Thoughts on the cake

In case you hadn’t heard, one of the two main news stories in Northern Ireland yesterday, was news of the verdict in the so-called gay cake row. Asher’s Bakery were found by the judge to have discriminated against a customer by cancelling an order tp produce a cake carrying the slogan ‘support gay marriage.’ The BBC reports that, ‘the firm was found to have discriminated against Mr Lee on the grounds of sexual orientation as well as his political beliefs’ – the latter since gay marriage is currently not permitted by the ruling of Northern Ireland’s parliament.

Needless to say, opinion was divided.

One one side, it was ‘a good day for equality and a good day for everyone in our society.’ On the other, it was an assault on faith.

Much virtual ink will already have been spilt on all of this (see here, here and here for example) but I’d like to contribute three reflections around it all.

1. On the verdict. I am not a lawyer and I have to confess that I have not read through the entire judgment with its carefully set out arguments (although it is available online). But I am not convinced that this was a case of direct discrimination on the basis of the customer’s sexual orientation. The judge appears to believe that the bakery must have known that the customer was gay. But just because he was ordering a cake with a slogan in favour of gay marriage does not necessarily mean he is gay. The fact that a majority of MPs at Westminster voted in favour of gay marriage does not mean that most MPs are gay.

2. On our society and the nature of tolerance. In March there was a rally in support of the bakery. It was held in Belfast’s Waterfront Hall. Someone tweeted, suggesting a boycott of the hall because they had hosted the rally.

Ah – the intolerance of tolerance!

Imagine a society where people actually respected one another’s right to hold to, and express different opinions. A society which was concerned about individuals and not just slogans, soundbites and expressions of outrage. A society where we could accommodate one another instead of needing to domineer?

A bit naive, I know.

I realise that this case is not about the views that someone holds personally or even expresses in their church (though we’ve seen in the past year that even that has a way of making it onto the Nolan Show): it’s about expressing those views in business. However one Christian writer (who happens to support gay relationships and thinks that Asher’s were wrong) has said that,

‘…giving governments too much power, in a way that interferes with freedoms of expression and belief, is not the answer. When those in charge can enforce their authority without respecting the rights of the people over whom they rule, minorities are especially at risk. If someone were to refuse to sell me flowers because I am lesbian, minority ethnic or Christian, that would be unacceptable. That does not mean that I should be able to demand that a florist who is atheist prepare a huge floral display stating “Jesus is Lord”!’

Don Carson points out that you cannot really have any kind of tolerance where there is no freedom to disagree. Someone has to be free to hold the wrong opinion. We’ve seen the law ruling on the extent to which a person’s sincerely held beliefs may affect their business. What will be next.

These are not easy questions. Asher’s would have been wrong to refuse to sell the customer a simple birthday cake; just as the Protestant newsagent on the Newtownards Road would be wrong not to sell a packet of Tayto crisps to a Catholic from Short Strand. But at root, we are talking now about discriminating against an idea.

Accuse me of fear-mongering if you will, but what happens when the State gets to define how we should think?

3. On what kind of Christians we should be. There is a school of thought that suggests the bakers should perhaps have baked two cakes. After all, did Jesus not say that if a Roman soldier forces you to carry his luggage for one mile, not only should you do it, you should be ready to ‘go the extra mile.’ You may not have liked the Romans, but your went beyond the basic requirement.

To be clear – it is not my place to tell Asher’s that this is what they should have done. I am not answerable for my brother’s conscience and they made their decision with a clear sense of conviction before God. Let’s face it, there are times when the church has to obey God rather than men. And Daniel, for all his mastery of Babylonian culture and his success in the Babylonian court, knew when to draw lines.

Assuming we see more examples of this kind of situation, what kind of Christians will we need to be? For a long time Christians have had a privileged position, a place of great influence, in this part of the world. But it’s changing. Rapid secularisation means that the place of privilege is being challenged. The church is going to have to learn to function in a pluralist, secular society, even if that society grows hostile. That will call for courage, and the willingness to draw lines.

But when the day comes that we can no longer rely on institutional power to maintain our place of privilege, what kind of people must we be? Can we draw lines and still love people?

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