I must say that I use the term ‘offensive’ uncomfortably and with a great deal of hesitation. For some strange reason, it is difficult to say that something offends me. On the one hand, an offense implies that I have been attacked, that I have been rendered vulnerable. Vulnerability is an extremely humbling sort of thing, and a vulnerability that immediately goes away does not exist. Connected to this is the idea that offense seems to imply that I have been sheltered. It is hard for a man to admit that he has been sheltered. I suppose it means that he has been tamed or held in captivity from another world of experience that he has not yet mastered or understood. To communicate that something was offensive to you is to imply that others might not find it near as offensive, that others have mastered a particular realm while you have not. On the other hand, as a follower of the God/man Jesus, I am to be no stranger to offense – Christ was quite clear about that. In fact he taught that I am to be someone who rejoices and is glad to be insulted and persecuted – offended. So for me to write that something offended me seems kind of weak and after-the-fact. So in humility and for the sake of releasing some God-given creative energy I confess that I was driving home from a class I was taking at the Seminary recently when one of the strangest, oddest, and most offensive encounters I have ever had occurred.
As I study to be a pastor I am living in this very small town in the middle of Kentucky. As I understand it in the past, this town has been dubbed “the Holy City” on account of the two large evangelical (that’s “evangelical” in a good way) institutions that lie at its center. It has the reputation of being surrounded by a bubble through which none of Screwtape’s best tempters can seem to penetrate. Of course much of this reputation is in jest, and anyone who lives in the town knows that it is like any other town with its fair share of dark and light, hope with struggle. Yet this particular encounter in this particular town still surprised me.
I had stopped at the blinking red lights at about 5:15 in the afternoon. To the right of the three way stop was the street I lived on in the southern most tip of town. At the same moment I stopped, a small black datsun truck had also stopped across from me on the other side of the intersection with a few other cars coming in behind it. I saw the face of the man driving the datsun, a man in a mesh hat with no facial hair who was looking at me. The man looked a bit dazed as if he had just had a long day, but I distinctly remember him casually looking at me. After an initial pause on both our parts and wanting to be polite, I raised my hand and made a sweeping motion with it indicating that he could go ahead of me for I observed that he too had his turning signal on and was wanting to turn onto the same street. And then suddenly, the man made his own gesture at me: left middle finger extended towards the sky, slightly tilted, with the back of his hand facing me. The man gave me the finger, he gave me the bird, he flipped me off, whatever you want to call it. I remember that this gesture did not appear slowly, but it appeared suddenly. It almost seemed reactionary and so uncalculated. But what was possibly more startling in this instance was the man’s face. From what I could see there was no change of expression. He just kept looking at me with those same dazed eyes, that same-tilted head, middle finger extended. There was coldness there, the kind of coldness you would find in a character from a Flannery O’Connor story. It seemed like nothing to him to make this gesture at me.
That was it. This was the encounter, the encounter I found so offensive Now at this point I would like to say that there may be some reading this (although that in itself may be held in question) that are laughing at me. I don’t blame them. How could such a simple encounter garner such attention and such a lengthy discourse? You may call me soft and weak. Again, I admit these feelings humbly as I continue. For an instant, I was stunned. It was so unexpected. I was emotionless and expressionless. In my confusion, I simply shrugged and said to myself, “Okaaaaaay?” I turned onto the street. Then I saw the man turn onto the same street behind me, and I remembered his turn signal. As I drove down my long street, I contemplated many things. I wondered if he would follow me to my house. I almost wanted him to. I wanted to know what I had done wrong. I wanted to know if I had offended him in some way, if he had misinterpreted my hand gesture. I wanted to make things right between us. But about seven or so houses before my own he turned onto a driveway. As I write this I wish that I would have gone back there and asked him why he gave me the finger, why he felt compelled to do that. A flood of emotions raged inside of me spurred by that finger. I was angry, frightened, confused. Soon those emotions gave way to something deeper. I realized that I was hurt. My soul felt murdered, torn, shredded, lacerated. I felt extremely low. I was knocked in the gut. The weakness was strong and lingered. I remember that I was leading a bible study that night, but I suddenly felt unequipped for it because of that finger. In laymen’s terms, that slender finger had ruined my day.
Now, I certainly do not mean to suggest that I am the first person who has ever been given the finger, and I do not mean to make something out of nothing. I’m only describing what carried within me after that moment, and when I feel my soul affected like that I pay attention.
It’s amazing isn’t it? A simple gesture, a simple shape of hand can create so much hurt, so much offense down to the very soul. How could something so simply physical, not to mention very culturally defined, hurt my soul so much? It’s almost silly. If the dualists, neo-Platonists, and Gnostics are correct and the spiritual realm is so separated from and superior to the physical, then how come that man’s physical gesture had such a potent power over my spirit on that afternoon?
But it occurs to me that in the eighth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans [enter my standard transition to the bible] a picture is painted of this earth, this creation that we touch and in which we move and breathe, being mysteriously held in bondage by the falleness of this world. Among other things, this can be seen in humanity’s tremendous impact on the environment for the worse. A physical world that was originally good was subject to suffering through our sins, those same sins that are rooted in the spirit as Jesus showed us. The spiritual deeply affecting the physical. Furthermore, it seems to suggest that creation will actually experience the same liberation that children of God will experience one day.
What does this have to do with the finger? The point is that, from my studies, it appears that the scriptures are clear that the spiritual has a powerful impact on the physical. Now take the Rabbi, Jesus. I think that the Apostle Paul in Romans 8 was agreeing with the teachings of his Rabbi and could see it all over creation. The area between the physical world and the spiritual world is blurred and intricately bridged. I’ve been having coffee with the thought that Jesus not only came to redeem the fleshly, the physical, the material, showing us that creation is good. But he also came to show us the great degree to which the spiritual and the physical are entwined. He taught that the dispositions and tone of our spirits directly affect what happens in the world around us, in our relationships, in our physical environment. Clean the inside, and the outside will be clean. He said that those who love God would be known by the fruit that they produce. This is not fruit attached to vines wrapped around your heart that no one can see, but it is fruit that is open and tangible. He taught that what makes a man unclean is what comes out of him not what goes into him. The state of one’s heart is not merely determined by what dwells in your heart, the particular color of your heart. It is also determined by that phrase, “comes out,” the way in which what is in your heart manifests itself into the light of day, the world around you. The cleanliness of your heart is determined by how its produce goes out and interacts with the world. I’m arguing that the spirit of a person has a tightly bound relationship with the tangible and seen world around it. If this is the case then it seems that the physical can equally affect the spiritual just as the spiritual has tremendous impact on the physical. We are deeply and equally spiritual and physical beings, walking filters taking in and giving out. Therefore, we as people with such potent spirits have tremendous responsibility for what our hearts release out into this beautiful world. Will our hearts sing melodies that harmonize with the earth in which we move and breathe and act promoting such things as peace between warring nations, feeding the poor, freeing the captive, proclaiming Jesus as Lord, and being at peace with the natural world around us? Or will our hearts bellow harsh and unnatural sounds that create disharmony, idolatry, and the failure to love? As someone who has made both kinds of sounds, I will take the former.
I will ask a third time, “What does this have to do with that silly finger?” The answer is a whole lot in the way that I see it. That finger that I was given by the man in the datsun truck was not simply a finger. It was the vomit of his heart, the physical manifestation of his inner being. Our spirits, meant to love and be at harmony with one another, met instead on the tip of that rebellious appendage. My soul wasn’t the only thing affected. I could feel the air differently. It changed things; it changed the way that I saw things. Suddenly, the beautiful trees that lined the street were no longer beautiful, but strangely distorted. I could no longer enjoy the painted sky and the setting sun.
I think that every follower of Christ goes through different stages of understanding in how to live faith. As a young boy, loving God primarily meant ‘being nice’: not cussing, not hitting your sister, saying kind things, doing what you are told to do, not having sex outside of marriage, going to church, and praying before you eat. It interests me that almost all of the new believers in Jesus that I talk to always seem to be very aware of the language that they use, and they often name it as their primary sin struggle. But as you grow in faith you soon discover that there is a whole lot more to loving God and loving your neighbor than ‘being nice.’ In fact, much of the time in the gospels I wouldn’t necessarily call Jesus ‘nice.’ True love can often seem harsh and rather not nice to those around us. In an effort to grow deeper in this true love, I have had a tendency to neglect ‘being nice’ and to write off as useless in many ways. But as I have reflected on the finger I’ve come to realize that there is something deeply significant about ‘being nice.’ A smile here, a hello there, a thank you, being polite to your waitress, and opening the door for someone are all cultural gestures that have the same degree of effectiveness as that finger. I think that it delights God when we are nice, of course, never at the expense of real love, truth, and honesty. But it is important to understand the gestures and polite manners of the particular culture in which you live and to utilize them. Jesus even went a step further. We should pay very close attention to which Jesus had meals with, what he did on Sabbath days, and how he treated children. Jesus took the cultural gestures of his time and he redeemed them. When the Pharisees lost the love on which the Law was founded they refused to eat with the sinner, they refused to help dying men on the Sabbath, they shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces, and tied up heavy loads on them without lifting a finger to move these loads themselves. In all their effort to keep themselves ‘clean’ and ‘superior,’ it seems that they simply developed new ways to offend, new ways to give the finger. But Jesus changed all that. He invited the sinner to come and eat with him. He attended to suffering people on the Sabbath. He opened the kingdom of heaven to everyone. He did not come to condemn; he came to liberate and to say, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” The beautiful things that Jesus did on earth were nothing more and nothing less than the Spirit of God interacting through him with the world around him. In the same way, it seems natural for those who follow Jesus to take the cultural symbols today and to redeem them to promote the newness of life that only Jesus can bring, to bring some kingdom on this earth. Instead of using our middle finger to hurt, let’s use our middle finger to heal and to bandage wounds and to hold hands in unity. Instead of using our middle finger to offend others, let’s use it to read the scriptures and allow the scriptures to transform our hearts so that the Spirit of God can impact our world.
As uncomfortable as I was, I prayed for the man in the datsun truck as I finished the drive down my long street. When I arrived home, I told my friend what had happened at the blinking red lights. I asked him, “Aaron, what would compel someone to do something like that? Think about the anger and the bitterness that are inside of that man that would even allow the expression of such an offensive reaction in such a harmless situation.” My friend encouraged and sympathized as he reflected on his own share of experiences with the bitter anger and cruelty of others.
There is one part of the Gospels, to my knowledge, where Jesus’ finger is specifically mentioned. He was in the temple courts when a woman caught in adultery was suddenly brought forward by the teachers of the law and the Pharisees. And they asked Jesus if she should be stoned to death as the Law of Moses commanded. Instead of answering their question, he does something peculiar. He slowly bends down and begins writing something on the ground with his finger. I am fascinated and mystified by this action, as I have no idea what he was writing, and the Gospel does not tell us either. But somehow out of that writing came the most magnificent reply: “If anyone is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Then he continued to write on the ground. Those who came to condemn the woman were dumbfounded, dropped their stones and left the woman there alone. Afterwards, Jesus straightens up and asks if anyone has condemned her. She replies that no one has. Jesus says that neither does he then and tells her to go and leave her life of sin. If I could offer any sort of explanation I would say that the man in the datsun truck was stoned somewhere along the way. He was condemned by some gesture, by some manifestation of cruelty experienced in this world. There was no finger to write in the ground, no finger to declare that there is in fact no condemnation in Christ Jesus.
[I have the overwhelming sense that what I have written here is a little naïve. Particularly in the wake of such tragedies and dangers as the recent bridge collapse in Minneapolis and the large number of Korean Christians being held captive by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Two of which have already been murdered. I am, after all, someone has a lot more to experience. I suppose I wonder if I even know what a true offense is. So please understand this as if you have cared to read this writing.]