Noodling the Cake Controversy

Noodling the Cake Controversy June 9, 2018

So other day, this washed up in my FB feed:

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It is a fairly typical specimen of conservative Christian self-pity from a nation of conservative Christians, acutely aware of the real sufferings of real martyrs throughout history and around the world today and hungry to pretend that their trivial problems are equal to that.

They aren’t.  That’s not to say that there is not a real issue here that needs to be addressed.  But the hype (which, I confess with chagrin, I used to buy and repeat) about gays coming to destroy us all is just that: hype.  Nobody is putting guns to anybody’s heads.  And if we are smart Christians we will stop playing the martyr card and start exercising the virtue of Prudence.

Here’s reality:  the Church exists to evangelize.

Why do I note that?  Because the whole controversy about things like gay wedding cakes seems to me to be stone blind to that fact.  The response of conservative Christians has not, it seems to me, focused on evangelization in the slightest.  It has focused on defending Fortress Katolicus from the attacking orcs that Christians perceive the larger culture to be.  The whole world is Us vs. Them in that telling and They must be stopped.  We’ll be damned before we let them make us do or say anything.  We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender!

And so we come to the struggle over wedding cakes and the larger struggle about the relationship of a Tradition that does not and cannot call a gay union a marriage with a culture that now says, “What’s the problem? Let people have their happy day.”

Time was it was a struggle over serving gay people who wanted to buy a cake for their wedding.  We very properly lost that struggle, because gay people have a right to buy stuff just like anybody else.

Then the question turned to freedom of religion.  Some want to make freedom of religion the basis for denying freedom of commerce to gay people.  But that dog won’t hunt either just as freedom of religion does not give Bob Jones University the right to ban interracial dating or lunch counters in Birmingham from serving black people.  The bottom line is, a gay person has a perfect right to buy a cake or a car or an impossible-to-assemble IKEA desk anywhere in these United States.

But nobody has a right to compel speech from anybody else.  And that is the real sticking point, it seems to me.  A Christian baker can’t refuse to sell a wedding cake to anybody.  But neither does that baker have any obligation to write or or decorate the cake in a way that is contrary to their conscience any more than a Jewish baker should have to decorate a cake with “Mazeltov on your promotion to Imperial Grand Dragon of the Biloxi KKK!”

I know.  I know.  A gay wedding is not a Klan meeting.  But it is, like it or not, a scandalous violation of conscience for many Christians who think that a gay marriage is wrong and that approval of a gay marriage is a sin.  You don’t have to agree with them.  You simply have to recognize that compelling them to create language or art signalling approval of gay marriage is a violation of the first amendment–which it is.  If you have trouble getting the hang of that, just imagine the baker demanding the happy couple accept a cake decorated with the words of Leviticus 20:13. The right to not have speech compelled cuts the cake both ways. And it does not matter in the slightest what the compelled speech is about. It could be about being forced to say The Phantom Menace is the greatest film of our age and it would still be a violation of the First Amendment to make somebody say it if they don’t want to.

So, as a point of law, I agree that a baker is obliged to sell a cake to whoever wants to buy one. I also agree that a baker is free to decorate or not decorate that cake according to the dictates of his conscience and cannot have his speech compelled.

But having said that I don’t think the question is exhausted because I still think that Christians, living in a culture to which they are compelled to bear witness by the command of Jesus Christ, need to think bigger than merely battening down the hatches of Fortress Katolicus. “I won’t and you can’t make me” is not a witness to anybody of anything. It’s a defensive crouch that will, at best, tell every gay person that the gospel has nothing to offer them but contempt and rejection. It says, “You are my enemy and God is your enemy.” And that’s all it says.

Which is a lie.

So how do we think bigger?

Well, to begin with, drop the pose of defensive hostility.  At this point in the game, a gay couple coming into a bakery to get a cake is probably there to get a cake, not to launch a Supreme Court challenge calculated to destroy a Christian baker and inaugurate a nationwide purge of all Christian businesses.

But even if a customer is a militant jerk with a chip on his shoulder there are ways of dealing with this recommended to us by the gospel and modeled by the Tradition.  Let’s consider them.

In Jesus’ day, Jews really did (unlike butthurt American conservative Christians with no problems bigger than Starbucks coffee cups, Google doodles, and Target clerks who say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”) face oppression for their faith.  The Roman occupier could dragoon any Jewish guy into carrying his heavy armor for a mile.  It was not only a pain in the neck, it was ritually defiling for the tender consciences of some Jews under the influence of the hyper-purity of Pharisaism.

What was Jesus’ counsel?

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. (Mt 5:38–41).

Or again, consider the Polish Church under Soviet Communism which was, unlike the situation of soft, self-absorbed American Christianism, actually persecuted.  In 1966, the Polish bishops wanted to celebrate a thousand years of Polish Catholicism by touring the icon of the Black Madonna around Poland.  The Commies forbade it.  So, with absolute genius, like Ella Enchanted, the Polish Church said, “Very well.  We will obey the order you have given us” and they toured the empty frame of the icon around Poland instead.  Every Pole in the country turned out to venerate the frame.

It was a shattering victory for the Church, a complete act of obedience to The Rules, and a crushing defeat for the Rulers.

So suppose (which is not actually happening) some draconian law was passed forcing all Christians to decorate gay wedding cakes or create art celebrating gay marriage.  Then use your head.  There would be a million ways to obey such a directive while not violating your conscience and even bearing real witness to religious liberty against an assault on free speech and religious liberty.  Indeed, it would positively fun to come up with ways  to obey the letter and while subverting the spirit of such a dumb edict.  (“In this is love, not that we loved him, but that he loved us and gave himself for us” would be a great cake decoration to resist the Regime and evangelize at the same time.)

But rather than immediately leaping to the headspace of fantasizing about ridiculous doomscapes of Domination by Totalitarians (something Christianists, not Christians, habitually do) I think it wiser to leap to the gospel and to the virtue of Prudence.

That means trying to build bridges of trust, not walls of hostility.  Recall the wisdom of Forming Intentional Disciples.  Christians perpetually fretting about non-Christians who do not believe in the same morality they do need to get it through their heads: It’s no good complaining that people who do not believe in Jesus do not live by his commands.  Of course they don’t. Why would they?

No. It is our task to call those who do not know Jesus to trust him. Complaining that a non-disciple does not act like a disciple is folly. So we begin with building bridges of trust the unbeliever can cross to curiosity, openness, seeking, and finally intentional discipleship.  Don’t tell me it can’t be done.  I know gay people who have done it and who are devoted disciples of Jesus.  And frankly, in our culture of Christianist malice toward even chaste and obedient gay people, I regard them as miraculous heroes of the faith.

Here’s reality: conservative Christians have decisively and definitively lost the argument about gay marriage in the public square.  It’s over. (And it’s over thanks to Republican SCOTUS appointee Anthony Kennedy, O Christianist sucker.) Face that. So it’s up to you and me, not to non-Christians, to show Jesus.

That does not mean the Church’s understanding of marriage is wrong.  Marriage remains what Jesus says it is: the union of one man and one woman.  But like it or not, we live in a culture that cannot see that any more than Jesus’ culture could see, for instance, that it was fundamentally contrary to human dignity to own or be owned by another human being.  So what did Jesus do when faced with slave owners?  He did not berate them for what they could not possibly see.  He met them at their growing edge and affirmed them for what they could see:

As he entered Caperna-um, a centurion came forward to him, begging him and saying, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, in terrible distress.” And he said to him, “I will come and heal him.” But the centurion answered him, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard him, he marveled, and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.” And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; let it be done for you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed at that very moment. (Mt 8:5–13).

I think that Christians should, as a general rule, take the same approach with gay marriage.  And they even have a model for doing so: themselves.  Because they do, after all, do it with friends and family all the time who are in marriages to second and third spouses, or with children who are living together.  Heck, millions of them even find ways to extend mercy, charity and patience to a sex predator who sleeps with porn stars while his third wife recovers from childbirth and declare him a “baby Christian” whose pecadillos must be given a mulligan.  Catholic Justice Clarence Thomas somehow found himself able to preside over Rush Limbaugh’s third wedding and none of the people fretting about remote material cooperation with evil or anguishing about a minor footnote in Amoris Laetitia had any problem with it.  That’s far more than Jesus did with the Centurion.

So how were people able to perform such prodigies?  By seeing the person was fundamental, not the sin.  They care about keeping the relationship open, so they cut slack.

My point is this: it’s not a stark choice between sin and capitulation, any more than the question of paying taxes to Caesar was.  Render to gay couples what is theirs–that is, their human dignity as human beings loved by God–and to God what is God’s.  If somebody asks you to bake him one cake, bake him two–and then decorate that cake with something that you can actually affirm in good conscience.  Don’t want to pretend you think a gay union is a marriage?  Then don’t.  But you can still say something that is true.  I would, for instance, have no trouble writing “Love one another as I have loved you” or “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God.”

Some will reply “But homosexual love is disordered!”  Well, if it comes to that, so is the love of at least half of the heterosexual marriages that end in divorce in the US, or they would not end in divorce.  So is Rush Limbaugh’s love for his fourth wife.  But the reality is that even disordered love–in fact, usually disordered love–is the nature upon which grace builds in this crazy, disordered world.  And it is perfectly legitimate to pray that God will take whatever love we offer one another and refine it to something that more closely approaches agape.

If we deny that, then we need to face the fact that what we really mean is that people who experience homosexual love and attraction are forever and eternally beyond the reach of the love of God, but the people we regard as culture war allies get a mulligan because we just are complete hypocrites.  And I, for one, refuse to do that for the very good reason that Jesus Christ–who died for every human person without any exception whatsoever–refuses to do that.  I believe we must find whatever way we can to build bridges of love and trust between gay people and Jesus–just as we are already doing with the people in disordered heterosexual forms of love.

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