In a society where people seem so easily offended, there is no surprise that few call themselves Christians. Christianity is an offensive faith, there is no way around it.
Unfortunately, for too many, it has become offensive for the wrong reasons.
Several weeks ago, controversy surrounding a seasonal red Starbuck’s cup flooded social media with tirades against the “removal” of Christmas from the public sphere. Christians were ready to offend others and throw political correctness to the wind if there was so much as a threat to “take Christ out of Christmas.”
The Starbucks controversy, however, was no controversy at all. Yet, the confusion revealed the power of Christian imagination and the swiftness to which Christians will play victim in an increasingly secular society.
The “red cup” controversy also revealed the great sensitivity that Christians feel towards notions of religious liberty. We no longer fight legal battles over prayer in schools or the right for clergy to claim housing deductions on taxes, but over whether Christians should be forced to serve pizzas to same-sex couples or share church campuses with organizations that refuse to discriminate according to sexual orientation.
That this comes off as offensive rather than noble is not besides the point; it is the point. It’s a “if we can’t beat them, we’ll offend them” type of campaign in the name of Christ that has become none other than a religious badge of honor.
Many Christians find biblical support for this attitude towards secular society in a handful of New Testament scriptures, all too often taken out of context.
It was St. Paul, after all, who claimed that we are not to please people but serve God, all the while claiming that persecution results from the offensive cross of Christ (Galatians 1:10; 5:11). In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian churches, he writes that the message of the Gospel and the cross is but “foolishness to those who are perishing” (1:18).
Why would Christians not use the language of persecution and offense when describing these various interactions with a more inclusive, secular society?
A closer reading at the Bible, however, paints a very different picture when it comes to Christian persecution. St. Paul did not have the world in mind when he wrote about the “offense of the cross,” but the very religious leadership who excluded people based on ethnic and ideological differences.
Later, when St. Paul carried this message into the gentile church, he argued that people did not have to become Jewish in order to believe in Christ and be saved. Those offended by this radical message of liberation and inclusion were not pagans in Roman society, but Jewish Christians who placed doctrine and tradition over the people whom God had called them to bless.
This was a radical, offensive gospel precisely because it valued inclusion, avoided discrimination and hate-speech, and served all people regardless of their belief.
Paul was not a rogue in this mission. He learned it from Jesus, who offended priests and Pharisees alike by eating with tax collectors and sinners, welcoming children, touching lepers and talking to women, and telling parables that shocked the imagination rather than affirmed the status quo.
Both Christ and Paul served outsiders and affirmed each person as a child of God. Theirs was a mission to build up and embrace rather than demonize and exclude, and in every instance they regarded their lives as something to lose rather than something to defend, sustain, or bolster–even at the expense of welcoming strangers into their lives and sacred spaces.
In a world in which people of faith are beheaded and massacred by radical extremists, some of the things that concern us within our homeland should not qualify as persecution. Instead, we should be so adamant in our love for others–rather than a swiftness to offend others–that the only people we turn away are the very ones who have no room in their hearts for people different than they.