Becoming Ready to Risk Offense
Updated: Jul 11, 2022
And it came to pass that Enoch went forth in the land, among the people, standing upon the hills and the high places, and cried with a loud voice, testifying against their works; and all men were offended because of him. (Moses 6:37).
I spend a lot of time trying to avoid giving offence. When I write, it's with a bunch of sensitivities in my head and an awareness that this phrase might be misinterpreted by certain people, or that word might convey to others a meaning I don't intend. I work to present my thoughts in the most approachable and least objectionable manner possible and, if the subject is particularly dicey, I will run them by a loved one who thinks differently from me before I press publish. Even so, I give offence.
It struck me this week that Enoch was very different. When the Lord called him to call the people to repentance, he felt sure he wasn't qualified. He protested that He was "but a lad, and all the people hate me; for I am slow of speech; wherefore am I thy servant?"
The Lord replied "Open thy mouth and it shall be filled, and I will give thee utterance" (Moses 6:31-32).
One would think that if the Lord was giving him utterance, his words would naturally be the least objectionable and most approachable possible. But not so. According to Moses 6:37, he managed to offend everyone. And yet... he succeeded in establishing Zion, a city whose people were of one heart and one mind.
Maybe giving and taking offence is part of the path toward Zion. Maybe it's inevitable.
Nephi said, "the guilty taketh the truth to be hard, for it cutteth them to the very center." That may come across of condemnation toward those how take offence, but the thing is, aren't we all among the guilty? Isn't that what it means to be fallen? And maybe it's not just guiltiness that creates that vulnerability. Maybe woundedness does as well, like Jacob described when he worried his divinely-given message would "enlarge the wounds of those who have already been wounded" (Jacob 2:9).
I believe it was in a women's conference where I heard Sheri Dew tell the story of being repeatedly offended by a senior Apostle in a council meeting. Every time someone in the council used the phrase "the brothers" or "the men," he would correct them and say, "the fathers." Every time someone said "the sisters" or "the women", he would amend the term to "the mothers". As a single woman who longed for motherhood, this felt extremely insensitive to Sister Dew. It seemed to say that, even though she was a counsellor in the general Relief Society presidency, she was beneath notice because she was not a mother.
She took those feelings home and wrestled with them -- they drove her to her knees, the scriptures and the temple. And then she received unexpected insight about motherhood as a calling that is not dependent on the bearing of children. She went on to share that insight with the world in her now-famous talk, "Are We Not All Mothers."
My wonder: if the senior Apostle had been sensitive to Sister's Dew's feelings, had he bitten back those troubling words because he didn't want to hurt her, would Sister Dew have learned and shared about what it means to be "the mother of all living?" Another wonder: if Sister Dew's insights in 2001 seem twenty years later to be simplistic and constraining to other women who seek after righteousness, might the Lord have deep and personal clarity held in store for them, if they will seek on their knees, in the scriptures, and in the temple?
Isaiah describes the Lord as both a "sanctuary" and "a stone of stumbling and... a rock of offence" (Isaiah 8:14). Do we sometimes need to stumble on Him, skin our knees on His doctrine and weep and wrestle before we can build upon Him, that He may become our "sure foundation... the head of [our] corner" (Jacob 4: 15-17)?
I think we might. I think that Jacob's wrestle with an angel might be an invitation to accept the prospect of struggle in our reaching toward the divine embrace. And I think that, as we seek after Zion, to become of one heart and one mind, we need to find the courage to open our thoughts to each other, even at the risk of offending. And we need to learn patience with other's thoughts that come from a place that may not be sensitive to our particular hurts. Because it's only by opening up communication and working through our differing and even tender perspectives that we can actually come to understand each other.
Can civil discourse become so sanitized it ceases to connect? I listened to a podcast a couple weeks ago where three men recalled their courageous-to-the-point-of-foolhardy decision to bring 10 Trump supporters and 10 Clinton supporters together for a weekend retreat just weeks after the 2016 US presidential election. Participants were given ground rules and a process for listening to each other, but no constraints on what they might say. Bill Doherty, a highly-trained therapist and facilitator, was there to hopefully prevent the retreat from turning into a battle. He recalled the moment when a Trump supporter opened up about his thoughts with awkward language laced in stereotypes. The facilitator thing to do would have been to interrupt and explain why his expressions would be offensive to the people across the aisle. But the whole point of this exercise was to help political enemies come to really see each other and find their common humanity. And that meant they needed to be authentic. So Mr. Doherty bit his tongue and let the offending speaker talk. Later, he got to listen to the people he had accidentally offended. At the end of the retreat, participants had become genuine friends with their political opposites and they launched the seeds of a new movement, Braver Angels, which has been helping bridge the political divide ever since.
What does all of this mean about my efforts to avoid giving offence? I do believe that sensitivity is a good thing, when it's motivated by love and not by fear. But sometimes, if we are committed to seeking after truth and striving to be authentic, offence may be inescapable. I need to be willing to risk offence in the quest to build Zion. I also need to be okay with my own sensitivities being triggered. That just means I'm being invited to wrestle.
My last post was about enmity. I had a lot of thoughts swirling in my head, including some about Satan's vested interest in misogyny. I avoided writing about those because they are too controversial; the very idea that there is a special enmity between Satan and womankind is, by definition, sexist. Yet, the ideas persist. Maybe they offend prevailing notions about gender. And maybe they are misinformed. Maybe my personal trauma distorts my perspective on gender. But maybe there's something there that's worth exploring.
I'm not sure. My next post might venture into controversial ponderings about a special enmity between Satan and mothers. No promises. Stay tuned :).