On Being Offendable

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As a kid my parents taught me that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” That principle helped me navigate a neighborhood divided into ethnic tribes, each prouder than the next. It also encouraged me to let ethnic slurs and criticisms by others slide off me like water off the back of a duck.

As a pastor, my counselor observed that external comments and threats really mess with my internal thoughts and emotions. He asked me why I allow personal criticisms to so shape my attitudes and moods, suggesting that I would benefit from growth in the area of emotional maturity.

Both as a kid and an adult, then, I was taught that being offendable was a sign of weakness. In contrast, I was led to conclude that a person with inner strength or emotional maturity does not allow external comments and criticism to influence him or her any more than water does a duck.  

The apostle Paul seems to affirm my conclusion about offendability. In his letters (Romans 14 & I Corinthians 8), he links being offended with spiritual weakness and, at the same time, encourages believers to be careful not to offend others. Best I can tell, the word translated by some as “offend” means to “vex” someone or hit a nerve or rile up. The idea is that one person’s actions impact the internal emotions of another.

So, I think it safe to conclude that being offendable is a sign of weakness - one I have succumbed to on countless occasions. Why is it that so many people seem eager to claim that they have been offended? Whether in politics or the church, individuals seem quick to confess that "What you said offended me!" or "What you did offended me!"  When I respond in that manner, am I not announcing to all who hear that I am so emotionally and/or spiritually weak that what they said or done has messed me up? Am I not admitting that sticks and stones break my hones, as well as a person’s comments and behaviors - as ignorant as they may be?

This morning, Megan Mcardle identified one reason for the prominence of offendability in our culture. In her editorial on how grown-ups deal with “microaggressions,” she points the reader to the work of two sociologists, Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, who argue that American society has “shifted from an honor culture — in which offenses are taken very seriously, and avenged by the one slighted — to a dignity culture, in which personal revenge is discouraged, and justice is outsourced to third parties, primarily the law..., to a victim culture, in which people are once again encouraged to take notice of slights.”

Mcardle adds that the victim culture sounds a lot like the honor culture with two important differences: “The first is that while victimhood is shameful in an honor culture — and indeed, the purpose of taking vengeance is frequently to avoid this shame — victim status is actively sought in the new culture, because victimhood is a prerequisite for getting redress. The second is that victim culture encourages people to seek help from third parties, either authorities or the public, rather than seeking satisfaction themselves.”

If Campbell and Manning are spot on, as my read of cultures suggests, how do we respond as Christians to the culture of victimhood? What does discipleship look like in a culture of victimhood? More importantly: How do we raises our children and grandchildren? Do we teach them that “sticks and stones may break their bones, but names will never hurt them?” Or do we teach them, “when sticks and stone break your bones, AND when people call you names, let me know so I can call the principal at school – and then call my lawyer?”

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