Let Them Bake Cakes (Part 2)?

Posted on February 26, 2014 by

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(In Part 1, I talked a bit about the controversy surrounding gay marriage as it relates to providing public accommodations or services from Christians.)

For me at least, there is one other question that few seem willing to address directly. Is the current homosexual rights movement analogous to the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s? Powers blithely assumes it is, as does Merritt, but there are profound theological and constitutional differences between the two situations. Here I will cover the theological differences, and in Part 3, I will talk about the constitutional distinctions.

Theologically, I think there is no “case” for chattel slavery that is racially based, nor is there a “case” for the racially based governmental discrimination that lasted for a century after the Civil War. There is not, to my knowledge, any biblical evidence that suggests that racial categories are morally problematic and therefore a valid point of conscientious objection. But, the “case” against homosexual actions or same-sex marriage is simpler to make biblically. I am not dictating how we ought to interpret those texts, but there is a reasonable (as defined by reliance on fairly clear biblical teaching) religious objection to same-sex marriage. Of course, this says nothing about what our government policies ought to be in relation to homosexual acts or same-sex marriage, or the potential validity of using those texts to justify a strict legal, and therefore binding, definition of marriage. This is not about how we might create policy, but about how we respond to policies with which we might disagree.

To put the matter in sharp relief, let’s revisit this question of “What Would Jesus Do?” Generally, I think this is approach is thoroughly unhelpful because it strips Christ of theological content by focusing only on his actions, which can be difficult to define apart from the theological content. But, let’s plunge ahead.

If we try to put ourselves in Christ’s shoes, and thereby use him as a model for our own behavior, there is no evidence that Jesus could meaningfully label an African-American, either slave or free, as “sinful” or as a “sinner” in the Old South. If we ask “What Would Jesus Do?” in that setting, we have a clear justification for Christ’s inclusiveness because the characteristic at issue–being a racial minority–cannot, in any universe, be considered morally problematic or worthy of objection if we attempt to take the Bible at face value.

For homosexuals seeking to marry, however, the issue is more complicated because of the biblically defensible belief that homosexual actions are sinful and that same-sex couples who seek marriage represent that sinfulness overtly. Again, let me stipulate that we are all sinners and in need of God’s grace, so the presence of sinfulness does not, by itself, distinguish homosexual actions from other sins, nor does it make homosexuals “more” in need of God’s grace than other kinds of sinners. Christians can reasonably believe, though, that what same-sex marriage represents today is in a different theological category than what African-Americans represented in the South during the Civil Rights Era.

To imply, then, that opposition to one is equivalent to opposition to the other simply elides the moral differences between the two situations. Granted, this does not, by itself, justify any particular behavior, and it does not determine whether or not we should bake the cake, but Christians should not simply lay limp beneath the avalanche of assumptions necessary to sustain the argument that opposition to gay marriage is just a rehash of the racial animus from Jim Crow. Granted, from the world’s perspective, there may be no difference because both groups are defined, they believe, by immutable characteristics, but we should at least argue the case.

We still have not really determined what Jesus would do in our particular context. This question cannot be answered without returning, again, to whether or not homosexual conduct is sinful, but even answering that question does not easily deal with the matter. If it is not sinful, and surely the world does not think of it in those terms, any differential treatment by Christians toward homosexuals seems terribly unjustified and to continue any argument would be futile because of this division. If there is no sin, there is no need for confrontation or condemnation because there is no possibility of redemption. Such discussions are a waste of time.

If homosexual actions, and the re-definition of marriage that flows from them, are sinful, we can at least examine how Christ interacted with “sinners.” In Mark 2:13-17 we read:

13 He went out again beside the sea, and all the crowd was coming to him, and he was teaching them. 14 And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him. 15 And as he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. 16 And the scribes of[a] the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat[b] with tax collectors and sinners?” 17 And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

The focus here is on Christ’s calling of Levi, the tax collector, but we see Christ “at table” with sinners. He is confronted about it, and he responds they are in need of “a physician” because they are “sick.” He then equates this sickness with their status as “sinners.” Christ reclines with sinners, then, so that he might reach them. Notice, he is not calling them in spite of their sinfulness, but because of it. This calling is not a benign interaction that ends with a handshake and a “thanks for inviting me to the party, you have a lovely house,” but with a clear understanding of the nature of the disease and an articulation of the appropriate cure and its source.

Even in Christ’s interaction with the adulteress (John 8:1-11), where he stares down those who wish to stone the woman and forces them to ponder their own faults, he does not excuse her sin or wish it away. He presupposes it when he tells her to “go and sin no more.” However we think of Christ as a model on this issue, and whether or not we might choose to “bake a cake” in this setting, we cannot rely on him to justify simple “feel-goodery” that obviates our responsibility to both love and label sinners. Of course, we should also be mindful that in doing so, we must be willing to label ourselves in the process.

To some extent, the choice to bake the cake (or snap the photos or cut and arrange the flowers) is personal and a matter of conscience. I am not sure Christ’s life tells us how he would respond precisely to this question. We see him socializing with sinners, but we do not see him contributing to a celebration that accentuates their sin. I have no real problem with Christians who make either choice.

The more difficult question is should the state be used to coerce this decision? And, if so, is its coercive power similar to here as it was during the Civil Rights Era? I will examine these issues in Part 3.

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