It seems one has to be a lawyer, and for that matter a religious liberty specialist, to parse the fine details of the vetoed Arizona “religious liberty/license to discriminate” law. What kinds of business/service discrimination are permitted, specifically in Arizona, on the basis of religious liberty? Do those rights apply to churches only or might they be extended to cover private businesses run by religiously devout owners? Is the best legal analogy to the Civil Rights movement, and do we risk reinstituting a type of Jim Crow segregation? Or is it to the religious liberty exemptions offered to churches? Is a business — a flower shop, a cake decorating business, a catering company — more like a public accommodation or more like a church?
Why does it always come down to the lawyers? Why does every conversation default to rights-talk? Why are Christians today joining the parade to the law offices?
Why does every conversation default to rights-talk? Why are Christians today joining the parade to the law offices?
I wonder if anyone remembers what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 6?
When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels — to say nothing of ordinary matters? If you have ordinary cases, then, do you appoint as judges those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to decide between one believer and another, but a believer goes to court against a believer — and before unbelievers at that? In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud — and believers at that. (6:1-7, NRSV)
These words were written to a socially marginal little congregation in an outpost of the Roman Empire. They had no constitutional protections, no religious liberty exemptions, no social power. Their own stupid squabbles were seeping out into the Roman law courts, and about this the apostle was furious. This was an embarrassment to the gospel, a shameful Christian failure. This community that on the great Day of Judgment would help “judge the world” was not proving competent to judge their own trivial disputes.
Consider the implications of Paul’s payoff line: “To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged?” The principle applies to lawsuits overall. “To have lawsuits at all . . . is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged?” How could Paul make such an argument? Doesn’t everyone need to defend their rights?
Not if their avowed Lord, the center of their faith, absolutely refused to defend his own rights, but instead sacrificed every right on behalf of the salvation of the world.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great German theologian and resister, understood this. In his classic work Discipleship, he writes of followers of Jesus:
No rights they might claim protect this community of strangers in the world. Nor do they claim any such rights, for they are the meek, who renounce all rights of their own for the sake of Jesus Christ. When they are berated, they are quiet. When violence is done to them, they endure it. . . . They do not sue for their rights; they do not make a scene when injustice is done to them. They do not want rights of their own. . . . What is right for their Lord should be right for them.
Let us now imagine the person being invoked so much in this debate — the Christian florist who is asked to provide flowers to a gay wedding. She may believe that the Bible teaches that gay marriage is against God’s plan for sexuality. She may believe that she could claim the right, under the laws of her state or nation, to refuse to provide her services to this kind of couple. She may be afraid that offering this particular service would perhaps signal her approval of this kind of marriage, which she does not want to do.
One option would be for her to support laws like the vetoed SB 1092 in Arizona, or lawsuits pressing toward the same goal. Another option would be for her to say to herself something like this: “I probably should not have to do this. But scripture teaches that resorting to the law and asserting my rights is not the most fitting way to proclaim my allegiance to Jesus Christ, the one who did not defend himself even while being unjustly tried and executed. So I will not claim rights here. I will lay them down.”
But more. There is something more to be said. Our devout Christian florist undoubtedly remembers that Jesus taught that wholehearted love of God and neighbor are the greatest commandments (Matthew 22:34-40). Christian love goes beyond renunciation of rights and into neighbor-love, which “does not insist on its own way” and which is patient and kind (1 Corinthians 13:4-5).
So our devout florist might say something like this: “Perhaps I could, but I will not insist on my own way here. I will be patient and kind toward anyone seeking my services. I will seek to do to them as I would want to have done for me. I will bear Christian witness to them not by rejecting them but by serving them in love. I will leave the judging to God and will be known in this situation by my love.”
Many conservative Christians feel embattled in American culture today. Their prior cultural hegemony and social power are fading. The issue of homosexuality, and now gay marriage in particular, has become the current leading symbol and proxy of that sense of embattlement. To give in here, many feel, is to surrender to an increasingly pagan culture. And so, having lost the “culture wars,” many such Christians are now fighting rear-guard legal battles that increasingly center on protecting their religious liberty rights. If Arizona is any indication, this too looks like a failed legal strategy and a damaging setback for Christians in America overall.
I wonder if my dear Christian sisters and brothers would consider the more radically devout step of looking to the way of Jesus instead. This is the way of service, sacrifice, and love, of rights-renunciation rather than rights-demanding. This, in fact, is the way that turned the pagan Roman Empire into a culture responsive to the gospel. It did not involve lawsuits or rights-talk. It might be worth rediscovering.