The Sinful Jesus and The Right to Discriminate
If Jesus was a baker in Indiana, would he bake a cake for the celebration of a same sex wedding?
The “What Would Jesus Do?” scenario is currently playing out in the left/right debate over the government’s proper role in protecting both religious liberty and preventing unnecessary or illegal discrimination. Religious liberty traditionalists have argued that requiring an individual or a business to provide a service in celebration of an event that is against of one’s genuinely held religious beliefs is a violation of their freedom of religion. They have also argued that Jesus would not participate in something sinful and doing so would be itself a sinful act. Progressives have argued non-discrimination laws should, in all areas, protect those who do not identify as heterosexual and that accommodation laws should be equally applied to them as they are applied to other protected classes. They claim that Jesus would not discriminate and would encourage love and forgiveness among neighbors and enemies.
For the traditionalist, Jesus would be non-cooperative and would encourage holiness.
For the progressive, Jesus would be non-discriminatory and encourage love.
What would the Hoosier Jesus bake?
Imagining Jesus as an actor in an economy where participation in controversial activities is not just a hypothetical exercise. Jesus worked. He worked for money. He was a real person who participated in the real economy. To answer, “What would the Hoosier Jesus bake?” we need to know who he worked for and what his employers did with workers like Jesus.
Traditional interpretations of Jesus call him a carpenter, but if you’ve ever been to Nazareth, you’ll notice that there are a whole lot of rocks and few tall trees. Trees exist, but you probably don’t want to make a career on them. The word for carpenter is better translated as laborer – specifically someone who labors with wood (hence the carpenter translation) and stone. Really, they would have worked with whatever they could from whatever job needed done. Stone, wood, mud, whatever.
Laborers like Jesus are common in an ancient agricultural society but in the economic ideal espoused in Torah, they would be few and far between. In that utopia, families would live on ancestral lands and would work their own fields and the fields of those in their extended families and in their own village. Their would be few landless laborers among the Jews as they would have been given the promised land by God, and the land itself would stay in each family in perpetuity.
But we know from the scriptures and historical reconstruction of the 1st century that Palestine was far from this utopia. There were many landless laborers. The landholdings of wealthy Romans and Roman-backed Jews were vast and continued to grow. Peasants were in debt to their occupiers and lost their land only to survive on the only thing they had left – their labor. Like the slaves in Egypt before them, they toiled for their masters only to find themselves further in debt and far poorer. The ancient economy was in crisis. Peasants took whatever jobs were available in order to survive.
This is who Jesus was. Not a skilled carpenter selling his wares out of a shop, but a destitute day laborer looking for work wherever he could. And during his life, there was one patron who had a near insatiable need for cheap, desperate laborers.
If you have ever taken a trip to Israel, you cannot escape the building projects of the Romans, most notably the projects of Herod and his family. They called it, “development.” They built entire Roman towns, massive defensive forts, grandiose temples, large man-made harbors, extensive networks of roads, extravagant palaces, and everywhere and always monuments to themselves and Caesar. This created an enormous demand for labor and this demand was filled by those who once worked the land but which had been seized by the Romans or their clients. These people thought that this was a grave injustice but more importantly an egregious violation of scripture as this was their promised land. It belonged to God, and they were its rightful tenants. The Romans disagreed.
Some retreated into the desert. Others rebelled and died. Most worked for their occupiers who used the land in violation of Torah. What would Jesus do? Well, what he did was become a laborer, like his father. And still, the biggest employer in town was the Romans. Most likely he, like other laborers in the area, worked on building the Roman military installation at nearby Sepphoris whose purpose was to strengthen the Roman military grip on the area and to enforce the collection of taxes. Taxes that the people thought were in violation of Torah and whose effect was driving people further into debt resulting in land foreclosure by more Romans.
What would Jesus do? He worked. He worked for money. And, he worked for the Romans and their Jewish clients. He worked for sinners so that the sinners could perform even more sin to the detriment of his own people he was supposed to save.
By the logic of the modern religious traditionalists so concerned about Hoosier bakers, Jesus sinned and did so badly.
The logic of the traditionalists simply does not fit with their beliefs about Jesus or the reality of Jesus working in the economy of 1st century Palestine, but it is equally ridiculous and equally ahistorical to claim that the historical Jesus would not have discriminated against other groups. His ministry was based on re-establishing the Mosaic Covenant and principles espoused in Torah, which included economic provisions that fundamentally exclude economic relations with other peoples as part of regular life. The village in the ancient agricultural economy simply does not need economic activity from outsiders with only the smallest exceptions like pottery whose material is not always available in every location. Economic relations with the Romans through trade and labor was a symptom of political and economic domination and was not a normal or even desired outcome of an idealized Jewish village. The claim that Jesus would be against discrimination and would have an ethic of love regarding economic relationships does not fit into the reality of the ancient economy or into the principles of his reconstituted economy in his “Kingdom of God.”
Both traditionalist and progressive answers fail because they insert their own concerns onto the historical Jesus. What they see in return is themselves. In short, they sin.
What would Hoosier Jesus bake? I don’t know. Neither do our modern interpreters. An honest conversation can start by admitting so.
Jesus does not, by principle, absolutely prohibit economic transactions that celebrate or support sin as shown by his vocation as a laborer that almost certainly included working for the Romans. However, celebrating or supporting sin, as indicated by his noncompliance with Roman economic and political systems during his ministry, is an important factor both in our choice of economic activity and our desired framework for the economy.
Jesus’s person and work throughout his ministry demonstrate a non-coercive and voluntary association in the traditional village economy. Coercive and mandatory participation is characteristic of the economies of Pharaoh, Caesar and Herod.
With these principles in mind, I cannot support the theological rationale for denying service to any person simply because doing so may contribute to what one may interpret as sinful activity. To characterize such participation as sin would also require labeling Jesus as a sinner due to his activity of working with and for Romans. Neither though can I support, as general rule without extreme circumstances (like emergency room care), forcing or coercing an individual or business to engage in an economic activity with others through the power of the state ultimately enforced through fines, taxation and threat of violence (such as arrest or imprisonment). Commentators who do so while claiming justification from the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth whose ministry included liberation from the violent and coercive power of the state cannot overcome the contradictions inherent to holding both positions simultaneously. Freedom from oppression, from a liberationist perspective, cannot come from the state who enforces such freedom through a monopoly on violence.
People in a free society should be free to discriminate and should not be forced by the state into economic activity barring extreme circumstances. Such discrimination should extend even to Christians who are quick to cry discrimination but enjoy protection from discrimination as a protected class under accommodation laws – protections not applied to homosexuals under federal law and by many states. Such cries of discrimination and intolerance are laughable when compared to discrimination and intolerance encoded in the law towards groups they oppose.
However, if such a freedom to discriminate is applied for certain groups but not others without a direct reasonable interest by society, such laws should be equally and universally applied. Unjust laws applied unequally is the reality of occupied and subjugated people, like Jesus. Perhaps unjust laws equally applied are the best we can hope for.