This morning the radio reported a lawsuit against a local flower company whose proprietor refused to supply wedding flowers for the marriage of two women. It was a clear case of discrimination; and it raises tensions for believers as legislators and courts reshape longstanding social boundaries: when, if ever, is discrimination proper?
The underlying context for the question is important. Discrimination is often a pejorative term—a label for some form of bigotry or unfair treatment.
If, for instance, we recall the relatively recent past in the United States when African-Americans were kept from eating at restaurants, staying in hotels, or even drinking from ordinary water fountains because of their race, then discrimination is properly despised.
But more often than not the term is merely descriptive. Everyone, for instance, wants a discrimination between men’s and women’s toilets in airports; and all of us grudgingly accept the airline discriminations in giving creature comforts to first class passengers that the crowded economy class folks can only dream about.
We have always had discrimination with us and we always will. We discriminate freely in buying clothing, shoes, and autos. We discriminate in the entertainments we enjoy, the company we keep, and the food we eat. Our discriminations, in fact, are important markers of character: they reveal our values.
The challenge comes when the discriminations reveal moral conflicts; or when they represent a coercive force—as in anti-discrimination laws. If, for instance, a neighbor loves loud music and raucous parties that run past midnight, the rest of the community will ask for coercive restrictions. In other words a community will discriminate against those whose personal values are different than what the majority embrace.
But at times we find that minorities will force their own discriminations on majorities. In California, for instance, the voting majority of the public endorsed the traditional nature of marriage in a proposition that was overturned by the US Supreme Court. It was a case of competing value judgments in which the court applied its coercive power as an authority-enabled minority to overrule a majority position, even in the face of previously unquestioned values.
This is where things suddenly turn complex. If, for instance, the abuse being corrected is equivalent to the racial inequities of the past, then we all would properly acknowledge the progress being made. But the real issue is deeper: the refusal of the majority of Californians to adopt new cultural values was aligned with God’s creation plan for humans as expressed in Scriptures.
So we who affirm the Bible discover a new discrimination at work: against us. One major US newspaper, for instance, happily commented that the new marriage laws represent an escape from the hegemony of “ancient religious writings”—obviously referring to the Bible. So now the proprietor of the flower shop who in good conscience—based on her faith—refuses to enroll in the new social values of a secular world will face punitive sanctions for affirming what Christians have held for the past two millennia.
But Christians should not be surprised. The world—Paul’s label for those following “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 2:2)—is imposing non-biblical values on Christians with renewed energy. So now our flower shop owner, and friends, need to ask how to respond to coercive legal judgments while still holding to faith commitments.
Some will simply accommodate to changing demands. An extreme example of this took place in the mid-1930s when many German churches adapted to the rise of National Socialism and its sharp opposition to biblical values. Only a small minority of the German church openly rejected that option—as expressed by the Barmen Declaration of 1934 signed by Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonheoffer, and Helmut Thielicke, among a few others, despite the dangers involved.
Others will enter the political fray and work to reverse the momentum of post-Christian secularism. Efforts some years ago by the “moral majority” and, more recently, by new conservative movements have pressed for a return to earlier values yet often with confused priorities in play. But—to a skeptical eye—only the emergence of leaders with the faith, wisdom and substance of a William Wilberforce would offer any real hope here.
All of which brings us to another way of looking at discrimination: as a way for authentic faith to stand out. Accommodated and fruitless forms of Christendom won’t last under pressure.
We think, for instance, of the writer of Hebrews: “But solid [spiritual] food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:14). The writer later affirmed, in chapter 11, those whose faith distinguished them from the world so that “God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city” (11:16).
So as world values change—becoming more distant from what Jesus represents—we will have more and more opportunities to express our love for him. If we are pleased to be pleasing to Christ we can expect to displease those who don’t care for him or for what he taught.
But let’s not be arrogant in the process. If we are distinct may it be based on our humility in a world of pride; based on our joy among those who are sad; and based on our faithful love for all we meet, including those suing the flower shop owner. Only then will Jesus be seen in his profound beauty.