In preparation for Easter week last year, I spent a great deal of time with Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan’s excellent work, The Last Week, a historical/contextual analysis and chronological breakdown of Jesus’ last week, as portrayed in the Gospel of Mark. One of their key points is that, rather than having showed up in Jerusalem as a “substitutionary sacrifice,” Jesus was in Jerusalem during Passover to continue his ministry of compassion and justice by speaking (and acting) out against the “domination system” of his day.
They characterize a domination system as a social system marked by three major features: political oppression, economic exploitation and religious legitimation. They explain that “religion has been used to legitimate the place of the wealthy and powerful in the social order over which they preside,” and that “one could make a good case that in somewhat different form it remains with us today.”
After Easter, I found myself pondering the question, “Am I in any way legitimating the domination system today?” At first, nothing came to me. But as I stayed in the question, I clearly heard, “Yes, as long as you are performing marriages that the state says are legal for some, but are denied to others.” I sat with that realization for a bit, then stood up, and walked into the room where my wife and partner in ministry Christine was and said, “Honey, it just came to me; I can’t perform any marriages here, or in any state that does not permit same-sex marriage.” After a very brief but inspired discussion, Christine was on board, and The Rainbow Interdiction was born.
Christine and I take turns writing a weekly Notes from the Minister blog which goes out to our congregation in our weekly electronic newsletter and on our spiritual community’s Facebook page. That week, I sat down and wrote out an explanation of our decision, and the reasoning behind it. As I sent it out for posting, I also copied our board president, who I wanted to notify, expecting he would give a heads up to our board of trustees. Then I created both a Facebook page and a website, inviting other members of the clergy to join us in taking a stand for marriage equality.
Reactions Both Expected and Unexpected
As one might expect, the reaction to our announcement varied widely. Some people supported us enthusiastically; others were critical to the point of leaving our spiritual community. Even one of our staunchest supporters on our board of trustees used the word “betrayed” in describing her feelings. (Of course, as we know from our Q Effect work, “betrayed” is a judgment; not a feeling.—Thanks, Gary [Simmons]!) There was a great deal of discourse, much of it uncomfortable.
One thing we found surprising was that some of our LGBTQ members were among those who were made uncomfortable by our decision, a phenomenon I primarily attribute to the development of their survival skills after a lifetime of immersion in the conservative Deep South. But the point is, this was not about taking a stand to support our LGBTQ members (whether they wanted it or not); it was not some sort of attempt to get on a bandwagon for a currently newsworthy cause; it was not an attempt to make some sort of teaching point about equality. It was a matter of personal conscience.
Each of us, as members of the clergy and leaders of the communities, must have some form of moral compass, some internal guidance that drives our actions that goes beyond “doing church” or being “a loving, non-anxious presence” in our pastoral relationships. If we are truly to be spiritual leaders, we must have some sort of vision for a kingdom of heaven that transcends the religious calendar and the day-to-day life of our congregation.
Jesus preached about life in the “Kingdom of God” which was most definitely not life in the Roman Empire as it existed during his lifetime, and it was the actions he took to “walk his talk” that led to his crucifixion. And while I am not demanding that we all take actions radical enough to warrant the death penalty from the domination system of our own time, I invite you to ask yourself if you hold any values dear enough to lay down (at least) your professional life on their behalf.
Looking Back in Review
This leads me to what we in the Army (I continue to serve as a CW4 in the Army National Guard) would call an AAR—an “After Action Review.” When we do an AAR after an exercise or operation, we look for one “sustain” (one thing it’s important to keep doing well), and one “improve” (one thing we can do better next time around). For me, the “sustain” in this particular instance is having taken a stand on an issue that we are not just in support of, but passionate about to the point of being willing to “fall on our sword” for, to quote an old commander of mine.
Now, this is not to say that having once taken a stand, we must always be unwilling to reconsider. Charles Fillmore is famously quoted as saying, “I reserve the right to change my mind.” But simply bowing to pressure and popular opinion on a matter of conscience displays a lack of integrity that does not rise to the standard we as spiritual leaders must set for ourselves, and need to set for our communities if they are to prosper.
As for my “improve”—the one thing I feel we could have done better—was to give all our spiritual community leaders more advance notice, and more time for dialogue prior to making our announcement. You see, the message we sent to our board president to give him and the board a heads-up languished in his inbox until after my Notes from the Minister had gone public, and our leadership was somewhat blindsided when asked by members of the congregation about their position before they had even seen what we had published (hence the “betrayed” feeling).
If I had it to do over (and I may someday), I would make sure I not only informed the leadership, but did my best to get their buy-in. As it was, the board refused to have the spiritual community join the interdiction as policy, but they supported our rights as clergy to make the individual decision not to serve as officiants. Had we done a better job with notification and dialogue, I think they might have been completely supportive.
Participating in Progress
On the morning of February 9, 2015, Christine and I were on the steps of the Jefferson County, Ala., courthouse, where the first marriage licenses in the history of our state were issued to same-sex couples. Christine spoke to the press on behalf of area clergy and then proceeded to officiate a wedding outdoors. I was enlisted to aid the judge inside the courthouse to conduct weddings for the throng who had gathered. It was a magical experience, one I will hold in my heart always.
For me, it is not only a matter of conscience, it defines what it means to be a minister of Jesus Christ: I am called to take a stand against the “domination system” of our time, and not to be a part of any form of its religious legitimation. Jesus understood that true compassion for one another requires that we demand justice, and that we “put feet to our faith” where necessary to bring that about. Do your work; listen within; take a stand!