In discussing those I have been describing as members of the Cult of Offendedness and addicts of a counterfeit moral superiority, I do not want to presume that they are acting in bad faith.
They are acting in bad faith, but that's not my presumption, it's my conclusion. I am not attributing malice to them, but rather, having observed and studied their attributes, I am noting that those attributes include a vast reservoir of transparent, naked malice. Pretending not to see that wouldn't be charitable, it would merely be dishonest.
It may be helpful here to remember that the presumption of charity is analogous to the presumption of innocence in criminal cases. All defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty, but those who are, in fact, proven guilty are no longer shielded by that initial presumption of innocence.
So I suppose what I need to do, ladies and gentlemen of the grand jury, is to make my case — to lay out the evidence and to convince you that it merits enough consideration to warrant an indictment. After that we can take this case to court and see whether this malice and bad faith and this corrosive obsession with trying to feel morally superior can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.
I will try to do that in future posts. In the meantime, whether or until I can convince others of this, I will continue to speak of what I, myself, have become convinced is true. But that is, again, my conclusion and not my presumption. In that regard, I'm not acting as a prosecutor, but as a witness for the prosecution. A witness's job is to tell what they have witnessed, whether or not what they have seen seems charitable to the accused.
I recently finished Frank Schaeffer's memoir Crazy for God which recounts, among many other things, his impression of the leaders of the religious right — people who have chosen as their profession the taking of offense and the propagation of umbrage. Schaeffer describes such people as acting in bad faith, motivated by malice and a disingenuous desire for power. Here is a taste of his description of them:
There were three kinds of evangelical leaders. The dumb or idealistic ones who really believed. The out-and-out charlatans. And the smart ones who still believed — sort of — but knew that the evangelical world was shit, but who couldn't figure out any way to earn as good a living anywhere else. I was turning into one of those, having started out in the idealistic category.
That's pretty brutal, but it won't do to accuse Schaeffer of being uncharitable here because that description, again, is not his presumption but his conclusion. He is telling us what he saw, what he witnessed over many years and thus what he has come to believe to be true. If he paints a nasty picture, that's because he is trying to capture the nastiness of his subject as accurately as possible.
But let's not end on such a nasty note here. The Pursuit of Offendedness is hurtful and corrosive, but it's also wasteful in that it leads us away from something better.
For a reminder of what that something better can look like, let me offer a shortened retelling of one of my favorite stories from the storyteller-evangelist Tony Campolo. This is taken from his book Let Me Tell You a Story — a sort of mixtape greatest-hits collection.
Tony was invited to preach in a church in Hawaii where he winds up sleepless from the time difference, eating breakfast in a greasy spoon in Honolulu in the middle of the night:
As I sat there munching on my doughnut and sipping my coffee at 3:30 in the morning, the door of the diner suddenly swung open and, to my discomfort, in marched eight or nine provocative and boisterous prostitutes.It was a small place and they sat on either side of me. Their talk was loud and crude. I felt completely out of place and was just about to make my getaway when I overheard the woman sitting beside me say, "Tomorrow's my birthday. I'm going to be 39."
Her friend responded in a nasty tone. "So what do you want from me? A birthday party?"
… When I heard that, I made a decision. I sat and waited until the women had left. Then I called over the fat guy behind the counter and I asked him, "Do they come in here every night?"
"Yeah," he answered.
"The one right next to me, does she come here every night?"
"Yeah," he said. "That's Agnes. Yeah, she comes in here every night. Why do you want to know?"
"Because I heard her say that tomorrow is her birthday," I told him. "What do you think about us throwing a birthday party for her — right here — tomorrow night?"
A smile slowly crossed his chubby face and he answered with measured delight. "That's great! I like it! That's a great idea!"
Harry, the guy who ran the diner, and his wife, who did the cooking, took to the idea with gusto, baking a big cake that read "Happy Birthday Agnes" and getting the word out to all their other late-night regulars. Tony came back early the next night with crepe-paper streamers and decorations and a big hand-made sign.
… by 3:15 every prostitute in Honolulu was in that place. … At 3:30 on the dot, the door of the diner swung open and in came Agnes and her friend … and when they came in we all screamed, "Happy Birthday!"
… Her mouth fell open. Her legs seemed to buckle a bit. Her friend grabbed her arm to steady her. As she was led to one of the stools along the counter we all sang "Happy Birthday" to her. As we came to the end of our singing, "Happy birthday, dear Agnes, happy birthday to you," her eyes moistened. Then, when the birthday cake with all the candles on it was carried out, she lost it and just openly cried.
Harry gruffly mumbled, "Blow out the candles, Agnes. Come on. Blow out the candles. If you don't blow out the candles, I'm gonna have to blow out the candles." And, after an endless few seconds, he did. Then he handed her a knife and told her, "Cut the cake, Agnes, we all want some cake." …
Agnes looked down at the cake. Then without taking her eyes off it, she said, "Look, Harry, is it all right with you if I … is it OK if I keep the cake a little while? I mean is it all right if we don't eat it right away?"
Harry shrugged and answered, "Sure! It's OK. If you want to keep the cake, keep the cake. Take it home if you want to."
"Can I?" she asked. Then looking at me she said, "I live just down the street a couple of doors. I want to take the cake home and show it to my mother, OK? I'll be right back. Honest!"
She got off the stool, picked up the cake and, carrying it like it was the Holy Grail, walked slowly toward the door. As we all stood there motionless, she left.
After the party, Harry is surprised to learn that Tony is a preacher.
"What kind of church do you belong to?"
"I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning."
We can either take offense or we can give a party. It has to be one or the other, we can't do both.
I prefer the one with cake.