healing and purifying memories.
It is often said that you really know a person well when you know what hurts them. In ecumenical relations, when we are trying to heal and not injure or further injure relations between persons or communities, this requires a particular sensitivity to the words that we choose to use or not use and the ways that we use them in dialogue.
Julien Hammond is the ecumenical officer for the Archdiocese of Edmonton and has served as a member of the Roman Catholic-United Church of Canada Dialogue, the Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue in Canada, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)-Roman Catholic International Consultation.