cake or death?

This entry was posted by on Friday, 27 March, 2015 at

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.



11 Responses to “cake or death?”

  1. yo man,
    good stuff!
    I had been thinking recently that there was something I didn’t like about that chorus ‘For I’m Building a People of Power’ which I sang loads growing up and we sang in church recently.
    Then I was reading that book ‘Hyperchoice’ by Graham Cheesman last weekend and he said exactly what I was thinking but couldn’t really express:-

    (the) church’s mission does not have an automatic relationship to power, despite its basis in universal truth. Although God is all-powerful, the church is not a location of power but of weakness. It is a pilgrimage, not a triumphant procession, and it is clad in rags, not crowns and jewels. The crown will come later when it is presented to Christ as his glorious bride. If the Bible is to be believed , God is not ‘building a people of power’ as the popular songs says, but using a people of weakness. Service for God has always been this way’

  2. pdc

    Thanks for your perspective. I’m concerned by the focus of the debate on the sale of a cake (although of course other important issues are raised by that) when people a few streets away struggle to buy food, day in, day out.

    I’d also like to see the church (and wider society) more motivated about the rights of oppressed people elsewhere (North Korea for example). Putting more money, time and attention into that would save and protect lives – we’re all far too comfortable to have the luxury of this argument.

  3. jaybercrow

    Dave – that’s a great quote. Thanks for sharing.

    pdc – thanks for the comment. I agree completely about the loss of perspective on real issues of suffering at home and globally. “We’re all far too comfortable to have the luxury of this argument.” Very well said!

  4. Thanks for speaking up wisely and gently about this. It’s helpful to read in relation to this particular week, and in the wider context of how we respond and engage and live, in our relationships with others. (I really relate to struggles with songs like “For I’m building a people of power” and love the quote about it.) I am so tired of the war metaphors and so tired of the “Us” and “Them” paradigm. I agree there is so much damage in crying persecution and, indeed, in bracing ourselves for it … taking this stance where we are armoured up and distance ourselves from those around us.

  5. Luke

    Interesting article, I agree with a lot of this. The reaction of both sides are so disappointing.
    This cake thing is obviously a shambles of a case. I don’t think the bakery should be sued over it, but I don’t think the arrogance of the Christian Institute is right in trying to help push through the “conscience-clause” law which can in effect create a refusal of service to LGBT members.
    I’ve been seeing some statistics floating about sourced from the Christian Institute which seem to me quite biased. With 90% this and 80% that. Possibly cause the polls were only asked mostly to the Christian public and not the general population. Not to forget, as the phrase goes: 70% of statistics are made up (oh the irony)
    But seriously…
    Christians: It’s simple, follow Christ, cut out any bigotry, hate and passive aggression you have towards your brothers and sisters. Instead LOVE your neighbours – Jesus would be ashamed of you for not sharing or providing to them regardless of their views and colour. If you refuse to write a message on a cake, then give it to them for free, just without it written if it really offends you. Do that instead of growing bitter with resentment.
    And please don’t be a hypocrite, If you refuse someone a service because it doesn’t agree with your values, then you might as well stand up against paying tax because it’s funding war and funding corporations to destroy this beautiful world – that’s not very Christian is it? Stop driving your cars because you are polluting the earth God provided you and stop buying buying and buying to feel good about yourself because nothing lasts forever.
    Just because you don’t agree with someone doesn’t mean they have a disease.
    LGBT members: i’m personally not against the right for everyone in finding your loved one no matter what the gender – but don’t be over pushy to the point of suing a family business just to make a point. If we all decided to show love and respect to each other, people would change their minds. This was a terrible move as it will just further create a rift between everyone. And Christian evangelist fundamentalist institutions are now unfortunately jumping on the bandwagon to fish for new recruits following this event.
    Just because some people believe you are different doesn’t mean it’s the truth, so encourage the equality and community you’ve been fighting for, for so long.

  6. jaybercrow

    Luke – thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. I appreciate it. I particularly agree with what you say about how selective we (Christians) seem to be about which issues we have a “conscience” about. We seem to care a lot about sex but not so much about war, pollution, corporate greed, consumerism etc.

  7. Bee

    I get, to some extent, where you are coming from but in the whole I’m afraid I don’t agree with you on this issue. I do agree that it is unfortunate that the media have made such an issue of this incident as regards the topic of homosexuality and people now see it as a example of christians against the gay community- which of course it is nothing of the sort!!
    I agree with you that it would be good to remove the homosexuality subject matter from our discussion however excuse the pun, but you can’t have your cake and eat it- in the ashers conversation homosexuality is at the core.
    In short I feel strongly that Ashers are facing persecution at this time. I wish however, to strongly identify that this does not compare to the type of physical and brutal persecution experienced in other parts of the world, such as China, Korea etc.. However just as christians all over the world experience persecution in its various forms, it is persecution non the less. The West’s persecution is often less dramatic, this maybe some what reflective of the West’s less dramatic reliance on God…
    Ultimately religious persecution, in my opinion and from my reading of the bible, is when someone criticises, discriminates, mistreats or behaves differently towards you because of your religious views, or in this case, defence of the bible, christ and His teachings.
    Interestingly, Jesus loves homosexuals just as much as He loves the christians of Asher’s bakery, you can apply that statement to the named individuals in this case, just the same as you can apply it to the same most horrific persecution in the Far East. Jesus desires an intimate relationship with every single person and loves them all the same.

    Ashers are being persecuted because they are expressing their christian beliefs, their desire is to honour God and His word, and be true to the teaching of Jesus. In doing this, and trying to not compromise on their faith, they have found themselves in court and at the risk of being sued. Had they compromised on their faith, not in making a cake but instead in designing the slogan on this cake, they would not be in this position… Is this not an example of persecution? The enemy comes to kill, steal and destroy and he wants to do this through causing christians to compromise their faith in the West. Jesus was amazing and loving, He had so much grace but He never compromised Himself or the Father to appease people, make people happy, or take away persecution from Himself!

    1 Cor 1:18 “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.” If you would allow my interpretation of this, this message of the cross includes commitment to God, turning our back on the world, and taking up our cross daily. Remember John 16:33 says “in this world you will have trouble.” This world wants us to compromise our faith and make the gospel message, and all that it involves, more palatable and agreeable with society. When we seek to put God and His teaching above the world, and they criticise us for that, this is persecution.

  8. jaybercrow

    Bee – thanks for taking time to share your thoughts. Disagreement is very welcome here! And I really appreciate the tone of your comments. I’m going to reflect a bit on what you’ve said before responding. Grace and peace.

  9. Tory Stirling

    So here’s the thing. Not that long ago I was having a sausage roll in Ashers in Belfast City Centre. There was a young couple sitting behind me having coffees and the conversation went like this-

    ‘Hey is this that bakery that refused to make the big cake for the gay person? Didn’t it have something about gay rights written on it?’
    ‘Yeah- it was a Christian who refused to make it. Christians own this company you know.’
    ‘Really. What lovely people they are. How about giving us all a break!’
    And they carried on with their day….

    But I sort of winced as I listened to these words. Because what they communicated, ever so breezily, reinforced what I fear the majority perceive Christians to be – judgemental, selfish, hypocritical, unloving, graceless, boring snobs. This majority probably don’t give two hoots about the details and why what happened actually happened….They just see people who claim to be about love but actually don’t seem to be all that loving. They just see people who claim to have found freedom and life but actually seem so obsessed with their own sense of self-importance. And this majority, well they don’t want any part of it, the gospel, the hope, the freedom. To be honest, it’s so dang hard to see Jesus in any of it.

    In my newspaper this week, it didn’t look much like the kingdom. On the evening news the other night, it didn’t sound much like the kingdom.

    That couple’s conversation in Ashers made my tummy twist and turn with fear and sadness and regret at the misrepresentation of Jesus and the incredible hope he extends to all. I wanted to say listen can we just forget the bakery thing and talk about Jesus? Kinda in the same way when someone starts to tell me all about the Christian they know who has let them down, or judged them or was hypocritical, I just wanna say, look I’m so sorry you’ve been hurt, can I talk to to you about Jesus and his great grace?

    I feel like the fundamentals of my faith are deeply significant and worth the conversation, of course they are. But for me, the monumental bedrock of my Christian faith is always the same- it’s all grace. Incredible, powerful, unbelievable grace. And I can’t see or find or hear that in any of this mess that gathered hundreds of Christians together in solidarity….I sat on my sofa and prayed, ‘help us God’.

  10. Thanks of your gentle perspective on this. It is good that there are people like yourself and Paul Coulter gently helping with wider perspectives. 3 comments:

    1 – Persecution: indeed we need to keep perspective here. No one is being abducted and killed. Songs of Praise will still run on the BBC and tomorrow morning there will no doubt be an opportunity given a church to use the airwaves for their Sunday worship. Nonetheless a shift is happening.

    2 – Wider perspective: it’s very important to get our heads around that. The privilege that the church has had in the West is not replicated in other parts of the world. It is very hard – especially for an older generation both to realise what is happening and accept the fact that it is happening. Some people reckon that we are at a the point of a major paradigm shift (tectonic plates). The pace of change is rapid. An obvious reaction is to try to stage some kind of moral crusade, but the Church should perhaps be rethinking strategy for a changing landscape.

    3 – Being perceived as mean spirited (not your words). It is sad when Christians are perceived thus. We ought to be the most winsome people, the most ready to help and to serve. When we lack grace in how we behave, we harm the cause. However I think there is room for a caution: it will not always necessarily be the fault of the Church when the Church is viewed badly.

    Thanks for writing and for inviting discussion

  11. Hazel Knox

    Some of the above comments have caused me to grit my teeth in frustration. The McArthur family made it very clear from the outset that their decision not to decorate a cake with a message which was contrary to their Christian adherence to the Word of God was not in opposition to the person ordering the cake. I believe they were targeted quite deliberately in order to produce the outcome we now see. The fact that at least one major food distributer was asked by phone to give an assurance that they would not supply Ashers’ products in future suggests that this whole business was a deliberate attempt to bring about the current situation.
    I was at the Waterfront Hall last week and want to state that at no time was there an attack on the LGBD community; in fact Mr McArthur made it clear that those who have brought the charge against them are regularly prayed for as Scripture commands. Neither was there ever a sense of “poor us”, but a clear testimony of the family’s willingness to suffer for the sake of Christ should that be the ultimate outcome.
    Scripture does instruct us to rejoice in our sufferings, but when we truly are persecuted in terms of how our brothers and sisters in the Middle East and North Korea, etc. suffer, I pray we will be as cheerful about it as some of the above writers suggest we should be.
    As for “doing battle” for our faith, no one is making any attempt to do so in this case so far as I can see. But neither are we to sit back and neglect to love and support our brothers and sisters who have the courage to “keep the faith”. That is what the demonstration at the Waterfront Hall was about.

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