The Wilderness of Freedom

UnknownIn the summer of 2012, Charlie Craig and Dave Mullins visited a bakery in Colorado to order a cake for their wedding. The owner, a man named Jack Phillips, refused to make them one, arguing that as a Christian, he couldn’t decorate a cake for a same-sex wedding. It was against his religion, he said. The couple filed a discrimination case, and that case, all these years later, has now landed before the Supreme Court of the United States.

The case has prompted many churches and religious groups to weigh in, including our sister church, The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which has also made a submission to the court. And the case has become more complex, raising questions about discrimination and religious and artistic freedom, about the place of faith in the public sphere. I want to talk about the latter issue this morning, especially on the heels of a John the Baptist gospel. Because if there is anyone who would have marched into that cake shop and had his say with Mr. Phillips, it would have been John the Baptist. If there was anyone who argued that faith had a role in the public square, it was him.

So, I want to assume a certain understanding of the situation. First of all, the gospel is inclusive: Jesus did not stand around preaching that we should use our religious beliefs as a shield to discriminate, but as a tool to make neighbors of strangers.  You can say that in a conversation, and someone may quote scripture at you – usually a few lines from the Old Testament – but remember, the gospel is meant to be taken as a sum of many parts, a novel, not short stories – and when they are taken together we can be left with no other interpretation.  On the basis of the gospel, I’d imagine Jesus’ leaning over to a man such as Mr. Phillips and saying, “My good fellow, you have it wrong; there is cake for everyone, and plenty of grace to share.”

Some conservative groups have also come forward to argue that this is about religious freedom. To which, in consultation with the gospel, we could argue that nothing there suggests that religious belief can be used as a weapon to discriminate, harm, or cast out another person; in fact, we have seen many people denied much more serious and essential rights than a wedding cake. It is a slippery slope, and one we don’t want to travel down. If Charlie and Dave will not be served, what about the Muslim-Christian couple that comes in next, or whichever other “group” falls into the other category in the future? Maybe it is cake today and jobs tomorrow, and worse.

But what, then, of the role of religion in the public sphere? One essay I read on this case noted that it was interesting that churches and religious groups were even in the place of making this argument – how even years ago, it was assumed that religion had a clear role in public life. And this did get me thinking. How did the voice of a man espousing the view of Mr. Phillips became the loud one in that public square? Where were the voices of the faithful progressives, the radically welcoming, the inclusive?

Admit it, we are quiet more often than not because of people like Mr. Phillips and other fundamentalists of many faiths who say things that reasonable people would consider hateful, sexist and ignorant. When an American politician tries to justify an adult man’s sexual misconduct with teenage girls by citing Mary and Joseph, we are appalled.

When President Trump stood up, flanked by Christmas trees with his right-wing Christian vice-president, and announced that Jerusalem was the capital of Israel this week and he was going to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv, many people of faith cringed: it was careless, reckless, unnecessary, the kind of act that makes wars worse and moves us all farther from peace.

We don’t want to be part of that. So, we keep our faith in church and these pews, and we are quiet about it in the public sphere. I understand this, believe me. I am extremely proud of my faith, I am proud to be a Lutheran and a progressive Christian. But plenty of conversations have come to quick halts after the question, “What do you do for a living?”

And yet, there is John the Baptist, the radical in the wilderness, who will just not keep quiet, ranting and shouting about faith, not just bringing it into the public sphere, but crashing it down in the middle. And do I think we need to follow his lead? I do. That doesn’t mean we have to shout it every chance we get, but it does mean that we learn to express pride in our faith openly. And it does mean that we make sure that we are not allowing others to control the narrative of faith until their views are seen as the religious mainstream. When we see religion being used as a shield for hatred or discrimination, do we make sure we are as vocal in using it as a tool for love and kindness?

For the record, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, with other Lutheran Church bodies, joined the Episcopal Church and the United Brethren and submitted their point of view in a brief to the Supreme Court. They were in the small camp of religious groups who did not side with the cake-maker.  They argued that finding in favour of the cake-maker would lead to less religious freedom, not more, and allow discrimination against those with different beliefs. They made the distinction that this was the case of a commercial activity – selling a cake did not require the baker to attend a religious service that went against his beliefs. But their brief also makes clear that religious freedom must be balanced to protect the equal dignity of all people. It is not to be used as a shield to keep people out.

But make no mistake: these are complex issues – how do we balance freedoms, religious and individual – in the creation of a just society? We may have different thoughts and our unique experiences to bring into the conversation. Complex issues deserve complex discussion. And we must learn to have conversations like this in a constructive way. The world needs it.

Advent is a time when our faith feels as if it is on display all around us, and yet we may still feel the need to be silent. But we need to talk more about our idea of our role in society, the root of our beliefs, and where that places our responsibility to the environment, to people we don’t know, to those we walk by. We need most importantly to be John the Baptists in the name of the gospel as we understand it. There will always be a Charlie and a Dave. And sometimes it won’t be about cake, or, more accurately, if we are not careful, cake will be the beginning of something much worse. If we arrive late, and the public square is already full of people shouting hate, how will love and kindness ever be heard?

John the Baptist is the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.  His story is part of our divine story.  And it is included in sacred text because we are meant to join our voices with his, speaking truth to power, love to hatred, and gospel to law.  And we do this, not for ourselves, but in preparation for the One who is forever coming into our world.

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