In Defense of NOT Eating at Chick-fil-A as a Matter of Christian Conscience
This whole Chick-fil-A business has become rather silly and sad. Mayors suggest an unenforceable ban; ex-politicians-cum-celebrities pose in restaurants to show their solidarity with the chain. The affair seemed to start with reasonable discussion, at least among my Facebook friends. Now it’s degenerated to the usual suspects lining up on sides, shouting slogans, calling names, and waiving flags (P or Christian)*, while the smug middle remains above it all.
That can be no surprise, and I’d rather just ignore the whole hubbub. People have had their say. I’m tired of hearing them shout at each other. I’m sure the boom from Appreciation Day will die away relatively soon and the company will return to business as usual (or slightly less than usual). I’ve stated my intention to keep my business away from the company and I intend to do just that. Beyond that, it’s difficult to succinctly say anything that hasn’t been said over and over, is not easily misconstrued, and doesn’t risk merely reinforcing positions, adding more heat than light to the discussion. Moreover, I dislike framing discussions in sectarian terms—unless it’s in the context of internal discussions or drinks with friends (of any bent, but especially Christians, Christ-curious, or Christ-haunted). Such framing tends to distance and divide, and I certainly claim no special knowledge of the nature (or existence) of God.
But I have reached a breaking point. I can no longer remain quiet while a marginalized segment of society becomes pawns in an ideological struggle. I can no longer abide the gross distortions of Christianity we’re repeatedly witnessing.
My point in writing this is not to rally others to boycott; it is not to paint those who disagree with me as bigots or unchristian; it is not to impose ideological purity on every company I patronize. My point is to explain my decision as a legitimate, principled stance, a proper action in a democracy, and—since the name of God has been dragged into this—a position driven by my convictions as a follower of The Way. It is also to stand by my LGBT friends and say enough is enough.
First of all, let’s make this clear: free speech is not at issue here. No one serious is suggesting government restraint. Dan Cathy has an undisputed right to say what he said, just as everyone else has a right to express support, condemnation or indifference. Nor is this just about speech. Chick-fil-A uses company money to fund groups that advance their position. While I find it unwise for companies to use their funds for highly divisive issues that have no immediate impact on their business, such is their right. But I do not want my dollars going to such use, and I feel a personal obligation to withhold them.
However, this is also about speech. Dan Cathy was speaking as CEO, for his company (the “we” repeatedly referenced in his remarks), in defense of company actions. He was not just expressing personal views and explaining personal contributions. Moreover, I found his remarks smug and lacking any of the charity that is the core mandate of Christianity. He gives a curt justification (essentially, we support the Bible) and then throws in “we are married to our first wives.” Is divorce next on the abolitionist agenda? I’m sure not, but that remark is illustrative. I’m grateful to be married to my first wife, but not as a matter of moral superiority or a badge of religious piety.
Let’s set aside the issue of homosexuality as sin. I strongly oppose that notion. I believe it is harmful to individuals, society and the Church. But that’s an argument for another day. It’s a discussion we need to have, but it requires (in Christian circles) addressing the nature of God, how we read scripture, and (more broadly) the nature of truth and existence itself. So, for my purposes here, let’s just accept that.
From that assumption, it does not follow that same-sex marriage should be illegal. In a pluralistic society**, one must make rational arguments for laws. This is not to make simplistic “morality has no basis in our laws” statements or to shout “separation of church and state” and be done. Morality may be at the core of why murder or theft is illegal. But we can, should and do make arguments that go beyond “it’s wrong” (with an appeal to texts that others don’t venerate). We can talk about the rights of the would-be murderer stopping where the rights of the would-be victim start. We can talk about the social contract and how legalizing theft would harm society and is an inferior way to organize our affairs. Any position that cannot advance serious arguments beyond “it’s wrong” has to be questioned. I’ve heard opponents of same-sex marriage try to make those arguments (though not very often); I have yet to hear a single one that holds up to scrutiny. Moreover, Dan Cathy did not advance any argument beyond “it’s wrong.” He didn’t try. That’s bad enough to hear from a fellow citizen and fellow Christian. It’s unacceptable (in terms of my patronage) for a business serving the general public.
Further, even with our earlier stipulation, I find the behavior of Cathy and others to be unbiblical in tenor and approach. I hesitate to put it that bluntly; I want to avoid cheap salvos and name-calling. But as he and others have claimed the biblical mantle, I feel compelled to respond in those terms.
Jesus lived in a time of political and social turmoil. If you want to talk sexual “deviancy,” the Romans could teach us a thing or two. Corruption and oppression were so prevalent that the occupied people were primed for a revolution (a drive he thwarted). Yet, virtually all of his harsh words were reserved for those in the church. They were, in his words, hypocrites, frauds, a brood of vipers, more concerned about appearances and their own rules than people, and a wicked generation playing games with their religious regulations and seeking of signs and wonders; they put burdens on others and invited their own condemnation.
Paul, who didn’t hesitate in laying down instructions but always claimed freedom as an underlying principle, wrote mostly to the church. When he interacted with the broader society (with its corruption, oppression and deviancy), he didn’t speak of condemnation or rules; he talked of a freedom, hope and love he’d found. When he spoke at a monument to an unknown god, he did not condemn their polytheistic beliefs. He simply talked of the God he’d come to know.
If you want to have an internal debate, let’s have at it. Feel free to criticize the Episcopal Church and UCC for ordaining gay ministers and accepting gay unions. I support them heartily, but that’s an inside-the-tent debate that’s appropriate. I hope we can move beyond one side hurling accusations of apostasy and the other throwing out the Pharisee epithet. I’d certainly reserve “brood of vipers” for the Man himself. But we can passionately debate the issues as matters of doctrine, health, philosophy or whatever. None of that changes the way we should interact with broader society or the fact that our call is to offer love, hope and freedom (actual good news).
Even in my conservative teenage years, I was extremely bothered by the shape and tenor of 20th century conservative Christianity. It seemed so far removed from its source, ignoring the thrust and gestalt of its biblical source to spend an enormous amount of energy on tangents. Hold to whatever particular beliefs you want. But if you bury the Christ who focused on self-sacrificial love, who said to be first you have to be last, who said to go two miles with the one who asked you to go one and to offer your shirt to the one who steals your coat, who commanded us to turn the other cheek, and who said to be known by your love and that love sums up everything that matters—if we bury that Person beneath rules and exhortations to piety (however well-intentioned or “right’), then we’re not practicing anything that can be properly called Christian.
Radical love is at the heart of Christianity. This is not a wish-washy, can’t-we-all-get-along love. It’s sacrificial. It leaves the 99 for the one. It seeks out the marginalized and always looks to include the “other.” It works on behalf of the powerless. I believe with Kierkegaard that Christendom is not Christian and can never be. As Peter Rollins writes in Fidelity of Betrayal:
“Various systems or worldviews fight for power and authority. Yet Christianity, as a religion without religion, offers a radically different approach. Christ opens up the idea of a system that seeks always to find those who are excluded from the system that is in power…. Christianity seeks out those who are excluded by it, the one sheep who is not in the pen, the one coin not in the purse, those who have not been invited to the party, the nobodies, the nothings. The Christian ‘system’ can thus never take power for, by definition, it is always that which stands against power, seeking to identify with the powerless and the voiceless…. What we see being worked out within Christianity can thus be said to be a prejudice toward those who are excluded and marginalized, those who are oppressed by our religious and political systems. This means that every time a ‘Christian’ system is created, the Christian is the one who seeks out those who are excluded from it.”
I think that’s fundamentally right, but I don’t expect everyone to get that. I do expect everyone who claims the love of God to act lovingly and always express that love over any idea, principle or concept, however “right.” A relative posted the “they will hate you because of me” verse in relation to this Chick-fil-A episode. That’s a flawed connection. Jesus wasn’t hated because he stood up to all of the immorality in Roman society; he didn’t. He was crucified because he upset the power structure, he called out those who claimed God’s favor as hypocrites, he caused mayhem in the temple, and he scandalized the pious by hanging out with the disreputable and calling the leaders to task. He exposed the dark underbelly of civil (especially religious) society, and that could not be tolerated. If you’re hated because you speak truth to power, fight for widows, orphans, the poor and the oppressed, and call the religious out for their lack of love, then you can claim that verse. If you’re hated because you bury the message of God’s love in religious piety, that’s not because of Jesus.
I heard a former Bush (41) official talk to a group of evangelicals about leaving the White House and doing a service job to get back in touch with “the people.” He asked his clients what they thought of when they heard “Jesus” (not “church” or “Christianity,” just Jesus). The top three responses were (anti-) abortion, (anti-) gays, and (pro-) guns. I don’t care where you stand on the issues, if those are the first things people think of, then it is the Church that is most in need of repentance. We have made a Frankensteinian idol that is the opposite of the Jesus in the Bible. We’ve created Bizarro Jesus and called it the Christ.
I’m not just wound up over some abstract principles. This isn’t about political correctness or impressing my Hollywood friends. It’s about people. We live in a society where people are MURDERED by homophobic bigots, where hurt, neglected and confused teens take their own lives because of the condemnation they feel. My heart breaks, and the heart of anyone who claims to know the love of God should break.
Christianity itself is not to blame. People who claim any faith or no faith do horrendous, damnable things because those groups are comprised of people and people can be evil.*** But those who claim to follow Jesus should loudly and continually condemn such things (just as many called for Muslims to loudly condemn those who perpetrate violence in the name of their religion). I would also argue that an inappropriate approach to scripture and homosexuality (including opposing same-sex marriage) perpetrates systemic oppression that undermines the gospel, but that’s another debate.
You can be as literal**** and conservative as you want but still try to convey love and behave Christianly. To do that, your love megaphone has to be significantly louder than your piety microphone. It should be clear that you care passionately about individual people over principles. “The law was made for man, not man for the law.” Support efforts to care for AIDS patients. Have a home for kids kicked out by their parents due to their sexuality, and loudly condemn their actions. Every time you talk about homosexuality, loudly condemn violence against LGBTQ persons. Again, I think you undermine your message of love by not supporting equality, but I care more that the message of love leads. That should be non-negotiable for Christians.
Let me draw a parallel that may be easier to understand (it is for me). Christians are clearly called to actively care for the poor. There can be no dispute about that. A reasonable person can argue that it does not necessarily follow that the government should help the poor. In fact, such a person could argue, well-intentioned government action often hurts the poor. Let’s accept that premise. If you actively champion eliminating programs for the poor (especially while proclaiming your Christianity), then you better actively work to help the poor and loudly call others to do the same. Every time you open your mouth about small government, you better express your concern for the poor and oppressed and call on your fellow citizens to take action. I don’t care how much your church does or how much you give, if you publicly call for the destruction of anti-poverty programs without doing the rest, you have undermined your other efforts and not followed the biblical mandate. Even if the poor are marginally better off financially (a big if), you have still failed. “Man does not live by bread alone,” and, by not doing the other, you have failed to feed their souls, depriving them of the message of love you are called to deliver and, further, created an environment of hostility to the poor.
Jack Kemp was the supreme example of how to do this properly. A conservative (though probably not by today’s standards) supply-sider, the late Congressman, HUD Secretary and Vice-Presidential candidate cared passionately about the poor, oppressed and marginalized (including immigrants and minorities in general). He didn’t just argue for smaller government and that a rising tide would lift all boats. Every time he talked about such things, he talked of helping the poor as a priority. He helped successfully push for free enterprise zones, talked of our moral obligations to our fellow citizens, looked for ways the government hindered everyday life in poor neighborhoods, and chastised his own supporters when they demonized opponents. “Compassionate conservative” was not an oxymoron when applied to him. Agree with him or not, he led with love.
So…. For all these reasons and more, I will not be eating at Chick-fil-A. That decision has not come easily. My wife has pushed me to stop eating there for over a year. I resisted. I absolutely love their food; I went there multiple times a week. I used to admire the company, writing a college report my freshman year on their corporate mission to “glorify God” through service to the community, good customer service and fair treatment of employees. Even as that opinion faded, I felt that boycotts tended to be ineffective and that we can’t only do business with companies that perfectly align with our beliefs. Then Cathy doubled-down, showing no grace or humility. Between that and the reactions, Chick-fil-A has become a touchstone over not only same-sex marriage but also what it means to live a pluralistic society and to behave as a Christian. They forced my hand, and I’m using my free speech to say that I love my LGBT friends, I think Chick-fil-A is behaving inappropriately in pluralistic society, and I strongly object to its cloaking itself in a Christian flag.
Let me also say, loudly, that those who feel as I do should conduct themselves civilly. Public protests are valid ways to criticize the company and to show support for LGBTQ persons. But if we hurl insults at its employees, customers or even Cathy himself, we undermine our efforts and commit some of the same sins as Cathy. There are hateful people in the world. Some of them ate at Chick-fil-A on Wednesday. But most of those at Chick-fil-A weren’t hateful. I think their actions were misguided and, more importantly, contributed to a hateful environment. They certainly failed to actively convey love. But I will show them the same love I expect from them, while strongly, publicly and respectfully criticizing their actions, attitudes and basic approach. I’m not suggesting some “middle” approach. I stand firmly on one side. I don’t necessarily expect much movement from the other side. But I do expect civility, and I’m calling on all Christians to place agape love at the center of their actions. It’s not always easy in the heat of the moment, but it’s the only way forward.
[As I was finishing this post, I discovered 5 REASONS WHY THE CHURCH FAILED YESTERDAY. Thank you, Matthew Paul Tuner.]
* To be clear, I’m not a flag waver, but if I were, I suppose I’d fly both.
** This is not say “in a society that used to be primarily Christian but is now diverse.” A Christ-like society is pluralistic. A theocracy is unchristian.
*** I highly recommend watching Joss Whedon’s speech to Harvard humanists, where the professed atheist speaks to mostly atheists on this very point.
**** There is not a single person who takes the Bible completely literally. Even if I met someone who stoned disobedient children and didn’t wear mixed-fabric clothing, I am sure they are not trying to take Paul’s cloak to him as he commanded (2 Timothy 4:13). “That’s silly,” you say? “That’s written to a particular person at a particular time in a particular context.” Exactly.