What does it take to be offended?

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I’ve been offended. I know how it feels. I have learned that some people are more prone to being offended than others. I have also discovered that “to the offended, everything becomes an offense.”

I learned these important lessons the hard way — by experience. Yet, not everyone gets offended over everything. Some people are unlikely to become offended over most anything. Why is this? Is there something necessary for offense to take place? I would answer, “Yes, there is a necessary component.”

I was born and raised in Kingsport, Tennessee, which is up in the northeastern tip of the state about as far as you can get. The city limits go all the way to the Virginia state line and North Carolina is less than an hour away. Today the demographics of Kingsport are 90.5 % white, 3.28% black and less than 3% Hispanic or Latino. 98.6% are U. S. citizens.

When I entered high school in the fall of 1966, the demographics were about the same but without the Hispanic/Latino element. A rough estimate is that 96% were white and 4% were black.

Integration of the schools occurred the fall I entered high school, but the football team was integrated a month earlier. All things being considered, with the exception of a few minor incidents, all seemed to go well.

Many years later, when I saw the movie, “Remember the Titans,” about a fictional high school that integrated at about the same time, I was greatly shocked to find that there was so much tension, anger, and fighting between the races portrayed. Maybe it did happen with us and I was blissfully ignorant. I do remember that the “N” word that was casually spoken commonly, even in polite society prior to integration, for the most part, disappeared from among the student body. After all, many of the new students became our teammates and our friends.

A few years later, I enlisted and experienced boot camp at Parris Island, S.C. Upon graduation, I was sent to Fort Lee, Va., a U.S. Army base near Petersburg for schooling. A few weeks had passed and several of us were going into town to see the sights.

I was getting something out of my wall locker when one of the guys, a black soldier, walked over to see if I was ready. We were about to leave when he put his hand on the locker door and opened it wider. There, hanging on the door, was the Confederate flag I had hung the first week I reported for duty.

He put his hand on it, stroked it, and then asked, “What does this flag mean to you?”

I said, “It reminds me of home — of Tennessee. It keeps me from getting too homesick. Why?”

“Just wondering,” he replied. And we went out to town. Several days later, I began to wonder about his question. So, one day, after classes, I caught up with him and said, “Listen, can I ask a question?”

“Sure,” he said.

“Does that flag bother you?” He thought a minute and replied, “A little. But I can live with it.”

“Why? What does it mean to you?” I queried. So he told me. He was the first person I had ever met that saw the flag in a different way than I had. A few days later, I took it down, folded it up, and mailed it to my folks in Tennessee. His friendship meant more to me that my desire to display the flag.

A couple of weeks later I had an encounter with another black soldier that was entirely different. He took great offense at my very presence and I guessed that he was trying to provoke a fight. I don’t know if it was my Appalachian mountain accent, the fact that I was a southerner, that I was white, or if he had heard about the flag. As I recall, he was from some big city up north and maybe I was just seen as a problem. In any event I wasn’t looking for an enemy.

Over several days, he would taunt and mock, never quite crossing the line of putting his hands on me or talking about my mother. Then one day he said, “Epps, you’re nothing but a big, dumb cracker.” I didn’t respond.

“Did you hear me?” he challenged, “I called you a big, dumb cracker.”

“Yeah,” I said, “I heard you.” And then, “I don’t know what that means.”

He cocked his head and said, “What do you mean you don’t know what it means? What what means?”

I said, “I understand ‘big’ and ‘dumb.’ I don’t know what ‘cracker’ means.”

I knew I had been insulted but it’s hard to get too riled up if you aren’t sure what has actually been said.

“I called you a ‘cracker.’ You don’t know what a ‘cracker’ is?”

“Well, I know about Saltines and Ritz crackers. And Graham crackers. But unless you’re calling me one of those, I’m not sure what you’re saying.”

He looked at me, shook his head, said, “You’re too dumb to know when you’ve been insulted,” and walked away. We never had another confrontation after that. In fact, it was years before I actually took enough interest to find out what a “cracker” was.

The element that determines whether one takes offense is “choice.” We choose to be offended. My friend at the wall locker chose not to be offended, or if he was, he didn’t express it. His quiet answer led me to ask questions and then send the flag home.

In the second scenario, I was expecting the exchange to lead to a fight at some point. If physical contact had been made or if he had said something untoward about my mother, I suppose it would have been on. But I wasn’t looking for trouble and I certainly wasn’t going to enter into trouble over an insult when I didn’t even know that I had been insulted. Once I understood that the intent was to offend me, I chose not to be offended.

I learned a couple of helpful truths back there in the Holston Valley, in the shadow of Bays Mountain. Both were expressed as questions.

One was, “Is my dog in this fight?” Just because a couple of dogs get into a fight, unless your dog is in there with them, you might not want to get involved because you will surely get bit.

The other was, “Is this hill worth dying for?” There are principles and issues on which we may have to do battle. Whatever the cost. But some hills are of little, if any, value. Apparently, these days everybody’s dog seems to be in the fight — every single fight — and everything from a molehill to a mountain is a bloody battleground.

I’ve been in ministry coming up on fifty years and, believe it or not, people often feel free to say whatever they want to say to me — and sometimes it’s terribly rude and insulting. In fact, people that I don’t even know feel free to insult me. The result is that I’m not as easily insulted as one might think because I have to choose to take up an offense.

Sometimes people are furious with God and they take it out on the person they believe represents Him. That would be me, and people like me. Do I always just take it? No, sometimes people cross the line and we face off. Even then, however, there is a choice.

Right now, it seems that everyone is offended and angry about something. At least that’s the impression one gets by viewing the news and social media. Some people have skin so thin they may as well have no skin at all. Others poke and prod hoping for confrontation or even violence. They revel in the chaos and disorder.

Hopefully, saner heads, more civilized minds will prevail. There are many good choices to make. Choosing to be easily offended is not one of them.

[David Epps is the Rector of the Cathedral of Christ the King (www.ctk.life). During the crisis, the church is live streaming at 10:00 a.m. on Sundays at http://www.facebook.com/cctksharpsburg/ He is the bishop of the Diocese of the Mid-South He may contacted at davidepps@ctk.life.]

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