Can we admit something? The world is more complicated than ever before. Globalization, the information/technology revolution, and the success of Justin Beiber have forced us to recognize that the world isn’t as simple as it seems (one of these isn’t like the other, but still! It baffles the mind).
For Christians, the increasing complexity of life is bringing new challenges to how we live and interact in the world. Same-sex marriage is becoming more common (currently, 19 states have legalized same-sex marriage and 9 others have rulings overturning ban same-sex marriage and appeals in process). The Affordable Healthcare Act mandated that employers provide women access to contraceptives, but the very public case with Hobby Lobby and the resultant exception granted to employers who believe the use of certain contraceptives violate their religious beliefs revealed that to be a tricky situation. Going back a few months, we saw Arizona passing legislation, which was later vetoed by the governor, allowing business owners the right to deny services to people based on their religious beliefs. All of this reveals the simple truth: The moral and ethical framework of society is changing and Christians are rapidly trying to figure out how to respond in order to live out our beliefs in the world.
As Christians, we are called to be in the world. We are never called out of the world. It would be easier if we were, but we are never told that we get to leave the world. In fact, Jesus last prayer for us, his disciples, is that we would not be taken out of the world, but rather, we would be protected while in the world from the evil one (John 17:15).
But increasingly it is becoming more complicated being in the world. The intermingling of business, faith, and politics is making loving your neighbor and pursuing holiness a weary endeavor.
Lately, the conversation seems to surround religious liberty. What does religious liberty look like for individuals? For businesses? Can businesses have religious liberty? What about those who run said businesses? On the one hand, I do not believe that businesses or corporations have religious beliefs, but I recognize that the individuals who run those business may have religious beliefs. I believe, like they probably do, that Jesus is Lord of all of life and we cannot compartmentalize our beliefs. This means, that as a business owner, one should run their business according to their beliefs. Running your business according to your beliefs means that your beliefs will impact your employees. In all likelihood, using your religious liberty to exercise your religion in every sphere of your life will cause your religious practice to infringe on another person who believes differently than you. At the same time, recognizing another’s religious liberty and allowing them to practice their religious beliefs means their beliefs will likely infringe on you.
See why this gets complicated? I want to love my neighbor, but it seems that at times, loving my neighbor may impact my pursuit of holiness which is an expression of my love of God.
In all of this, it seems to me that the supplying of contraceptives, the legalization of same-sex marriage, or even marijuana use really isn’t the issue. The issue is how we as Christians live in a world and interact with those who do not share our beliefs. How do we respond to a changing culture where Judeo-Christian values are no longer the majority? Do we retreat, form safe enclaves and ask to be left alone? Or do we go out into the world, associate with those who are different than us and be uncomfortable?
Here’s what I believe. I do not believe that loving God with our whole being ever has to be in conflict with loving our neighbor. If, in our love of God, we fail to love and serve our neighbor, then maybe we are misunderstanding what it means to love God.
In the story of the Good Samaritan, the priest and the Levite passed by the samaritan, neglecting to help him, to keep clean and remain holy because of their love for God. I think that’s what we often miss from that story. The priest and the Levite loved God. They kept all the purity laws. They desired to be holy because of their love for God. And yet, in their pursuit of holiness, they neglected to love their neighbor.
The unspoken fear is that when we touch the “unclean” we will become unclean. If I bake a cake for a same-sex wedding I am complicit, or unclean. But when we look at Jesus, we see one who consistently touched the unclean and yet was never made unclean. Just the opposite happened. Those whom he touched became clean. Now, that same Jesus lives in us. Why should be afraid of becoming unclean by who we touch?
My fear is that we run the risk of doing the same thing. In our effort to exercise our religious liberty and remain pure we isolate ourselves and walk by those along the road who need our help. We fail at being salt of the earth who preserve the covenant between us and God where God blesses us so that we might bless others.
Understandably, the appeal to one’s conscience is consistent in all these cases. Our consciences are often a great help in discerning right from wrong. We need to listen to our consciences and pay attention to what they say. At the same time, we must recognize that our consciences are not always right. Just like every other part of our being, our consciences have been affected by sin and need restoration. This means that sometimes following Jesus will cause us to go against our consciences. It might also mean that the consciences of different Christians will allow different things. Some can bake the cake, some can go to the wedding, and some can do neither. I wonder if there can be room for all those differences…
This far into the post, I’m not sure what I’m advocating except conversation. We are improvising here. Black and white isn’t as black and white as we’d like it to be. Change isn’t coming, change is here. We are going to need to learn a new way of being in the world. Our ethics do not need to change. Our morality does not need to change. But our posture may need to change so that we can be in the world and associate with those who do not share our beliefs so that we can love those around us.
I know that some will say that I am being overly simplistic here. And I probably am. But I worry that we make loving God and loving our neighbor more complex than necessary by adding caveats and asterisks. This is detrimental to our witness. One person said it like this:
“When Christian businesses boycott gay weddings and pride celebrations, and when they lobby and sue for the right to do so, they may think they are sending the message “Just leave us alone.” But the message that mainstream Americans, especially young Americans, receive is very different. They hear: “What we, the faithful, really want is to discriminate. Against gays. Maybe against you or people you hold dear. Heck, against your dog.”
This is how we are being perceived. I’m not sure it will change, but we need to be aware of it. Perhaps, rather than starting from a place of arguing for our religious liberty and making sure that “we get ours,” we become servants of others as we recognize that we already have everything in Christ.
photo credit: Armando G Alonso.