There has been an intriguing response by evangelical Christians to the possibility that a Belfast Baking company may be found guilty of discrimination for refusing to make a cake with the Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie alongside the slogan: "Support Gay Marriage".
The manager of Ashers Bakery, Daniel McArthur, is a Christian and felt that he could not, in good conscience, provide such a cake because it would be in conflict with his beliefs.
Now let me say here that I am both a Christian and someone who supports the legalisation of gay marriage. I also have some sympathy with Daniel; essentially because church leaders have made Christians believe that such issues are deal breakers in terms of belief. It may well be acceptable to condone buying clothes from manufacturers with poor human rights records but we can't be seen to condone homosexuality.
There is growing evidence that a good proportion of church members are sympathetic to the idea of equality for the LGBTQ community; unfortunately we all have a constituency, and an innate need to belong, and so it is very difficult to be honest about such feelings.
The response for some Church leaders is to suggest that cases like this are proof that Christians are being persecuted.
The lawyer representing the Asher's Bakery has said that if they are found guilty of discrimination then we could end up with many other people being scrutinised. He offers the following list of examples :
• A Muslim printer refusing a contract requiring the printing of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed;
• An atheist web designer refusing to design a website presenting as scientific fact the claim that God made the world in six days;
• A Christian film company refusing to produce a “feminist/female-gaze” erotic film;
• A Christian baker refusing to take an order to make a cake celebrating Satanism;
• A T-shirt company owned by lesbians declining to print T-shirts with a message describing gay marriage as an “abomination”;
• A printing company run by Roman Catholics declining an order to produce adverts calling for abortion on demand to be legalised.
I am sure that these suggestions will raise the fear factor in many congregations and the idea of Christians being the new minority will be again trotted out. 'What about our freedoms!' You will hear them say.
So what are we Christians to make of this? I fully accepted that there are no easy answers but I would like to offer the following observations:
1) The thin end of the wedge argumentation used by the lawyer above is not helpful when it comes to creating laws. Technically everything has the potential to be a thin end of a wedge towards some scenario that we might find frightening. The fact that we have the freedom not to vote at the next general election could be said to be the thin end of the wedge towards chaos. It is a ridiculous suggestion. This possibility should not be used to remove our freedom to abstain from voting.
2) Human rights do not exist in a vacuum. Every human right is at some level in conflict with the rights of others. The rights of people not to be enslaved is in conflict with someone else's rights of ownership. Rights are a negotiation between those in power and those under some form of oppression. Will giving equality to the LGBT community limit the rights of people who do not agree with homosexuality? Yes. But this in itself does not make the freedom wrong.
3) The call of Christian discipleship is for us to imitate Christ. Philippians has some key verses on this that I believe can help us to create a correct internal emotional posture when we approach difficult issues.
'Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.'
Here we see that Christ Jesus let go of his advantage (his power base) and sided with those in need. He became a servant. I love that it says that he didn't regard his advantage 'as something to be exploited'.
This is where I have a problem with both the bakery and the Christian community that is taking a principled standard. For centuries Christianity has had the advantage. It has created our laws, blessed our financial institutions, and educated our children. The LGBTQ community, however, have been subject to an unholy disadvantaged. Those of us who are heterosexual can know nothing of the pain of suppressing one's true sexual identity in order to escape systemic oppression.
Now even if a local bakery is not the cause of direct oppression it does still benefit from a system of belief that favours it over and against those in the LGBTQ community. As I have already shown we who posses the advantage are to release our control in order to become servants. Christ did it and we are to have the same mind.
In doing so God was breaking the cycle of enmity with the human story. He sided with those who were under the control of sin and death. In a violent world Christ did not respond with violence but with compassion. Before telling us that Christ 'bore our sins in his body on the cross' 1 Peter 2 tells that 'When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten'. This is Christ-like cycle breaking.
So are the Bakery owners rights being limited in the search for equality for the LGBT. Community? Yes. Does that stop them being advantaged? No! They will still be able to bake cakes, make a living, go to church, believe what they want.
It is time for those who want to have the same mind as Christ, to let go of their advantage for long enough to see that freedom for those who have been oppressed is a godly goal. At times we even need to turn our prejudices into cakes for those we don't necessarily agree with.