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Katie van Schaijik

Not whether I meant to offend, but whether I did offend: that is the question

Aug. 7 at 2:28pm

A couple of recent articles about wrongdoing and forgiveness together with some conversations, both in person and online, have revived my ever-ready ruminating on this subject.

I keep being surprised and disturbed and taken aback by how much basic misunderstanding there is out there, even among otherwise mature and thoughtful Christians.

Let's take a case: person A (we'll call her Ann) is offended by person B (we'll call him Bob.)

Ann says to Bob, "That offended me." And Bob responds, "I certainly didn't mean any offense!"

For many (especially many offenders), this should be the end of the matter. He hadn't meant to offend; time for her to forgive and move on. 

But, notice that the real issue has not been addressed at all. I mean, the question of whether Bob did, in fact, offend Ann. Did he cross a line? Did he wound her? That problem has been evaded, not resolved. 

Isn't it so that most of our offenses aren't meant to be offensive? That is to say, our aim isn't to hurt another person. Most of us aren't villains, just sinners. Our aim, when we trespass, is to flatter or pleasure or protect or enrich or aggrandize Self. That other people end up hurt is the "unintended consdequence" of our egotism.

“Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm, but the harm (that they cause) does not interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves”. ~ T.S. Eliot

If I tell a cruel joke to get the flattering attention of a laugh, I may be able to say with all sincerity to an offended friend that I meant no offense. But how is that to the point? Am I innocent of wrong therefore? No. I was offensive. I should apologize and amend my behavior. If my children grow up wounded by emotional neglect, is it because I wanted to hurt them? No, it's because I wanted that daily bottle of wine, or because I wanted to make a lot of money or win acclaim, or because I was too absorbed in myself and my own interests to give them the attention they needed. I didn't want them to be hurt by my selfishness, but they were. Does the man who has an affair set out to ruin his wife's life? Seldom. More often, he hates the thought of hurting her. But he wants what he wants, and unfortunately, he can only get it at her expense. 

This is the structure of sin and wrong. We grab for what we want, regardless of the wants, needs, feelings, concerns, prerogatives or rights of another. It is the opposite of love, whereby we restrain or sacrifice the appetites of the ego to serve the good of others.

Now, needless to say (I hope!), the fact that Ann says she was offended doesn't necessarily mean Bob is guilty of an offense. 

Sometimes we take offense when there isn't any, objectively. 

Once in an online discussion about the Legion, one of their defenders took umbrage at something I said (not about him, but about the Legion) and demanded an apology. I couldn't give him one, because what I had said was what I really believed and meant to say. I had said it because I thought it needed to be said, to clear the air and help the Legion's victims. In other words, I was conscientiously aiming at Good and Truth, according to my sincere best lights. I could regret that he was hurt, but I couldn't apologize as if I'd done something wrong. I hadn't.

I have known people to take offense at the very fact that they are accused of being offensive. "How dare you accuse me?!" Well, sometimes we dare because we think we have to—for someone else's sake, or for our own integrity's sake.

But, being complicated creatures, partially blind, afflicted with denial and illusion, we can't always tell right off the bat if a claim of offense is a real offense or not. We have to examine each case as it's presented to our conscience.

If Bob cares about Ann and his relationship with her—if he even just takes her seriously as a person—he would do well to reflect, and ask himself sincerely: Is she right? Was I offensive? Did I cross a line? Was I out of bounds? Was I too thoughtless?

Before we can justly clear ourselves of a concrete charge of wrong, there are at least four "zones of freedom and responsibility" that need to be sincerely examined: two on the objective plane and two on the subjective.

Objective:

1) Did I break a law (especially the moral law)?

2) Did I cross a boundary, i.e. intrude on someone else's territory or seize a prerogative that belongs to him?

Subjective:

1) Did I intend evil or harm?

2) Was I acting selfishly? Was I more concerned with myself and what I wanted than with what was due to another in this situation?

We don't have to intend harm or break a law to damn ourselves to hell or ruin a relationship. We only have to stay locked in the prison of egotism into which we're all born, and from which we urgently need to be saved.

Salvation is through repentance and grace—repentance from us toward the one we've offended; grace from Him (or him or her) toward us. There's no other way.


 

David Madeley

I would say that any act of fraternal correction involves a degree of invasiveness and intrusiveness. Strictly speaking, we don't need to apologise for that intrusiveness. If I see that my neighbour's house is on fire, and he is on holiday, the fire gives me permission to break into his house and put out the fire. I haven't violated his property rights - on the contrary, I have upheld his property rights by defending his property against the fire. It would be absurd to apologise here. Similarly, personal space/rights/liberty etc. does in my view permit vicarious actions in the name of the person, even where these actions hurt the individual (the individual and the person not being identical). I see fraternal correction as my neighbour putting out a fire in my house. If I'm rude, it hurts to hear it, but it is in my interest to hear it.

#1 - Aug. 14 at 4:35am | quote

 

David Madeley

And yet. We're very poor and weak. Whilst an apology isn't strictly necessary, I still think it's a good idea. However advanced in perfection we are, there are almost definitely some human elements in the way we correct. Those are what we are apologising for. It can be tough. There are people out there who really need correcting! And yet it’s the things we most need to hear which are sometimes most difficult to hear, and the devil is highly skilled at exploiting poorly chosen words by well-meaning Jeremiahs.

#2 - Aug. 14 at 4:36am | quote

Katie van Schaijik

I can't quite get your distinction between person and individual. Could you expand a little?

Of course there are cases in which we inflict pain even though what we're doing is objectively good and called for, as when we clean a cut or do an "intervention" with an alcoholic family member, or when we tell a friend that he's wronged us. In those cases, no apology is necessary, though we may say we're sorry about the pain and the harsh measures we took.

But, very often when we tell ourselves we're engaging in "fraternal correction", what we're actually doing is barging in on someone else's sovereign territory. That calls for an apology of a different sort—not, "I'm sorry you were hurt," but "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have done that. I was out of bounds."

#3 - Aug. 14 at 9:03am | quote

 

David Madeley

Thanks for the reply. The individual/person distinction is one I got from Maritain (in the Person and the Common Good). He wants to make the person the subject of rights but not the individual. This baffled me for a while and I'm not sure if I've understood him correctly, but my interpretation is that the individual is a particular instance, in time, of the person, which encompasses a whole set of individuals. Whilst there is obviously a very intimate relationship between the person and the individual - the one being the child of the other, so to speak - there are times when the individual overreaches itself and runs amok. What I would say is that this is where one person can legitimately act on another's behalf - they can make a judgement about what the person truly wants, and act accordingly, even if they encounter resistance. This includes making judgements about what people ‘want to hear’ - i.e David needs to know how rude he is, I don't care if it upsets him, he needs to hear it now. If he knew how rude he was being, he would choose not to behave like this. That’s the crucial move.

#4 - Aug. 14 at 4:51pm | quote

 

David Madeley

Regarding your two examples, I would say that we should consider apologising even where there is a clear need for an intervention. However genuine we’re being, there is often a human element – and I don’t think that’s as inevitable as TCP hurting a wound. It is possible to give constructive criticism and for it not to hurt. If it does hurt we should try to take responsibility for it hurting, even if the sin we are correcting is objectively much worse than our sin in correcting it.

In the other case, I agree, if there has clearly been a violation of sovereignity then we should apologise, with the proviso that it is sometimes appropriate for people to look out for each other’s true desires, and we shouldn’t let one case of going too far interfere with that responsibility. 

#5 - Aug. 14 at 4:54pm | quote

Katie van Schaijik

David Madeley, Aug. 14 at 4:51pm

Thanks for the reply. The individual/person distinction is one I got from Maritain (in the Person and the Common Good). He wants to make the person the subject of rights but not the individual. This baffled me for a while and I'm not sure if I've understood him correctly, but my interpretation is that the individual is a particular instance, in time, of the person, which encompasses a whole set of individuals. 

Ah. Now I see. Or I think I do. This is not our understanding of person. In our understanding, person is very much bound up with individuality. John Crosby's book, Personalist Papers, if I remember, distinguishes his sense (which we share) from others', like Maritain's.

#6 - Aug. 16 at 4:21pm | quote

Katie van Schaijik

David Madeley, Aug. 14 at 4:54pm

Regarding your two examples, I would say that we should consider apologising even where there is a clear need for an intervention. However genuine we’re being, there is often a human element – and I don’t think that’s as inevitable as TCP hurting a wound. It is possible to give constructive criticism and for it not to hurt. If it does hurt we should try to take responsibility for it hurting, even if the sin we are correcting is objectively much worse than our sin in correcting it.

Is it your view, then, that to inflict pain is a sin? That wouldn't be my view. I can see apologizing, in the sense, "I'm sorry to inflict pain" or, "I'm sorry I don't see another way of dealing with this situation," but I can't see either of those as sinful. Sinful seems to me radically different from medicinal.

#7 - Aug. 16 at 4:25pm | quote

 

David Madeley

Thanks again. I don't see causing pain as sinful in itself. But, I think we should hold our hands up and own how keen we are to interfere in other people's lives. When the time comes to make a medicinal intervention in someone else's life, it's possible there may be some motivations which are good and some which are not. My thought is we should consider apologising not only for the pain but also for any subliminal power-play we are engaging in and how that might be impacting on the person (not that all of that needs to be made explicit).

Whatever we think of Maritain - I'm not a huge fan myself - I still feel there is a distinction to be made between the person per se and the person-at-a-moment-in-time, and this distinction is how I make space for fraternal correction in a world which says "mind your own business".

 

#8 - Aug. 16 at 6:12pm | quote

Katie van Schaijik

When I say "person", I mean (following Crosby and Wojtyla), a subject, an "I", who is a free and responsible, self-determining moral agent.

In as much as persons live our lives in relation to other persons, fraternal correction is sometimes in order. Sometimes it's even called for. Sometiems it's out of bounds. It all depends on the case.

I agree with you (if I understand you rightly) that to whatever extent "power motives" are at play in our relations with others, we are in the wrong. I also agree that we often pretend to ourselves that we are simply engaged in "fraternal correction", when, in truth, we're gratifying our own egos in one way or another.

#9 - Aug. 16 at 6:20pm | quote

 

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