Monday, July 6, 2015

On the Baking of Cakes and the Claiming of Rights

There has been a lot of press lately about a bakery in Oregon that refused to bake a cake for a lesbian wedding and was subsequently fined over $100,000 for violating Oregon’s law. I have recently posted a video of a man who called a lot of gay bakeries to ask for a cake to be made for a traditional marriage event that said “Gay Marriage is Wrong.” This generated a lot of discussion and a lot of assumptions about what I do or don’t believe.  And far from being a trivial issue I think the question of what is appropriate for a Christian in business is very important.

I am writing this post mainly to and for conservative Christians and conservative/orthodox pastors who are considering their responses to this question. I was not actually sure where I stood on this for a while, so I have done what I usually do, which is study and pray. I have a biblical argument to make, so I don’t necessarily think non-Christians or even liberal/progressive Christians will be interested, but for those folks who share a common sense of the authority of the Bible, I want to share this view in the hopes that it will encourage them to think about this issue in a different way. I would welcome reasoned critique and discussion, particularly (but not exclusively) from my conservative/orthodox brothers and sisters.  I am certain some of you will disagree with me.

Let me say this as clearly as I know how: I do not support the bakers or any other vendors who deny service to those who are LGBT or those in other religions. I don’t think that serving someone is equivalent to supporting their belief system or even supporting their actions. And though it may be the legal right of someone to deny service, I don’t think Christians should claim that right. In fact, I think Christians should be far more concerned about their responsibilities to serve the world than about their rights in the world.

The bible does not say to reject commerce with other peoples except in some very narrow circumstances. It says not to worship the gods of other nations, but not to stop trading with them. In fact, through the prophet Jeremiah, God told the Israelites who were in exile:
 4 The LORD of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims to all the exiles I have carried off from Jerusalem to Babylon:
 5 Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce.
 6 Get married and have children; then help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands in order that they too may have children. Increase in number there so that you don't dwindle away.
 7 Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because your future depends on its welfare.
 (Jer 29:4-7 CEB)
“Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile” does not mean, “worship the Babylonian gods,” but it must mean to work with the people of the city.

In Exodus we have commandments about the importance of treating well those among you who are strangers, aliens, immigrants, what-have-you, and the reason given is that you should remember that you were once a part of that group.  21 Don't mistreat or oppress an immigrant, because you were once immigrants in the land of Egypt. (Exo 22:21 CEB)  The immigrants mentioned here are not necessarily worshipers of Yahweh, so upholding their legal rights has nothing to do with them and their beliefs. It has everything to do with the nature of God and of the covenant call to be a blessing to all families of the earth.

Another passage that I think bears on the situation is also in Exodus:
4 When you happen to come upon your enemy's ox or donkey that has wandered off, you should bring it back to them.
 5 When you see a donkey that belongs to someone who hates you and it's lying down under its load and you are inclined not to help set it free, you must help set it free. (Exo 23:4-5 CEB)
You are not required to agree with your enemy, but you are required to help him.

If we are going to take seriously the moral commands in the Old Testament, we need to take these moral commands seriously as well. I don’t want to do these things, but I don’t see God really giving me a choice if I am going to be faithful.

When we come to the New Testament, Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount need to be carefully considered. I think the most relevant portion is this:
38 "You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
 39 But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well.
 40 When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too.
 41 When they force you to go one mile, go with them two.
 42 Give to those who ask, and don't refuse those who wish to borrow from you.
 43 "You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy.
 44 But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you
 45 so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous.
 46 If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don't even the tax collectors do the same?
 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don't even the Gentiles do the same?
 48 Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete. (Mat 5:38-48 CEB)

If the commentators are correct, the “force you to go one mile” refers to the ability of Roman soldiers to commandeer people to carry their supplies for a mile. So Jesus is saying to do the second mile out of love. Carrying the supplies of the Roman soldiers did not imply that one was in agreement with the Roman government or with the wars of the Romans.  It did mean that you were to witness to them, not by standing on your rights – I only have to carry this one mile – but by showing love through service – I willingly bear this burden for a second mile because I want to display God’s love for you. Also remember that Jesus healed the Roman centurion’s servant and was able to recognize the man’s faith even though Jesus certainly challenged the authority of Rome.

Verses 46-48 are the kicker: if you only love those who love you, you are no better than anyone else. How will that show the nature of God to the world? Only by showing God’s love will you be able to shine your light. 

Jesus was able to say these things and still call people to account for their sins, so showing love is clearly not equivalent to acceptance of sin. In fact, Jesus came to destroy the power of sin, so that we would not be ruled by sin and evil any longer.

Another passage that seems to have something to say is that of the “Good Samaritan.” The Pharisees knew that they were supposed to love God and love neighbor, but were not sure who their neighbor was. The parable did not tell them who their neighbor was, instead, the parable suggested how to be a good neighbor – which included caring for someone who was outside of your own religious and racial group.

I have expressed concerns that those who want to justify gay marriage are stretching the scriptures about “love” way too far. I think that what I have called the “Gay Agenda” is more interested in the rights of LGBT folks than in the rights of Christians. However, I am suggesting to my conservative and orthodox brothers and sisters that our own sin has been in narrowing the scriptures that I have referenced way too far.  Our sin has been in believing that our rights were more important than our witness. They are not.

I believe with all my heart that we should hold fast to the teaching that we are given; that we should not be blown about by every new doctrine that comes along. I don’t think the Holy Spirit contradicts scripture in a “new” teaching. But these are old scriptures, and old ideas, not new ones. We are called to be salt and light, which includes both telling the truth about what we believe is wrong and sinful, but also telling the truth about God’s redeeming love. I, for one, find that being salt and light and loving those who seem to be my enemies can be extremely uncomfortable at times. But these are not suggestions from Jesus, they are commandments.

So I would say – bake the cake. Bake the most beautiful cake you can. You don’t usually even know the circumstances of the two people getting married (even if it is man and woman) – you might not approve if you did – but it isn’t their beliefs that matter. It is your beliefs that matter. And most importantly, it is the nature of your God that matters. Witness to the nature of God by serving and loving not just the Christian community, but all the families of the earth.

Postscript 1: I'm not very good at this yet. All I can say is that I am better than I was 5-10 years ago and I hope that in 5-10 years I will have moved forward in my ability to love and serve. I am grateful to have a God of wrath who is trying to destroy the sin and evil in me, a God of grace who forgives my many failings and a God of love who has a lot of work to do to make me into God's image. I shudder to think what I would be like without God.

Postscript 2: In case you wonder, I do not believe that the requirement to serve extends to clergy. Our performance of a marriage ceremony is a clear demonstration of acceptance. This is why we have the ability to refuse to marry or to require counseling. I think that just as a priest would have refused to offer up an animal that was not suitable on the altar, we cannot offer up a marriage that we don’t believe God will bless – whether it is a same-sex marriage or one between a man and a woman that we don’t feel is healthy. Marriage may not be a sacrament in the UMC, but I believe it is sacramental in nature, a means of grace, and an act of worship, as well as a sign of God’s covenant with the people of Israel and Jesus’ covenant with the church.