We are not Indiana: Gov. Pence please don’t save us

It is interesting to be alive as the United States goes “post-Christian.” I still remember sitting around the living room just after graduating from college predicting this day and looking forward to it, so we could get back to telling people the gospel and forming the church without being all clogged up with saluting the flag. We are not quite there yet — and I am not sure if getting what I hoped for (as usual) is going to be what I really want.

We get tagged by Gov. Pence and the RFRA

The example of the day for not getting what I want is the uproar over the “religious freedom” law in Indiana. (Here is a description from the NY Times, complete with a link to the bill). Governor Pence told ABC’s This Week that the new Indiana law is just an expansion of a federal law that is over 20 years old. It is about expanding individual rights for those who feel government has impinged upon them. “This is not about discrimination,” he said. “This is about empowering people to confront government overreach.” The supposedly controversial Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act is based on a 1993 Federal Law of the same name, signed by Bill Clinton. It protects individuals (which includes most anyone or anything that can get a federal id number) from risking a lawsuit by exercising their convictions. Not only can the Christian owners of a bakery refuse to write an inscription on the wedding cake of a gay couple, but the black owners of a T-shirt business don’t have to print the KKK’s burning crosses on shirts, and Jewish owners of a gift shop don’t have to put Nazi symbols on coffee cups.

However, Pence did not answer directly when asked six times whether under the law it would be legal for a merchant to refuse to serve gay customers. “The issue here is still: Is tolerance a two-way street or not?” he responded several times. The governor might have better reason to respond that way if “sexual orientation” were a protected class of people on Indiana’s list. But they are not. So the law leaves room for merchants to decide who is gay and whether they want to serve them based on their orientation. Why a state would want to further injure LGBT people now that they are finally enjoying the light of day is beyond me. Quite predictably, the bill has been roundly condemned around the nation. Seattle’s mayor went so far as to issue a travel ban to Indiana for city workers.

As a leader in the church, people turn and look at me suspiciously whenever religious arguments get adjudicated in the press. Republican Governor Pence says that Indiana is under fire for faith, so I am supposed to either defend him or not because he got on TV. People look at our church and wonder if LGBT people are a protected class among us, as if we were a state government! Once again, people who are not personally dealing with the varieties non-dominant sexual attractions start lumping everyone together into an “identity” and making them conform to the latest version of the political fight. I still don’t think those are our only choices. I am for religious freedom and I think the various RFRA’s, federal and in twenty-one states, make a lot of sense. At the same time I think the application in Indiana is wrong-headed and hurtful. I have the luxury of seeing things that way because I don’t need an RFRA to have religious freedom and I am not Indiana. Governments should be useful and are often dangerous; regardless, Jesus is Lord.

Jesus does not need an RFRA

“Flevit super illam” (He wept over it); by Enrique Simonet, 1892.

When Jesus entered Jerusalem yesterday he pointedly challenged the authority of both the empire and the religious leaders. They promptly killed him. We might like to remember his example. Alternatively, Republican Christians got themselves into power in Indiana and they intend to use the power of the state to defend their rights. They may save me from getting killed, I don’t know. But they also threaten to delude people into thinking that state law is somehow going to save them. It is not. It is just as likely to threaten your life. The big point of Palm Sunday, that even children could recognize, is that Jesus is the one who saves.

I think the people who are furious over the Indiana law are even more sure that state law will save people — specifically those who just want to love who they love without being discriminated against as a result. For more and more people, the state is god and the laws are the word of the lord. Whoever marshals enough firepower to win the legal fight rules — and people are deploying the weapons of “dialogue” in our country to overturn this law. The media is already holding court sessions for the latest round of social construction. The corporations are already deciding the verdict on Indiana. Charles Barkley gets on TV and pressures the NCAA to move the Final Four out of the state. Tim Cook of Apple denounces the law as an opening for discrimination (which it is). Salesforce.com cancels all events in the state. Yelp issues a warning. Angie’s List says it is rethinking expansion plans.

What Christians seem to miss on Palm Sunday is that Jesus is clearing out the temple of merchants and other powers so God is worshiped, not the regulations, laws and business interests that have come to substitute for God’s direct rule. As much as I am against oppression, I am surprised at how many Christians leave their faith behind in order to worship at the feet of the government (and the corporations who own it) whenever they experience discrimination, begging for freedom and demanding the power to make things right, as if American exceptionalism will actually save the world.

Meanwhile, in the church which, again, is not an Indiana in any way, shape or form, we are walking with real people who experience same sex attraction. Some are ready to strike out against inequality with their allies. Some may want to get married. Some don’t want to strike out or get married. And some would like people who are supposedly defending them to be quiet. The issues of faith , hope and love are bigger than the Constitution. I think criticizing Indiana’s lawmaking is important, but I know I will do more good, ultimately, if I follow Jesus more fearlessly in the face of bad laws. If I expect the powers-that-be to stop doing what the fallen powers of this world do, I will ultimately be less influential for good in that murky arena, too.

When the powers that be want to reduce loved ones down to a “protected class” we need to tell them our kingdom is not of this world any so-called “class” does not need their permission to express the first fruits of the age to come. If you can’t go that far, you can at least not project your frustration with Indiana on the church. We are not Indiana. We don’t need to fall into a political trap every time it is opened to us. We need to keep creating an alternative and not align ourselves with the pawns of the state who compete for some validation from their false god. Jesus is our hope for love and truth and we should keep speaking the truth in love.

7 thoughts on “We are not Indiana: Gov. Pence please don’t save us

  1. This generated some good dialogue between Ben and I. Lots for me to chew on here. I misunderstood for my political activism and it is hard to explain that being politically active does not replace my ultimate belief that Jesus saves above all else. This, like many things, ends up being a matter of the heart; it is important for me to check in with myself and Jesus to ask whether or not I have started to believe that a law, as good as it may be, is going to save people. Laws can make things worse or better, but they do not enter the realm of people’s souls.

    1. I love your activism and I think you are right about exercising it being a matter of the heart. I call what you do “invasive separatism.” We know who we are in Christ and it makes us different from those who don’t follow Jesus. We can bring our reality to the heart of the empire, just like Paul being happy he is impacting the Praetorium Guards during his imprisonment. It seems to me that the danger for most Christians is leaving Jesus behind as they try to do good in honor of the feelings of their worldly comrades — whose hope is in their activism.

  2. I’m wondering where that line is between standing with the oppressed and not putting our faith in the law. It’s always a difficult tension for me. Personally, I’d rather err on the side of standing with the oppressed, but I agree it’s important to recognize that we can easily be making a savior out of the law.

    1. Some of the Lord’s disciples (today of Holy Week) object that the ointment luxuriously poured on him could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor. They have their own sense of what is practical and holy as they stand with the oppressed. The famous line “the poor you will always have with you but you will not always have me” seems to sum up the both/and of our journey toward the age to come. Attending to Jesus is primary, all the rest follows. The woman’s prophecy of the Lord’s burial is better news for the poor than economic justice doled out by the stingy, self-interested gods of this world.

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