Every Sunday morning in our corporate worship gathering, after the sermon and before we celebrate the Eucharist, we turn toward one another and offer the peace of Christ. For us this is not just a formalized meet-and-great – cheap cordiality that makes everyone feel good about being together.
In fact, when we pass (and return) the peace of Christ, we are affirming that our ability to be in relationship – to relate to the other rightly – is only possible through Christ destroying the hostility between us on the cross. Passing the peace is a liturgical speech-act that our community performs, which both reflects and makes us into Christ our peace. This embodied, rhetorical activity requires and creates vulnerability and trust among us.
If we want truly to live into the peace of Christ in all things, we need to make this liturgical move every week, and it must extend out from the particularity of Sunday morning into our “ordinary” patterns of speech.
We need this because our language, and specifically the way we use words, can often be a powerful, subtle vehicle for perpetuating violence and hostility in our community. Our habits of speech can reinforce structures of power in ways that betray the peace we confess.
The dynamics of power that reinforce hostility were revealed to me as I observed the way story-telling often functions within a community. When extended family or close friends gather for several hours, the group will often share stories about the group itself. This recounting of corporate history is not a neutral activity. The way the story is told, the type of story told, and who tells the story all reinforce dynamics at work in the community. Although these stories recount what happened, the telling of the story forms the imagination for the present.
When extended families gather, for instance, parents enjoy telling stories about their kids’ exploits from younger, more ignorant teenage years. Although the subject of the story may be older and wiser, the accumulation of stories of folly actually reinforces the old identity of the subject in the present. The power of this speech-act is that, in the context of her family, the subject becomes “stuck” and is not free to be who she actually is.
Telling stories in this way can be (but isn’t always) a power move – a form of control. It nurtures a type of violence within the community.
Although language in our church may sound Christian, we might still be nurturing hostility and violence through the way we use language in our community. We can pass the peace of Christ without actually passing the peace of Christ.
This reality reveals our inability to deal with the hostility between us. Because, when we attempt to deal with the hostility outside Christ’s peaceful reign through the cross, there is only manipulation, power, and control.
But the good news is that Jesus put to death this hostility through the cross. When Christ, who is our peace, rules among us, linguistic violence is transformed into gratitude. When the peace of Christ characterizes our community, the echthra becomes eucharistos.
In the third chapter of his letter to the church at Colossae, Paul invites that community to put off the old self that died on the cross, and put on the new self by living into their resurrection with Christ. As Paul unfurls what this means, he includes the community’s habits of speech as a primary arena in which the putting off and putting on takes place.
The old self is the one that relates to the community through lying, slander, and filthy language, Paul says. The old self manipulates speech because it still grasps for power and control over the other. It attempts to accommodate for the hostility through manipulation.
But, when we attempt to address the hostility outside of Christ’s peaceful reign, we often only perpetuate the hostility – it is not dead, only transferred. When we feel powerless and want to deal with the powerlessness we often carefully choose use our words in such a way that guards against feeling exposed and vulnerable. This type of speech is another form of self-preservation and, ultimately, violence, because it seeks to manipulate around the hostility rather than die to it.
Putting on the new self, however – participating in resurrection life – looks like embracing the reign of the peace of Christ, which produces habits of speech in our community characterized by “gratitude in our hearts.” We remember that Christ became our peace not by avoiding the hostility but by killing it in himself – that is, receiving the violence on himself – through the cross. He transformed the hostility into gratitude.
This means that we no longer have to resort to manipulative speech. We can communicate in truth and with gratitude. This is possible (only) in Christ because we do not need to defend ourselves from the hostility, and when we do not feel the need to use power in order to defend, we can actually open ourselves vulnerably to one another.
What do our habits of speech reveal about dynamics of power and violence?
Where is it evident that we talk about peace but use our words to manipulate and control?
How can we more fully embrace the reign of Christ’s peace in the habits of speech of our community and allow Christ to transform the hostility into gratitude?