Tuesday, September 5, 2017

On being offensive

The Australian cartoonist Michael Leunig, famed for bringing his audience to question themselves through teapots and ducks, shared his wisdom in Memoir of a Nasty Boy - an article published in the Melbourne daily newspaper, The Age.  Michael’s wisdom considers courtesy of engagement in discourse; the etiquette of civil exchange:

“Being offensive or unpleasantly honest may sometimes be life-giving. "I'd rather have an intelligent clash than a polite conversation," said somebody or other whose name, alas, I can't remember, and I know it was George Bernard Shaw who said something like "Being bourgeois is caring more about the temperature on the skin than the heat of the fire within." We mustn't take these things to mean that we should be always burning up inside or breathing flames over people, but rather that we might respect and be informed by our inner fire and the fire of others”.

Image credit: 'Bunker' from http://www.leunig.com.au/works/cartoons

A few things are evident from Leunig’s wisdom:

  • The statement opens with a conjunction of “offence” and “unpleasant honesty”.  All too often these days a person is said to be offensive.  Rarely are people said to be unpleasantly honest.  The result is that we are so eager not to be offend, that we forget that some people in society are of vocational calling that calls them to be unpleasantly honest. There are some immutable facts: you will die, you will pay taxes, not everyone agrees with legislating same sex marriage – we need to allow people to share these views and discuss them without deeming the people offensive.  If those people are in a role – a Priest or a Prime Minister perhaps – we need to grant them courtesy of their office in framing and sharing their view.
  • To offend someone, or to be unpleasantly honest with someone, may be life-giving.  No half-wit drunk driver is going to be pleased seeing his car impounded yet the very act of Police impounding the car may save the driver’s life, or the life of another.  A priest’s stern warning to a congregant to abandon an affair may be received unpleasantly yet may bring a new flourish to a marriage.  The church’s hold to traditional views of sexual immorality gives life to the church and ensures that it continues as a light in the world – it should offend as it is apart from the world.
  • We seem more concerned for the temperature of someone’s (thin) skin than the temperature of the fire that is within.  We seem to be reactive to the temperature of the skin rather than plumbing deeper to test the person’s true resolve.  Only where we caringly understand a person’s core temperature, and we astutely and sensitively convey matters of our own core temperature, can we enjoy true exchange.  In this is the difference between the polite and the intelligent.

There is an economy in not offending.  There is an economy in concealing frank honesty.  Politeness is grease that keeps things smoothly humming.  Best avoid the conflict, best avoid the bravado required to stand firm to a view.

Jesus identified this economy amongst the chief priests and the elders:

Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?”

Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?”

They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him.  But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.”

So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”

Then he said, Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

The interchange effectively ends with Jesus saying: “GAME OVER”.  Jesus would have none of the nonsense. Jesus refused to be a player in a sporting match.  He called the chief priests and the elders to decisiveness.  Jesus sought the chief priests and elders to be direct. 

Like Leunig, Jesus would also have preferred an intelligent clash than a polite conversation.


Note 1: all links current as at 5 September 2017

Note 2: Pastor John Piper was the inspiration for using Matthew 21:23-27.  His excellent thoughts are linked.

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