This week protests broke out all over Pakistan because of the Supreme Court’s decision to free a young Christian woman who has spent eight years on death row for the crime of blasphemy. She stood accused of having insulted the Prophet Muhammed on what, from this distance, looks like very thin evidence. Asia Bibi is the first woman to be sentenced to death in Pakistan for blasphemy.
Her accusers and others who joined them were offended by her behaviour. And they would say that they were offended on behalf of the prophet. Do we have a right not to be offended? If someone said in my hearing that Jesus was a paedophile or a charlatan, do I, as a Christian, have a right to be offended? And to give public expression to my offended self?
These are headline cases. They are different from what we might experience in our everyday lives. Are we quick to take offence? Too sensitive? It is easy to claim that we are justified in taking offence when someone trespasses on to some ground that we personally hold to be precious. But it is also easy to take offence too soon. And it is easy to over-react when, in our judgement, some line has been crossed.
Just days before a right-wing gunman had entered a synagogue in a Pittsburgh suburb and shot dead eleven worshippers just because he had taken offence at their view of the world, and his idea that Jews were somehow taking over America. Anti-semitism is alive and well in our own country as well. There are multitudes of websites where people are spilling their hatred towards an infinite number of targets.
It is easy for religious people to take offence quickly because they are prone to think they are right about things. But it is not just religious people. All kinds of people take offence when others trample on their dreams. You hear it all the time in casual conversation.
Christians have always quoted Jesus’ advice about turning ‘the other cheek’. Many have suggested Christians should not take offence. Sometimes that advice may justify wimpish behaviour. At other times, ‘holding one’s peace’ or not retaliating can defuse potentially violent situations.
There is a narrow line here. On the one hand, there are clearly times when we take offence too easily. On the other there is standing up for what you believe to be right. For me, an important consideration is whether I can find the language and the tone of voice to express my appropriate opposition to something without hurting anyone or resorting to aggressive action.
But I find that perhaps the key question in discerning whether it is appropriate to ‘take offence’ or not is to question where my personal interests lie. Who or what am I really defending here? And if I don’t know, it never hurts to ask someone trustworthy how they see my action. I’ve discovered that a bit of honesty with myself goes a long way in helping me to be appropriately honest with other people.