Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Offensiveness of Offense

Because we live in such a non-thinking or uncritical culture, we often fail to ask the right questions. I am not sure how we change that at this point, but we would be better off as a society if we could manage to pull that off. In a recent blog I talked about how some people are offended by Tim Tebow's religious expressions on the football field. In doing so, I posed the question, is it always acceptable to be offended? In other words, are there some things that just should not offend us? We are so busy "not thinking" in our culture that we simply don't slow down long enough to consider these sorts of questions. So, let's consider this question in this brief blog post.

What does it mean to be in offended? If you look the word up in Webster, it means to transgress the moral or divine law. But that is not quite the definition we are getting at here. If you look at the etymology of the word, you discover it is Middle English > Middle French offendre > Middle Latin offendere to strike against, offend. It means to violate or transgress, to cause pain or hurt, to cause vexation usually by violation of what is proper. The word has a sense of personal affront, to hurt literally or figuratively. The concept of offense is located in the idea of violating a moral standard. In modern vernacular, it carries the connotation that one has violated accepted norms of behavior and thereby has offended the senses of others.

It is obvious then that offense is indelibly connected to norms. Norms, by nature are ethical or moral. The question then that I am posing concerns the normative standard that serves as the basis for offense? We live in a culture that, out of one side of its mouth loves to deny moral absolutes, but out of the other side of its mouth loves to talk about how offended it is by, well, you name it. Let me see if I can spell it: irrationality. Now, since by definition, offend means to violate some norm, it would follow that some things should not offend us since no normative standard prohibits all human behavior. In other words, since some human behavior is considered normative, it should not offend us. Make sense? If not, I don't know what to tell ya.

In order to understand what should and should not offend us then, we have to identify the normative standard by which we all should behave. However, in our culture, we find such absolute norms repugnant. This is because we are a non-thinking culture that wouldn't recognize an irrational argument if we paid $20 dollars for a ticket to watch one at the local iMax theatre. Yet, without normative standards for human behavior, offense is not a rational possibility. So what is a society to do? We invent our own! And they are different for each person!

And there you have it. Cultural relativism lends itself to the idea that no human behavior is safe from offending someone, somewhere. But isn't there some behavior that even a pluralistic and relativistic culure like our own can agree should not offend anyone? I think so. What about saving a human life? Do we think that would or should offend anyone? I think it is safe to say that acts of genuine nobility should not offend anyone. What about loyalty to one's friends and spouse? Should that offend anyone? Probably not! What about talking about one's belief in God? Does it offend anyone? Yes! What normative standard does it violate? The one that says you should never talk about religion publicly. And who created that standard? It certainly was not a religious person. You get the point.

Sometimes we confuse disagreement with offense. We think that disagreement with a person's actions, behavior, or beliefs is the same as being offended because we don't like them. It is not. There are some things that simply should not offend us. That is the question we should present to anyone who is offended by anything we say or do. For example, I once offended a person with my view that homosexuality was unnatural. She responded that my view was highly offensive to her. My response was, "really, that is fascinating. Tell me specifically what it is about my view that is offensive." Of course she said I was judging them for their behavior. I then said, so is it wrong for me to judge them? She said yes. I said, is it wrong to judge just homosexuals or is it wrong to judge at all? She said it is wrong to judge at all! I then said, so you think what I am doing is wrong! She said yes! I then asked her why she was judging me. The look on her face was priceless!

Christians should be offended by those things that offend God! Where do we find things that offend God? In the Scripture! If it offends God, it should offend the believer! The unbeliever desires autonomy. She will be offended by anything that she recognizes as a threat to that desire. This is true even if she has to go through complex inferences to understand the threat. All she has to do is realize that a certain behavior threatens her autonomous desires and she will be offended. Her self-proclaimed norms have been violated or they are under threat of violation and therefore she is offended. I hope this post will help you work through how you should think about the presupposition behind the belief and not just stop at the stated belief. The Christian needs to challenge unbelieving thought everywhere we encounter it and use it as an opportunity to present the gospel.

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