Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Blessed are the Cake Makers?

A judge in Northern Ireland ruled yesterday that Ashers Baking Company was guilty of discriminating against a customer by refusing his order for a cake bearing the words: "support gay marriage." The ruling has upset a number of Christians, including David Robertson, who has compared it to suing a Muslim baker who is unwilling to bake a cake depicting the prophet Muhammad. Although we in the West live in societies that prize free speech, the pursuit of happiness, and consumerism, cases like this one highlight the complex intersection of these issues and ideals that sometimes emerges to challenge our values.

Certainly it is problematic to legally force a person to violate his or her conscience. I would even go so far as to say it's unethical. On the other hand, there is also something that feels wrong with allowing businesses to discriminate however they please. It seems like those same values of freedom of expression and the pursuit of happiness that are often used to defend businesses should likewise come to the aid of consumers. Despite the confident assertions of its devoted emissaries, the free market will not right all wrongs and restore peace and tranquility to the universe.

That said, I want to set aside the topic of law and law enforcement for now and turn to a question that is of more interest to me in this "gay cake" debacle. Is it consistent with Christian beliefs for a Christian to refuse to bake a cake like the one ordered from Ashers Baking Company? Is this perhaps exaggeration in a similar way to how many American Christians feel persecuted when they are not permitted to go freely proselytizing wherever and however they like?

First off, I should make one thing clear. I am not a Christian myself, if the title of this blog hasn't yet given it away. I understand this is a touchy subject, then, with a non-believer talking about how Christians live up to what they profess. So let me say that I don't intend this to be an accusation of hypocrisy; more like a thought experiment of sorts. As I see it, there are some interesting nuances involved in this case that pose some questions - hopefully fruitful questions - about what it means to live in the way that a Christian claims to live. 

Why do I care, you might ask. I care partly because I think we aspire to some of the same things: to love others, do justice, and live humbly. And truth be told, I admire many things about the Christian message. I think grace, forgiveness, and charity are very worthwhile pursuits, and I think they play a large role in giving purpose to our lives. Yet I also care because I try to take notice of when those pursuits become empty symbols rather than meaningful and motivating forces. As someone who values love, justice, humility, grace, forgiveness, and charity, I want to pay attention to where disconnections occur, in order to be more aware of my own susceptibility.

When Christians tell me of the wonderful things their faith has done for them - how it's made them more compassionate, more patient, more hopeful, more peaceful, more caring, more blessed - I sit up and listen. When they say how it's transformed their lives and made them a new person, I can't help but smile, and some bit of me even wants to cheer them on.

But there is no love when I look at how a good number of Christians are reacting to this ruling on the Ashers bakery. There is no grace extended, no charitable will in serving another, no appreciation of forgiveness that might instill humility. There is no real cry for justice, only for a one-sided defense of discrimination.  Self-entitlement, rather than self-sacrifice, seems to be the order of the day. I don't see transformation or rejuvenation, nor do I see Christ-like behavior, I see all the hallmarks of the "fallen" and "sinful" past they say was left behind when their savior redeemed them. Anger, selfishness, bitterness, resentment, fear, arrogance. I see shining examples of what I don't want in my own life.

The Bible doesn't actually endorse anything like freedom of speech or freedom of conscience. Many of the Old Testament commands prescribed death by stoning for those who might have a different way of doing things. For worshiping other gods (Deut. 13:5-10), for blasphemy (Leviticus 24:16), for adultery (Deut. 22:23-24), for disobeying your parents (Deut. 21:18-21), and for breaking the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-56), you were to be killed. In the New Testament, Jesus warns his followers, "I have not come to bring peace, but a sword," and predicts that his message will divide families against each other (Matt. 10:34-36). Those who blaspheme the Holy Spirit, he says in Luke 12:10, will never be forgiven. Intolerance is biblical, you could say.

So what real justification is there for a Christian refusing to bake a cake supporting gay marriage? Note what the cake was not saying. It was not saying, "The maker of this cake supports gay marriage." It was not saying, "Gay marriage is biblical."  It was not saying, "God loves gay marriage." In that respect it is nothing like Robertson's poorly thought out analogy to a Muhammad cake, since the actual equivalent would be a cake blaspheming Jesus - not even close to what was really requested. The ordered cake would've said simply, "Support gay marriage," in the same way we see campaign flyers everywhere urging us to support one or another candidate for public office. It was perhaps a suggestion to others, but most of all it was to be a statement of the beliefs of those who ordered it. In our capitalistic Western society, especially in this age of mass production, there is a general understanding that what craftsmen and employees make isn't necessarily something they wholeheartedly endorse, or even like at all (if you've ever worked at a food place you'd never eat at, you know exactly what I'm talking about!). To suppose that making the cake in question would have been any sort of reflection on the Ashers bakery is practically ludicrous.

Well, except for one thing. It would have said the bakery cares most about meeting its customers needs. It would have said they act out of diligence and service rather than personal interest. It would have said they know the impact a kind gesture can have, especially on those who know you feel differently. It seems to me it could have been a great opportunity to show that selfless love of Christ that I've heard so much about from Christians in my life. Instead, the decision to refuse the order only communicated that, "my beliefs are more important to me than you are."

"There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy," reads James 4:12. "So who, then, are you to judge your neighbor?" Paul cautions his audience in Romans 2:1: "you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things." Similarly, Jesus says in Matthew 7:1-2: "Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get."

Is it passing judgment on someone to refuse to bake a cake for them? The reasoning behind the refusal is, as one Christian has told me, to keep a clear conscience by abstaining from participation in an event 'celebrating' gay marriage. We've already disputed some of these concerns, but the bigger point is that such a basis for refusal is still an instance of judging your neighbor. You think gay marriage is wrong. You feel you have the right to protest why you think it's wrong. You feel you have the right to specifically protest it to the person who orders the cake from your store. Somewhere along the line there, from step 2 to 3, a personal belief turns into a judgment cast on another person. In essence, what the Ashers bakery was saying was, "What you are asking me to do is wrong, so I'm not going to do it."

Of course, the real kicker is that the Bible certainly has not a thing to say about the ethics of baking a cake with some words about gay marriage on it. The wrongfulness is about more than the cake, it's allegedly about what it represents, and therein lies the catch. The Ashers Baking Company felt obligated to not just refuse to bake a cake, but to protest a sexual orientation and "non-traditional" form of marriage to someone who believes in it and is perhaps living it. That is judging your neighbor, plain and simple.

Some may try and argue that judging others isn't actually wrong for Christians. After all, there are passages in the New Testament that basically address how to judge and deal with the behavior of members of the church. Yet these passages are quite a bit removed from the situation with the Ashers bakery. Internal ecclesiastical maintenance is a different beast from serving customers as a business. It's also unconvincing to suppose that making a cake with a pro-gay message is anything like guilt by association, and it's a far cry from being in a homosexual relationship yourself. So while the Bible itself may denounce homosexuality, that fact alone can't be of terribly much help in as complicated a situation as this "gay cake" ruling, and the Bible likewise denounces judging others, as we've seen.

Can a Christian consistently show the love of Christ in serving others and still maintain their conscience by declining to do something supportive of a cause which they believe to be sinful? In theory, yes, of course. But conscience is a tricky and convoluted field of emotions and thoughts and reasons, and sometimes it is used as an excuse to prevent further introspection into one's beliefs. This is particularly odd in the case of Christianity, a religion that teaches that our human faculties, including our conscience, have been corrupted by sin. It's not uncommon to hear opponents of gay marriage argue against resting an opinion on the subject on what one conscientiously feels, but in this case conscience is interestingly brought front and center. Might it be that this is an instance where conscience can be deceiving for some of us?

Would Jesus bake a cake he disagreed with? If the question seems silly, perhaps the objections to it are silly, too.

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