Seeing news items about a tax professional with a sign saying he would not provide services to same-sex couples, and thinking about the many examples of bakers refusing to make cakes for same-sex weddings, I found myself thinking “WWPW?” That is, what would Paul write?
At first my mind turned to what he wrote about food sacrificed to idols. There is no need to ask questions that might raise qualms for you about what you are being served, or sold. Don’t look for reasons to quarrel and object to the culture and religion that is all-pervasive around you.
I soon realized, however, that those who come as a couple to plan a wedding or file taxes are presenting conservative Christians with a situation that is clearly recognizable as something they object to. Paul’s encouragement to avoid raising any issue unnecessarily doesn’t avoid this one. When people come to you with a request for a wedding cake it may have the name of the couple on it. A tax return definitely will.
However, if we look into this and think about it further, we realize that all throughout the world that the early Christians inhabited, they were entangled with things they disagreed with. Worship of gods, sexual practices, economic injustice, and much else.
The most relevant story is perhaps the one in which Jesus was asked about paying taxes to Caesar. Some said you should not. The coins had idolatrous images on them. What was paid supported Roman idolatry, Roman imperialism, and the entire Roman way of life. Some Jews understandably objected vociferously and considered this inappropriate. Jesus doesn’t follow their line of reasoning. He tells them that the coins that Caesar wants have his image on them and belong to him. They had a coin in their possession, and this itself was telling. No one can completely disentangle themselves from the wrongdoing in their society. Inequity, militarism, and countless other things are woven into how a society functions and anyone who lives within the society is connected to it. It is possible to reduce the extent and the degree, but not ultimately the fact.
Jesus advocates a different approach. Human beings bear the image of God. We belong to God. And so we should offer ourselves to God. If we use a society’s currency we cannot avoid being entangled in its socioeconomic practices and values. But we can commit to making our own individual lives an objection and challenge to what is taken for granted in our time and place.
I am wary of reading anything that sounds very individualistic into the teaching of Jesus. I am also wary of anything that might seem too like the modern American notion of the separation of church and state. Yet there does seem to be something that at least bears comparison in Jesus’ teaching. The fact that you object staunchly to what a nation does is not a justification for hating individuals who are part of that nation. That lesson is older than Jesus. It goes back to Jonah, asked to care about young Assyrians even though he resented the forgiveness of God being extended to the older ones who were responsible for atrocities against his people. Along with Jonah’s proclamation of warning to the Ninevites, God’s willingness to forgive and refrain from judgment might seem to contribute to sin. Surely evil was later done by some who were spared God’s wrath, or by their descendants, if one follows the story in Jonah to its logical conclusion.
Ultimately God cannot be entirely blameless when one considers how God is ultimately responsible for the existence of the universe and everything in it, both its best and worst features.
Those who say they are going to avoid any connection with sin do so selectively. To even attempt to do so consistently would involve major lifestyle changes for all modern people. Jesus calls his followers not to monastic isolation (at least generally) but to getting our hands dirty in seeking to love, help, and serve other. If we avoid serving those we disagree with, supporting those we disagree with, we also avoid loving those we disagree with. Jesus and his earliest followers are consistent on that topic. Loving others takes priority. Avoiding doing wrong has its place, but actively doing good is even more important. Trying to use the former as an excuse for not practicing the latter is itself sin, and so if you follow this approach in an effort to avoid being connected with sin, that proves to be self-defeating.
Of related interest, Hector Avalos (who sadly passed away just recently) published an article on the neighbor Leviticus commands be loved.
John Fea explained conservative concerns about the Equality Act: