Sunday, August 17, 2014

Impact > intent

My sister keeps laughing at me, but I have to take sexual harassment training before starting law school. I've periodically had to take this also for working for a government home care agency, so it makes me wonder why it wasn't required for working at the computer store or for university or even at my current job as an English teacher, given that these are both highly cooperative team environments. 

The premise underpinning this training is this: you may be engaging in inappropriate behaviors without even knowing it. There's this subtle judgment running through the whole seminar, that the viewer may believe they're not a perpetrator of sexual harassment, but the viewer is deluding herself, and therefore is a major part of the problem.

And I get that, because why is sexual harrassment such a prevalent problem unless it is, to an extent, condoned by the culture at large?

Inappropriate things were said at my university all the time. If it wasn't dirty jokes in the back room at my campus job, it was ignorant and insensitive things said in group projects or class discussions. Sexual harassment is regularly depicted in the movies, not condoned but not condemned. I think of Bumper tapping Fat Amy's chest with his "Riff Off" trophy; clearly unwelcome behavior, normalized by its appearance in pop culture. Is it an overreaction that my gut feeling here is that that's not okay?

So I initially rolled my eyes as I tucked into this training, but it seems to have accomplished its objective. I'm successfully indoctrinated. 

One thing that particularly surprised me is the principle that impact of an action matters more than the intent behind the action. The guy who slapped my butt at work wasn't intending to make me uncomfortable, the students who showed graphic content for their class presentation were only trying to make a point by way of negative example, and I didn't feel harassed in these instances. It was easy to take them in the spirit that they were meant. But if I had've been offended, if it had've upset me, I would have been perfectly justified in confronting the issue. Because, according to this training, impact matters more than intent

This is wigging me out.

Mostly I'm wondering if this can be a guiding principle for Christian behavior, too. I know how often I seek refuge in my intentions. I absolve myself from so much by pleading that my motives were pure. And yes, man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart. He wants our intentions to be the best, He wants our actions to be motivated by love. Having our hearts oriented in the right direction is always the first step.

But what about when our actions aren't taken the way that our hearts meant them? 

My gut feeling is that Jesus would agree with this principle, this idea of impact trumping intent. It messed me up when I read the passage about meat sacrificed to idols more closely. Paul writes, "For if someone with a weak conscience sees you eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? . . . When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ." As a lover of liberty, it offended me to be instructed to restrict my own freedom to protect the (erroneous!) convictions of another, but in the very next chapter Paul goes on to talk about unity in the body, describing how we are responsible for building our brothers and sisters up. 

If I use my freedom without consideration for what it will cause my brothers and sisters to do, I'm sinning. I'm valuing truth over love. I'm putting intentions over impact.

I feel pretty free: to listen to top 40 music, to wear skirts that fall above my fingers hanging at my sides, to drink beer, to disregard both Calvinism and Arminianism, to use colorful language, to speak in church unconscious of my gender, to vote the way I do, to shop the way I do, to eat the way I do. I assume that I have a lot of stuff wrong, and I trust that He is showing me, piece by piece, the difference between the opinions I hold in arrogance and the convictions grounded in His truth. 

My intention is not to offend the consciences of believers who fall opposite my own convictions. My intention is not to persuade them to my way of seeing things. My goal, or rather, my weak but strengthening ambition is to give grace rather than judgment, and count others as more important than myself. (Their "rightness" or "wrongness" aside.) And yet, despite my noble (though admittedly inconsistent) aspirations, I still make people feel judged. I still manage to discourage or offend with my flippant approach in areas where I feel free. In freely doing what I feel is "right," I tell others who feel my actions are "wrong" that it's okay to do things that are "wrong." Oblivious in my freedom, I am baffled (and even angry!) when my great intentions get warped into a negative impact.

To connect the dots for you, I am the frat boy making obscene jokes from the back of the classroom and feeling misunderstood when I get written up for it. I am the person all my "judge not" posts are directed at. I am seeing, little by little, just how much judgment and not grace is part of my worldview. I am the harasser who doesn't realize her behavior is making people uncomfortable. I am hiding behind the intent of my actions rather than owning their impact. I have camped on the side of true, not love, but it's funny, because truth needs no warriors, and love is really short on ambassadors. 

It's a really scary thing, to take on responsibility for how another person perceives the things you say or do. But that's the beauty of grace, isn't it? This heavy responsibility rests on the cross, and not on our shoulders. We can't bear the weight of how our sins and wrongs impact other people, but this is grace, to be responsible but not culpable, to be freed and forgiven so that we may be part of the gospel of reconciliation. There's no one better than Jesus. 

(Caveat: in sexual harassment training, the bright line is the reasonable person standard, and I think that can be adopted with respect to believers, too. Some things are just silly. And carrying guilt for things you are not responsible for can be incredibly damaging. That's a topic unto its own.)

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