This article was originally published by The Mennonite

The cost of passive aggression: Being right, (non)violent communication and discipleship

Earlier this week I posted an introduction to a blog series I’m writing for The Mennonite, so if you haven’t read that, let me offer a quick recap of what is motivating me to enter the Menno blogosphere at this particular moment.

In the wake of the delegate assembly at Kansas City 2015 I am offering my opinions, questions, critiques, and gentle admonitions to our denominational community to help us develop theologically meaningful ways to move forward, however tentatively, as we also look for practical and relational ways to be this expression of church we call Mennonite Church USA (MC USA). You’ll also find in my introductory post a list of commitments that I’m trying to uphold in my writing.

Well, here goes everything!

Over the past year, I participated in a three-part professional development workshop with about a dozen other faculty from theological schools. Each time we met, we managed to have an expression of open conflict that, using Jasmine Sampson’s language, was “ignored or not resolved well.”

The third experience of open conflict included a group conversation about what had happened as an attempt to be responsible with the group’s dynamic. A member of the group named behaviors she viewed as passive-aggressive as one of the problems our group was struggling with. “Passive-aggression” is one of those technical terms we bandy about freely thinking we’re all talking about the same thing.

So believing that it’s a good idea to reacquaint ourselves with how passive-aggression is understood by psychology professionals, I decided to look up the term to see if I agreed with her assessment of the situation.

What I re-learned led me to say, “Yes and no,” but more importantly, I felt a ginormous light bulb (CFL, of course) turn on in my brain when it comes to my experience of Mennonite denominational community.

(To the clinical social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists who might be reading, please use the Comments to add important nuance to what I’m about to say—I freely admit that Psychology Today is not the paragon of literature in the your respective fields!)

The article on Psychology Today’s website that facilitated my ah-ha moment is Dr. Leon F. Seltzer’s piece titled “Afraid to Rage: The Origins of Passive-Aggressive Behavior.”

He opens by distinguishing between the two component parts of the compound “passive-aggressive.” Passivity is “not speaking out for fear of adverse consequences,” and aggression is “ voicing negative sentiments without restraint or regard for their effect on others.”

When the two responses collide, they produce a pattern of suppressing, and eventually repressing, feelings like anger in the face of an inability—internal and/or external—to deal with difficult emotions while also finding indirect ways to let others know we’re not happy with them.

Seltzer explains, “Periodically, we must find a way of alleviating this negative emotional build-up without causing serious damage to a relationship already perceived as precarious.” What does that look like? “‘Acting out’ our grievances, behaviorally protesting what is experienced as unfair, while yet contriving to protect the relationship we really can’t afford [or really don’t mean?] to jeopardize.”

Hmm. I don’t know about you, but for me that’s all hitting mighty close to home as I think about how I’ve been talking with friends and family about what’s been happening in MC USA.

But here’s the real gem. Seltzer reminded me that the antidote to passive-aggression, either expressed by me or by others isn’t aggression, it’s assertiveness.

Assertiveness has a number of facets: cognitive, behavioral, and affective.

What I suspect freaks most of us out about being assertive is that it involves being direct and showing confidence that we perceive as arrogance. I also suspect that some of us have grown up in families and faith communities that practiced, expected, and even rewarded passive-aggressive behaviors, demonizing assertiveness.

Actually, “assertiveness is all about asking for what you want in a manner that respects others,” Psychology Today explains, adding, “Assertive people don’t shy away from defending their points of view or goals, or from trying to influence others. In terms of affect, assertiveness means reacting to positive and negative emotions without aggression or resorting to passivity.”

Seltzer goes on to describe the deep layers of hurt, disappointment, and pain that can make passive-aggression a clinical problem when experienced over a lifetime. While I think some meaningful comparisons can be drawn between these deeper levels and how we’ve been treating each other in our denominational “family,” I leave that analysis to professionals to offer. Instead, I want to return to assertiveness.

I’ve been thinking about assertiveness from a theoethical perspective. “Theoethical” may sound like a “million dollar word,” but it’s simply a blend word formed from “theology” and “ethical.”

And it’s a word that suits Mennonites well—as part of our spirituality, we carry a deep desire for harmony between our beliefs and deeds. This is what looking at things theoethically involves.

Assertiveness is something that’s required when speaking about the gospel and the commitments we make based on how the triune God is manifest in our lives. For example, we are being assertive when our Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective puts us at odds with our country’s civil religion and we do not join in recitations of the pledge of allegiance or sing the U.S. national anthem.

Assertiveness is often connected to our proclamation of God’s desire for shalom justice.

The trouble is, that many of us have come to expect Mennonites to do or not do certain things, never mind asserting why or why not. We have a code of conduct that we expect each other to follow and when those expectations aren’t met, we judge each other to not be “real Mennonites.”

This cycle and pattern of judgment is part of what we use to maintain our denominational boundaries. “Real Mennonites read Scripture to denounce homosexuality as immoral,” I hear. “Real Mennonites read Scripture to affirm God’s love for everyone, the variety of sexual orientations included.”

What I saw at convention that leaves me feeling concerned, annoyed, and even angry is that in our denomination we have not made practices of nonviolence part of our spiritual formation as Christians. I even have a nagging feeling that Steve Dintamann’s controversial critique of some expressions of Mennonite spirituality is more accurate than we may want to admit.

All of us—cradle and first generation Mennos, from every race/ethnicity—find ourselves participating, directly or indirectly, in a denominational conversation that mistakes passivity for passive-aggression, assertiveness for aggressiveness, aggressiveness for assertiveness, and passivity for a faithful way to avoid anger.

We seem unable to assert ourselves even though assertiveness is something our theoethical disposition theoretically enables us to do.

To say it another way, I saw us directing our justifiable, but also repressed, anger and rage at each other because we expect, want, and need different things from each other but struggle to know how to ask for what we need or don’t know what to do next when others can’t or won’t meet our needs. 

Anabaptist discipleship is at its best when it teaches us how to release our judgments, not as an act of moral weakness, but as an act of grace and compassion. One way to work at this kind of formation is through nonviolent communication (NVC). Letting go of our judgments, which is a discipline at the heart of NVC, can be frightening because what we find beneath our judgements is the rawness of our needs.

NVC as a key component of our discipleship formation moves us through the process of naming violence’s presence in our denominational community to a place where we can also name our and validate others’ feelings and needs. NVC also channels our deep feelings and concerns into requests, restraining us from making demands. I know I’ve done that thing where I make a demand I know the other cannot meet, setting us both up for a new cycle of crisis and pain.

When we cannot communicate nonviolently—and no one can all the time!—this may be a signal that our needs are not being met. And when our needs are not being met, this may be another signal that we aren’t sure where God is in the mess of our shared reality. This is why we need community; in the moments when I can’t be open to God, I know others who can help me find my bearings (without the use of platitudes!). Being open to God is vital because that openness, however tiny, is all the room the Holy Spirit needs to flood me with its persuasive power and persuasive politics.

The Spirit can teach us many things one of those lessons I hope we are willing to learn is that when we read Jesus’ parable of “The Good Samaritan” imagining ourselves to be the person left at the side of the road bleeding and alone, we don’t really care who it is who shows us compassion, we just know that without them, we’d be dead. And the healing process will prepare us to, with assertiveness and compassion, face those who attacked us in the first place.

What are ways you are unlearning (passive-)aggression and being re-formed by practices of nonviolence?

Photo credit: “Enemies” by John Finn (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


Malinda Elizabeth Berry is a member of the teaching faculty at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary where she teaches theology and Read More

Sign up to our newsletter for important updates and news!