Starbucks, Red Cups, and the Grace of Being Offended
While the Christian right and the left are hashing it out over Twitter, arguing about the merits and demerits of Starbucks’s new inclusive red cups, I want to press pause to ask the question: Is there anything this episode can teach us about the Christian spiritual life?
The answer, I believe, is yes. We can learn the grace of being offended.
The mechanism of offense often works like this: I have an image of myself I seek to maintain. I have carefully manicured this image for so long I think it’s the real me. A circumstance presents a challenge to this image—a critique, a denial, a slight. Since it’s too painful for me to use this challenge as an opportunity for growth and self-discovery, I choose instead to take offense. I defend the image.
Some Christians cling to an image of Christianity as established, as deserving special recognition. It’s not true, and hasn’t been for a long time, but the image is out there. When places like Wal-Mart and Starbucks and the courthouse that won’t display a crèche refuse to recognize our image of preeminence and our delusions of entitlement, we have no choice but to take offense.
Q: What else can we do?
A: Pay attention.
For the last several weeks I’ve been teaching an introduction to Christian spiritual formation course to first year seminarians. They will tell you that a constant theme is paying attention to your life. Notice the ups and downs, how you habitually react in situations. Attending to these things will teach you much about yourself.
This is important because Christian thinkers through the ages have affirmed that knowledge of God and knowledge of self, go hand-in-hand.
If the Christians offended by Starbucks were in my class, I would tell them to pause before they respond, take out their journals, and question this feeling of offense: Why do you feel slighted when a corporation doesn’t recognize your faith? Where does the sense of entitlement come from?
Perhaps most importantly: What image of yourself is being challenged by this slight? And why do you feel the need to defend it?
These questions are useful, whoever has offended you. Whether it’s Starbucks or a spouse or a student—when we notice our habits of getting offended, we can also recognize God’s grace in the moment often inviting us to let go of those false notions of entitlement and prerogative and privilege, and calling us to quit defending and simply live as truthfully and compassionately as we can.
I’m not saying never be offended. I am saying whenever you are offended, learn from it. Only then can we move beyond the knee-jerk reactivity in our relationships (even in our relationship with our go-to caffeine provider) and move to the true freedom that Christ offers.
St. Ignatius of Loyola, the 16th century founder of the Jesuits, more than anyone has schooled us in how to be attentive to God’s grace working through our lives—through our hopes and fears, dreams and anxieties. The goal, for Ignatius, is liberty and availability: to be increasingly free from the bondage of reactivity so I can be available to respond to the movement of the Holy Spirit in my life.
More often than not, taking offense can show us a place in our lives where we are not free, but still captive to an image of ourselves we are tenaciously clinging to.
But as Jesus knew, and as Ignatius knew, and as those people who live with us when we feel offended know, that’s no way to live.
As followers of the One who let go of his divine prerogatives and entitlements, let us learn the grace of being offended, grace that wants to help us know the truth of who we are so that we can be free indeed.
Free enough, even, to drink coffee out of a red cup.
The Rev. Dr. L. Roger Owens is associate professor of leadership and ministry at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and teaches courses in the MDiv, Doctor of Ministry, and Continuing Education programs. Before coming to PTS he served urban and rural churches for eight years in North Carolina as co-pastor with his wife Ginger. He has written multiple books including The Shape of Participation: A Theology of Church Practices which was called “this decades best work in ecclesiology” by The Christian Century.