Offense and Diversity
I have a confession to make. I am a CBC Radio listener. Because I live in Winnipeg and work in Steinbach, I spend about 2 hours a day in my car. I carpool with three other employees of South Eastman Health so my car is full. CBC gives us the morning and afternoon news and it saves us from wondering if my choice in music is bugging one of the others in the car. Besides, over the years I have come to enjoy CBC Radio. The vast majority of the time I take umbrage with the opinions of many of the CBC hosts. I am after all a “closet” American, born and raised in Pennsylvania with just a tinge of “red” on my neck underneath my shirt collar.
I am also an interfaith chaplain but of the conservative evangelical Christian (Baptist) stripe. Please don’t hold that against me, although if you did, I would understand, Baptists can be a strange bunch at times. On Wednesday morning, March 21, as we drove to Steinbach, listening to CBC Radio, Marcy Markusa interviewed Irshad Manji, a Muslim author. The interview was my first exposure to her, but I liked what she said. What I liked was the clarity of her thought, her ability to crisply make distinctions that most of us find difficult to make. She is a compelling speaker. Although she is Muslim and I am Christian, I have long ago stopped closing my mind to others just because of our differences. We can learn so much from people that are unlike ourselves.
There was one statement she made during the interview that really caught my attention. Irshad Manji said, “Offence is the price of authentic diversity.” My, what a refreshing observation! The interfaith world of chaplaincy in which I work has become afraid of offending anyone, yet at the same time it advocates for the respect of diversity. Somehow in the interfaith community “offence” and “respect for diversity” are incompatible? But are they?
I don’t think so. I believe it is altogether possible to have the deepest respect for the beliefs of another person and at the same time hold beliefs myself that are offensive to that person and visa versa. The word offence is defined as “the act of causing anger, resentment, displeasure, or affront.” When it comes to our beliefs, if we embrace any tradition passionately, that will offend others – even if no offence is intended.
There is a difference between holding beliefs that may be offensive to another and acting in a disrespectful and offensive manner towards another. One is an intellectual matter, the other a personal matter. If we do not accept this, what we are actually advocating for is a smearing and a blurring of the real differences that exist between the diverse spiritualities and cultures that exist in our nation and world. Okay, maybe an illustration is necessary.
Illustrations are dangerous though, because the offense doesn’t come in the generalities, but in the specifics. So let’s start with a pretty tame example. I personally believe to the very core of my being that people are basically depraved, corrupt, sinful, bent in a direction opposed to God. I believe this about myself and about everyone else in the world. I believe this because I believe the Bible is to be interpreted literally taking into account the grammatical, historical and cultural context in which it was originally written. When the Apostle Paul quotes Israel’s second king, David, who wrote “There is no one righteous, not even one, there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God….” I believe this and the many other statements in the Bible that make this same assertion. However many believe just the opposite, that people are basically good. Now if this basic plank of our diverse beliefs is examined there is likely to be offence. After all, if you believed that you were personally a basically good person and I believe that you, like myself and everyone else are basically corrupt, sinful, and depraved, bent away from God – that’s is offensive. But if Irshad Manji is right, “Offence is the price of authentic diversity.”
Here’s another illustration. A person committed to atheism fervently believes that no such being as God exists: not in any fashion or form, not in any conception. “God” in the beliefs of an atheist is a figment of the imaginations of deluded people. Frankly, that is offensive to me. It would be like some one walking up to me and telling me that my wife is a figment of my imagination, a delusional construct that I use to help me limp through life.
On the other hand, I personally believe that atheists are fools. I do not base this belief on my own private opinion, but on what I believe to be the very words of God himself which say, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’.” (Psalm 14:1). Now tell me, isn’t this offence the price we must be willing to pay to embrace authentic diversity?
Take the statement out of the realm of spirituality that all too often is such a highly charged arena. Politically, if we seek to be honest about our political agendas, the price that we will have to be satisfied to pay is that some will be offended with us. Have you ever listened to our Prime Minister say something and what he says offended you? “Offence is the price of authentic diversity.” One of our greatest complaints against our politicians is that they lack integrity, that they are inauthentic, that they “waffle” too much, saying one thing to one crowd and another thing to another crowd always seeking to have public opinion flowing in their direction. Any politician who seeks to have integrity, to be a person of his/her word who takes a stands and lives or dies politically by that stand will say, “Offence is the price of authentic diversity.”
I have been offended many, many, many times by the authentic beliefs of others. This doesn’t mean I hate them, or can not work with them, or view them as horrible persons that I can’t associate with. It simple means that we truly respect one another’s God-given right to determine what it is we believe and those believes that we embrace at times are so different, so oppositional to the ones I have embraced that it is offensive to me. That’s OK!
I don’t ever want to live in this world if it is ever “cleansed” of every offensive belief. If I want the freedom to believe as I have become convinced to believe – then I must be content that others with that same freedom will embrace things they believe to be true that will, if I am honest, be offensive to me. True peace and social harmony must be built on mutual respect, not some insane attempt to neutralize all beliefs that do not easily blend into a tepid pool of banality.
I am grateful to Irshad Manji for having the moral courage to say such things as, “Offence is the price of authentic diversity.” From reading a bit about her on the Web, I understand she make such statements at the risk of her own life as many of your fellow Muslims take great offence at many of her affirmations. I thank her for the contribution she have made to this very important dialogue, one that is increasingly important as our world fragments and polarizes.
I remember as a grade school boy learning the song, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.” That was over 50 years ago and instead of moving closer to peace our world has maintained its hell-bent trajectory towards destruction. You probably already know what I believe about peace on earth – that peace will not come until the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ, returns to earth a second time to rule and reign and even then, as I understand the Bible, this peace will not endure. So the best we can hope for, in my humble opinion, is that we learn to bear the offenses that are necessary when we extend to one another the freedom to believe as each person sees fit; and that in our offense we equally extend the grace of tolerance – tolerating our own discomfort as part of the price to be paid for the freedom to think, decide and believe as we each see fit.
“The comments expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Southern Health/Santé-Sud Regional Health Authority or the Directors”.