Causing offense

March 19, 2004 | 21 comments
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Kristine raised the issue of whether and how “critical belief,” in other words belief that is both believing and independently thoughtful about various issues in the Church, is possible. (I hope she’ll agree that I’ve more or less captured her question.) For me that raises another (broader?) question: what bounds do my relations with others put on my behaviors, including criticism? Since I doubt that the connection between the two is obvious to anyone but me, let me explain:

In 1 Corinthians 8 Paul addresses the question of how we should use our freedom and knowledge. Pagan cities made the meat offered in pagan sacrifices available for public consumption. Observant Jews did not eat that meat because it had been offered to idols, but most other people did, taking advantage of a free source of an expensive commodity. The question the Corinthians apparently asked Paul was, “Can we eat that meat?”

Paul’s answer is interesting:

(1) We know that an idol is nothing, so we know that there can be nothing wrong with eating meat offered to an idol.

(2) However, there are those who do not share our knowledge, in other words, who do not understand that offering the meat to something that is no god has not affected the meat in anyway. These people think that eating that meat defiles them.

(3) If such a person sees me eating the meat offered to idols, he will be encouraged to do that which defiles him (because he thinks it does?he believes he is breaking a commandment, so he is defiled).

(4) If the exercise of my knowledge, which really is knowledge and not just opinion, causes another to sin, then I sin against that person, and if I sin against him, then I sin against Christ.

(5) So, “if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend” (2 Corinthians 8:13).

The question isn’t whether I am right, but what effect my behavior (whether questioning or eating meat) will have on others.

When I first understood this chapter, it moved me deeply. I was a student at the time, embroiled in campus and other politics, opposing the war in Vietnam, tired of BYU’s dress code, arguing about which movies could be shown on campus, and so on from the sublime to the ridiculous. However, all of a sudden it wasn’t enough to be right. As the first verse of the chapter says, “knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth [builds up].” Now I had to ask whether my acts would build up the Church and, particularly, those weaker than I.

Though 2 Corinthians 8 was an important point in my intellectual and spiritual development, part of the reason it was important was that it made most things more difficult rather than less. It was easy to decide that while living in Austria I wouldn’t have a Coke because none of the members in that area did and I ought not to offend. But it wasn’t easy to decide what to do about the war and other matters on which a more public stance seemed necessary. Though I was convinced that asking what effect my acts might have on the faith of others was crucial, I wasn’t sure how to answer that question. And couldn’t I, by parity of reasoning, argue that it would be equally wrong to make my brother angry by exercising my knowledge? But if I made that argument, how could I ever take a position contrary to that of the majority on a highly-charged issue? However, if I never took a position that might make another angry and never did anything that might cause someone who is weak to stumble, then wouldn’t I merely be insisting on maintaining the status quo?

I continue to think that Paul’s argument is an important guide to how I should live my life, I still believe that critical thinking is necessary to a faithful life (or at least to my life, though probably not necessary to everyone), and I still don’t have an answer to my question.

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21 Responses to Causing offense

  1. Grasshopper on March 19, 2004 at 1:54 am

    And in addition to Jim’s questions, can we not also ask whether it would be equally wrong *not* to exercise our knowledge because of the potential negative effect our lack of taking that stance might have? It seems there may be as much risk in one course of (in)action as in another. How are we to judge which course of action is likely to have more positive effects when we are so limited in our understanding of the effects our actions have? And do short-term effects and long-term effects possibly stand in tension to each other?

    Is it even possible not to do anything that might cause someone who is weak to stumble?

  2. Clark Goble on March 19, 2004 at 3:50 am

    I suppose the obvious corollary to “Grasshopper’s” point is to ask when is there someone weak around who may stumble? i.e. how do we know what our audience is?

  3. Thom on March 19, 2004 at 9:20 am

    The answer to both questions is two words: Personal Revelation.

    The Lord has given us the means whereby we may judge all things. We must be very careful that our desire to be bright, philosophical thinkers does not lead us away from using the tools of personal revelation to better understand the mind and will of God in the issues that are important to us.

  4. Thom on March 19, 2004 at 9:23 am

    By the way Professor, excellent post. Your former student salutes you.

  5. Bob Caswell on March 19, 2004 at 11:15 am

    I suppose the only problem I have with this is the underlying assumption that every time we do something without explanation, there are thousands of eyes upon us ready to misinterpret our example to practice their devil worship.

    So the obvious fix is to live a life that A) either requires no explanation or B) explain things all the time. I tend to take option B. But then guess what happens? I see many people taking any explanation I give and interpreting it as a justification for living A) strangely (if they are not Mormon) or B) “on the edge” (if they are Mormon). After all, the more you explain, the more it must be an issue where you are wrong… At least, that’s logic easily used by some.

    I’m speaking very generally here… But my point is that I feel like you can’t win. It’s a catch-22.

  6. cooper on March 19, 2004 at 11:17 am

    As always excellent post Jim. If you put Paul’s words in the context of the time, the people were all about “thinking”. They loved new ideas and thoughts and enjoyed the thought process. Paul’s answer to them really underscored the need for “critical” thinking and then action on the part of the thinker. It is a good example for us. Sometimes I find myself in reactionary mode when, if I stepped back and thought about the situation, my response could actually benefit all instead of a few.

    In steps Thom. His comment is very important. Just as critical thinking is necessary, so is critical listening. The two go hand in hand. If we are in tune with the spirit, we will be guided and have the knowledge to benefit ourselves and others. We have been admonished recently to seek the guidance of the Holy Ghost, continually. As we approach situations as Paul describes armed with the Holy Ghost the possible outcome is available to us to make the path better for all.

  7. Chris Goble on March 19, 2004 at 1:31 pm

    This is a tough topic. I usually lean towards Bob’s approach of explaining my motivations when possible. In terms of Grasshopper’s question “Is it even possible not to do anything that might cause someone who is weak to stumble?” Isn’t this mainly a problem for people who have a tendency to always follow others. There are always some people who will rationalize their behaviour with examples they have seen. Personally I don’t worry too much about these individuals. Dealing with them takes too much of my limited time and effort. However, followers, are to my mind, the most susceptible to our “personalized” ethics. So perhaps if we get away from theory to pragmatics, doesn’t the relevant question become, how do we make it so that others put their views above our examples?

    Just some rhetorical questions
    1. Is it natural to elevate people who have customized things?
    2. Do we subconsciously portray our personalized ethics as being more righteous than the status quo?
    3. Do we defend ourselves when accused of being wrong (setting ourselves up for a light) or live with the stigma of being perceived as wrong?
    4. If one thinks progression occurs by following new examples, isn’t it natural to follow those that move outside the status quo?
    5. Does always explaining our personal motivations for customized ethics mean we are setting others up for something for which that they may not be ready?
    6. Should motivations and exceptions only be shared in a peer group that is able to understand the inherit background of the issues?
    7. Are we happy when others follow our example, or disappointed because they might be building on a foundation of sand instead of stone?

    An interesting corollary to cooper’s comments. Is the spirit there to tell people what not to do, or there to tell them what to do. I know I am much better at following the positive than recognizing the negative. Does our stance on this issue affect the number of options we want people to choose from?

  8. Bob Caswell on March 19, 2004 at 1:56 pm

    Chris (All),

    Jim’s well thought out post and your clever rhetorical questions have made me want to poach your discussion for use over at my own blog.

    Thanks.

  9. Brent on March 19, 2004 at 3:21 pm

    It seems to me that Paul’s admonition really is a lesson in avoiding the appearance of evil, which is seems to be the type of offense he was concerned about. Obviously to Jew and Christian, worshiping idols was/is prohibited. Paul identifies the eating of meat sacrificed to idols as not being prohibited to the extent such eating is not in fact worshiping idols, because there is but one God. However, what might be the message to observers if we eat meat sacrificed to idols? Obviously that we worship such idols. Therefore, the better policy is not to eat such meat. Note Paul wasn’t talking merely about meat prepared by unbelievers, but rather specifically about the “eating of those things that are offered in sacrifice unto idols.”

    The practical application of this teaching seems rather straight forward. We should avoid doing, saying, watching, reading, etc. those things that, even if not actually evil, at least give the appearance of evil. We should properly apply our knowledge for edifying rather than for tearing down.

    Sometimes, however, we cannot avoid offending some people. For instance, we learn that the “guilty take the truth to be hard” and experience shows that sometimes people are overly sensitive. Nonetheless our goal should be to edify rather than tear down. As an example, President Hinckley and other church leaders have asked that we stand up for traditional marriage. To some, that type of statement or sentiment itself constitutes hate speech (i.e. causes offense). President Hinckely has indicated that without apologizing for our position, we can disagree without being disagreeable. Other examples abound.

    Again, it seems the lesson we should take away from Paul about not offending has to do with avoiding the appearance of evil and spreading the gospel message. We can avoid trivial things like eating meat sacrificed to idols because the appearance that eating such meat might give, even if the act of eating itself is not wrong, in order to spread the gospel message. But we would not avoid living the word of wisdom because our boss might be offended by our not accepting a glass of wine. We have to identify our actions, then see how they fit within the gospel standards, and then whether such actions might act as a stumbling block because of the appearance that such actions give.

  10. Adam Greenwood on March 19, 2004 at 4:06 pm

    Brent’s right that sacrificed meat is really an easy case–there’s no principle sacrificed in not eating the meat, so nothing is really lost. Jim F.’s brought up the harder cases where doing a right thing may influence someone else to do a wrong thing. It’s no solution to try and get other people to ignore our example and seek their own lonely principled path. That solution is no solution, or rather is a self-contradictory one. If the principles we follow are not first and foremost about binding ties to others, giving and taking example being one such, than I hardly know what we are about. But if that is no solution then there is probably no solution at all. We must muddle through as best we can, try hard for revelation, and comfort ourselves with the knowledge that the atonement extends even to unintended consequences and lost opportunities. Our King gives out medals for heroism to soldiers in both winning and losing battles.

  11. Nate W. on March 19, 2004 at 5:19 pm

    Just another thought, and I don’t mean to intrude, but Acts 10 talks about Peter lodging (and we may assume eating) with a gentile, breaking the law of kosher. Now this may be different because well, Peter’s the prophet, but when does one choose to not offend and when does one just call it silly and refuse to be bound by foolish traditions?

  12. Taylor on March 19, 2004 at 5:31 pm

    If I may add something to this…I have often looked to Paul as an example for intellectual ethics in the same way that Jim has, but I have also often felt that there was something elitist about identifying myself with the “strong”. In 1 Cor Paul isn’t really a fan of the “strong”, though on this point he is sympathetic to their position. The other ethical problem that I see with this is that if you beleive something to be right, don’t you have an obligation to educate others, not to let them be happy in thier ignorance, especially if the issue involves something like social justice?

  13. Brent on March 19, 2004 at 5:58 pm

    I think we need to identify the particular activity and then evaluate its appropriateness and/or necessity through a gospel filter. There are myriad types of activities that we can engage in, some of which approximate the type of activity Paul discusses in Corinthians, some of which do not.

    Jim’s example of whether it was proper to protest the Vietnam war because it might offend could be viewed in a couple of different ways. For instance, it would like have been proper to avoid protesting the Vietnam war with pot-smoking anarchists because one might interpret the not-inherently-evil act of protesting war with disobeying the Word of Wisdom and supporting lawlessness. However, writing one’s Congressman, writing an editorial or taking other similar steps to protest the war, even publically would not raise the same problems posed by Paul. Some may be offended, but if we conduct ourselves appropriately, then the problem of taking offense might be the offended party’s problem.

    Other situations might require that we give offense. I gave the example of declining an invitation to drink. Another example, and a personal one at that, is giving testimony in support of a Defense of Marriage Act. I know I offended some people in giving such testimony, but I felt (and still feel) that such testimony was absolutely necessary, in that we have been asked to stand up for marriage and family.

    Where I think this become dicey is when what we personally believe to be true (but which might not actually be true) becomes our touchstone for action. I don’t know why issues such as “social justice” merit any special consideration, partly because I do not even really understand what “social justice” is. If it represents the issues promulgated by groups like Mormons For Social Justice, then I have problems with being “educated” about such a concept. And that is where some of these things get complicated. But, if we go back to Paul’s example, I think we get some guidance. We should ask ourselves whether what we are doing or saying or promoting (i.e. whether particular issues like “social justice” with its particular concepts) could cause some to stumble because of the appearance of evil. If not, we should be fine. If so, then maybe we should stop.

    Now, keep in mind we are also instructed to have charity, a characteristic of which is to not be easily offended. Hopefully, this concept will take greater root in the world.

  14. Renee on March 19, 2004 at 6:21 pm

    Our behavior absolutely has an effect on the world around us. The collective behavior sets the social mores that make or break societies.

    It really doesn’t matter if “everyone else is doing it” or not, if we enjoin ourselves to that behavior, we are contributing to someone else’s justification that “everyone else is doing it”.

    We really spend WAY to much time thinking about ourselves and our indulgent wants (not needs) versus the collective good of all.

  15. Chris Goble on March 19, 2004 at 7:17 pm

    Adam It’s no solution to try and get other people to ignore our example and seek their own lonely principled path

    I would agree with this statement, yet as long as people can observe us, we are setting an example. I think what I was getting at wasn’t to try and avoid this, but rather be aware of how our examples are interpreted. For instance, in Acts 15, it seems like the cause for the whole kerfuffle was someone speaking out of turn (Acts 15:24) and being interpreted as an authority. This is the sense in which I feel we have to watch the way we present our actions to others. If our decisions are being presented as relatively infallible we may cause others to follow us instead of Christ. I think this is part of the reason for 1 Cor 8:2 “And if any man think that he knoweth any thing, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know,”

    From this event, I draw the conclusion that if you present yourself as correct, people will try and follow you. This is damaging because of how uncertain our knowledge is. There are relatively few “necessary” things (see acts 15:28). Leading others beyond these becomes less and less certain. Ironically it is in this uncertainty that followers tend to rely most on their leader. This can either be Christ and his representatives, or us exporting our example.

    I also find it interesting that the action Paul was talking about was related to the direct worship of another God. Would he have given the same council if wasn’t about the most important commandment (Matt 22:38)

  16. Chris Goble on March 19, 2004 at 7:57 pm

    Renee, you raise a really good point. I guess it comes down to what is a “necessary” level for social mores. I think these levels are rather dynamic, so setting an arbitrary level is rather pointless. Outside of extremes, I think individual righteousness is rather independent of these levels. I know Noah, 4th Nephi, Enoch etc seem to contradict this, but lets look at things from a different perspective. If judgment is based on our use of what we are given (including our environment) doesn’t this mean small changes in societal norms have relatively little effect on our own righteousness? Righteousness in these terms is more based on faith in Christ than existing within a society with high behavioral ground levels. In other words it is not the actions themselves that are such a problem, but how they relate to faith in Christ. Again I would note that Paul’s discussion revolves around worshipping another God, not breaking one of the other 9 commandments.

  17. Grasshopper on March 20, 2004 at 12:29 am

    Chris Goble wrote:

    “From this event, I draw the conclusion that if you present yourself as correct, people will try and follow you. This is damaging because of how uncertain our knowledge is. There are relatively few “necessary” things (see acts 15:28). Leading others beyond these becomes less and less certain. Ironically it is in this uncertainty that followers tend to rely most on their leader. This can either be Christ and his representatives, or us exporting our example.”

    Wait a second! Aren’t we *supposed* to be Christ’s representatives? Haven’t we taken his name upon us? Aren’t we supposed to be the city on the hill, the light that is not hid under a bushel, the salt of the earth? Agreed, we should not seek our own glory, but let’s not sell ourselves short.

    But I do agree that in all our examples, we should be signs pointing to God and not to ourselves (which makes me quite uncomfortable with what I see as undue emphasis in the Church on “follow the prophet”).

  18. Chris Goble on March 20, 2004 at 12:48 am

    When we talk about the basic tenets of the gospel I definitely agree. But why are there so many different Christian religions? Obviously something tends to go wrong when people try and follow the spirit without the help of the restoration. Even with in the church there is a relative wide range of what is considered right and wrong. Why? If one is setting themselves up as the light on the hill, the chances of being in error increase the further away one gets from the basics. I think, as you said, we are Christ’s representatives to show that he is the way, the light & the truth. I don’t think it is necessarily wrong to encourage others to try some of what has worked for us, however I do think we need to be open to the consequences of that action. While we may be trying to help, we need to at least be cognizant of what can go wrong.

    As for your comments on undue emphasis on the prophet, do you feel people are trying to make the prophet’s statements too legalistic? How do you emphasize the importance of a leader without people naturally trying to do this?

  19. Bob Caswell on March 20, 2004 at 2:49 am

    But Grasshopper, you have to admit that the primary song “Follow the Prophet” is one of the best, if not the best.

    That song alone is enough for me to keep the emphasis on “follow the prophet”. :-)

  20. Grasshopper on March 20, 2004 at 3:27 am

    My favorite (nonexistent) verse:

    Jonah was a prophet, swallowed by a whale.
    When he was on board, the ship just couldn’t sail.
    So they tossed him over, next thing that he knew,
    Nineveh repented, Jonah had to, too.

    Swallow the prophet, swallow the prophet, swallow the prophet, won’t get away;
    Swallow the prophet, swallow the prophet, swallow the prophet; he’ll find the way.

    *ducks lightning bolt*

  21. Jim F. on March 21, 2004 at 7:55 pm

    I’ve enjoyed reading these comments and they’ve helped me think about the issue for myself. But I have only one thing to add, a response to Taylor: I think Taylor is right that we ought to be wary of identifying ourselves with the strong. In fact, I think that we probably ought to read Paul’s counsel with a bit of irony: “you who think your knowledge makes you superior, . . . .”