Once when I was preaching, two men stood up in the crowded auditorium and marched out. They did it in a way that was meant to draw attention to themselves. They wanted everyone to know they were offended.
A week or two after that, I had an interesting and respectful conversation with the men, who were openly opposed to the Christian faith. I asked them why they marched out while I was speaking. They explained that they took exception to something I said and were compelled by their beliefs to make public their sense of indignation.
It’s funny: in private, they did not seem the least indignant but in public they felt it was necessary to register their offence for all to see. Taking offence was for them a tool they used to make a point and manipulate public opinion.
I see the same kind of thing happening on a much bigger stage. Taking offence has become an art form in our culture and in the world generally. It has become an effective tool for changing public sentiment, revising moral codes, and evoking passion among the electorate. Even corporations have learned to use the prickly tool of moral offence to protect themselves and promote their agenda.
When the BBC investigated working conditions in Third World factories that produce Apple Corporation products, a senior Apple executive not only denied the accusations made against his company, he went on to say that he was “deeply offended” by them.
Politicians do the same thing. They release a press statement in which they display their outrage and claim to be deeply offended. The treasury secretary was “deeply offended” by criticism made against him by The Wall Street Journal. A former senator and presidential hopeful was “deeply offended” by the president’s handling of Afghan political corruption. Congressmen, governors, state and county officials are all “deeply offended” on a regular basis.
And it’s not just corporations and politicians. White males are “deeply offended” by the DNC. Females are “deeply offended” by Donald Trump. Blacks are offended. Whites are offended. Asians are offended. We’re all offended—and if we’re not, our lack of offense will surely offend someone.
This mindset of offence seems to serve a purpose. It is forward-looking. It gives the offended a platform from which to demand that other people (parties, races, organizations) change their behavior. One could be excused for thinking that some people can’t wait for the chance to be offended.
As a long-time, serious follower of Jesus, I know that this strategy of taking offence does not harmonize with his teaching. Manipulating the behavior of others by the use of emotionally-charged language contradicts Jesus’s instructions: “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.”
It’s not that it’s somehow unchristian to get offended – “offences will come” – but what we do when we have been offended makes all the difference. Someone was recently offended by something I said, though I was unaware of it. But after a little time passed, she came to me, in keeping with the teaching of Jesus, explained what she was feeling, and we were able to deal with the problem. She did not march out of the room or issue a press release. She came to me.
What if we all – friends, co-workers, politicians and activists – did the same? What if, instead of using an offence for personal advantage, we spoke directly and truthfully to the person who offended us? We would restore relationships rather than ruin them.
This is the way Jesus taught us to handle offences. “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.” Winning them over was more important to Jesus that winning over them. If only it was more important to the rest of us.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 8/6/2016