by Geralyn Wichers
When we think of pacifism, it is unlikely that we apply it to our workplace. Most of us don’t engage in fisticuffs with our boss.
However, in broad terms if we participate in malicious gossip, tear down the character of our boss, verbally abuse a colleague, or answer criticism harshly, we are engaging in violence—verbal violence. A recent experience caused me to rethink what violence meant, and how a philosophy of pacifism could be applied in the workplace.
A Target of Verbal Violence
I found myself the target of a new supervisor. She had done my job before and objected to how I did it. I’d been considered good at my job, but suddenly I was (allegedly) inefficient, unfocused, and unable to make good decisions. I would try to reason with her and defend myself, but that would just prolong the lecture. The stress of constant scrutiny brought on anxiety and depression. I was angry and bitter.
One evening I received a particularly harsh and perplexing reprimand. I argued back to no avail. I continued my task, seething. As I calmed down over a couple of hours, I thought about what I’d said to the supervisor. Had I offended her? Should I apologize despite, in my opinion, being the one who was wronged?
I fought the thought, but I couldn’t shake it. Illogical as it seemed, I knew apologizing was the right thing to do. I went to her office and said I was sorry. As I walked back to my workstation, a weight lifted off my shoulders.
I realized that I did not have to defend myself. She could not force me to react in anger. She couldn’t make me argue with her. God knew that wasn’t working anyway.
This began an experiment of sorts. I tried to always answer her with humility whenever she spoke harshly. It didn’t matter if I was wrong or right. If I was right, I could still apologize for disappointing her. If something went awry and I had no good explanation, I could say “I have no excuses.” This didn’t prevent her words from hurting me—by no means! Still, more often than not it swiftly brought an end to her wrath. Sometimes her attitude would change completely, and she would become understanding.
These acts of humility also allowed me to lay aside my bitterness and see her for the human being that she was. I began to discern patterns in her behaviour. I realized that she likely felt insecure in her position, which fueled her need for control. This didn’t make her actions right, but it did make them understandable. Peace came to our relationship.
Anabaptists and Nonviolence
I was raised in the Anabaptist tradition and since childhood knew that Anabaptists-Mennonites are pacifists. I never identified strongly with this belief. I knew I didn’t want to join the military. I knew nonviolence was my preference.
I just didn’t think pacifism was realistic. As I came through the above experience and reflected on it, I realized I had come full circle, back to the Anabaptist tradition of nonviolence. It was simply a non-physical application.
The Dutch Mennonites wrote in the Dordrecht Confession of 1632:
We believe and confess that the Lord Christ has forbidden and set aside to His disciples and followers all revenge and retaliation, and commanded them to render to no one evil for evil, or cursing for cursing, but to put the sword into the sheath….
From this we understand that therefore, and according to His example, we must not inflict pain, harm, or sorrow upon any one, but seek the highest welfare and salvation of all men, and even, if necessity require it, flee for the Lord’s sake from one city or country into another, and suffer the spoiling of our goods; that we must not harm anyone, and, when we are smitten, rather turn the other cheek also, than take revenge or retaliate. Matthew 5:39.
And, moreover, that we must pray for our enemies, feed and refresh them whenever they are hungry or thirsty, and thus convince them by well-doing, and overcome all ignorance. Romans 12:19, 20.
It bears noting that the Dordrecht confession covers not only physical violence, but “harm” in general and the infliction of sorrow. This historical confession is still radical in its declaration of renouncing revenge and retaliation, even to the point of suffering pain and loss rather than inflicting harm.
While this belief has not been universally applied by all Anabaptists through history, there are many examples of nonviolence in action. For instance, more than five thousand Canadian Mennonite men refused to serve in the military during World War 2 and, instead, were conscripted into camps, agriculture, or industry, as the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online says. Some of these men were my own relatives.
Up front, refusing to engage in violence may appear to be “rolling over” for a bully. We as a society are very concerned about our rights and defending our rights. In fact, defending ourselves is our right. Nonviolence, however, requires us to lay aside many rights. Nonviolence is not weakness if it is a deliberate act of the will.
I do not suggest that nonresistance is the answer in the workplace. There are many ways to mount a resistance without resorting to violence—verbal or physical. I also do not believe in total pacifism as public policy. However, I would suggest that if we wish for peace, be it in our homes, our workplaces, or communities, we can’t expect to get it for free. We may have to bite our tongue, absorb verbal jabs without jabbing back, and apologize even when we’re the one who is hurt. We may have to give the feelings of our coworker, boss, or spouse precedence over our own. It depends on what we want. Both peace and full maintenance of our personal rights may not be possible.
For Mennonites, the cause of peace and nonviolence often meant “fleeing for the Lord’s sake from one city or country into another,” as they said in their Dordrecht confession of faith. There were Mennonites throughout the years that deemed it best to join their countrymen in fighting. However, peace and nonviolence remains an important value of Anabaptists-Mennonites around the world.
Though I have departed somewhat from my Anabaptist-Mennonite heritage, it makes me proud to return to their values by a modern, practical application of nonviolence. I submit this case for consideration to those who wish for peace.
Geralyn Wichers is a communications student at Red River College, a novelist, and a graduate of Steinbach Bible College (2012). She was raised in the EMC tradition (Anola Fellowship Chapel) and now attends Southland Church in Steinbach.
Editor’s Note: This article has been re-uploaded due to technical difficulties with the first published version.