By Sharifa Stevens
I order Chick-fil-A so regularly that those closest to me can recite my order with relaxed confidence: a No. 1 with provolone cheese and a half-sweet, half-unsweetened iced tea. When I moved to Texas, I counted Chick-fil-A proximity as one of my favorite fast-food reasons for loving Dallas. Their menu has mouth-watering appeal; they deliver courteous service (“my pleasure!”) consistently; and they tame the beastly lines they encounter six days a week with panache. I admire the business acumen that uniquely honors the Sabbath.
Now Chick-fil-A has come under fire because of comments made by the CEO, Dan Cathy. Here is what he told the Baptist Press when asked whether he supported the traditional family unit: “We are very much supportive of the family–the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that.”
Chick-fil-A is an unabashedly Christian-owned business, though, so…duh. Of course Cathy would respond this way. Right? Duh?
Well, as it happens, these comments–taken out of context, but nevertheless very clear on marriage between one man and one woman–were quickly condemned by politicians and some media outlets. The mayors of Boston and Chicago made threats to bar any Chick-fil-A franchise from building in their cities.
Before I could exhale a big “Huh?”–since when could mayors block brisk, legitimate and, might I add, tasty businesses from expanding because of the CEO’s religious beliefs? Not company practices, mind you, but personal beliefs?—Mike Huckabee struck back in the name of free speech and Christian values. The politician, talk-show host and prominent evangelical declared a protest in the form of “eating mor chikin,” calling for a Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day. Fight fire with…food.
Flavorful, golden-brown, buttery-bunned chicken sandwich–oh, the weight that recently has fallen upon your shoulders. Originally, your delectableness served as a high-calorie hunger-queller, but now…now, you have been transformed into the arbiter of free speech, of traditional values, of the power of Christian unity!
Some of us engaged in a strange communion on August 1, of sweet tea and chicken sandwiches in place of wine and bread. Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day was an enthusiastic gastronomic response to Dan Cathy’s critics, a show of Christian force.
In defense of free speech and traditional values, droves of believers made pilgrimage to Chick-fil-A, selling out stores, some of which served at 300 percent capacity. Many who participated described the ethos of the day as peaceful and one of solidarity.
Quick as a flash-fry, ordering (or not ordering) a chicken sandwich became a monumental statement on where we stand on the definition of marriage, and a fiscal response to the manipulative reduction of Christians to homophobes and bigots. (I don’t really buy the “free speech” argument. Freedom of religion, yes.)
When did a chicken sandwich gain so much power? If the thrust of our protest is symbolized by eating a sandwich, we are lacking in both eloquence and conviction. I dunno; it just seems…impotent.
There were many believers I spoke to who rightly underlined the importance of being able to speak Biblically and freely in a culture that does not always like what Christians have to say. But when we had the podium, we stuck a sandwich in our mouths and said, “So, there!”
Sandwich-eating is not a proxy for sending out the message of the gospel. The sandwich cannot remind the country that free speech and freedom of religion ought to be tolerated, if not embraced, as Constitutional rights.
It’s a sandwich, after all. It can’t talk.
Eating at Chick-fil-A is a weak symbol. If protest ends there, then we’ve created a tantrum, not a movement.
I hear the words “persecution” and “oppression” being used to describe our experience as Christians in this country. But Christians in this country have freedom; that fact is ironically demonstrated by the cultural discomfort that results from expressing our beliefs. But we are not oppressed. There are Christians like Farshid Fathi who live in bona fide persecution. Fathi, an Iranian pastor, husband, and father of two children, is serving a six-year prison term for his Christian work. Courts routinely postpone his hearings and label him a political dissident. Despite the unjust circumstances, Fathi is respected and loved by his fellow inmates.
I’ve witnessed infighting in my local believing community; one group accuses the other of being backward and bigoted, the other group responds that their accusers are wishy-washy and approval-seeking. I think the Christian community in the United States needs to figure out who we are and what we are after. Power? Understanding? Freedom to worship? Vote our values? Room to live? Right to rule? To go back? To move forward?
I didn’t believe free speech was really a Biblical value until talking theology with some friends earlier this week. Our tongues are tied to our God-given free will and have been since the first couple walked and talked with God in Eden…and lied to God’s face about eating forbidden fruit.
As Christians, we have committed to submitting our free will to Jesus Christ; our thoughts are captive to him. Jesus commissioned us to make disciples and be witnesses in His name. Witnesses are charged to speak, to testify. And bold testimony often comes at great cost; most of the apostles and early followers of Christ were severely persecuted. Many were martyred. Farshid Fathi languishes in jail for living out his faith. Many of our brothers and sisters, right now, today, testify to Jesus and are murdered for it. Let’s pray for them. Write to them. Support them.
I suggest we look to the apostles and to people like Farshid Fathi for examples of Christian free speech in action. I support our right to freedom of religion, and freedom from discrimination as Christians in the United States, and our freedom to fight for that right. I don’t think Chick-fil-A Appreciation did much beyond filling our tummies, exhausting some stellar employees, and filling some coffers. This is a tepid witness.
What do we want? And will we really get it by eating a sandwich?
Sharifa Stevens is a wife and mother, singer, and writer. She earned a B.A. from Columbia University and a Master of Theology degree from Dallas Theological Seminary. She lives in Dallas.