Taking Offense: An Enemy of Truth
Taking offense certifies the modern man as one who cares. If we take offense on behalf of another we can number ourselves among the sensitive and loving. If we take offense personally we can brandish a stop sign declaring to all that the offense must cease. In either case the offending words must stop and the conversation must end. For the modern lover never offends. Instead he unfailingly affirms. He affirms us with an “okay” that builds our self-esteem, engenders good feelings, and requires nothing of us beyond self-affirmation.
But can people who love one another do so by simply remaining inoffensive? Is the purpose of love to enhance good feelings and discourage bad feelings? WWJD? What would Jesus do? Frequently, we find a modern interpretation of Jesus that would indeed prioritize feelings, one that asserts “I gotta be me” and “you gotta be you” because, after all, God made us that way and He wouldn’t want to offend us. The fact that the “I” that one has to be frequently walks over the “you” that somebody else must be seems largely irrelevant to the modern man. Jesus would certainly love. But what does that mean?
Because we are imperfect humans with our hidden biases, discerning what Jesus would do is more difficult that it seems. However, we can begin with the most basic assumption of love: we do not hurt others. But is being offended equal to being hurt? Certainly, some people offend with the intent to hurt and this is certainly contrary to love. The subjective act of one’s being offended, however, does not necessarily impugn the love of the one offending. Nobody offends the average teenager more than his parents, the ones who love him the most. A parent who does not offend his or her child’s sensibilities either has the perfect child or has decided that good feelings are more important than challenging the child. Children growing into adults get things wrong before they get them right, whether it be math or morals. The problem is not that the child needs correcting. Correction is the simple give and take of learning that every child requires. The problem is a childlike pride or inflated self-esteem which makes the process offensive to the child. A mother and father do not intend to offend but to engender the greater good of the child. It is a parent’s job to expose the falsehood in both poor arithmetic and the purloined lollipop. A child who sees love in correction will grow up understanding the contradiction between taking offense and seeking truth. A child unable to move beyond personal affront will always find the truth elusive.
Returning to “What would Jesus do?” the gospels clearly tell us that to love and not offend are certainly not synonymous. Whether you believe in Jesus’s divinity or you think Him simply a wonderful man, He set a standard by which love is judged across religions and across cultures. The modern world loves to claim the Jesus of the Beatitudes as the very essence of caring and love, forgetting that the same Jesus died lonely and forsaken on the cross, not to the crowd’s acclaim but to its disdain. Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen in his Life of Christ makes clear that there is no disconnect between the two. Living the Beatitudes leads to the cross. In his introduction to the chapter on the Beatitudes, he wrote, “But let any man put these Beatitudes into practice in his own life, and he too will draw down upon himself the wrath of the world.” Innocent people who do not offend are not crucified. But an innocent man who speaks the truth with his life and with his words regardless of personal cost will offend those challenged by that truth. Not only do we see in Jesus that one who loves may offend, but that offense is in the very nature of love. In the very act of loving, Jesus called out the deceptions of those they seduced. Those offended demanded not a conversation but a crucifixion.
If it is the truth we seek we must pursue a conversation and not a crucifixion. A society that elevates disagreement to offense will not remain free. By its very nature the false promise demands approval. It cannot stand eye to eye with the truth but must dissemble and discredit it by other means. By its very nature it shuts the conversation down and demands the truth be crucified. Because a falsehood exposed quickly dies, the best deceptions cloak themselves in the guise of love. They are truth distorted, wolves in sheep’s clothing. They appeal to our goodness, telling us what we want to hear and blinding us to things we prefer unseen. Their cunning deceptions offer us a new truth, painting real truth as antiquated and outdated, something for another time, another place, and another people. However, all false promises destroy love. Love and truth go hand in hand. In Jesus love and truth are inseparable. To see one is to see the other. Destroy one and you destroy the other.
Destroying truth requires guile. Great deceptions appear as goodness to those seduced. Assuming the pain of one offended throws a defensive wall around one’s beliefs, immediately calling the love of the offender into question and placing the one aggrieved on high ground. But is it really high ground to demean the intentions of the other and condemn them as hateful? Frequently, the very person who has so judged and condemned another as less loving than himself is the first—when his behavior has been called into question—to declare, “do not judge.” To take offense and to condemn the offender shuts down the conversation and declares the other unworthy. The party that fears it is losing the argument is more likely to shut down the conversation. Reasoned debate often leads to uncomfortable truths.
No one is more likely to shut down a conversation than a man with a chip on his shoulder. Men in every age ably find chips to put on their own shoulders. Our age produces chips in industrial quantities and offers them gratuitously to all comers. A man no longer needs to find and cultivate his own chip. Today’s “reformers” will seek him out and give him one fully grown. But every chip placed invites offense. Every chip placed gives its recipient a reason to feel cheated and offended. Every chip placed shuts down, a little bit more, the conversation that leads to truth. This is the antithesis of love. Each chip centers a man on himself. The man placing the chip on the shoulder of another can marvel at his own goodness while actually giving nothing of his own. The man receiving the chip sees only the invoice due, not the gift to be given.
Love begins with each man freely removing the chip from his own shoulder. The rich man removes the chip that tells him, “I owe nothing to nobody.” The poor man removes the chip that proclaims to the rich man, “You owe me.” Only with both chips freely removed can the rich man and poor man enter into a conversation, a conversation that leads them to a relationship based on the gift each has to offer. Only when all men, male or female, black or white, rich or poor, or any given x and opposing y, have freely removed the chips from their own shoulders can we truly begin to see good people seeking good in a world of false propositions. Only then can a real conversation begin.
Conversations seeking truth require free speech. But truth is not only threatened when speech is restricted. Even silence offends those enslaved by deception. The ascendant lie, the one whose power reaches into a culture’s very core, cannot be ameliorated by silence. Pervasive deceptions require approval, not simple acquiescence. The distortions of Henry VIII required the life of his friend Thomas More, whose conscientious silence Henry refused to accept, demanding instead More’s public approval. In the twentieth century the falsehood that men could be forcefully molded into more perfect men assumed form in communism and fascism. These hubristic barbarisms raised the art of oppression to new levels of inhumanity as nations turned in on themselves, slaughtered large parts of their own populations, and forcefully “re-educated” those remaining. Those still standing were required to live the lie, to goose-step in unison to it, and to turn on neighbors who did not bow to it. There is no sanctuary in what is false, not even in silence.
Good deceptions sedate us before they enslave us. However, it is the very nature of truth to offend, to elicit the cry, “Crucify him!” But, unlike deception, truth cannot take offense without belying itself. Truth sees both the deception and the tragedy of love deceived. That tragedy permits no offense, only sorrow. Truth will die and triumph on a cross before it takes offense. Even though He was the one without sin, the one truly qualified to take offense and to throw stones, Jesus accepted the cross with all its loneliness: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) Contrarily, the unrepentant criminal repudiated the cross and cried, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39)
Truth is not a blunt weapon wielded to bludgeon the deceived. Truth offers more love to those who love incompletely. It rescues good people caught in great deceits. We offer truth, one fellow traveler to another, not to strike one down but to raise the fallen up and to help them on their way. Once embraced, truth is a gift that must be offered. To grasp it as ours alone transforms it into something false. Following Pentecost, the Apostles went forth bearing gifts, not swords. The gift was a truth so compelling they could not contain it. They must pass it on. Doing so brought the wrath of the world on their heads, with each martyred in turn.
The gift of the Apostles is the same gift we must seek and then pass on. To see a fellow traveler mired in a mud of deception he cannot see and not offer him the light he needs extinguishes the very light one carries. To offer a light expecting gratitude is to misunderstand the blindness of the mired traveler. Only when the falsehood is killed will he see and understand. If it is truly truth that is offered, the untruth will rage before it dies. One who carries the truth will not see an enemy to be conquered but a man enslaved. He will meet the fury of a lie exposed with the patience of Jesus carrying the cross.
Every age has a false promise with a conversation to shut down. The twentieth century holocausts burned through humanity on the false promise that some men could remake other men. The deceptive promise of the twenty-first century proposes that each man can remake himself into whatever he wants. This is the pernicious promise of the Sexual Revolution with its deceptive allure of “love” and “freedom.” Nothing offends like a critique of modern sexuality. Suggesting error in any of its various facets, whether it be contraception, abortion, gay marriage or the now ever multiplying number of genders, elicits cries of hate, bigotry or homophobia.
The Sexual Revolution tells us that we can destroy our own progeny in the womb and call it good, that a man or woman can “find” his or herself at the expense of others, and that the life-denying act of sodomy is equal to the life creating sexual act. Against Humanae Vitae it has raged and railed, declaring it offensive to the newly understood sexuality, effectively removing it from discussion even in Catholic churches. But a deception’s defense through taking offense is simply a beginning. The Sexual Revolution now seeks the participation of all through mandated insurance policies that have clothed the wolf of moral choices with a sheep’s clothing of medical need. Its advocates declare all objections as religion writ large, as superstition properly banished behind church doors, unworthy of a hearing in the public square. The Revolution insists itself triumphant. It demands the conversation end.
Truth requires conversation. There is no freedom without the free pursuit of truth. And without freedom, there is no love. Love requires choices freely made. Love requires truth because truth leads us to love. When we deny truth we deny love. As love cannot compel, neither does truth. Truth proposes and never demands. It sees the love we strive for and points us to even greater love. Its pursuit requires a conversation where offense is neither intended nor taken. Ultimately, truth tells us who we are and where we are going. Strangely, in a time when every man declares the right to define himself, we are on the verge of closing that conversation down. In a world seeking truth, that is truly offensive.