People who wish to be offended will always find some occasion for taking offense.
Before there was internet we lived in a world where we learned the art of respectful debate. We would learn to argue both for and against our belief systems using logic and intellect.
Of course at the time I thought it dumb. As a young teenager the idea of respectful public discourse meant nothing to me… today however I look back and long for the days when we were taught how to disagree with each other. Back then we were taught how to be respectful with those with whom we disagreed - opposing ideas were rigorously debated but most of the time you could shake hands and be cordial at the end of it.
That was 1985… I could not fathom the world we live in now. Oh sure we had disagreements, we had bullying… and I had my share of that, that said though... we could disagree with those who held contrary views most of the time.
Today however we live in a world consumed by offense. This place called the internet is a cesspool of pious anger and resentment, the schools that once taught us to develop skills of debate and respect now have become echo chambers of offense and instead of teaching a rising generation to think logically or develop empathy for opposing view points, many schools have found ways to increase the intensity of division and anger with those who they deem unworthy of having an opinion.
I am reminded of an early Church father named Polycarp. Polycarp was a disciple of John. He was born in 55 AD and lead the church as a bishop in Smyrna until the time of his martyrdom in about 140 AD. He lived in an era of great persecution against any ideology that opposed the culturally accepted Roman pagan gods.
A Christian in this world stood out… the Church was marked by kindness, self sacrifice and generosity. The faithful Christians were the ones who adopted orphans, cared for the sick and the widows and fed the poor and yet their opinion was considered sacrilegious. The Romans called the Christian “atheists” because they did not believe in the Roman gods.
Polycarp never thought himself worthy of martyrdom… that was reserved for the true saints of God. He managed to avoid his fate until one day under duress someone gave him up. He was arrested and brought to a public gathering where the Roman elites and a crowd of people were gathered. The events that are recorded through various sources including this eyewitness account are the stuff that sends shivers down the spines of those who continue to follow Jesus today…
From an article at Christian Research Institute with mild edits for time we read this excerpt:
“When it became clear to Polycarp that he could not escape from his appointed hour, he waited patiently at home for the Roman guards to come and convey him to the arena. They were not evil men, these soldiers of Rome. In fact, when Polycarp requested of them an hour to pray, they graciously agreed. Instead, the venerable Polycarp prayed without ceasing for two hours. In his prayers, he held up all the believers that he knew and loved and all the churches to which he had ministered. The guards, one and all, were amazed by his prayers, struck with awe at the piety and fervor of this aged man.
Polycarp did not speak harshly to the guards or accuse them of following wrongful orders. To the contrary, he played the part of a perfect host, seeing to their needs and quenching their hunger and thirst with food and wine. Polycarp knew well that his enemy was neither the guards nor the officials who had sent them, but Satan, the prince of this world and the true foe of God and man.
... As he entered the stadium and scanned the faces of the austere officials and the bloodthirsty crowd, he looked to heaven and heard the voice of God speak to him like thunder: “Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man.”
When the Roman governor was informed of the identity of Polycarp, he pleaded with him to recant his faith and swear an oath by the goddess of fortune. Polycarp remained silent, and the governor pleaded with him a second time to renounce falsehood and say,
“Away with the atheists.”
At this, the brow of Polycarp darkened, and he swept his hand along the crowd of sneering pagans.
“Away with the atheists,”
he said calmly, defying all the thrones and principalities that stand in opposition to the One True God, His Only-Begotten Son, and His Holy Spirit. It was a glorious moment that brought tears to my eyes, though it provoked angry rumblings from the crowd.
Still, though a spirit of hatred and envy rose up from the spectators in the arena, the governor himself remained calm and continued to press Polycarp to recant. He was not an evil man, this governor; he was only doing his duty as he saw fit. Polycarp sensed this himself, and he spoke no harsh words to the governor.
In response to the governor’s repeated pleas that he renounce Christ, Polycarp said gently: For eighty-six years I have served my Lord, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?”
One last time, the governor implored Polycarp to take pity upon himself and his many years and swear by all the gods that he was not a follower of Christ. It was then that Polycarp straightened his back, lifted his chin, and spoke with a voice as clear as a bell:
“I declare to you that I am a Christian, and I say to you further that if you would learn more of Christ, you have but to name the day, and I will speak with you of His birth, His ministry, His death, and His resurrection.”
“Come,” said the governor, “turn now and tell all these things to the crowd.”
“I cannot do that, my lord, for my Master has instructed me not to cast pearls before swine. With you, a man of honor and gravity, I would happily discuss the sacred matters of God and His means of salvation, but I would bring disrepute upon such matters if I were to speak them in this place and before such stiff-necked people. Know this, lord governor, that my Lord has taught me and all believers to respect those who have been placed in authority over us. You have my respect, and I would gladly speak with you in private. But do not compel me to treat with contempt the things of God.”
“Recant, Polycarp,” the governor cried out in a loud voice so that all in the crowd could hear, “or you will be thrown to the lions.”
“Bring them on, if you must,” answered Polycarp with a hint of sadness in his voice, “but it is not possible that I should exchange a good way of thinking for a bad. Rather, it is altogether right and proper that I should abandon the way of evil for the way of righteousness.”
“Take care, Polycarp, or you shall be cast into the fire.”
“The fire that you threaten me with, lord governor, is short-lived and can do me no eternal harm. After a time, the fire you set will go out and be as if it never was. But I would have you know that there is another kind of fire, the fire of judgment; that fire, my lord, burns eternally and never goes out. That is the fire that awaits the souls of the ungodly. Let all of you take care. But come, we are wasting time. If there is something that you would do to me, let it be done now. I am ready.”
Then, Polycarp was taken by the arm and led to his death. And yet, even as he drew near the center of the arena, his face beamed with joy, courage, and grace. When the crowd saw his fearless smile and perceived with what calmness he faced his death, they became vicious and insisted that he be torn to pieces by the lions.
But that was not to be. God had already told Polycarp, by means of his dream of the flaming pillow, that his death would come to him by fire and that is what happened. Since the wild beast part of the program had already been concluded, the governor had no choice but to order Polycarp’s death by burning.
The guards then bound Polycarp to the stake and prepared to nail him to it as well. When Polycarp asked them why they should nail a man who was already bound, they replied that it was to prevent him from flinching when the fire began to consume his flesh.
“There is no need to nail me to the stake,” said Polycarp with assurance.
“The same God who gives me the strength to bear up under the fire will give me the strength not to flinch at the touch of the flames.”
Then, bound but not nailed to that grim wooden stake, he lifted his eyes to heaven and prayed.
“O mighty and holy God, Father of our Savior Jesus and Lord over the angels, you who created all things out of nothing and called them good, I thank you that you have counted me worthy to die this day for the sake of your Son and your gospel. Now let me share in the cup of your Messiah and so share as well in His glorious resurrection from the dead. May I be to you a sacrifice rich and acceptable and so rise in body and soul, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to dwell in paradise along with the other holy martyrs whom you counted worthy to share in the Passion of the Christ. All praise be to you, God on High, together with your Son and Holy Spirit, now and forever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.”
When Polycarp finished his prayer, the fire blazed and formed a wall around him. As I gazed on with wonder and awe, it seemed to me as if he was standing in a holy chamber or within the sail of a ship that has been furled by the wind. Or again, as I gazed more intently, he appeared to me as a loaf of bread baking in the oven or an ingot of gold being refined in a blazing furnace.
When the guards realized that the fire could neither burn nor touch the sacred flesh of Polycarp, one of them shoved a spear through the fire and pierced the body of Polycarp. Immediately, what looked like a dove flew upward followed by a rush of blood that was so great it put out the flames.
At this, we made to rush forward and save the body of Polycarp that we might give it a Christian burial; but, so great was the jealousy and envy of the crowd, and of the devil that possessed them, that they would not let us take the body until it had been burned completely."
As I read this story… I think of the discourse of Christian faith today… I think of some who call themselves “Christ led” and yet use the very same tactics used by their opponents. Opposite of this I think of the chants of the crowd shouting to drown Polycarp out… “Away with the atheists”… that “shouting down” of those who did not hold acceptable beliefs. One can almost see the crowd in a modern context.
This is not the first time in human history where offense rules culture. Perhaps it may be the last??
Whatever the case… today again the follower of Christ must choose to forgive, they must learn how to lay their offense at the feet of the cross.
We do not need, nor is it profitable to our faith to choose to live in offense of what an unbelieving and increasingly hostile world is going to say or shout about the Cross of Christ they find so offensive.
Our calling remains the same… to be salt and light. To stand against injustice while continuing to have empathy even for those who oppose our faith.
We should learn not to fear the one who can kill our body, our reputation, our job… or take away our home… however instead we can learn to live in awe and respect for the one who was the beginning and the end… who spoke the world into existence and in the middle of history itself let himself be crucified on the offensive cross to redeem both us as well as those who hurl insults at us.
In luke we read these words from Christ:
““I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do.”
When someone posts something online that brings offense… it is mere words. We need not react.
Similarly, when we post something that unintentionally brings offence to someone else… and they challenge and mock us for our comment… we need not react or shout about our right to our own opinion. We already have that right, it is not given by men but by God.
We can see in history that offense and cancel culture has reared its ugly head many times… and this will most certainly continue. In those first few centuries of the Christian church under constant threat of cancellation, or death… the Christian faith spread like wildfire because while the culture was consumed with gaslighting, cancellation and cultural genocide the believers were busy doing the work of helping the helpless. They were marked by grace and kindness!!
Our rightness is not marked by accolades or a lack of opposition. It is marked by selflessness in a world of narcissism and selfishness. If we adopt the same constant offense of whatever we disagree with we will also grow comfortable in our cultures narcissism.
This does not say we cannot choose to support businesses that support those things we value... it simply means that we cannot adopt the anger, the vitriol, the disdain or the crushing of their right to an opinion. We can simply continue on and not live in the offense.
The signs of the True Church are great grace and consistent testimony as we read in Acts 4:
“And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.”
Then of course we read Jesus own words about offense from culture in John 15
“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.
If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.
Jeff Myers of Summit Ministries and Author of the book “Truth Changes Everything” says this:
“Love, Peace and Happiness do not appear through magic… they arise… as we breathe life into our circumstances through seeking, growing and maturing.”