It’s the kind of story that makes people shake their head and roll their eyes. “It could only happen in Northern Ireland,” we say. “You couldn’t make it up.” And “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.”
We want to laugh because we’re all talking and arguing and going to court and having public meetings about… a cake. Or rather the absence of a cake. With Bert and Ernie (not) on it.
We want to cry because… Well, you know why. Raised voices, polarised and entrenched positions, simplistic arguments, very little listening – we’ve seen it all too many times before, over flags and parades… And now a cake. It’s hard to see how an argument like this has any winners.
I don’t actually want to write about the specifics of the Ashers case. Plenty has been said already, though I wish there was more room in the public discussions for some nuanced views. I appreciated this article in the Belfast Telegraph because it breaks out of the predicatable polarised positions and talks a lot of sense. (It’s also maybe a good primer for those from saner parts of the world who have no idea what I’m talking about).
What has troubled me more and more as the story has rumbled on is the wider “campaign” or “movement” being stirred up in Christian circles in support of the bakery. I don’t doubt for a second that many of those joining that campaign are doing so for good and sincere reasons, but I wonder if we need to pause and take a breath.
Two and a half thousand Christians packed into the Waterfront Hall to show their solidarity with Ashers – the Telegraph ran a front page picture with the headline, “The Christians fight back.” A few weeks ago an event was held in a hotel round the corner from our house and our church, under the title, “Faith under Fire.” And people are taking to Facebook and other social media to publically show their support and call others to do the same.
Here’s the heart of my concern: there’s a story being told here, a wider narrative, about Christians being persecuted, faith being under pressure and under fire. And I think that narrative is deeply, deeply unhelpful, and damaging to the cause of the gospel in our land.
It was clarified for me when I heard a member of the baking family refer to the court case as “David against Goliath.” Now, that analogy might work if it’s just a matter of a family business against the Equality Commission. But once you pack thousands of Christians into the Waterfont and stir up a wider campaign of war, the analogy becomes embarrassingly, painfully inappropriate.
Because evangelical Christians in Northern Ireland are not David. We are Goliath.
Christians have been in a position of privilege and power in western Europe since the time of Constantine. That privileged position has been waning over the last century, but for various complex reasons it has taken a lot longer to fade here in our wee country. It is now undoubtedly fading. But this is what we need to pause and think about – the loss of privilege and power is not the same thing as persecution. It can feel like it, and it can certainly be uncomfortable. But it’s not persecution, and claiming it is makes us look ridiculous, and thin-skinned, and hypocritical. (Especially since, when we held that position of power, we didn’t always have a great track record of using it to defend and protect the rights of minorities and those who disagreed with us).
Here’s a quote I find tremendously helpful (from Simon Barrow at the Christian think-tank Ekklesia):
We need to be theologically clear amidst the siren voices of alarm. That Christians do not rule others in the way they once did, does not amount to ‘persecution.’ Instead, it is an invitation to rediscover patterns of church life in a plural society which show the heart of the Christian message to be about embracing others, not isolating ourselves; multiplying hope, not spreading fear; developing peacableness, not resorting to aggression; and advancing compassion, rather than retreating into defensiveness.
In the middle of thinking about the whole mess this week, I received an email with a request to pray for a Christian leader in another corner of the world, who had found himself the object of an unprovoked media attack denouncing him and others as “a corrupter of young minds.” His response to this genuine persecution moved me to tears. “My biggest prayer request hasn’t changed since I moved here five years ago. May God make me invisible, but incredible. Invisible for the enemies of God’s mission, incredible for his kingdom and the church.”
Crying persecution too quickly or too lightly causes great damage to the public image of the church. And even when we are persecuted, Jesus made it pretty clear how we should respond. Not by manning the barricades, demanding our rights and launching a full-scale culture war. But this: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”
Maybe this is what I find saddest in all of this – there’s a thread running all through the biblical story that connects food with the heart of the gospel. Isaiah dreams of a feast which God will one day prepare for all people, “the best of meats and the finest of wines.” Jesus eats with notorious sinners and scandalises the religious establishment. He says the kingdom of God is like a wedding feast to which everyone is invited – the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind. He gives us a meal of bread and wine which speaks of the grace and generosity and hospitality of God extended to the world in his broken body and poured out blood.
And right now, Christians in Northern Ireland are being associated in the public mind with a refusal to make a cake for our neighbours. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the case, that image as an outcome is tragic. There’s every chance we could win the arguments and win the legal cases, but lose the hearts and minds of our friends and neighbours.
So I think we need to pause, and breathe, and reflect, and pray. We need bucket-loads of grace and humility and wisdom. We need kindness and gentleness as well as courage. My friend Kevin wrote these words recently in talking about something else, and they seem a good place to finish:
The work of the people of God is quiet prayer and gentle hospitality and patient listening. Seeing, and hearing, and welcoming without wanting to win is the work we should be doing.
P.S. I know some of you will disagree with me on all this. And that’s OK. I would genuinely love to hear your thoughts. But can I make a small plea – can we try to engage with the wider issues I’ve raised here, rather than simply have another debate about the specifics of the Ashers case, or about homosexuality? There have been plenty of spaces for those debates, and my modest hope is that we could have a little space here for a slightly different discussion.