Offense versus Discrimination

Sarah teaches introductory freshman courses in theology and religious studies in which students will discuss, debate, and disagree with each other on any number of topics. Sarah always tries to model respect for the wide range of diverse opinions and perspectives in the classroom. Oftentimes, Sarah’s class is the first time these students have had opportunity to discuss theology and religion academically (rather than catechetically) in an interfaith environment. On the first day, Sarah is clear to tell all students that they should not worry about being discriminated against for their beliefs during class because all opinions and perspectives are welcomed and respected. However, Sarah also makes clear that it would be surprising if any student in the classroom were to make it through the course without being offended at least once, whether by Sarah or by a classmate.

Sarah finds that the students are often confused by the distinction between offense and discrimination. This confusion isn’t surprising because many of us have been taught that offending other people should be avoided. In Christian circles, saying something that another regards as offensive is often construed as judging that person. Even referring to a certain action as “sin” or “not within God’s boundaries” is taken as a judgment. On the internet, merely having an opinion on a controversial issue (no matter the issue or opinion) can be equated with hatefulness, judgmentalism, inflammatory rhetoric, and discrimination. As we’ve been blogging, we’ve seen firsthand that no matter how kindly or respectfully one might state a position, other people are quick to respond with statements and questions like, “Stop judging me! You’re so judgmental. Are you okay with discrimination? Why do you have to be so inflammatory?”

This sort of knee-jerk response makes honest conversation next to impossible because it conflates earnest disagreement with discrimination. And it’s very, very, very difficult, even impossible, to have thoughtful theological conversation without acknowledging the potential for earnest disagreement. A Muslim student and a Christian student are going to have different ideas about what is essential for holy living. Those different ideas are a natural consequence of real differences in faith traditions.

As we’ve mentioned before, we’re not interested in engaging in the Side A versus Side B debate. At the same time, it is to be expected that the way we live our lives is shaped by the way our Christian tradition understands marriage and sexuality. We have repeatedly stated that Christians should seek spiritual direction within their own Christian traditions when trying to discern their vocations in Christ. We have noticed that the people most willing to suggest that we are being inflammatory seem to be of the opinion that we have perched ourselves in a state of quiet judgment on their ways of life. To be completely fair and honest, we are aware that we (like every other person) can be rude and judgmental at times. For example, we find our capacities for empathy and compassion stretched when we encounter others who, upon our first judgment, seem shallow, immature, or intellectually dishonest. We are aware that these three things have unique power to press our buttons, and we are working to modify our first responses so that we are able to treat all people the way we would like to be treated. At the same time, pointing out possible fallacies within a person’s argument is not the same as calling a person intellectually dishonest or assuming the worst in that person’s intentions. Likewise, we would say that holding opinions (whatever those opinions may be) on marriage and sexuality is not the same as engaging in discrimination against people who hold the opposite opinions.

We’ve noticed that the Scriptural exhortation to “Judge not, lest you be judged” gets misapplied frequently in situations where one person becomes offended by another’s opinion on a moral matter. “I believe same-sex sexual activity is outside the boundaries God has set for us,” is taken to mean, “You’re in a sexually active same-sex relationship. Therefore, I am pointing my finger and telling you that you will not inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.” Or, “I believe there is no such thing as a biblical divorce,” is taken to mean, “You’re divorced and say you’re a Christian. I’m going to shame you for leaving your marriage and insist that you’re still married to your ex in the eyes of God.” Because the person on the receiving end of these statements hears them as judgments, the speaker’s intention gets lost during transmission. We think this is why so often the hearer will respond with, “Judge not” even if the speaker wasn’t judging in the first place.

Embedding statements within particular relationships can go a long way in recovering the speaker’s intention. The person saying “I believe there is no such thing as a biblical divorce” might be struggling in his or her marriage and trying to discern the best way forward. The person saying “I believe same-sex sexual activity is outside the boundaries God has set for us” might hold that belief while simultaneously being in the process of discerning how best to respond to an invitation to a gay loved one’s wedding. We try to remember that many people say the things that they say because of something going in their lives. We also try to remember that many people hold certain beliefs after years of earnest thought, prayer, and consideration. After all, that’s the way we’ve come to our own beliefs on any number of concerns.

In thinking about the line between offense and discrimination, we consider the following. Offense is in how the listener receives a message. Discrimination is based on a much broader set of beliefs, attitudes, and actions that render certain individuals and groups of people as being fundamentally different from the rest of humanity. For example, we are profoundly offended by the idea that the Eucharist is only symbol. We believe that the Eucharist is truly the Body and Blood of Christ; and as such, we know other people who are profoundly offended by our belief on the same topic. However, holding to our belief about Christ’s true presence in the Eucharist is not the same as discriminating against people who believe the Eucharist is symbolic. Someone could rightly call us out as being discriminatory if we argued that Christians who believed in a symbolic Eucharist should not be permitted to develop their Communion practices within their Christian traditions. Equally, someone could rightly call us out as being discriminatory if we believed these Christian traditions should have legal sanctions placed upon them. Discrimination requires a fundamental belief that the speaker is better than the listener. These fundamental beliefs are often manifested in attitudes and actions that seek to marginalize the listener.

To be sure, we acknowledge that there are some things said that are both offensive and discriminatory. Maintaining an active Twitter account means that we’ve seen some pretty unbelievable celebrity guffaws where it is absolutely appropriate for the celebrity to apologize for what he or she has said. However, we’d argue that in most cases, the reason why these celebrities should apologize is that they have said something discriminatory, not because they hold opinions that happen to be offensive to people with different beliefs. Discrimination is everyone’s problem. Offense, however, sometimes says more about the offended than the offender. Being offended by someone’s opinion can bring a great opportunity to ask oneself, “Why does this opinion push my buttons so much? Is this person actually being a jerk, or does this incident of offense reveal something about myself that I need to consider more prayerfully?” In our own lives, we’ve found the latter to be true more often than not.

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