“Jesus appeared to ‘condone’ what his community considered sinful all the time.”
Aaron Klein, a Baker in Oregon, may face up to $50,000 in fines, for refusing to bake a cake for the wedding of two women, depending on the outcome of a complaint filed January 28 with the Oregon Department of Justice. Klein cites his Christian religious beliefs for his refusal to deliver the wedding cake. The 2007 Oregon Equality Act, which prohibits businesses from discriminating against people based on their sexual orientation and gender identity, among other things, suggests the cake-less couple does have a legitimate legal claim to be served.
I like this Aaron Klein. He and his family appear to be exactly the sort with which I’d chat at a soccer game or sing songs next to in worship. He’s married, with three kiddos whose age/gender lineup seems to match mine. Klein’s earnest insistence—“I honestly did not mean to hurt anybody, didn’t mean to make anybody upset, [it's] just something I believe in very strongly”— rings true to my ear. And as I wrestle to make sense of how this guy—who’s so much like me—ends up in this sticky situation, I can’t overlook the church’s complicity in creating the powder keg culture that breeds this type of blast.
Specifically, modern American evangelicals—who I truly believe really want to love our neighbors who are different than we are—have been given two conflicting messages about how to behave toward those we deem to be “other.”
On one hand, we’ve been warned to keep our distance from the world. And for the most part, we’ve done it. We’ve both steered clear of situations and people who might trigger our own sin temptations and we’ve also avoided situations which could give the appearance that we’re condoning the behavior of others which we deem sinful. While it seems clear to me that Klein does not have a hateful agenda to condemn, it’s also evident that he’s not wanting to appear to condone what his convictions tell him is sin.
But the other message we’ve received, as evangelicals, is the prime directive, from Jesus, to love God and love our neighbors. When we’re honest, we can admit that we do it pretty well with those who are a lot like us and we struggle to find ways to love with integrity folks who aren’t like us. The overwhelming majority of us want, desperately, to love our neighbors whose religion or gender or race or social class or orientation or occupation do not match our own. And, because “love” is such a fluid concept, I’m sure for all those who insist that the most loving thing Klein could do would be to not bake the cake, many others would find cake-baking the more loving alternative.
These two directives—to keep unstained by the world and to love our neighbors—are, by no accident, in constant holy tension. They were for Jesus and they are for us. When we look at the way Jesus engaged with those his community considered sinful, he embraced—and even seemed to go looking for!—this holy tension. He was derided by the Religious specifically because, by lending his presence places like sinner parties, he accepted an “other” exactly as they were.
This week I can’t help but contrast the current Oregon wedding cake debacle to the gracious witness of one Tony Campolo who celebrated the birthday of a Hawaiian prostitute named Agnes, surrounded by her friends, in a greasy diner at 3:30 in the morning. Overwhelmed by the gesture, Agnes asked sheepishly if they could wait to eat the cake awhile. She wanted to savor it. In fact, with the permission of Harry-the-cake-maker, she disappeared into the night carrying it carefully back to her apartment.
That weird unlikely scenario required holy imagination.
Today the church’s lack of such creativity in engaging with those we designate as “other”—whether it’s street-walking Agnes or the same-sex marrying couple, Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter—is a failure to pattern our lives after the person of Jesus. So though we’ve made declarations about what we believe, the safe distance we’ve kept from the world has kept us from loving the ones God loves.
To love—in the offensive way that Jesus loves—I think, would have been to bake the cake.
In fact, I’m of the mind that another Christian sharing Klein’s moral convictions could have, with every ounce of integrity, baked the cake the same way that a Baptist preacher from Philly served one up in the Hawaiian islands. I’m convinced by the gospel witness that whether Jesus-the-baker would have been in favor of or opposed to same-sex marriage would not have determined whether or not he baked the cake.
A number of years back, those who’d gathered at a greasy Hawaiian diner, to celebrate the triumph of God’s great love in Jesus, went home, satisfied, cakeless. However, if Oregon wedding guests go home cakeless in 2013, it is because the church has failed to flesh out the radical offensive love of Jesus.
Margot Starbuck is a speaker, volunteer and author of The Girl in the Orange Dress: Searching for a Father Who Does Not Fail and Small Things With Great Love: Adventures in Loving Your Neighbor. Her next book, Permission Granted: And Other Thoughts on Living Graciously Among Sinners and Saints releases in March 2013.