Eating Cake and Swinging Sticks

In “Cake and Compassion in Arizona,” Fr. Lawrence Farley creates a rhetorical association and then immediately denies its impact: he likens the refusal of baking a cake for a lesbian couple to the same refusal of a Jew or an African-American to provide services for a neo-Nazi rally. “Please note,” he says:

I am not hereby equating homosexual marriage with either white supremacism or neo-Nazism. The point of the comparison is that the Christians wanting to decline participation in gay weddings find the event every bit as morally abhorrent as African Americans find white supremacism and Jews (or anyone else, come to that) find neo-Nazism. Like it or not, homosexuality is not a private proclivity like other sins; it is a powerful movement, and one that now demands the surrender of Christian conscience.

Jews and persons of color are protected groups in the U.S. precisely because they have been the object of hate crimes and discrimination. White supremacy is not such a protected group since it has embedded in its ideology discrimination against both Jews and persons of color.

Jesus and the Samaritan woman (Jruchi Gospels II MSS, Georgia, 12th cent.)The twist in reasoning here is that Fr. Farley consistently paints Christianity as a persecuted minority. In the U.S., this is simply not the case. It is still a majority belief and holds a great deal of political weight. Further the violence done towards LGBT persons in the U.S. outweighs the violence done towards Christians in the U.S. (note I am not talking about other parts of the world where Christians continue to be violently persecuted, right alongside LGBT persons). Rhetorically posing as the victim when in fact one is in a position of privilege and security denies situations of real violence. This is why LGBT persons are becoming a protected class, because of real violence. Fr. Farley has referred in the past to the inclination of “secular” people “to use this issue as yet another welcome stick with which to beat the Christians.”1 Yet non-Christians, much less LGBT and persons of Color do not wield particularly large sticks in the U.S. This victim mentality is simply not an accurate assessment of the privilege of Christians, even Orthodox Christians, in North America. That we can’t put a creche on the state-house lawn or pray at a football game is not persecution.

In the public place, Christians must abide by agreed upon laws. If a Christian feels strongly enough that serving a cake to a LGBT couple violates their beliefs, they are free to engage in conscientious objection. And, until they too become a protected minority, they can suffer the legal consequences of conscientious objection and conscientious protest, right alongside draft-dodgers and antinuclear protestors. Or in the same way that Christians who refused to worship emperors did. What Fr. Farley seems to want is the right to engage in civil disobedience without the consequences of disobedience.

This claim for protected civil disobedience based on individual conscience is especially ironic coming from the mouth of a North American Orthodox Christian. Currently, popular discourse among Orthodox Christians who love to critique the ‘secular West’ emphasizes the individuality of ‘human rights.’ This is the primary thrust behind the rejection of ‘Western’ human rights discourse in the The Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church: individual human rights trump the rights of the community or society].2 Orthodoxy is absolutely right here. Human rights as currently articulated by the international (that is, the primarily Western) community is individually oriented. Rights exist to protect the individual or minority group from the egregious behavior or the majority. The fact that this over-emphasis on individualism was a critique leveled by womanist, mujerista, diverse Asian, African, and later-wave feminist theologians well before Orthodox ever articulated such a response hardly checks its ad nauseum demonization of feminism. And yet the basis of Fr. Farley’s claim is the privilege of an individual right of freedom of conscience and corresponding public behavior over and against a persecuting majority.

What makes this particularly inconsistent with Orthodox discourse on human rights, such as it is, is that human rights are meant to be minimal. They are basic, the basis for human flourishing, not its total content. Orthodox rhetoric consistently ignores that even the proponents of human rights discourse understand them to be minimal commitments.3 But here, Fr. Farley fails to exercise anything but the most minimal understanding of human rights, that of individual human freedom, and then rather perniciously spins this in with the discourse of not participating in sin as a matter of conscience. He essentially argues that if the sin is apparent, then a person has the religious freedom, indeed a moral obligation, to refuse to participate in their sin by engaging in an action which can be perceived as support for their ideology. For Fr. Farley, purity and compassion together require non-participation: “Compassion is not the issue; conscientious objection to the ideology is.”

As a Christian, Fr. Farley argues that conscientious objection as means of maintaining personal purity takes precedence over compassion. Read that again: conscientious objection … takes precedence over compassion. No, really, again: wah waah wah wah waaaah wah .. takes precedence over compassion.

When did Jesus ever act in a manner than prioritized his own purity over compassion towards another human person? When did he not allow a bleeding woman to touch him, eat with a tax collector or drink with a lush? When? At no point in Jesus’ ministry did he ever allow the concerns of appearance stop his persistent and irresistible compassion. His compassion looked exactly like eating the cake. He doesn’t quibble about whether he should make it for them, deliver it to their home, or perhaps just a safely distant post-office box so he is not glimpsed in even the vicinity of godlessness. He invites himself to the wedding, sits down, and EATS THE CAKE:

the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!” Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.’ Mt. 11:19

In light of this, is heaven really going to forbid a baker who is perceived as a lesbian because she made a cake for those who asked?

By prioritizing the individual right to freely exercise conscience in a manner that preserves individual purity, Fr. Farley violates a central tenant of Orthodox anthropology and ethical orientation, that is, that we are called to be for the other. Our orientation as human persons is to be ekstatic, oriented towards care and love for the other as the very heart of our salvation. Here, Fr. Farley falls into the exact trap for which Mother Maria Skobtsova decried monasticism on a hill: he is more concerned for his own conscience and purity than he is for caring for others.

By setting in opposition Christianity and serving about-to-be-coupled-LGBTs Fr. Farley makes it sound like this is a matter of ultimate faith. However, not all Christians share this belief. Not even all Orthodox Christians share it. Fr. Thomas Hopko expressed support for civil, same-sex unions, and I suspect would find acts of public discrimination problematic. Some (even Orthodox) go farther and are able to see in LGBT relationships the fruits of the Spirit which result precisely from the faithfulness and love shared within the relationship itself.

The rhetorical trick that makes all this acceptable is that Fr. Farley is not protesting people but an “ideology” of gay marriage. Ideologies are to be resisted, protested, objected to. Ideologies blind us, sweep us up into their furious and destructive path and drop us crushed and defiled at the side of the road. They do not weep, sleep, eat or love. They are not persons and so cannot be objects compassion. Which leads to the most pernicious effect of this rhetorical method: Fr. Farley never needs to eat with a loving same-sex couple, he never needs to see in their relationship the presence of the Fruits of the Spirit. He never needs to struggle with reconciling his own ideology of purity with the appearance of God in unexpected places, persons, and relationships.

Preserving this kind of purity may be a matter of Fr. Farley’s faith, but it is not a matter of mine. My faith does not allow this kind of discrimination. Rather, it requires the kind of discrimination that looks beyond the law to the Fruits of the Spirit and their flourishing.

  1. A phrase which appears in his book, Feminism and Tradition: Quiet Reflections on Ordination and Communion.” 
  2. The way in which this supports the nationalistic agenda of both Russian and its utterly state-compromised church leadership should be obvious in light of the Ukraine. 
  3. Which just makes us look stupid, frankly, as if we can’t read the fine print. 

Filed under: WIT Posts Tagged: LGBTQ, Orthodoxy, politics