A new and unprecedented "right" is now the central focus of legal, procedural, and cultural concern in many corridors -- a supposed right not to be offended. The cultural momentum behind this purported right is growing fast, and the logic of this movement has taken hold in many universities, legal circles, and interest groups.

The larger world received a rude introduction to the logic of offendedness when riots broke out in many European cities, prompted by a Dutch newspaper's publishing of cartoons that reportedly mocked the Prophet Muhammad. The logic of the riots was that Muslims deserved never to be offended by any insult, real or perceived, directed to their belief system. Unthinking Christians may fall into the same pattern of claiming offendedness whenever we face opposition to our faith or criticism of our beliefs. The risk of being offended is simply part of what it means to live in a diverse culture that honors and celebrates free speech. A right to free speech means a right to offend, otherwise the right would need no protection.

These days, it is the secularists who seem to be most intent on pushing a proposed right never to be offended by confrontation with the Christian Gospel, Christian witness, or Christian speech and symbolism. This motivation lies behind the incessant effort to remove all symbols, representations, references, and images related to Christianity from the public square. The very existence of a large cross, placed on government property as a memorial, outside San Diego, California, has become a major issue in the courts, and now in Congress. Those pressing for the removal of the cross claim that they are offended by the fact that they are forced to see this Christian symbol from time to time.

We should note carefully that this notion of offendedness is highly emotive in character. In other words, those who now claim to be offended are generally speaking of an emotional state that has resulted from some real or perceived insult to their belief system or from contact with someone else's belief system. In this sense, being offended does not necessarily involve any real harm but points instead to the fact that the mere presence of such an argument, image, or symbol evokes an emotional response of offendedness.

The distinguished Christian philosopher Paul Helm addresses this issue in an article published in the Summer 2006 edition of The Salisbury Review, published in Great Britain. As Professor Helm argues, "Historically, being offended has been a very serious matter. To be offended is to be caused to stumble so as to fall, to fail, to apostasize, to be brought down, to be crushed." As evidence for this claim, Professor Helm points to the language of the King James Bible in which Jesus says to his disciples: "And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast in to hell" [Matthew 5:29].

Likewise, Jesus also speaks a warning against those who would "offend" the "little ones." As Professor Helm summarizes, "So to 'offend' in this robust sense is to be an agent of destruction. And to be offended is to be placed in desperate straits."

The desperate straits are no longer required in order for an individual or group to claim the emotional status of offendedness. This shift in the meaning of the word and in its cultural usage is subtle but extremely significant.

Offering a rather robust definition of this new usage, Professor Helm describes this new notion of offendedness as "that one is offended when the words and actions of another produce a feeling of hurt, or shame, or humiliation on account of what is said of oneself about one's deepest attachments."

Professor Helm's definition is rather generous, offering more substantial content to this modern notion than may be present in the claims of many persons. Many persons who claim to be offended are speaking merely of the vaguest notion of emotional distaste at what another has said, done, proposed, or presented. This leads to inevitable conflict.