The Culture of Offendedness

By Al Mohler | April 15, 2015

Mount Soledad: The large cross has been embroiled in controversy and litigation since 1989.

The risk of being offended is simply part of what it means to live in a diverse culture that honors and celebrates free speech. A right to free speech means a right to offend; otherwise the right would need no protection. These days, it is the secularists who seem to be most intent on pushing a proposed right never to be offended by confrontation with the Christian Gospel, Christian witness or Christian speech and symbolism.

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This motivation lies behind the incessant effort to remove all symbols, representations, references and images related to Christianity from the public square. The very existence of a large cross, placed on government property as a memorial outside San Diego, Calif., has been a major issue in the courts for two decades. Those pressing for the removal of the cross claim that they are offended by the fact that they are forced to see this Christian symbol from time to time.

We should note carefully that this notion of offendedness is highly emotive in character. In other words, those who now claim to be offended are generally speaking of an emotional state that has resulted from some real or perceived insult to their belief system or from contact with someone else’s belief system. In this sense, being offended does not necessarily

involve any real harm but points instead to the fact that the mere presence of such an argument, image or symbol evokes an emotional response of offendedness.

The distinguished Christian philosopher Paul Helm addresses this issue in an article published in the Summer 2006 edition of the Salisbury Review, published in Great Britain. Professor Helm argues, “Historically, being offended has been a very serious matter. To be offended is to be caused to stumble so as to fall, to fail, to apostasize, to be brought down, to be crushed.”

Today, desperate straits are no longer required in order for an individual or group to claim the emotional status of offendedness. All that is required is often the vaguest notion of emotional distaste at what another has said, done, proposed or presented. This shift in the meaning of the word and in its cultural usage is subtle but extremely significant. It also leads to inevitable conflict.

“People have always been upset by insensitivity and negligence, but the profile of offendedness, understood in this modern sense, is being immeasurably heightened,” suggests Professor Helm. Now, “the right never to be offended” is not only accepted as legitimate, but is actually promoted by the media, by government and by activist groups.

Professor Helm is surely right when he argues that the “social value” of offendedness is now increasing. All that is necessary for a claim to be taken seriously is for the claim to be offered. After all, if the essence of the offendedness is an emotional state or response, how can any individual deny that a claimant has been genuinely offended? Professor Helm is

right to worry that this will lead to the fracturing of society.

We all hear things we don’t like said about people and causes that we are fond of, but in the changed social atmosphere, we are being encouraged to give public notice if such language offends us. I am now being repeatedly told that I am entitled not to be offended. So—from now on—not offended is what I intend to be.

Given our mandate to share the Gospel and to speak openly and publicly about Jesus Christ and the Christian faith, Christians must understand a particular responsibility to protect free speech and to resist this culture of offendedness that threatens to shut down all public discourse. Of course, the right for Christians to speak publicly about Jesus Christ necessarily means that adherents of other belief systems will be equally free to present their truth claims in an equally public manner. This is simply the cost of religious liberty.

An interesting witness to this point is Salman Rushdie, the novelist who was once put under a Muslim sentence of death because he had insulted Muslim sensibilities in his novel The Satanic Verses. Mr. Rushdie presents an argument that Christians must take seriously.

The idea that any kind of free society can be constructed in which people will never be offended or insulted is absurd. So, too, is the notion that people should have the right to call on the law to defend them against being offended or insulted. A fundamental decision needs to be made: do we want to live in a free society or not? Democracy is not a tea party where people sit around making polite conversation. In democracies people get extremely upset with each other. They argue vehemently against each other’s positions.

As the Apostle Paul made clear in writing to the Corinthians, the preaching of the Gospel has always been considered offensive by those who reject it. When Paul spoke of the cross as “foolishness” and a “stumbling block” (1 Corinthians 1:23, NIV), he was pointing to this very reality—a reality that would lead to his own stoning, flogging, imprisonment and execution.

At the same time, Paul did not want to offend persons on the basis of anything other than the cross of Christ and the essence of the Christian Gospel. For this reason, he would write to the Corinthians about becoming “all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22, ESV).

Without doubt, many Christians manage to be offensive for reasons other than the offense of the Gospel. This is to our shame and to the injury of our Gospel witness. Nevertheless, there is no way for a faithful Christian to avoid offending those who are offended by Jesus Christ and His cross. The truth claims of Christianity, by their very particularity and exclusivity, are inherently offensive to those who would demand some other gospel.

Christians must not only contend for the preservation and protection of free speech—essential for the cause of the Gospel—we must also make certain that we do not fall into the trap of claiming offendedness for ourselves. We must not claim a right not to be offended, even as we must insist that there is no such right and that the social construction of such a right will mean the death of individual liberty, free speech, and the free exchange of ideas.

Once we begin playing the game of offendedness, there is no end to the matter. There simply is no right not to be offended, and we should be offended by the very notion that such a right could exist. D