Review: Speaking Peace in a Climate of Conflict

Speaking Peace in a Climate of Conflict, Marilyn McEntyre. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2020.

Summary: Engaging with the works of contemporary writers, discusses how our care for words that are clear, gracious, and truthful is vital to the pursuit of peace in a contentious world.

After the last two election cycles in the United States, there are very few who would not attest to the power of words to incite verbal and sometimes physical conflict. It raises the question of whether or not words may also have a similar power to lessen tensions and forge concords between people. This is the question that Marilyn McEntyre, who is known for her books on words and their power, explores in this work. As she proposes in her introduction, this is not a book about nice neutrality, but rather how we might speak with truth and clarity and grace even when we must say hard things or stand against an injustice.

She begins by warning against reliance on codified meanings of words because words are malleable and important ones must be defined when we use them–words like war, peace, health, freedom, and love. She observes that euphemisms nearly always conceal ugly realities, such as “collateral damage” and must be interrogated. Language also has the power to remind us of who we are, what story we inhabit, what the values and ways of our place are.

She reminds us of the enriching power of allusions while suggesting that we “mind our metaphors”–for example the combative metaphors used in treating cancer. Alluding to Emily Dickinson, she discusses the value of telling it “slant,” approaching truth obliquely rather than bluntly, with story and art rather than confrontation. We ought promote poetry, because it is a unique form of telling truth “slant.”

McEntyre believes there are times it is necessary to articulate our outrage, when silence betrays the suffering. Civility is concerned with the common good, and when this is in jeopardy, one may need to call out the ways peace and justice are being outraged. She offers seven questions well worth consider that I want to record to remember:

  1. What am I hoping to protect?
  2. What principle is at stake?
  3. Am I the most appropriate person to step into this ring?
  4. What am I risking?
  5. What makes it worth the risk?
  6. Is this the moment?
  7. What would be the consequences of holding my peace?

One chapter I’ve found vital amid this is her chapter on checking facts. More than once, I’ve shared a compelling meme or statement, only to find it was false or taken out of context. Sources and attributions matter, and when the facts really do add up, one has strong impetus for moral action. Along with establishing facts, we need to resist the temptation for simplistic explanations. We need to recognize our discomfort with ambiguity and over-simplistic readings of texts.

Her concluding chapters are on the value of laughter and the folly of our insistence upon winning. Laughter doesn’t slight hard realities, but sets them in place–that there is a goodness and delight to life that remains reflecting the joy of the Creator as well as our own ridiculousness. Instead of “winning” McEntyre suggests “inviting, exploring, musing, modeling, reframing, reflecting, challenging.”

One of the delights of this work is that McEntyre commends examples of writers who do such things: Wendell Berry and Arundhati Roy remind us of what we know, Mary Oliver and Toni Morrison tell it “slant,” W. H. Auden and Marian Edelman articulate outrage, and Brian Doyle and Anne Lamott help us laugh.

I reflect on McEntyre’s words as I am in the midst of Ohio’s senatorial primary vote today. Candidates have stressed how they will “fight,” a couple have boasted of being Marines, and how negotiation, compromise, and working across the aisle are “weak.” We are far more practiced and accustomed to conflict, and yet I am struck that we are often fighting our own people. “A house divided cannot stand.”

I have often mused that there are times when children do not understand that playing with matches can burn the house down…until they burn the house down. Whether we are speaking of the house of our democratic republic or the collective house of our planet, we stand near a precipice where our words can propel us over or pull us back from the edge. McEntyre’s book is a kind of primer for the robust speech of freedom and peace that is not “nice” but forthright, has both clarity and imaginative richness, and both names wrongs and offers a path to set wrongs aright. What has the speech of discord gotten us but an angry, divided land? Might it be time and past time to lay aside the speech of discord and practice the speech of concord. Might it be time to seek and speak peace and pursue it?

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