My great grampaw's generation didn't get too hung up on something that we are steady worried about: sensitivity. A person in the public eye these days has to choose their words with exhaustive care lest he/she/it offend someone. We are at once more crass and vulgar as a society than we have ever been, and yet incredibly touchy and petulant. It's really laughable except the part about having to live in it. Modern America would make a terrific Far Side comic or even a great SNL sketch, but it actually is quite taxing when you have to go out in it every day. Allow me to illustrate:
Dateline Wilmington, NC some ten years ago. A public school teacher is given a formal reprimand and told she lacks sensitivity. Her crime? Using a word to describe a character in some literature the class was studying. A parent complained, saying that the word offended her because "it sounds similar to a racial slur."* Now, it's not a racial slur. The definition is,"not generous; stingy," and is of Scandinavian origin lacking any shared etymology with any racial slur. This is sort of like giving someone a thumbs-up and being accused of offense as it looks similar to another gesture of upraised digit. Might that be a little too sensitive?
In fact, if you Google the word "offended" you come up with quite the litany of tragic headlines: "Crawford offended by officer's words," "Atheist group offended by Ag secretary's praying for rain," "Rudy Giuliani offended by 'Ted,'" and my favorite, "Justin Bieber offended by Timberlake comparison." Taking offense is the new American pastime and if the offense or the offended are impressive enough then we will hear about it night and day through what used to be news outlets. Who can forget the great moments in offensive behavior like Don Imus and the Rutgers women's basketball team, or Rush Limbaugh and Sandra Fluke, or Waldenbooks and the AFA, or President Obama and his "special needs kid" bowling performance?
Maybe that last one is more memorable for me. I admit that it hurts when somebody uses the word "retarded" to refer to something they think is lacking or silly or disappointing. Probably it hurts the same way "gay" does when used in that shorthand way. It stings in a way that the "n" word does - albeit probably less and obviously vicariously. We can debate sensitivity and homophobia and racism until the cows come home, but I don't need to be argued into not hurting people. I don't want to hurt with my words. But is it morally wrong to? And how should I react when someone does hurt me or a loved one with their words?
I wasn't always this way. I was 14 once too, you know. I've made my share of jokes that belittled or offended. I've let my glance linger too long on someone in public who was clearly struggling with a disability of some kind. I've said unhelpful things and failed to do helpful things. I've laughed at or failed to confront others who've done the same. And I'm rightly ashamed of that. So what could someone have done to help me see the nature of my behavior when I was 14? If you know anything about teenagers, or if like me you've been one at some point, then you know it's tough to get them to think of others first. So maybe I couldn't be helped when I was 14. But I know better now, and I know that Jack and Olivia know better. I've never had to tell them to be hurt when someone laughs at Josiah's difficulties - they live with him and love him and they hurt for him and take offense for him. And for Jalen, though he doesn't often make quite the same public spectacle.
There's actually a great deal of guidance from the Bible on this subject. Maybe what's needed here is a list. Let's see if we can do one up with some nice bullet points and so forth.
- Oh yeah, this is nice.
- First of all, we shouldn't talk ugly. It's pretty basic. Like your mother told you, if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all. This goes double for Christians and triple for when you're talking to an unbeliever. It's hard for me to believe that Jesus would hazard a person's feelings to make a joke, or to advance a political agenda, or to make himself feel superior. And He was superior! There is certainly a way to speak of any subject - even something of intense disagreement - without being offensive. Maybe the implication of the message has to offend, but the words of the messenger shouldn't. We're not all going to agree, but we can be civil.
- Secondly, the Bible tells us that Jesus was difficult to offend. Not impossible, but nearly so. People called Him all kinds of names and spread pretty nasty rumors about Him (and still do), and He took it all in stride. He just blew it off or defused it, but He never demanded an apology or pouted or called His local representative to the Roman Senate. A big part of the character of Jesus during His ministry was humility. It's impossible to understand the mission and message of Jesus apart from the Kenosis. That's the theological term for His act of emptying Himself of all His rights and privileges and taking on the role and form of a servant - with no rights and privileges. Being offended feels like a violation of our human rights, but it's not really. And for Christians, we are told to expect the same treatment that our Lord received.
- Third, insults and injuries and offenses are no different than the other trials that come into our life. Just like disease, hardship, persecution and calamity, insults are a weakness that we can rejoice in and thank God for. Why? Paul told his friends in Corinth that God brings these things into our life purposefully and graciously to make us more like Jesus. No one can do anything to us that God hasn't allowed in His plan. Not even the devil. If you don't believe me, read the book of Job. Notice who brought up the whole subject of Job. Yeah, that's God deciding what will come into the life of His creation, and the devil carrying it out. So the main need of our life is not health and wealth and satisfying relationships - the main need is friendship with Jesus and character that mirrors His. Let's face it, winning the lotto and having everyone in your life fawn over you doesn't exactly send you on a quest for answers. But cancer will. And homelessness will. And a deep emotional cut that hurts the more you think about it. That will.
So let's bring it on home. Should that teacher have been run out of town for using that word? No. Should I ever use it now that I know how hurtful and offensive it can be? I should definitely not. It's my right as an American to say whatever I want, but it's my responsibility as a follower of Jesus to not offend. Should Don Imus have said what he did about those young women on the radio? Certainly not, he shouldn't have said it anywhere to anyone. Should President Obama have made that crack about special needs kids? No way, and I'm sure he wishes he could take it back. Just like Rush probably wishes he could re-do his Sandra Fluke moment. Should Justin Bieber be offended at being compared to Justin Timberlake? Yes, maybe, and no.
And just so I don't offend anyone myself, let me hasten to say that I made up all that grampaw stuff at the beginning. I did actually have a great-grandfather, maybe even more than one, but he certainly didn't whittle.
* "Teacher reprimanded for word choice". Wilmington Star-News. September 4, 2002