Peter Gomes: a powerful voice for gay Christians passes
March 1st, 2011
As minister of Memorial Church of Harvard University since 1970, Peter Gomes held a pulpit of prestige. An international preacher, Gomes was highly respected and his influence ranged from discussing theology with the Queen Mum to offering prayers and sermons at the inaugurals of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. Every Harvard alumnus for the past 40 years has started and ended their education with his advice.
But for me, Gomes will be remembered as the author of The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart, a book which allowed me to look at some of my presumptions and question my own interaction with faith. The premise of this work, which really isn’t all that surprising, is that few Christians have much working knowledge of the Bible, know how to read it, or feel confident to understand what it says. Instead they opt for a deification of the image of the Bible rather than attempting to apply the truths found in its contents.
And it was demystifying the Bible and shaking up Christianity’s comfortable assumptions that consumed the past few decades of his life. Although a life-long Republican of the Massachusetts variety (until a recent registration change to support Deval Patrick), he viewed Jesus as a social revolutionary whose gospel would not be much welcomed in today’s established Christianity and deplored the way in which Scriptural literalism could be text proofed to support just about any social injustice.
In 1991 Gomes came out as gay, (NY Times)
Then, in 1991, he appeared before an angry crowd of students, faculty members and administrators protesting homophobic articles in a conservative campus magazine whose distribution had led to a spate of harassment and slurs against gay men and lesbians on campus. Mr. Gomes, putting his reputation and career on the line, announced that he was “a Christian who happens as well to be gay.”
When the cheers faded, there were expressions of surprise from the Establishment, and a few calls for his resignation, which were ignored. The announcement changed little in Mr. Gomes’s private life; he had never married and said he was celibate by choice. But it was a turning point for him professionally.
“I now have an unambiguous vocation — a mission — to address the religious causes and roots of homophobia,” he told The Washington Post months later. “I will devote the rest of my life to addressing the ‘religious case’ against gays.”
Gomes was not hesitant to tie the ‘religious objection to homosexuality’ as preached in American Christianity to the actual mistreatment of homosexual persons as experienced in America. (The Good Book)
Although most contemporary Christians who have moral reservations about homosexuality, and who find affirmation for those reservations in the Bible, do not resort to physical violence and intimidation, they nevertheless contribute to the maintenance of a cultural environment in which less scrupulous opponents of homosexuality are given the sanction of the Bible to feed their prejudice and, in certain cases, cultural “permission” to act with violence upon those prejudices.
As an American Baptist preacher from a very young age, Gomes took the Bible seriously. He took his religion seriously. And it was through his faith, not in spite of it, that he spoke out for tolerance, for understanding, for inclusion, for treating your neighbor like yourself even when you really truly don’t want to, and for adhering to a meaningful thoughtful Christianity rather than a superstitious set of rites, rules and prejudices.
The religious community and the gay community have both lost a guiding light and a powerful advocate.