Let me give you the punchline right out the gate, and then I’ll explain myself: I find the idea of legislating public discrimination as the antithesis of religious liberty as we are taught by our Christian scriptures. It is an egregious error to use one’s faith as a reason to deny service to anyone in the public arena based on one’s personal held beliefs and/or the other’s sexuality or perceived sexuality and decisions of conscience. We must hold true to the values Jesus related to us to be of the greatest importance, loving God and loving our neighbors. We also must hold to the example of Jesus, the suffering servant, the powerful-yet-disenfranchised Lord, the One who gives his all for others. (Matthew 22:34-40)
In Arizona they have done what was attempted just a few days before in Kansas, they passed State legislation removing legal penalties for denying business services and public access of services to someone based on their sexuality, if the reason for that denial of service was justified by the provider’s religious convictions. This has been called and defended as an expression of “religious liberty.”
The problem with this scenario for Christians is that our scriptures teach us the exact opposite about liberty. Jesus teaches us about the problematic exercise of judgment and the imperative expressions of love for all people, and he models a life and ministry which seems to have no filters for picking and choosing with whom he will minister and associate. He is seen in the homes of the wealthiest and most influential, and he’s on the street defending a guilty “sinner” against an angry mob. He heals all those who come to him and denies his followers request to punish those who do not accept him. (Matthew 7:1-6, Matthew 5:43-48, Luke 14:1-14, John 8:1-11, Luke 9:51-56)
Jesus is the one who removes his clothes and wraps himself in a towel to do the most menial of service for his friends, washing their feet. When he finishes washing their feet he says to them, “My very position and authority, my power, as Lord and teacher, make me a servant. Now you should be servants as well.” (That is, of course, my paraphrase.) Jesus takes our understanding of power and authority and inverts it so that any power and authority we have becomes the basis of service to others and not service to ourselves. This is a crucial understanding of our Christ that should not be overlooked right now because we have a special opportunity in our democratic system of government to live this and experience this very truth in a real way. We have power and position based on our ability to vote and shape public discourse. Will we use that power and position to serve ourselves or others? (John 13:1-17)
The idea of using religious liberty or freedom as a rationale for discriminating against another person and refusing to serve them stands in complete contradiction to the New Testament witness of the freedom and liberty we have received from Christ. This is something that other New Testament writers understood and also addressed in their own ways and in their specific contexts. Paul tells us explicitly that our liberty and freedom are the foundation for service to one another. James will highlight the problem with showing partiality and living judgmentally without mercy.
Paul’s entire letter to the Galatians is dealing with a specific problem in Galatia; they (as Gentile Christians) have been taught by others that after becoming Christians that they must also submit to the Law of Moses, in effect becoming observantly Jewish in order to be truly Christian. Paul discusses the difference he sees in Law and grace, defending their freedom from legalistic requirements. This is an entire letter written about our religious freedom and liberty. (Galatians 1:6-10, 2:11-21, 3:1-14)
Paul strenuously makes his case to the Galatians that in Christ we experience a righteousness (essentially a state of restored relationship with God) while receiving freedom from legalistic performance instead of being righteous through that performance. He sums up his specific arguments about this contrast of religiuos legalism and freedom in the beginning of chapter five by asking the Galatians if they would willing choose a state of slavery over a state of freedom. He then goes on to relate a broader expression of religious liberty in the same chapter, making our freedom in Christ the foundation of service to other people. Freedom then is not just our freedom from legalism, but our freedom is being free from self-service. Paul will frame this broadening of the discussion of liberty by referencing familiar words from Jesus about “loving one’s neighbor.” (Galatians 5:1-12, 13-26)
Paul moves our liberty and freedom into a more global arena. We are free to be servants to our neighbors. And who is our neighbor? According to the way Jesus taught, a neighbor is what we become when we meet the needs of and serve another human being, and a neighbor is a person in need. A neighbor is both a needful person of whom we have an awareness, and who we are when we serve them. It’s troubling that years later followers of Christ would use religious liberty as a rationale to deny service to a neighbor. It’s just too ironic. To be honest I find it more than troubling. It hurts my soul that people might evaluate our God, our Christ, our scriptures or our religion based on such a selfish and hurtful idea. (Luke 10:25-37)
Again, the proponents in the bill in Arizona keep referencing the “attacks” on faith and Christians. In his first chapter James gives us a reminder of a familiar New Testament theme of “joy during adversity.” I don’t feel like anyone is truly facing persecution as a Christian by having to do business with or to relate in a public context with a person of differing sexual orientation, but even I did feel that way, my response should not be to raise my fists or my votes in conflict. I should appreciate the tension and conflict, even if it escalates to a true persecution, as a chance to grow and practice perseverance. God’s love for me transcends any discomfort or stress of life.
We tend to think there’s only joy in dominance, but James reminds us that there’s joy in hardship. He also repudiates responding in anger, but instead advocates shutting our mouths and listening better. It’s an amazing chapter! It probably finds it’s fullest meaning when applied to a time when we might be a minority voice or simply in a conflict of ideas. (James 1:2-12, 19-25)
In the second chapter James will talk about the problem of Christians who show partiality, using as an example a time when they might treat people of different economic levels with an inequity of grace and respect. It’s a problem because God doesn’t show partiality, especially not based on economics. James will also quote the “Second Greatest Command” as named by Jesus, the responsibility to love one’s neighbor. Isn’t that an interesting recurrent theme? When speaking of liberty and freedom, and upholding people’s inherent value and dignity, we keep hearing about our call to love our neighbor.
Again the context is broadened with the evocation of loving one’s neighbor and we can easily see that disparities and diversities exist among us on many levels like economics, race, nationality, education, etc. Our principle of not showing partiality becomes a secondary foundation after liberty for humbly serving all people. This broader application of impartiality is affirmed by the next discussion from James about judgment without mercy. We do not sit in judgment over people, showing a favoritism that values some and devalues others, because we know all about our own dependence on mercy. (James 2:1-13, *8-13)
I think the thing about judging that really messes us up is that we’re often justified in our judgment. By this I mean that others have sometimes actually misbehaved or given evidence of misbehaving. Though this is not always the case, it can be the case, and we can feel very correct and justified in passing judgement. We might sometimes be correct in judging, but being correct is not the point. James brings this home to us with his mercy discussion. Mercy trumps judgment. He says it quite clearly. Mercy wins. Mercy is more powerful than judgement. Mercy defeats judgement. Mercy is greater than judgement and so we are called to be merciful and not to be judgmental.
What does Arizona SB1062 represent? It represents judgment and not mercy. Arizona SB1062 is exactly how we give people a mistaken image and impression about Jesus, about scripture and about our religion.
Taken to their fullest extension, all these passages represent the kind of teaching that should be producing Christians who humbly serve others, even in the environments most hostile to their sensibilities, without the “culture wars” we‘ve been seeing in our contemporary public discourse. Also, this would produce Christians who are vehemently fighting for the rights of other people, especially those not like them.
This has been a long post already and I won’t drag it out it much more. At the end of the day, there are many diverse beliefs and convictions held by Christians (both Christians identifying as straight and gay) about human sexuality, and we are each free and responsible to make our own journey of discovering exactly what we believe and practice in our own lives with regard to the complexity of human sexuality. We are called to study, to pray and to trust God to lead us. What we do not have as Christians is a religious or spiritual license or rationale to deny our neighbor their personal dignity, respect or our humble service to them. Will we embrace the servant’s humility and suffering as we are called to do, or will we try to make the world in our own image, a world where we push suffering off to our neighbors to accommodate ourselves?
If I cannot live out the mandate of Christ to selflessly serve others in my public arena then I have to question if I have an understanding of Christ’s own humble, redemptive service to me. Perhaps I will have fallen into the very thing Paul warned the Galatians about, namely exchanging my restful and gracious dependence on God through Christ with a feeling of entitlement and a sense of deservedness achieved by my exceptional religious performance. That thought scares me because I’ll not stop needing grace any time soon.
Christ has used his power, position and authority to menially (and amazingly) serve me in my messiness and neediness as well as in my goodness and my best effort to live by my conscience. Christ has loved and served the whole of me, redemptively serving me in such a way that I learned of my own value and worth through him. My neighbor, my every neighbor, deserves no less from me, and Christ has asked no less from me. Now, I have to try to live up to that calling as best I can.
*A Note on Scriptural References: After each paragraph I have listed the passages I am using in that moment. When I mention several, they are listed in the order to which they are alluded or referenced in that paragraph. Please don’t take my word for it when wondering what a passage means, but dig in and enjoy!