An Opportunity for Christian Witness in Indiana's Anti-Gay Law

03/27/2015 04:25 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2015

The state of Indiana just signed into law a bill that permits business owners to refuse service to gay customers on religious grounds. This is a despicable law. But it is also an opportunity. Christians in the state of Indiana (at least some of them) have an opportunity to be known more for the people they love than the sins they condemn.

The church needs such a witness today, especially since many proponents of the law profess to be Christian. I am not going to get into the particular details of why I do not like this law. I have done that already. Nor do I want to debate the morality of LGBT. My point is about how Christians behave toward others.

Contrary to what many of my conservative sisters and brothers think, the world is not lost because liberal politics and liberal theology have seeped into the church. Secularism is not the problem. Our anxiety about secularism is the problem. People rarely make sound decisions based on fear. The same is true of the church. Insofar as the world is lost (or the next generation of Christians), it is not because the gays have got the better of us. We let our fears get the better of us. We saw a world that was increasingly seeing God as irrelevant, and so we circled the wagons. We got scared. So we got mean.

I understand where my brothers and sisters are coming from on this issue. I have met very few Christians whom I would describe as intentionally bigoted toward LGBT individuals. Most Christians know they should love gays and lesbians. They just do not want their witness to be sullied by seeming to support sin. The logic goes that if a Christian bakes a cake for a gay wedding, then some (like the people getting gay married) might think she approves of their "life choices." Chick-fil-a professes to be a Christian business. If a local Chick-fil-a were to cater a drag show, then people might think Christians support the "transgendered lifestyle." Of course, by that logic, there are a lot of things Christian businesses should not cater. If Chick-fil-a catered a bat mitzvah, would that mean they preferred Reformed to Orthodox Judaism?

Some Christians believe that the most Christian thing they can do when confronted with someone else's sin is to let that person know of their disapproval. Call me crazy, but I am pretty sure nobody ever came to Jesus because of our self-righteous scowls. As I once heard someone say, being a Christian does not mean I have to tell other people how wrong they are.

That is not to say that Christians support this bill because they worry what other people might think about them. PR is not the main issue here (because this is horrible PR). My sisters and brothers are genuinely concerned about supporting what they see as a sin. In theological terms, we often call this "systemic sin." Let me reiterate that my point here is not to debate whether certain things are or are not sinful. (I am doing more sociology than theology right now.) What matters is that what we believe affects how we behave. One does not need to share a person's beliefs (let alone approve of them) in order to recognize that those beliefs are relevant. And for those who think the best solution is just to change everybody's beliefs...good luck with that!

Some believers feel that baking a cake for a gay wedding (or something similar) would be to enable others to engage in a sinful compact. In other words, providing support for a sin is itself a sin. What I am saying should not be hard for people to understand. Anyone who makes a point to buy fairly traded or locally sourced goods knows that even small economic transactions have a kind of moral gravitas. To offer another example, that is why some Christians get so worked up at the thought that their tax dollars might go to support Planned Parenthood. (If only they would get similarly worked up about their tax dollars supporting war.) 

But morality is almost never black and white, particularly when it comes to the consequences of our actions, consequences which we can never fully control or even know. Consider Planned Parenthood again. I am Pro-Life. I do not give direct financial support to that organization. On the other hand, I recognize that places that perform abortions also prevent abortions. They provide people with sex education, contraceptives, and medical care. My point is not that Planned Parenthood is just peachy. My point is that,'s complicated.

One way to make it less complicated is to love. When it doubt, love. That is where the reasonably well-intentioned (but completely wrong) citizens of Indiana have messed up. My fellow Hoosiers (yes, I am one of them) have announced to the world that being Christian is basically about keeping your hands clean when, in fact, being Christian is about serving other people. Christians often talk a great deal about servant leadership. They point to the example of Jesus in John 13. On the night Jesus was betrayed, he washed the feet of his disciples. Let us not forget that Judas was there too. Judas was a thief (John 12:6), a traitor, and an accomplice to murder, but Jesus did not pass him by. He served the sinner.

I am not saying that one has to violate one's principles. I am saying that the guiding principle of all our acts should be love. If a baker is asked to ice a birthday cake for a skinhead (or a terrorist or whatever), I think she should do it, but that does not mean she should decorate the edges with tiny swastikas. To serve a sinner is not the same as to serve a sin. Skinheads are broken people. They are broken, just like bakers, just like gays and lesbians, florists, and pastors. They are broken just like me. Maybe that is why Jesus told us that, when it comes to sinful behavior, we should not focus on the speck of sawdust in another person's eye. We need to worry about our own planks (Matt. 7). Maybe that is why Paul also said, "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And I am the foremost of sinners" ( 1 Tim. 1:15).

If the Christian thing to do is to deny service to sinners, we would have to deny service to everybody.

But like I said in the beginning, I think we have an opportunity here. It is an opportunity both sides should be able to agree to. Most conservative Christians are defenders of the free market. Many of them truly believe that God guides the capitalist system. (Whatever.) Information access is one of the most basic principles of the free market. After all, market liberals insist that we do not need government regulation because consumers will punish businesses that behave badly. Likewise, consumers will allegedly reward ethical businesses. Whether or not that works in real life is beside the point. This basic axiom of market liberalism presumes, and thus should support, the free flow of information. Capitalism only works when consumers know what is going on. Obviously, we do not need to know everything. Trade secrets are off limits, but it seems reasonable that one should have information about the kinds of people a business will or will not serve. In the state of Tennessee (where I live now), restaurants are required to post inspection scores from the health department. I love this! I have walked into some establishments, looked at their inspection score, and walked out. That information allowed me, the consumer, to make a choice in the free market. It is likewise important that consumers understand the preferences of the business owners. In my state people are allowed to carry guns pretty much everywhere. If a business objects, they have to post a sign to that effect. So I say, if a business does not want to serve gays, then they need to post a similar notice (this idea is not original to me). They need to let consumers decide. I am not sure what that sign would look like (perhaps George Takei's face with a big X over it), but something needs to be there. It is the capitalist thing to do!

That might be the simplest solution. Let businesses be free to discriminate on religious grounds if they want to. And let the rest of us be free not to support them.

But we all know that is not going to happen. So what if we did the opposite instead? I think this is where Indiana businesses have an opportunity, particularly those that claim to be run by "Christian principles." Any business that chooses love and service over keeping their hands clean could post a sign to that effect (George Takei's face with a heart around it?). Even better if the business owners are Christians who oppose Indiana's law! It would be a way of reminding the world that God is love, and that because Christians love, Christians serve. God does not desire self-righteous finger-wagging. God desires people who are patient with each other, who are compassionate despite their differences, and who know that at the heart of the gospel is the very simple, but very hard, command that we treat others as we would like to be treated (Matt. 7:12).

Finally, to my Christian brothers and sisters who disagree with me, I want you to know that I do not judge you. I think this bill is wrong -- immoral even! -- but I understand where it is coming from. It is not coming from a place of hate. It comes from a place of struggle. I think of my skinhead example above. I doubt I could ever be chummy with a skinhead. (To my LGBT readers, I am not comparing you to skinheads; I am saying that some Christians' react to gay marriage like I react to racism.) But I do not think a skinhead would get anything out of my refusal to serve him. I know I would not get anything out of it. I would not be stretched; I would not grow; I would not have to force myself to be gracious despite my revulsion. That being said, I am still not sure that serving the skinhead is the right thing to do. Maybe you are right. Maybe the most loving thing to do when confronted with sin is to rebuke the sinner. That has not been my experience, and I am pretty sure that has not been your experience either. But, like I said, morality is complicated.

My Sunday School teacher used to tell me, "When in doubt, don't!" In other words, if I am unsure about whether something might be a sin, I am to play it safe. I am to keep my hands clean. The result of living that way for some time was that I knew and loved a lot of people who were pretty much like me. But if a Christian really loves a sinner, then she will put herself -- yes, even her very soul -- at risk for that sinner (Luke 10:25-37, 15:1-7). That means we will be less comfortable. We will doubt more. But that is the point. We put ourselves in places of doubt in order that we learn to love. When in doubt, we love.

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