RIP Peter J. Gomes, 1942-2011
The Rev. Peter J. Gomes, a Baptist minister, was the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, having served at Harvard University and in the Memorial Church since 1970. He died February 28 of complications from a stroke.
Widely regarded as one of America’s leading preachers, Gomes participated in the inaugurations of Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush. He was named Clergy of the Year by the organization Religion in American Life in 1998; in 1979 Time magazine called him “one of the seven most distinguished preachers in America.”
…A self-described cultural conservative, Gomes stunned the Harvard community and reluctantly made national news when he came out as a homosexual in 1991 in response to gay bashing on campus. “I don’t like being the main exhibit, but this was an unusual set of circumstances, in that I felt I had a particular resource that nobody else there possessed,” he told The New Yorker in 1996.
I first became aware of Gomes when he wrote a wonderful op-ed for the New York Times in 1992 where he wrote that “hatred of homosexuals has become the last respectable prejudice of the century.” He discussed the hypocrisy of Christians who cherry-pick parts of the Bible to rail against gays, while ignoring other salient passages.
Christians opposed to political and social equality for homosexuals nearly always appeal to the moral injunctions of the Bible, claiming that Scripture, is very clear on the matter and citing verses that support their opinion. They accuse others of perverting and distorting texts contrary to their “clear” meaning. They do not, however, necessarily see quite as clear a meaning to biblical passages on economic conduct, the burdens of wealth and the sin of greed.
The conservative Gomes took no prisoners when condemning fundamenalism.
Fundamentalists and literalists, the storm troopers of the religious right, are terrified that Scripture, wrongly interpreted, may separate them from their values. That fear stems from their own recognition that their “values” are not derived from Scripture, as they publicly claim.
Gomes’ eloquent deconstruction of Bible versus and how they are used to advance individual agendas is must reading:
Religious fundamentalism is dangerous because it cannot accept ambiguity and diversity and is therefore inherently intolerant. Such intolerance, in the name of virtue, is ruthless and uses political power to destroy what it cannot convert.
It is dangerous, especially in America, because it is anti-democratic and is suspicious of “the other,” in whatever form that “other” might appear. To maintain itself, fundamentalism must always define “the other” as deviant.
But the chief reason that fundamentalism is dangerous is that, at the hands of the Rev. Pat Robertson. the Rev. Jerry Falwell and hundreds of lesser-known but equally worrisome clerics, preachers and pundits, it uses Scripture and the Christian practice to encourage ordinarily good people to act upon their fears rather than their virtues.
Fortunately, those who speak for the religious right do not speak for all American Christians, and the Bible is not theirs alone to interpret. The same Bible that the advocates of slavery used to protect their wicked self-interests is the Bible that inspired slaves to revolt and their liberators to action.
The same Bible that the predecessors of Mr. Falwell and Mr. Robertson used to keep white churches white is the source of the inspiration of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the social reformation of the 1960’s.
The same Bible that anti-feminists use to keep women silent in the churches is the Bible that preaches liberation to captives and says that in Christ there is neither male nor female, slave nor free.
And the same Bible that on the basis of an archaic social code of ancient Israel and a tortured reading of Paul is used to condemn all homosexuals and homosexual behavior includes metaphors of redemption, renewal, inclusion and love – principles that invite homosexuals to accept their freedom and responsibility in Christ and demands that their fellow Christians accept them as well.
The political piety of the fundamentalist religious right must not be exercised at the expense of our precious freedoms. And in this summer of our discontent, one of the most precious freedoms for which we must all fight is freedom from this last prejudice.