WWJD?

The standard go-to response for certain Christians trying to find their way through a sticky ethical/moral morass.  It’s an admirable goal but oftentimes a difficult one to attain.  We can know what Jesus did, but extrapolating what He would do from what He did is no easy business, and perhaps even a dangerous one. Still, we’re compelled to try, it seems.

So a colleague of mine posted this article a few weeks ago on Facebook, where an evangelical attempts to refute some of the standard conservative Christian objections to issues where Christian business owners are expected to provide services for things they don’t approve of, such as gay marriages.  I think that overall it is very good food for thought.  
However compellingly it is written, it seemed less than convincing though, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.  I think my finger is closer to the mark now, so I’ll offer these thoughts on Mr. Jethani’s article.
First off, I’m in favor of anything that promotes intelligent dialog, regardless of whether or not I agree with the stance of the other person.  I think Mr. Jethani has written a very respectful article, and I appreciate that greatly in light of much more polemical material out there.
1.  The Biblical Argument – Mr. Jethani refers to the situation of Naaman the Aramean in 2 Kings 5 as grounds for his argument that Christians should not consider participation in an event they don’t agree with as inappropriately condoning, supporting, or encouraging that event.  Naaman begged from Elisha to assure him that God would forgive Naaman when his duties called him to escort his king to a pagan temple to worship, necessitating Namaan’s kneeling alongside his king, even though Naaman was not worshiping the pagan deity.  Elisha does indeed send Naaman back with an assurance that this is not problematic to God.
However, this is an exception given in an overall Hebrew/Israelite culture of very strict separation.  Hebrews were not permitted to interact casually with foreigners.  They were intentionally separated from the people around them as an offering to God and a light to the world.  And it was God who commanded this. So if you’re going to go to the Old Testament in search of an example of radical inclusiveness, you’re really fishing in the wrong waters.  Much of the point of the Old Testament was that God commanded a separation that his people were not only unable, but also often unwilling to keep, necessitating God’s chastisement and judgment.  Naaman’s exemption from this requirement recognized his rather unique situation, both as a convert to worshiping the Hebrew God, and his existing, prominent role.
Frankly, Mr. Jethani’s later arguments about how baking a cake for a Hindu service or an atheist wedding or any other non-Christian event would, logically, be the same thing as baking a gay marriage cake is far more compelling, though not in the way he intends it.  He is pushing for a consistency that we are uncertain applies in the particular instance of the Colorado baker.  Frankly, Jethani’s logic is good.  But it leads to the greater assertion that a business owner should be able to say who they will and won’t serve.  If the business owner, Mr. Phillips, is willing to bake cakes for other non-Christian weddings, but not for gay marriages, there is a personal inconsistency on his part.  But is personal inconsistency a grounds for overriding his personal freedom to run his business more or less as he sees fit?  Which leads directly to…
2.  The Discrimination Argument – Here Mr. Jethani equates refusal to design a custom wedding cake for a gay marriage with refusing to service people of another race, something we all agree is not a good policy or way of being human or Christian.  However, are these really the same things?  We assume that discrimination of any kind is always wrong.  However, that is not the case.  Discrimination can be a matter of which side of the issue you happen to stand on.  
Legalized discrimination, is a different matter.  Stating in the law that people MUST discriminate against others is certainly wrong.  However recognizing that different individuals have different tolerances and prejudices is by and large a matter of understanding human nature.  I’m not sure that attempting to legally force people NOT to discriminate is ultimately any more helpful or ethical than forcing people TO discriminate.  
I’ll go out on a limb and say that what anti-discrimination laws have done over the last few decades is not eradicate racial prejudice.  We’re reminded on a regular basis that this still exists, long after we thought we had eradicated it.  Rather, what anti-discrimination laws have done is require people to be more creative when they decide to act on their prejudices.  Now, instead of a business owner telling someone that she won’t hire them because of their age, or the sexual preference, they must come up with another reason.  They do so at their own risk.  They might be taken to court and accused of being discriminatory even if they didn’t say or do anything technically discriminatory. 
Ask anybody over the age of 55 who is looking for a job and they’ll be the first to tell you that their age is working against them even though it is illegal to not hire them because of their age.  We know discrimination.  It exists and always will exist at a personal level.  Whether a culture or society decides to institutionalize that discrimination is another matter.  
Forcing business owners to do things that they don’t want to do is not a good thing, whether insisting that they do discriminate or that they don’t discriminate.  Respecting personal attitudes – particularly in our age of alleged tolerance – seems the far more reasonable thing to do, understanding that different people will act in ways that we do or don’t personally approve of.  And we can take our money elsewhere accordingly.  
(As an aside, I still feel like this is a wobbly argument on my part, like I’m overlooking something basic.  Either that, or I’m just so indoctrinated about these things that attempting to question them automatically makes me doubt myself.  Either way, I’d very much like some intelligent thoughts on it)
3.  The Slippery Slope Argument – Just because businesses are forced to make changes doesn’t mean churches will.  Again, racial issues are used as the blueprint for this argument.  The government hasn’t forced churches to marry people of different races, therefore the government won’t force churches to marry people of the same sex.
This argument would be a lot stronger if we hadn’t had 40+ years of intervening cultural and political revolution.  This argument would be a lot stronger if the government had not repeatedly and consistently tried to force religious organizations and churches to violate their faith fundamentals for a purported larger good.  But the government has tried these things.  Very recently.  The government is succeeding in a large degree still with Obamacare, even if it has failed in other venues.  
I’d like to think that the social revolution of 40+ years ago was a wake up call to churches, a moment when God uti
lized secular powers to demonstrate to churches that they were going down the wrong path, pursuing a line of theology that is nowhere supported in the Bible.  Today, I don’t know of any churches that would still argue against inter-racial marriages.  I’d like to think that this is the result of better Biblical scholarship rather than just indoctrination.  But it may have taken the State to get that internal dialog going.  The State never needed to force churches to marry different races together because (at least in my naive understandings), churches by and large admitted that they were wrong and voluntarily modified their practices.  
But just because the State could function in that way in one instance doesn’t mean that every time the State acts it will have a properly corrective function on the Church.  And it doesn’t necessitate the conclusion that the State will never utilize legal precedent to force changes in practice (if not in doctrine) in a religion.  
Frankly, the Church-State relationship seems to have changed dramatically since the late 1960’s.  As such, to predicate this argument solely on what happened back then seems naive.  While I’d like to side with Mr. Jethani’s optimism on this count, current events don’t allow me to.  
I’m still grappling with this article and the points Mr. Jethani makes.  I think the strongest arguments are likely to be made on the principles of free enterprise, rather than religion.  The dangerous precedents that are being set here are primarily economic ones, not religious ones.  Once again, I think that painting this issue over what a business owner can and  can’t do as a religious issue is a way to mask a more far-reaching encroachment on personal liberty, something that everyone should be concerned about, regardless of your particular religion or sexuality.  

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s