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God, Pastries, and Religious Freedom

God, Pastries, and Religious Freedom May 2, 2015

The Problem

I have to admit that a $135 000 fine for refusing to bake a cake for a gay wedding is a bit steep. That’s what happened to one couple in Oregon when they refused to bake a cake for a lesbian wedding (see here). So what can be done about it?

I think we can agree that people’s religious freedom should be protected and no-one should be coerced into doing something their religion prohibits. It would be wrong to walk into a halal butcher and demand that they provide you with three pounds of pork chops. To demand a Jewish baker make a birthday cake for Adolf Hitler would be bastardly. To ask a Christian baker to bake a cake with the slogan, “Jesus Christ Superfraud” would likewise be horrible. All of us, the religious and the non-religious, have our own sensitivities, and most of the time we can work around them without too much inconvenience to anybody. This is what it means to have a pluralistic society and a multi-cultural work-place. Secularists who insist that religious folks must leave their faith at home simply don’t understand that religion is a way of life and not just an expendable fashion accessory. It is also a mockery to fairness and tolerance if people’s religious values are not accommodated as far as can reasonably be expected in the marketplace.

The question remains does this commitment to fairness in the workplace and freedom of religion in the marketplace extend to the right to discriminate and the right to refuse someone your business? Does a Christian baker have the right to refuse to bake a wedding cake for a gay wedding? Does a Muslim caterer have the right to refuse to cater for a Bar Mitzvah at the local synagogue? Does a Hindu taxi-driven have the right to refuse to pick up a person wearing a shirt saying, “Bob’s Steakhouse”? At one level, we could say that the refusal of business is their loss, but on another level, the person refused would feel more than merely inconvenienced, probably a little alienated. Think of the wider consequences too. Do we want doctors turning patients away because of their ethnicity under the guise of religious freedom? Do we want cafés refusing to serve customers because of their religious apparel, their gender, race, disability, diet, or because of their marital status? The problem is that religious freedom might become a convenient cover for new forms of discrimination and even old forms of segregation.

Christians in the Agora

My own view is that religious freedom is for the common good and in reflex those who enjoy that freedom ought to act for the common good. Faith communities tend to be benevolent and profess to exist for the sake of others, not for the sake of themselves. At least for Christianity, that means putting the needs of others above your own, exercising love at one’s own expense, and bearing the cost of other peoples’ burdens.

I think the Christian Scriptures point us towards such a position. God told Jeremiah that while he was in exile in a pagan city he was to, “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jer 29:7).In other words, seek the betterment of others and blessings for others. Jesus commanded his disciples to love their neighbours and their enemies, presumably even if your neighbour is gay and even if your perceived enemy is an LGBT activist (Matt 5:44; Luke 6:27, 35). The Apostle Paul could say to the churches in Corinth – and Corinth was a city full of pagan religion and sexual excess – “Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God–even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved” (1 Cor 10:32-33). None of this requires being a door mat, surrendering your religious freedom, but if you are a Christian then it does entail a willingness to struggle with the messiness and ambiguity of being in the world but not of the world. Opening a stall in the modern day agora will mean encountering people from all walks of life, people of all faiths and none, and striving to be compassionate to all while remaining faithful to one’s religious convictions. It yields a tension summed up by the author of Hebrews: “Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy” (Heb 12:14). It’s the living in peace with others while trying to be holy among others that Christians should struggle with precisely because it is hard!

It is worth remembering that early Christian leaders were often local business owners and we have no record of them discriminating against anyone whom they did business with. Jesus was a carpenter or stonemason from Nazareth, though he probably did most of his work in nearby Sepphoris, a city with some degree of Hellenistic influence in its architecture and culture. Peter was a fisherman in Capernaum, a small fishing village on the northwest side of the Sea of Galilee, which was close enough to Syria, the Decapolis, and Trachonitis, to do business with Gentiles. The Apostle Paul was an itinerant tentmaker who did business in Greco-Roman cities like Ephesus, Philippi, Thessalonica, and Corinth, cities where homosexual relations were quite normal. For all we know, Paul could have made a tent for some Corinthian aristocrat to host a gay orgy. Here’s my point: The question of whether or not to do business with “pagans” did not seem to be a problem for the ancient church, but looks more like a problem now for those struggling to accept the fact that they live in a post-Christian context.

What the Rabbis Can Teach Us Here

Maybe traditional Christians can learn something from Judaism here. In Judaism, the worst sin of all is idolatry, worshipping graven images of a god, like a statue or a figurine (Exod 20:4; Deut 5:8). However, this did not stop some of the Rabbis from the third and fourth century permitting Jewish artisans to fashion idols and sell them to pagans! It was premised on the idea that Jews would not be seduced into worshipping objects they knew to be worthless and, more to the point, there was good money to be made in it. I’m left wondering if Christians might follow a similar lead. We know that gay marriage is not really “marriage” in God’s eyes, so let the secular folks have their gay weddings, and I’ll just get on making an honest living with the career that God has called me to!

Conclusion

I do not believe in same-sex marriage, but I know that I live in a society where I’m the exception, the odd one out, and I’ve got to learn to live in peace with those who do not share my convictions, precisely so that my faith can still got a fair hearing when I have opportunity to talk about it. So I’d bake that cake to the glory of God and be the nicest possible baker they’d ever met, not despite being a Christian, but precisely because I am one. I want to try to be like the Apostle Paul and be all things to all people so that I might save some (1 Cor 9:22). At the end of the day, the best witness Christians have to the world is the quality of their work and the compassionate character of their service.

Minority Report

Of course, if some LGBT activist came to my bakery and ordered a cake just to humiliate me by making me do something against my religious beliefs or to find a way to seek punitive legal damages against me, then I’d agree to bake the cake, but I’d inform them in advance that I’m donating their money to either the most far right politician I could find or to some gay ministry program run by Catholics or Southern Baptists.

Remember, survival is the strongest form of defiance, and there’s more than one way to engage in passive resistance to a bully.

Be innocent as doves to genuine gay couples and be shrewd as snakes to LGBT activists trying to burn you.

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