The United States of the Offended

offendedAir Force chaplain Lt. Col. Kenneth Reyes recently caused quite a kerfuffle for writing about faith on his website, titled ‘Chaplain’s Corner.’   Lt. Col. Reyes is assigned to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.  His article told the story of the phrase, ‘There are no atheists in fox-holes,’ a paraphrase of an older statement that dated to WWII and which was re-stated by President Eisenhower in 1954.

Shortly after the piece was published, numerous atheists railed against the chaplain and contacted the powers that be, complaining about how offended they were.  The chaplain was accused of being bigoted, of writing an ‘anti-secular diatribe,’ and engaging in ‘faith-based hate,’ by members of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.

Thanks to swift, decisive and spineless action by Col. Brian Duffy, Lt. Col. Reyes’ CO, the article was taken down and due apologies made as secular Air Force members asked for the chaplain to be subject to further punishment.  (It is not clear at this time if crucifixion is on the table, or if a good sound lashing will be sufficient to make the Christian watch his mouth.)

It doesn’t really matter how many individuals were not offended; that would be the denominator. What matters is that the smaller numerator of the offended won the day. And by now, we all know that there is no earthly power like offense.  A chaplain, whose responsibility is the spiritual welfare of the troops in his unit, should apparently know better than to openly discuss matters of the spirit.

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And yet, what happens if offense flows the other way? I mean, we can drill this down pretty deep.  What about all of the people who were offended by the removal of the post?  What about those who were, we might say, offended by the offended?  When will they rise up and rattle their sabers so to speak?  There’s no end to the madness, really, when our highest goal is to be spared from offense or offending.

Of course, the idea of offense isn’t limited to the military and it certainly isn’t limited to letters of apology.  Just ask Baronelle Stutzman, owner of Arlene’s Flowers in Richland, Washington. She is facing a Washington State consumer protection lawsuit and a lawsuit from the ACLU for refusing to provide flowers for a same-sex marriage.  She said that she has no problem with homosexual individuals but disagrees with same-sex marriage on religious grounds.  We could say on some level that she is offended by the idea of same-sex marriage, and on another that both state and ACLU are offended that she dare to disagree.

The thing is, I don’t even want to address the idea of atheism here.  I have treasured friends who are atheist and/or agnostic.  But they are not offended by my faith, nor am I offended by their secularism.  And I don’t even intend to unpack the same-sex marriage issue either.  This may well become the law of the land.  I have known and continue to know, and care for, wonderful members of the lesbian and gay community.

My point here is the culture of offense and the tyranny of ideas.  I would never complain about an atheist website, or ask that an atheist column be taken down because it offended me.  In fact, I don’t know any Christians who would!  (Despite popular caricatures to the contrary.)  And if someone is LGBT, I don’t have any desire to oppress or harm them.  Furthermore, if a gay couple owned a flower-shop and a right-wing conservative sued them for failing to provide flowers to a traditional marriage rally, I would cry foul!

What’s missing from all of this mess is the marketplace of ideas.  The explosive evolution of thought in many directions, both to new ideas and treasured traditional paradigms. The diversity of opinion that can still make American great.  The unity that makes Americans like a family, which has arguments but still stands for one another even in disagreement.

If we accept offense, or the lack of offense, as the standard for all discourse and dialogue, then our intellectual development as a nation is dead.  And if we bully and sue in an attempt to force others to accept our opinions, then we are all petty dictators of thought.

Sadly, that’s no way to win the hearts and minds of your detractors.  But then again, if you can crush them with rules, laws and censure, who cares about their hearts and minds?


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