On my mother’s desk is the following quote by Abraham Lincoln, “We should be too big to take offense and too noble to give it.”
Today's post comes from observing how a major incident costing many people their jobs escalated from an unwise but relatively minor comment made in a meeting. How many troubles would be avoided if we would ignore offensive things said by others and sought to minimize the opportunities for others to take offense at our words. In today’s culture, the burden for avoiding conflict lies almost exclusively with the speaker and the hearers are rarely expected to let things slide by. In fact, much of the “politically correct” mentality seeks to hunt for any potential opportunity to infer offense in someone’s words. Author intent and gracious forgiveness are not options. To me, what is even more diabolical is when a hearer is offended on behalf of some hypothetical person not even present who might be offended had they heard the comment.
This has the natural effect of emasculating meaningful communication. If we go around frightened that someone somehow will take offense by an everyday phrase or innocent comment that might be some arcane reference from a less civil time, we are likely to clam up and talk of only inconsequential things. Or, if a speaker does slip up (real or imagined), they are obligated to prostrate themselves before the altar of cultural sensitivity and declare that they have been racist, sexist, or otherwise subhuman from before birth, and that any good they have done for the world is meaningless and revoked before the depth of their oral sin. (Yet, the Biblical concept of original sin is cause for offense…)
In lieu of this, some choose to go on the defensive and concoct the most exotic rationalization as to why they are exempt from accusation of insensitivity. It is simply not enough to say, “Oops, I’m sorry—I didn’t realize that comment would be offensive to you,” or “I’m sorry, I was up all night, I’m tired, and it just slipped out.” This last is even worse because it is interpreted that this is how you really think and you are faking caring about others’ feelings.
Rarely is the hearer required to be culturally sensitive that the speaker comes from a different perspective or may have different experiences that validate their statement. Rarely is the hearer held responsible if their taking offense is due to their own ignorance.
It seems there are many who are looking for opportunities to be offended so that they may profit from it, usually at someone else’s expense. The first amendment today gives freedom to be offended by speech, but apparently not the freedom to be a jerk or to be a human subject to error. Indeed, the first amendment is now taken to mean that we have a constitutional right to be free from anything we might find offensive, and if someone does offend us, then they are automatically in the wrong and we have been violated.
Now, we do need to guard our tongue. Scripture is clear on that. The apostle James said:
Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.
When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.
We have taken this concept that we should watch what we say and consider others’ feelings, and turned it into an opportunity for bondage. Criticism risks offense by its nature, and we care more for self-esteem and the freedom from negative feelings than we care for truth, whether or not it is shared graciously. God has given us a lot of power: we can choose what we say, and we can choose how we respond to what others have said, to be offended or to ignore it, even if offense was intended.
Thus, at the risk of offending someone hoping to be offended, the words of Christ are applicable:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous…“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye… So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”
In summary, yes, guard your tongue, for words spoken cannot be unsaid. Thus the one who is noble proves their nobility. Secondly, we can choose to ignore offense, especially unintentional offense. Thus one who is large-hearted proves their love.
“I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.” -Abraham Lincoln
"People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?" -Rodney King