Causing and taking offence (part 4)

I have spent the first few posts focusing on the objective dimension of offence. This is not because there isn’t a subjective component to it or because this does not matter but because our society wants to deny and/or ignore the objective dynamic and so it ends up with very muddled thinking.

However there is a subjective component because whenever I say or do something, others will respond, and I will respond to things that are said and done by others. Now as I’ve suggested in earlier posts when I see a response, I should want to know and be curious about why someone responds, especially if there seems to be a disconnect, so the response does not seem appropriate. This means I want to know why someone finds something offensive when it is not. It also means that I want to know why someone does not find something offensive that palpably is.

So, let’s start with the latter because I think we need to hold our hands up and say that we do not find a lot of things offensive including much that appears as entertainment, as social media interaction and as supposed commentary. Why? The answer is that we have become desensitized to it. We are no longer shocked by it and so we are no longer offended by it.

What about when someone finds something offensive that I don’t think is? Well, I want to suggest a couple of reasons.

First of all, they may be offended because they should be. I am desensitized to what should be offensive. I no longer find it offensive. I fit the category above. You know, I find it fascinating that people can engage with Steve Chalke’s writing on the atonement without finding his description of penal substitution as deeply, disturbingly offensive. And to be clear, the offence is not just because of the false representation of Biblical truth, the sheer heretical presentation of the Son’s nature and His relationship to the Father but also the casual disregard and lack of love or sensitivity that the employment of such a disturbing and real experience for many vulnerable victims as a meet jibe to use to score points in a debate.

Secondly, it may be that they are aware and alert to factors I am ignorant of. For example, I may not know that a particular word or action is offensive in a particular cultural context. Remember that this does not make the issue subjective. It is objectively offensive but the offence is limited to a specific context. I think the issue of “blacking up” may potentially be an example of this. There may be other factors to consider but someone who goes to a fancy dress party, blacked up has ignored the context of blacking up being linked to white actors taking on black actor’s roles.

Thirdly, a person may respond to a statement or action because of their own life experience. They associate the words and actions with their experience, whether or not they are related. So, for example, it is not objectively offensive to use masculine pronouns to describe God name the first and second person as Father and Son but some people find this offensive, not because of a mere political platform but because of their experience at the hands of sexist men in general and sadly at times by abusive fathers, husbands, uncles and brothers in particular. I hope that we who hold to the orthodox view of the Trinity and a complementarian understanding of church and family also carry with our firm convictions emotional sensitivity.

Fourthly, someone may find something offensive because they have misunderstood it. It may indeed be that others have misrepresented it to them.  A good example of this is when a Muslim finds the Doctrine of the Trinity offensive because they have been taught that God came and had physical sex with Mary. In fact such a view of God is objectively offensive and I have explained to Muslim friends in conversation that this is the case. This also means that I am aware enough of that the other person’s offensive position is based on misunderstanding and confusion so that I do not respond emotionally with offence. My offence is trumped by another emotion – compassion.

Fifthly, we all have a different emotional build, Just as we all have a different physical build. Just as my physical response differs to someone else, so I may have a greater or lesser pain threshold, my emotional threshold and the extent to which I feel a particular emotion will differ to someone else.

So, when I see someone responding and being offended, when I think this is not the appropriate response, my own engagement with them must be shaped by humiliy to recognise that I might be wrong, curiosity to understand where they are coming from and compassion to see their heart responses conform to God’s view on things.