In all of the news coverage of the anti-Muslim video and the world-wide reaction to it, I've been thinking quite a bit about offense -- both giving it and taking it. I've wondered where exactly the lines of blame should be drawn. Do we have a right to offend each other?
With a lot of contemporary moral dilemmas, it is hard to find direct guidance from Scripture. We often just look for the closest parallels or for broader general principles. But in the case of being offensive, we have plenty of direct examples in the Gospels. Jesus offended all kinds of people. You don't get nailed to a cross unless you tick somebody off. And the charge against him was blasphemy -- essentially offensive speech.
One of the times Jesus most blatantly offends the religious authorities is recorded in Mark 3:1-6. Jesus is at the synagogue. A man with a withered hand is at the synagogue. The religious authorities are at the synagogue. I can imagine Jesus eying the church leaders, the church leaders glaring back at Jesus, and the poor guy with the shriveled hand sitting there oblivious to it all.
It was unlawful to heal on the Sabbath. Jesus knows this. The religious leaders know this. And the religious leaders know that Jesus knows this and that he's likely to do it anyway. So they are watching and waiting.
Sure enough, Jesus says to the shriveled hand guy, "Get up here. Stand in front of everybody." He could have just looked at him or tapped him on the shoulder or something. Jesus didn't have to make a big production of this. But he does. Jesus is intentionally being offensive when he calls attention to what he is about to do.
Then Jesus proceeds to ask an offensive question: "Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?" Well, when he puts it that way, there is no good answer. The question itself condemns the sacred law that the religious leaders had sought to abide by and uphold for generations. The preachers are left biting their tongues. And Jesus, of course, tops it off by performing the healing right there in front of them all. Offensive.
- Christians are allowed to be offensive. We are not always called to be nice, accommodating, submissive, quiet or subtle. There are times and places to speak and act the truth, even if it causes offense.
- Christians should offend people within our own religious group. Jesus was a Jewish man questioning the dominant interpretation of Jewish law. That means that his criticism was coming from a thorough understanding of the tradition and a deep love of the people. Criticism and offense should always come from a position of understanding and love. As Christians, we are not in a position to intentionally offend Muslims or Jews or atheists. I would even caution against Baptists offending Catholics offending Methodists offending Mennonites offending Presbyterians...
- We should only offend for the purpose of extending God's life in the world. Jesus offended for the sake of healing. He did not act offensively to prove that he was right or to get a laugh or to make himself feel better or for the fun of seeing the religious leaders fume. (Though, I will grant you, I would really love to have seen their faces when he asked that question.) Jesus healed on the Sabbath because there was a man in the synagogue on the Sabbath who needed to be healed.
- If Christians choose to be offensive, we should take responsibility for our actions and be prepared to accept the consequences. After the man stretches out his healed hand, the religious leaders go off to find the political leaders and start talking about how to kill Jesus. Now Jesus knows pretty early on in his ministry that he will be killed, and we usually chalk this up to the whole "Jesus is God" thing. But it doesn't take any kind of divine foreknowledge to know that if you offend powerful people there will be a price to pay. If we cannot deal with the anger, the meanness, the bad press, the job loss -- whatever our offensiveness might reasonably cause -- if we can't deal with it faithfully and gracefully, then we shouldn't be offensive in the first place.
And then of course there are the questions about how we should respond when people offend us ... but that's a discussion for another post.