…[E]ven if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.” But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.
-1 Peter 3:14-18 (NIV)
The restaurant chain showed up in the dead of night, unannounced, stealthily building four restaurants, including the largest in their chain, without anyone knowing about it. I mean, I guess it was something like that, since Dan Piepenbring used the word “infiltrated” in a hard-hitting New Yorker exposé, and as far as I know “infiltrate” implies a lot of secrecy. It’s kind of tough to believe that a company could open four stores, even in a town the size of New York City, without someone knowing about it, but I’m sure Mr. Piepenbring must know what he’s talking about.
Mr. Piepenbring seems to have a lot of problems with Chick-fil-a. That’s his right, of course. He clearly doesn’t care for their famous “spokes-cows” — his issue there is apparently with an ad campaign “in which one farm animal begs us to kill another in its place.” (I hope no one tells him that the meat other restaurants serve doesn’t come from animals who have willingly given their lives, or died of natural causes.)
It seems, though, that the cow evangelists (cowvangelists?) aren’t the main problem Mr. Piepenbring has with Chick-fil-a. He doesn’t care for a well-known quote by the late founder of Chick-fil-a, S. Truett Cathy, expressing his belief that America is “inviting God’s judgment” by supporting same-sex marriage. The fact that Cathy, a Southern Baptist, was speaking to a Christian news organization and more or less echoing the position of most Christians for centuries doesn’t seem to throw Mr. Piepenbring off his stride at all.
That’s kind of the crux of the matter, as I see it. Think of it this way: if Chick-fil-a were outspoken supporters of same-sex marriage, I doubt Mr. Piepenbring would have penned an article blasting them for their outspokenness. Neither, probably, would he excoriate in print a halal restaurant that made no effort to hide its owner’s Islamic beliefs, or a bookstore devoted to Buddhism. The real problem that Mr. Piepenbring has with Chick-fil-a, I think, is summed up early in the article:
“…[T}he brand’s arrival here feels like an infiltration, in no small part because of its pervasive Christian traditionalism. Its headquarters, in Atlanta, are adorned with Bible verses and a statue of Jesus washing a disciple’s feet. Its stores close on Sundays.”
What makes Chick-fil-a an infiltrator? What makes them outsiders, as far as Mr. Piepenbring’s New York is concerned? Bible verses. Jesus. In his eyes, they’re a “Christian” company. Or, at least, “Christian Traditionalist.”
Leaving aside the question of whether or not a corporation can be in any sense “Christian,” Mr. Piepenbring can believe and write what he wants about Chick-fil-a, and it doesn’t make a lot of difference to me one way or the other. (More chicken sandwiches for me!) His words certainly don’t rise to the level of persecution. I even understand where an attitude like his could come from: The church, historically, hasn’t always practiced love as much as we’ve talked about it. Too often we have reflected society’s prejudices instead of our Lord’s love and grace and used the gospel for our own selfish ends. We should, and will, receive our Lord’s judgment for that sort of thing.
But I would like to point out to Mr. Piepenbring — but more to my sisters and brothers in Christ — that for people who believe, faith is not a buffet where we pick and choose what we’d like to keep and what we’d prefer to discard. Our faith is in Jesus, and he tells us to be light and salt in the world, to make our presence known by doing and saying the things that we learn from him. He tells us that when we do sometimes people will insult us and persecute us because they don’t really care for him, but that even if that happens we have to be faithful. Following him makes us Christian. If it makes us traditionalist as well, I’m OK with that.
We’re called to follow the Scriptures, too. Admittedly, figuring out what those Scriptures from another time and place have to do with us in our time and place is not always easy, and undoubtedly we’ve made mistakes — and likely will again. Yet, part of our faith tells us that those Scriptures are God’s word. Believing it and obeying it is part of what makes us Christian. If it makes us traditionalist as well, so be it.
Keeping our faith to ourselves isn’t really an option, either. Sometimes people who don’t believe seem to expect that those of us who do should just not talk about it, should separate our public personas from the faith that means so much to us privately. That isn’t something we can readily do, though. Nor should we have to. Faith that means anything at all — even if it’s faith in science, or reason, or words — will inevitably show itself in the things we say and do, the priorities we set, the values by which we live. That shouldn’t surprise anyone.
My suspicion is that believers are going to encounter assumptions like Mr. Piepenbring’s more frequently, that our faith is going to be increasingly pushed to the margins, that the pressure will increase for us to keep it to ourselves. One way to respond to that is to panic, to lash out, to try to push back into the center of power. But Jesus didn’t do that, and millions of his followers through the centuries never had that option. Our faith doesn’t lose its legitimacy if it loses its majority.
Another way to respond is to go into stealth mode, to do exactly what Mr. Piepenbring and those who share his opinions of faith think we should do and just be silent. Jesus didn’t do that either, and neither have millions of his followers who those in power have attempted to muzzle before us.
May we respond like Him, and like them. May we live without fear, anxiety, or defensiveness. When insulted, slandered, and told to be quiet, may we respond with gentleness and respect, keeping our consciences clear. But may we never hesitate to continue to speak about the hope we have. And may we learn — in this world in which every injustice, every slight, can immediately be exposed — that suffering for doing good can actually be a blessing. May we remember that we learn that from our Lord, who suffered for the sins of others in order to bring us to God. May our sufferings, if they should occur, bring many to God.
And may we be as earnest and clear about our message as those cowvangelists are.