Conscience and that Cake!
I have been watching the Ashers ‘equality’ story unfolding for some time, but only now have I decided to go public with my views on this complex issue.
Firstly, I feel great empathy for the owners of Ashers, who appear to be sincere and humble people. They did not seek the media storm that has followed their polite refusal to make a cake decorated with a pro-homosexual marriage message. They did not discriminate against a customer on the basis of sexuality or any other personal trait – they simply felt uncomfortable producing a product that bore a message they could not support in good conscience. I expect the vast majority of sensible people will sympathise with this. I wish this family had not found themselves in the courts and I feel frustrated that a publically funded body has supported the case against them.
Secondly, however, I am uneasy with the Christian protests about the case. Thousands of Christians gathered at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall this week in support of Ashers. Why does this bother me, when I also support them? It’s not that I want to have a go at my brothers and sisters who attended – I’m sure many of them are sincere people who can’t think how else to make their concerns known. My main concern is that I cannot remember seeing the same level of protest by Christians about other justice issues when those being oppressed were not Christians. Perhaps I’m being unfair – maybe there was no single case that provided the opportunity to do so – but shouldn’t we feel even more angered at the injustices of human trafficking and economic inequalities than by the injustice in this case? I worry about how such protests are interpreted by non-Christian people. I suspect that many read it as an attempt by Christians to retain a privileged position in society and to dictate to wider society what they should think and how they should live. Most Christians I know have no desire to do that, but that is how we are perceived and, let’s be honest, there is some justification in this accusation. The Church (or at least some of its representatives), although I believe it has been overwhelmingly a force for good in Western culture and society, has not been untarnished in its handling of power. We are not really facing persecution (I was surprised, on that note, to see a photograph of the owners of Ashers on the cover of a booklet encouraging prayer for the ‘Persecuted Church’). We must not exaggerate the challenges we face, even if we feel threatened. Our brothers and sisters in other countries, especially in the Middle East and in North Korea, are facing real persecution, including the threat of death.
Thirdly, I’m having a hard time imagining a law that could protect the right of Christians to conscientious objection without also creating a loophole for the kinds of unjust discrimination – racism, sexism, sectarianism – that historically blighted our society in Northern Ireland. Christians should agree that it is wrong to treat someone as inferior on the basis of who they are or the lifestyle they choose to live (even if we disagree with their values). In fact, Christians are compelled to honour everyone, irrespective of what they do, simply because they are created by and loved by God (see 1 Peter 2:17 – the word unhelpfully translated ‘respect’ in some English versions is actually the Greek word for ‘honour’). Honour is a much stronger word than respect – it is based on the intrinsic value of the person and does not need to be earned. The issue in the Ashers case is how to protect people from feeling compelled to communicate a message (or support its communication) against their conscience, or rather how to avoid putting them at risk of being unable to operate in business without compromising their convictions. If no accommodating law can be found, there will be some forms of business in which Christians will be unable to engage. Bakeries are unlikely to be in the front line, so long as they don’t offer a ‘print your own picture on a cake’ service, but other types of work will face (and are already beginning to experience) serious challenges, from printers to doctors. There is a real question here about what kind of society we want to have and how law should function to regulate relationships within it.
Fourthly, I struggle to know how to think about the wider shift in society of which this whole affair is symptomatic, namely the gradual decline of Christian influence. I believe in the separation of Church and State. I am convinced that the Church is at its best when it is not tied to the service of the establishment. My reading of the New Testament convinces me that the primitive form of Christian faith is to be on the margins of a suspicious and, often, hostile society. My reading of history leads me to the conclusion that Christianity tends to become distorted when it either serves those in power or seeks to dictate to them. Yet there are very big differences between the situation of the original Christians and our situation today. They lived before the Church became entangled with power and we live in the period when it is being disentangled by a secular State that no longer wants to cooperate. It is not easy for us to adjust to being on the fringes, a misunderstood minority. We can’t be blamed for regretting any decline in the number of Christians in our culture – we passionately want people to know Jesus – but we might welcome the decline in ‘nominal’ Christianity – if it isn’t ‘cool’ to be a Christian and churchgoing carries no advantages, few people will engage in church activities unless they have a living, personal faith. That creates the possibility of a renewal of the Church. In a Christianised society we could take advantage of people’s background knowledge when communicating the gospel. But, familiarity can also breed contempt and the increasing numbers of people who are unfamiliar with the Bible present a wonderful opportunity to explain the greatest message the world has known without having to deal with unhelpful baggage. This transition to a post-Christian culture is a mixed bag of challenges and blessings.
So, I do support Ashers, but I also support fairness and justice for all in our society. I believe that conscience should be protected, but that discrimination should not be tolerated. People have a right to be treated with dignity and honour. People also have a right to engage in honest work and business without being forced to approve, promulgate or promote messages that go against their sincerely held convictions. I hope we can find a way to respect these two rights, rather than setting one above or against the other. It is possible to treat others as equal in value without believing that all opinions are equally valid. Equally importantly, I hope that Christians will find a middle path when responding to this kind of issue – remaining faithful to Scripture in our convictions about faith and morality, but also mirroring the values of Scripture in how we treat and speak to others so that we will both proclaim and represent Christ faithfully.