"Give them not Hell, but

Hope and Courage."

Monday, January 14, 2013

On Taking Offense (Sunday, January 13, 2013)

      Don’t you think there seem to be an awful lot of ticked off people in the world these days? So many people seem so angry at one another. It’s not necessarily personal, either. Personal anger—personal offense taking—getting peeved because of something that’s been done to us personally, by our families, or friends or acquaintances, or in our jobs—isn’t really what I’m talking about this morning. As Carlyle said a long time ago, “No man lives without jostling and being jostled; in all ways he has to elbow himself through the world, giving and taking offense.”

No, I’m more concerned with the global implications of offense taking—of people, or groups of people, being offended because their tribe, or their nation, or (usually) their religion has been ridiculed or insulted or otherwise put down by some other person or group of persons.

Middle Eastern followers of Islam take offense at a crude Youtube video called The Innocence of Muslims (or sometimes called The Real Life of Muhammad), and launch protests in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, Europe, and Australia that eventually lead to hundreds of injuries and over 75 deaths.

Do you remember a few years ago when Christians of various persuasions were offended because Dan Brown, in his novel, The Da Vinci Code, had dared to insinuate that Jesus might actually have been married, and that not every word in the Christian Gospel was 100% verifiably, historically true?

Or when Jewish organizations launched a boycott of Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ, because of real or suspected anti-Semitism in some of the narrative (which was based on an assertion that the Gospel of John was 100% true.)

Every year, an organization called the Catholic League issues an annual report detailing the epidemic of anti-Catholic offense in the arts, in business, education, government, and the media. The most recent report detailed the anti-Catholic offenses of an organization called the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests who had the temerity to expose clergy sexual abuse within the church. It also pointed the finger at publications like Rolling Stone  and the Philadelphia Inquirer who had the nerve to cover the crisis. Catholics are supposed to be offended that newspapers dare to do such things.

The Catholic League’s report also details the latest volleys in the so-called “War on Christmas”, including the “intolerance” of Rhode Island’s governor, Lincoln Chafee, who had the temerity to refer to the large tree in the Rhode Island statehouse rotunda as a “holiday” tree, rather than a Christmas tree.

(By this same line of reasoning, we of a more-or-less Christian persuasion are supposed to greet anyone who wishes us “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas” with an icy stare, if not a punch in the nose. I don’t know: I think it’s kind of nice if anyone wishes me a happy anything in this day and age.)

The list continues:

Jewish organizations accuse anyone who does not support every utterance and activity of the present government of Israel of being “anti-Semitic”. If they happen to be Jewish themselves (or even Israelis), they are accused of being “self-hating Jews”.

Non-believers get offended, too, of course. Atheists in Woonsocket, Rhode Island (of all places) are offended because there is a cross (of all things) on the grounds of one of the city’s fire stations, recognizing fire fighters killed in action—in World War One. The cross has been there over 90 years, without causing any trouble. If truth be told, I lived in Woonsocket the first 27 years of my life and never even noticed it.  Now, all of a sudden, it’s offensive. It’s got to go, the atheists of Woonsocket say, along with the angel and the prayer on the fire department’s website, while you’re at it.

I even read a blog recently by a fellow Unitarian Universalist minister who was offended because it seems that Garrison Keillor actually ridicules UUs from time to time on his Prairie Home Companion radio program.

She must not like The Simpsons, either, where Unitarians are occasionally the butt of jokes, as well. As when, at Springfield’s Fourth of July celebration, Lisa buys a cone of “Unitarian”  ice cream., from among the flavors on sale from various denominations.  “But it doesn’t taste like anything,” she complains. “Exactly,” replies Pastor Lovejoy, a bit smugly.

(Now, I’ve always thought it preferable to be ridiculed than to be ignored, and I think that’s very funny. But maybe I’m just a “self-hating Unitarian”, then.)

Where does all this outrage come from? Why does there seem to be more and more offense taking in this world of ours?

Near the end of her life in 1977, the anthropologist Margaret Mead was asked, “If we human beings are truly social animals, why do we seem to have such a difficult time getting along with one another? Why are there so many wars, so much hostility and aggression and intolerance among people?”

Mead’s answer was to the point. She replied, “99% of the time human beings have lived on this planet, we’ve lived in groups of 12 to 36 people. That is to say, we’ve lived in small groups of people probably related to us; people who looked just like us, thought like us, ate and behaved like us, worshipped like us. We simply never needed to learn how to tolerate anyone who was different from us. But [just] in the last 300 years,” Dr. Mead went on, “the population of the world rocketed from 500 million to 4 billion [closer to 7 billion today]. We simply haven’t had enough time to learn how to get along in such a crowd of strangers.”

How do we get along, then, in this world of strangers?

It starts by not getting offended every time our own particular tenets of belief—our story, our perspective, our truth, cherished as they are—are questioned by others. The main characteristic, perhaps, of the post-modern world in which we live is that we are no longer living in a “one size fits all” world (or society). No single Big Story (or “meta-narrative”, as the philosophical talking heads call it) speaks to everyone, or expresses everyone’s deepest truths. In this world of competing worldviews—and with these “Rock ‘Em/ Sock ‘Em” worldviews delivered instantaneously to us through means of digital communications—we had better get used to seeing and hearing our cherished truths, our individual points of view, taking some knocks. Perhaps the most important thing we (post)modern men and women need to get used to is our ability to be offended—and yet, to get up, dust oneself off, go on, and continue to endeavor in the world.

This does not mean capitulation. It does not mean swallowing our values in the face of those of others. It does not mean being afraid to engage, to defend our own faith, to affirm what we believe fearlessly and vehemently, if need be.

In Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, there is a lovely scene where Alice is swimming in a pool of her own tears, when she encounters a mouse swimming next to her. So Alice, always a friendly sort, wants to connect, she tries to make conversation with the mouse. So, she starts talking about her cat, Dinah.

As we might imagine, the mouse wants to hear nothing about cats.  So it swims away. Alice goes after her, still trying to make conversation. She keeps on talking about how wonderful, how friendly, her cat is. When this doesn’t work, she talks about her dog instead. The mouse just keeps swimming away from her just as fast as she can.

“Oh, dear,” Alice cries sadly. “I’m afraid I’ve offended it again!” Finally, Alice calls out, “Mouse dear! Do come back, and we won’t talk about cats or dogs either, if you don’t like them!”

When the mouse hears this, it turns around and swims back to her. “Its face was quite pale,” Carroll writes, “and it said in a low, trembling voice, ‘Let us get to the shore, and I’ll tell you my history, and you will understand why I hate cats and dogs.’”

One way not to offend (or not to be offended) is not to engage—to retreat to one’s separate corner, one’s separate ghetto, one’s separate gated community, and try somehow to recapture that old world where  “people… looked just like us, thought like us, ate and behaved like us, worshipped like us.”

We can try to recapture the staid and stagnant so-called “good old days” and swim only in a pool of our own tears and the tears of our ancestors.

Or we can choose another way, which is to engage with life—in all its diversity and complication and surprise. To engage with life, burgeoning forth, unpredictable, wondrous, and amazing. To engage with life with a resilience and tenacity that reflect the dynamism and power at the very heart of life. We can try to create and foster for ourselves an entirely new relationship to the world, and to the wonder of Being.

This is our choice, in this (post)modern world: to engage and risk being offended; or to retreat and wither and die in the face of a changing world.

 Or we can choose an (even more dangerous) third option: that of battling ideologies, competing faiths, each attempting to impose its own way on a world that has its own history with cats and dogs.

Can there be any doubt what our choice must be, as compassionate, non-dogmatic, religious men and women, who dare to wear the badge “Universalist”?

When the fundamentalists of the world attempt to divide our planet into pitched camps of winners and losers, us and them, saved and unsaved, we must be bold enough and strong enough to risk being offended, unafraid to engage, unafraid to say what we think, and affirm our beliefs. But we must be willing, too, to get as good as we give. (For that is how we become as good as we can be.)

May the simple words of Gandhi guide us:

“All religions have some truth in them,” he said.
“All religions have some falsehood in them.
May all religions be nearly as dear to me as my own [religion] is.”

The weapons we wield as soldiers of tolerance and coexistence might seem almost pathetically anemic in this world of loud and hysterical voices. Nor is saving the world for tolerance just a matter of intellectual discourse, either. Intolerant people of all persuasions are not merely loud-mouthed and boorish; too often nowadays, they’re armed to the teeth, as well.

In the face of the absolute truth claims and blind obedience and fatwahs and false utopias of all the so-called “Armies of the Lord”—false prophets intent on creating a small and vindictive God in their own image-- we have to offer only our own compassion, our own humility, our own willingness to get out of the puddle of our own tears, and swim back to shore, and listen to the stories of those who are not at all like us. For that is always where the most amazing discoveries can be made!

In one of her books, Alice Walker tells the story of a childhood accident that left one of her eyes permanently scarred, so much so that she often wore dark glasses, even indoors.

When she had a child of her own, she worried how her baby girl would react to her mother’s wound. “Children can be cruel,” she thought. “Why should mine be any different?”
One day, as she held her child after dressing her, she noticed her daughter peering intently into her eye. “This is it,” she thought, steeling herself for the inevitable hurtful comments.

“Mama,” the little girl said cheerily, “Mama, you’ve got a world in your eye!”

She had seen her mother’s wound not as a disgrace, not as a disfigurment, but as a lovely marking, a deep reflection uniting her with all humankind, with all creation. When we see ourselves reflected in the eyes of another, we share a holy place, indeed.

May we, too, learn to have a world in our eyes: and see our differences not as stumbling blocks, not as walls between us, but as bridges of compassion and understanding. May the wounds we bear unite us with men and women everywhere. May we hear the different viewpoints of others not as challenges to our truths, but as new additions to the living gospel of our greater and wider human story. 

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