By Elizabeth Prata
When I was a Newspaper Editor/Publisher, I wrote an editorial every week. An Editorial is the Editor’s thoughts on some civic event or issue reported on in the paper. The Editorial gives readers a personal perspective about the issue that the Editor feels is of relevance to the community. It is an opinion about the issue as opposed to the factual reporting on the issue.
Long ago, I wrote an editorial about the Town Council and Town Committees.
Committees were created by the Town Council, who were elected by the citizenry to do these types of tasks, and the Council then sought Committee members who were vetted, approved, and then charged with a certain task related to their committee. When the Committee members gathered the information or finished their task, they were to report back to the Council, their boss. It was a way for the Councilors to delegate tasks to citizens and it was a way for citizens to become involved in their government in a more direct way. Normally it was a win-win.
Sometimes the task was temporary and then the committee disbanded. More often the charge was temporary but the committee never disbanded and over time simply became entrenched as a spoke in the wheels of bureaucracy. Committee members dotted dimly-lit basements and fellowship halls by night, discussing, working, doing democracy.
As a reporter, it was interesting to observe these committees. I went to most of their meetings. Earnest people intent on doing good in the community and for the community got together monthly or bi-monthly, reported back to their Committee Chair, who reported annually to the Council. Committees existed such as the Ordinance Review Committee, Library Trustee Committee, Solid Waste & Recycling Committee, The Historical Museum Committee, Community Economic Development Committee,…there was a committee for just about any particular interest a citizen possessed and wanted to explore.
At a certain point during my tenure as an Editor, a particular issue flared up in the community regarding committees- how much power did they have? They were just appointed volunteers who made recommendations, not laws, right? The problem, of course, was that over time each committee becomes territorial. Given our human penchant for becoming power-hungry, sometimes committees overstepped. Sometimes they believed themselves more powerful than they were. Sometimes they thought they were untouchable and would exist in perpetuity and not at the will & pleasure of the Council. In those thankfully rare cases, the Council had to push back.
I found the editorial on my computer and thought it would be a good gentle reminder of how we Christians are to speak whether we are allowed to live and worship freely or are under the thumb of an increasingly invasive government. The issues back then of which I wrote, are similar to those we are experiencing here and now. Government overreach, invasion of privacy, power grabbed or lost, little tyrants everywhere.
Now mind you, I was not a Christian then. I was close, but still a pagan. I wrote the following editorial back in around the early 2000s. I had been observing the sausage being made for a while then. (An idiom meaning you might be enjoying the results but if one had been watching the gory details of it being made one might not enjoy it so much).
I had become interested in civic and political behavior, power territorialism, and what made civic engagement good and why did it so often go bad. As a Christian, I know now that it’s due to sin. We have a sin nature and all that comes with it. If it’s not restrained by the Spirit and repented of by the will, then it will make whatever it touches go amok.
It is a good and gentle reminder of the power of the tongue, used for good or ill. But in reviewing the editorial for publishing on today’s blog I also noticed something else. Something deeper.
First, here is my editorial on “The Power of Positive Communication”.
At the January Town Council meeting, there was heated scorn, accusations, and abusive language from the Committee members toward the Council. The Council had asked the Committee to attend the meeting so they could learn to what extent the committee’s efforts were an enhancement or a detriment to the Town, with an eye to possibly disbanding the committee if they proved obstructionist to the Council’s goals.
Most of the Committee members, instead of engaging in honest dialog with the people who are their bosses, chose to be combative and aggressive in their communications. One would have thought there would have been civil and honest dialog with the people who are their bosses. But no.
To the Council’s credit, they listened, remained calm, and used appropriate language. That was the right choice.
Language, our use of words, and the tone of voice we use to express that language plays a critical role in whether we are building community or disabling it.
According to Dr. Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D, author of Nonviolent Communication: A Language Of Compassion, “When we use force, blame and self-righteousness instead, even if we manage to create the outcome we want in the short run, we distance ourselves from those whose actions we want to change.”
While we may not think that of the way we talk is “violent,” as Dr. Rosenberg characterizes it, words can lead to damage and pain, either for ourselves or others, he said.
Further, municipal bureaucracies are part of a dominant system designed to regulate human affairs. Such systems have a bureaucratic language all its own, a language that denies choice, with words like: “should,” “have to,” “ought,” “must,” or “shall not”.
As theologian Walter Wink describes it, domination systems are ones in which a few people control [many] to their own advantage. In domination systems you have to train people to think in ways that support the system, so they fit the system. That’s the Committee, a micro-domination system struggling to stay alive.
In Wink’s books The Powers That Be and Engaging the Powers, domination systems require suppression of self, moralistic judgments, language that denies choice as mentioned above, and the crucial concept of ‘deserve.’
In these months of observing the Council, I have seen that they strive to break from the usual bureaucratic domination system in their communications and move toward a collegial one. They listen with feeling, they use appropriate language, and they absorb and integrate information and events through a filter of service, not self.
For some, such as the Committee members, and the others who spoke so violently, it may be too much to expect that they set aside their usual pattern of resisting, withdrawing, or attacking when faced with scrutiny or criticism. But I will ask them to try. Honest listening and respectful talk through a filter of service will, in the end, achieve mutual goals for the betterment of all.
The points in the editorial were applicable to our Christian walk, even though I was not a Christian at the time. Selfless service, respectful language, no room for self-righteousness, all things we practice today.
But back to the deeper point that arose when I was taking another look at this editorial and the two men I’d quoted, Dr. Rosenberg and Walter Wink. In doing my research for the editorial those years ago, I’m glad I’d found their work. Their life’s work fit perfectly into the secular points I’d wanted to make.
But now sitting on the other side of salvation, I see something common in the two of them that I also shared as a pagan.
Walter Wink, Progressive Theologian, consumed with the problem of evil and how to overcome it, asking and trying to answer his life’s seminal question: “One of the most pressing questions facing the world today is, How can we oppose evil without creating new evils and being made evil ourselves?”
Wink saw Jesus more of a community organizer who would support a loving homosexual relationship between two men or two women than as a sovereign God who performs judgment upon sinners.
Marshall Rosenberg, Jewish clinical psychologist, mediator, consumed with his life’s question of how to make communications peaceable, how to connect interpersonally with compassion, and why people often don’t, asking, “I have been preoccupied most of my life with two questions: What happens to disconnect us from our compassionate nature, leading us to behave violently and exploitatively? And conversely, what allows some people to stay connected to their compassionate nature under even the most trying circumstances?”
Rosenberg observed that there was “joy in serving,” but did he ever pause to ask, who does one serve?
Elizabeth Prata, seeker, editor, thinker, asking, “Why are people like this? Why am I like this?”
These questions indicate one is groping for light, one is seeking truth, one is desiring answers. The verse from Acts 17:27 comes to mind,
That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us:
Faithlife Study Bible (Ac 17:27) explains,
search for God: People have a desire to seek God, but their sin confuses their understanding.
they might feel: The Greek verb used here denotes attempting to touch or handle something. In Greek literature, it refers to a blind person walking in the dark.
All of us know that God exists (Romans 1:18-19). All of us grope for meaning in life, for answers as to why things are the way they are. The Lord graciously delivered me from my wanderings and ignorance, and gave me those answers when He opened my eyes to understand the Bible. It was a relief.
What is tragic are those people who search and search and always miss the mark. They construct well-intentioned philosophies, some quite helpful, but ultimately missing it nonetheless. Their answers are never resolved. They die not knowing.
In contrast to the grace of salvation and the easing of the quest like I was given, folks like Rosenberg and Wink searched for a lifetime and were perhaps never to find that ease. It reminds me of the Israelites warned in Isaiah 59:10,
We grope for the wall like the blind, and we grope as if we had no eyes: we stumble at noon day as in the night; we are in desolate places as dead men.
Once I emerged on the other side of the veil I received my marching orders. We are to proclaim the Good News of salvation, We are heralds. We are ambassadors. We declare. Not to debate, not to argue, just to declare.
Though I may seem to have strayed from the original point up above, to use the tongue to speak compassionately and non-violently, I bring it back to that point. Once we were seekers, once we were questioning why are we like this? What is the world so evil and why does evil exist? Why do so many domination systems go amok and why do they corrupt so often?
We who emerge through the cross with softened hearts and holding the Bible as all-sufficient knowledge, can now declare to others the why of things. The power we try to accumulate and hold onto, the territorialism we promote, the anger in our hearts and voices as we come up against other “little tyrants” does not need to be. We know who to serve. We know why we serve.
As Marshall Rosenberg asked, What happens to disconnect us from our compassionate nature? As Walter Wink asked, How can we oppose evil without creating new evils and being made evil ourselves? As I so often asked, why is everything so rotten? We can answer those burning questions with the non-violent language, a heart full of grace and compassion in our voice by declaring the Good News, that Jesus saves.