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Offense is inevitable

But Christians shouldn’t forget the person behind the argument

Counterprotesters rally at the “1 Million March 4 Children” in Vancouver, British Columbia, on Sept. 20. Associated Press/Photo by Ethan Cairns/The Canadian Press

Offense is inevitable
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There is little doubt that we live in an age where offense—both the giving and the taking thereof—is cheap. The disembodied, frictionless world of the internet allows for a routine level of personal vituperation that would rarely, if ever, occur if the antagonists were in the same room. And this has helped foster a world where disagreement is now frequently framed in moral terms. The persons with whom we disagree are not simply misguided or wrong. They are morally defective in some way and to be treated as such.

That the language of “safety” and “feeling safe” is now routinely applied to being exposed to ideas that one does not like while in physical proximity to the person speaking is surely connected to this. There is, of course, typically no real physical danger involved in such encounters. It’s all in the mind. But then that’s the point. In a world where bodies are rarely involved, the mind and its feelings have increasingly become the primary focus of identity.

Over at First Things, Mark Bauerlein recently pointed out that, when it comes to the new politics of identity, it is going to be impossible for Christians to avoid offending people. It is hard to argue with that. As the terms of good citizenship in the earthly city become increasingly antithetical to the terms of membership in the church, collisions are inevitable.

While the old secular regime embodied the same basic moral principles as Christianity, particularly in the realm of sexual ethics, the new regime has defined itself largely in conscious opposition to this. Sexual ethics are now not preoccupied so much with behavior, with what acts are intrinsically legitimate and which illegitimate. Rather, they focus on identity, with sexual desire and ‘felt’ gender defining who we are, followed by the demand that all, without exception, acknowledge the legitimacy of that. In such a context, Christians cannot ultimately bow the knee.

Yet we need to be careful here. It is one thing to point out that offense is inevitable. But that can swiftly become not so much descriptive of how things are going to be as prescriptive for how Christians can behave. And this temptation is one we must resist for several reasons.

We need to take care that our desire to do good at a policy level is not expressed in such a way that we are left incapable of compassion, love, and care for the real person who is in the grip of the abstract ideology.

First, we must distinguish between ideological movements and individuals. Take transgenderism, for example. We need to oppose the efforts to legislate the LGBT agenda for obvious reasons. We need to protect children from having their bodies permanently mutilated. We need to protect women’s spaces to keep them truly, not merely psychologically, safe. Bathrooms, locker rooms, and prisons need to be sex-segregated. But we also need to remember that somebody with gender dysphoria is a person made in God’s image.

We need to take care that our desire to do good at a policy level is not expressed in such a way that we are left incapable of compassion, love, and care for the real person who is in the grip of the abstract ideology. These persons need the gospel and we have an obligation to speak it to them, an obligation that is only made more difficult if we treat them as ideological objects instead of real persons. And that is a real temptation in a highly polarized political environment where arguments are typically prosecuted online where people are reduced to their tweets, their bylines, and their opinions.

Second, even as we engage the ideologues, we need to make sure that any offense caused is the offense of the cross. Our words and actions need to bring honor to Christ and his cause. Yes, we want to win. But Christians are people of the Book and people of the cross. Not all strategies are legitimate for us. That, of course, means that we are, humanly speaking, at a permanent disadvantage. Others can take short cuts. Others can engage in online thuggery and abuse. Others can indeed engage in much worse, if they so choose. We cannot respond in kind.

Most of all, we cannot respond in kind and then gloss our behavior with a specious Christian idiom. To do that is to render the good news of the gospel, and the name of the God himself, a mockery before the world, a far more heinous sin than anything in which our opponents are currently engaged.

Carl R. Trueman

Carl R. Trueman taught on the faculties of the Universities of Nottingham and Aberdeen before moving to the United States in 2001 to teach at Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. In 2017-18 he was the William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University.  Since 2018, he has served as a professor at Grove City College. He is also a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributing editor at First Things. Trueman’s latest book is the bestselling The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. He is married with two adult children and is ordained in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

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