By Rachel Held Evans
For those who believe in the dignity and value of gay and lesbian people and who support LGBT equality both in the U.S. and abroad, it’s been a rough couple of weeks.
Coverage of the Olympic Winter Games brought Russia’s anti-gay laws back into the conversation and exposed some of that country’s cultural prejudice against LGBT people.
And in Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni signed into law a bill that makes homosexuality punishable by life in prison. The following day, the front page headline of a popular Ugandan newspaper read, “EXPOSED: Uganda’s 200 Top Homos Named” with several photographs next to the headline. (When similar articles were released in 2011, a gay rights activist was found beaten to death in his home.) It has been said that the Ugandan government was influenced by evangelical Christians from the U.S., and indeed Museveni’s argument that gay and lesbian people are “disgusting” has been echoed by Thabiti Anyabwile of the Gospel Coalition, who has spoken positively about similar legislation in Liberia and Russia.
Here in the U.S., several states—most recently Kansas and Arizona— have been considering bills that would ensure the protection of businesses that refuse service to gay and lesbian people.
While these bills may have originally been proposed in response to a few isolated incidents in other states (in which, for example, a baker refused to bake a cake for a wedding between two men), the language is broad enough and vague enough to empower individuals or businesses to refuse to serve anyone whose presence violates “deeply-held religious beliefs.” It would allow a restaurant owner to hang a “NO GAYS ALLOWED” sign in his window, or a hotel manager to turn away a gay couple, or a doctor to insist on only treating straight people.
This is a serious overreaction to the wedding cake scenario, and at least in Arizona, totally unnecessary, as the state already allows discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
It has been disheartening to see evangelical Christians remain silent on the injustices in Russia and Uganda and then rally in support of these discrimination bills in the name of religious freedom.
Religious freedom is the banner under which this decade’s culture wars are being waged, and so, while there are many angles to this story we could discus, I’d like to focus on this one.
Evangelical Christians in America enjoy incredible religious freedom, perhaps more than any other group in this country. Christians remain the religious majority in the U.S. Every American president has identified himself as a Christian, and Christians make up the overwhelming majority in both the House of Representatives and Senate. If you are a white evangelical Christian in the U.S. you are unlikely to be “randomly” screened by the T.S.A. every time you try to board an airplane. It is unlikely that you will face protests and governmental obstruction when you attempt build a new place of worship, which is a reality faced by many of our Muslim citizens.
And yet despite enjoying majority status, significant privilege, and unchallenged religious freedom in this country, we evangelical Christians have become known as a group of people who cry “persecution!” upon being wished “Happy Holidays" by a store clerk.
We have become known as a group of people who sees themselves perpetually under attack, perpetually victimized, and perpetually entitled, a group who, ironically, often responds to these imagined disadvantages by advancing legislation that restricts the civil liberties of other people.
But living in a pluralistic society that also grants freedom and civil rights protection to those with whom one disagrees is not the same as religious persecution. And crying persecution every time one doesn’t get one’s way is an insult to the very real religious persecution happening in the world today. It's no way to be a good citizen and certainly no way to advance the gospel in the world.
Now, one could argue all day, from a strictly civic perspective, about whether a person should be allowed to deny services to another person on account of religious differences. Maybe they should; maybe they shouldn’t. I don’t know. It's a complex issue and I can see both sides. (Most gay folks I know wouldn't sue a vendor for refusing to provide wedding services, but would choose someone else. Suing, I think, is a bad idea for everyone.)
But what I want to address here is whether followers of Jesus should devote their time and efforts to rallying in support of legislation that would empower business owners to deny services to gay and lesbian people (many of whom are fellow Christians, by the way) or whether, as Andy Stanely puts it, “serving people we don’t see eye to eye with is the essence of Christianity. Jesus died for a world with which he didn’t see eye to eye. If a bakery doesn’t want to sell its products to a gay couple, it’s their business. Literally. But leave Jesus out of it.”
I'm with Andy on this, because I can’t help but think of the words of Jesus:
“If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you… Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
You know who was actually persecuted for their religious beliefs?
Jews under Roman occupation in the first century.
And you know what Jesus told those Jews to do?
Pay your taxes. Obey the law. Give to those who ask. Do not turn people away. Love your neighbors. Love even your enemies.
When Jesus spoke of “walking the second mile,” he was referring to an oppressive Roman law that allowed a traveling Roman solider to demand that a stranger carry his pack for up to one mile. No doubt some of Jesus’ first listeners had been forced to do just that, to drop their farming equipment, fishing nets, or carpentry tools and carry a heavy pack, losing hours of work in the process.
The law allowed the soldier to demand from them a mile, no more. Jesus told his followers to walk two.
As Christians, our most “deeply held religious belief” is that Jesus Christ died on the cross for sinful people, and that in imitation of that, we are called to love God, to love our neighbors, and to love even our enemies to the point of death.
So I think we can handle making pastries for gay people.
And I think that refusing to serve gay and lesbian people, and advancing legislation that denies others their civil liberties in response to perceived threats to our own, does irreparable damage to our witness as Christians and leaves a whole group of people feeling like second-class citizens, not only in our country, but also in the Kingdom. There may be second-class citizens in the U.S. and in Uganda and in Russia, but there should be no second-class citizens in the Kingdom.
As I’ve made it clear in the past, I support marriage equality and affirm my gay and lesbian friends who want to commit themselves to another person for life. But even if I didn’t, even if I believed same-sex marriage was a sin, I could never, in good conscience, throw my support behind a law that would put my gay and lesbian neighbors behind bars for being gay or allow businesses free range to discriminate against them because of their orientation.
Because over and beyond my beliefs regarding homosexuality is my most deeply-held conviction that I am called to love my neighbor as myself…even if it costs me something, even if it means walking a second mile.
I've been watching people with golden crosses around their necks and on their lapels shout at the TV about how serving gay and lesbian people is a violation of their “sincerely-held religious beliefs.”
And I can't help but laugh at the sad irony of it.
Two-thousand years ago, Jesus hung from that cross, looked out on the people who put him there and said, "Father, forgive them." Jesus served sinners all the way to the cross.
The truth is, evangelical Christians have already "lost" the culture wars.And it's not because the "other side" won or because evangelicals have failed to protect our own religious liberties. Evangelicals lost the culture wars the moment they committed to fighting them, the moment they decided to stop washing feet and start waging war.
And I fear that we've lost not only the culture wars, but also our Christian identity, when the "right to refuse" service has become a more sincerely-held and widely-known Christian belief than the impulse to give it.