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Rev. Joanna Harader Headshot

On Being an Offended Christian

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It has been awhile now since an anti-Muslim video was released on the Internet, prompting angry reactions around the world. Ever since, I have found myself thinking a lot about offense -- both the giving and the taking of it. I've already written about being an offensive Christian; now I want to think about being an offended Christian.

I remember a group exercise in college. We stood in a circle -- about 30 college students representing a fairly wide diversity of race, class, gender. And we were all supposed to say something that offended us. Like being called "honey," or blond jokes, or certain racial slurs, or whatever. We had gone about three fourths of the way around the circle when one guy said, "I get offended by people who get offended too easily."

It's a legitimate point, which leads to a couple of important questions: As Christians, what should offend us? And how should we react to being offended?

In considering these questions, I want to look at three stories from the Gospels. And just for fun, we'll look at them in reverse chronological order.

First, there is Jesus before Pilate (Mark 15:1-5). Jesus has been arrested and bound and brought before Pilate who asks: "Are you the king of the Jews?" Jesus answers, "You have said so."

And that's it. That's all Jesus says. With his life on the line. With false and unjust accusations flying all around. Jesus stays silent. And his silence amazes Pilate.

Lies and violence -- of course these things are offensive. Jesus has every right to be offended. But he does not react to the offense in kind. He does not get into rhetorical sparring against their lies. He does not return violent words for the violence enacted against him. (If he were in a presidential debate, he would lose. For sure.)

Next, there is Jesus in the Temple courts (Mark 11:15-18). Turning over the money-changers' tables, flipping the benches of the dove-sellers. "My house should be a house of prayer for all nations," he proclaims, "but you have made it a den of robbers!" (OK. There are no exclamation points in the Greek text, but it seems warranted here.)

In the Temple courts, holiness and justice are both at stake. People are profaning the sacred space by using it for mere commercial profit. The wealthy and powerful are attempting to control access to God -- and making money off of the poor in the process.

Jesus' response to this offense is quite different from his silence before Pilate. Apparently there are times when the faithful response to offensive behavior is to call it out publicly with strong words and symbolic actions.

Finally, and most intriguing to me, is the story of Jesus with the Canaanite woman(Matthew 15:21-23). She begs Jesus to heal her daughter and he ignores her. The disciples tell him to send her away, and he tries. He says he's not there to help people like her. He says, "It is not right to take the children's food and toss it to the dogs."

This woman is overstepping her bounds. She is offending Jesus and the disciples by being impertinent, by asking for something that she does not deserve. And Jesus responds to this offense by first ignoring and then rebuking her.

But she stands her ground -- or rather, continues kneeling in front of him. She is not so easily ignored. She is not so easily rebuked. She is not so easily offended. Rather than leaving Jesus alone, she says, "Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table."

And in response to this offensive statement, Jesus changes his mind. He heals her daughter.

So what should offend Christians?

Personal injustice? Probably.

Social injustice? Definitely.

Personal irritation? Not so much.

How should Christians react to being offended?

Perhaps by bearing silent witness, by not responding in kind.

Perhaps by speaking out -- particularly when the offensive behavior is creating unjust systems and hurting vulnerable people.

Perhaps by engaging in some self-reflection -- asking why we are offended, if we have a right to be offended -- and then deciding to get over ourselves.