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Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Too Offensive? Or Too Easily Offended?

I am way behind in my reading.  I've got a stack of periodicals that are getting increasingly outdated that I'm working my way through (except for the ones that I eventually throw away without reading, because they're just to irrelevant now).

Right now I'm working my way through the May 17th issue of the Christian Century, which also happens to be the last issue of my subscription.  I like the magazine, and I get a lot out of the articles despite the somewhat liberal Calvinist perspective (I'd always thought 'liberal Calvinist' was an oxymoron, but apparently not!), but I simply can't keep up with a biweekly publication right now.

A regular feature of the Christian Century is the section "Living By The Word," in which a guest contributor writes up a reflection on the upcoming two weeks' worth of lectionary readings.  Quinn G. Caldwell, who is listed as being the associate minister of Old South Church (UCC) in Boston wrote the reflections in this issue.  In his reflection for May 22 he wrote about interfaith dialogue and worship, and he described two ways of going about it.  The first way waters down everyone's faith to the lowest common denominator, so that everyone agrees to only say things that everyone else in the room can agree with.  The other way, which he identifies as his preferred way, allows and encourages everyone to be unafraid about who they are and what they believe.  He writes, "Rather than agreeing not to risk being offensive, we agree not to be easily offended."

I like this approach, and not just for interfaith dialogue.  What would happen if, in general, people worked harder at not being offended rather than not being offensive?  Your personal faith claim of ultimate truth isn't an attack on mine.  My preferred parenting method isn't a critique of yours.  Her strong preference for the culture of a coastal city isn't a slam against his strong preference for the community of a midwestern farming town.  The way one person chooses to live his or her life isn't a judgment on how someone else chooses to live theirs.

I know that in truth, many people would rather be offended, and expect the world to fully agree with and affirm their choices or preferences.  It would be much easier and nicer to live where we never felt like an outsider, or in any way different.  And I acknowledge that sometimes people really are being attacked for their differences, and that is wrong.  But not everything is an attack or a judgment.  Sometimes two people just see things differently, and agreeing to disagree is the only way to fully respect both parties, rather than asking one or both to play down who they are or what they believe.  As Caldwell writes in his May 22 reflection, "[T]he great challenge of our day is not to learn to live with watered-down versions of other faiths, but to live with them in all their fullness.  What could I possibly learn about Islam from a Muslim who's pretending not to be one?"

I'm sure that every time I speak to someone, either publicly or privately, my words could be interpreted as offensive by someone.  Increasingly people who do speak publicly are having to be more and more careful what they say, because someone somewhere is sure to be offended.  As a result, we are saying less and less.  We are not dialoguing with each other about anything important; we are monologuing at each other about nothing at all.  We are not learning from each other, because we're too afraid to say anything.  So we're all retreating to our own safe little enclaves of like-minded people and becoming more and more isolated from each other, and entrenched in our own positions and beliefs, and stagnant in our growth as people, and ignorant in our knowledge of the world.

Back in seminary I was asked to lead a devotional for the Wartburg Association of Students.  I'd found a poem inspired by a verse from John's Gospel, written about a hundred years ago.  The poem used masculine pronouns for God, which was contrary to Wartburg's gender-neutral language policy, but I didn't want to rewrite the poem in the name of political correctness.  So before I read the poem I explained the age of the piece, and that it did include these pronouns, and that I hoped everyone would be able to look past that and hear what the poem was saying.  As far as I could tell, everyone did, and it was clear that despite the presence of the pronouns that some in the room found offensive, by choosing not to be offended by them they were able to hear the beauty of the sentiment that the poet was trying to express.

We can do it.  Something else seminary taught (drilled into) me was this: it's not about you.  Next time you hear someone saying something you don't agree with, don't assume it's an attack or a judgment on you.  Instead, try to hear what they're saying, and understand what it means for them.  Don't demand that everyone else be inoffensive; work a little harder at not being so easily offended yourself.


  1. I like this approach. It's really tiring worrying about offending everyone in hyper-sensitivity mode.

  2. Could not agree more! This has become such a global issue now that the globe is in fact global. You hit the nail on the head here -->

    "We are not dialoguing with each other about anything important; we are monologuing at each other about nothing at all."

    Excellent post