This fall, I went to a Sunday school class at my home church which featured an interesting topic. The teacher asked us this question: “What if you had to protest against your church? How would you do it?” This was something I’d been thinking about for a long time: how do you change the status quo within the church? How do we keep a shared faith at the forefront of these discussion? And how do we do this when the emotion that drives us to question is anger?
There’s a little verse in Ecclesiastes that expresses exactly the frustration I felt: “There is a time to keep silence, and a time to speak”.
This is such a fine balance that we all walk if we’re in any kind of relationship. It is easy to see why people love this passage, Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, especially: life is contradictory.
However, beyond just a reassuring passage to post on your Facebook wall, I think that this can be read as a prescriptive passage that we can use to inform and understand our actions. Feelings of anger, whether directed inside our churches or outside, often straddle this fine line between speaking up and keeping silence.
Feelings of anger often straddle this fine line between speaking up and keeping silent
When I first started thinking about the topic of anger, of speaking and not speaking, I found that, unsurprisingly, there were many things in my church and in my wider community that I was angry about. They all built on each other to the point where I felt overwhelmed, and the things that I was angry about were difficult to detangle.
I was angry that I often felt alone in my feminism.
I was angry that there seemed to be little momentum for programs that tackled difficult issues within our churches.
I went to Israel/Palestine last May, and was angry about the injustices I saw there, and the violence that has escalated since then.
I was angry that I was part of a colonial legacy and living on land that was not mine.
Most significantly, I was angry at myself for being too angry.
My pastor at my home church consistently emphasizes the universal need we all have to be heard. When we are heard, we become more confident to voice ourselves because our feelings and thoughts have been recognized and validated. The Bible is full of prayers that seek this recognition from a loving God.
Dr. Joan Chittister says, “To withhold recognition is to withhold the oxygen of the soul.” It would be sacrificing the health of our community if we ignore our own anger because it would be difficult to confront it in a community setting, especially if this anger is directed internally.
Churches are places where we strive for relationship with others and with God, and part of that must be the feeling of safety to express ourselves fully and honestly.
Ephesians 4 verses 25-26 reads: “So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbours, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.”
This passage makes a space for anger within community by encouraging our members to “speak the truth”, encouraging accountability and honesty. In fact, anger is taken for granted and acknowledged openly.
The only problem here is: what does “do not sin” mean in this context? The next line suggests that the real sin is in letting anger fester un-addressed: “do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.”
In the Mennonite church, we don’t often talk about anger, which is interesting in light of our origins. Mennonites were founded by a radical branch of the reformation in the 1600’s in Europe called Anabaptism. Their fight was against the existing power structures of the Church.
Turns out they started reading their Bibles and thinking for themselves. Their pacifism was active: they questioned the status quo, actively resisted it, argued with each other, got burned at the stake, were forced into hiding, got syphillus… Most importantly, Mennonites still exist today in varying forms.
Because they were founded in a society where only the rich and educated could read scripture, they believed in individual interpretation, and that’s one of the reasons why there are so many different types of Mennonites today. I think we all know, from experience, that it’s important not to take these divisions lightly.
We have witnessed and are witnessing disconnect within our churches, where disagreement on issues of interpretation manifest themselves in ugly splits and wounded congregations. I’ve got to be honest, I don’t know what to make of that or how to prevent it.
All I know is that the differences that seem to divide us, and the anger that accompanies them, are better when addressed, and not just lightly. When we recognize our anger, recognize our injury, we can attempt to move forward together to a time of forgiveness. There is a time to speak and be heard, and a time to be silent and listen for the hurts in others.
The differences that divide us, and the anger that accompanies them, are better when addressed.
One of the wonderful things about this obscure little verse in Ecclesiastes is that it encompasses all sides of being. There are a lot of wonderful things happening in the church. We are a supportive community in times of sickness and death, we are a community of joy, we are a community that feels compelled to do something about the problems in the world. But we are also other things.
In that Sunday School class when we talked about protest, after our teacher asked us that question, “What if you had to protest against your church? How would you do it?”, the class responded readily. “We’d have Sunday School classes about the issue.” “We’d write a letter to church council.” “We’d write a sermon about it and ask if we can present it.”
It’s wonderful to know you’re not alone in your anger.
Speaking out can be an isolating force, one that destroys relationships rather than building them up. Silence can also be detrimental, when we put our blinders on and continue, in the name of tradition, down a single path.
This class was the first in a series about learning about the Mennonite faith and heritage in preparation for baptism classes that will be happening in the winter. I thought it was interesting that our teacher decided to start right back with the early Anabaptists, learning about a community of believers who were upset about the way people believed.
Making a space where we can speak our wishes and hopes for the future of our church, and to talk about the things that make us angry, is to encourage a faith in a God who hears us, and that is built on active participation, questioning, and discussion.
This faith can be one of active pacifism, and active engagement with issues facing our church today.
Mennonites are built on a foundation of questioning, rebelling and critical thinking, so it only makes sense that we can also be a community that validates and acknowledges disconnect and anger, and radically enacts the symbiosis between speaking and listening in our churches.
Emily Hunsberger is currently in her fourth year of an English Language and Literature degree at the University of Waterloo. When she’s not studying she enjoys participating in PiE’s Feminist Bible Study, playing board games, and taking care of farm animals. She attends Shantz Mennonite Church in Baden.