June 2011 Ethical Hero – Reverend Peter J. Gomes

Published: June 12, 2011

By Jim Lichtman
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“He was a thundering black Baptist preacher,” the New York Times writes, “and for much of his life a conservative Republican celebrity who wrote books about the Pilgrims, published volumes of sermons and presided at weddings and funerals of the rich and famous. He gave the benediction at President Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration and delivered the National Cathedral sermon at the inauguration of Reagan’s successor, George Bush.”

“The Rev. Professor Peter J. Gomes was the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church at Harvard University. In 1979 Time magazine called Gomes “one of the seven most distinguished preachers in America.”

“‘No one epitomizes all that is good about Harvard more than Peter J. Gomes,’ said Henry Louis Gates Jr. in the Harvard Gazette. “The pair met in 1991 when Gomes was part of a recruiting committee that helped to bring Gates to the University. Gates quipped it was ‘love at first sight,’ and said Gomes had been a loyal friend and adviser for 20 years.”

“In 1991,” The Times writes, [Gomes] 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.’

“He was true to his word. His sermons and lectures, always well attended, were packed in Cambridge and around the country as he embarked on a campaign to rebut literal and fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible. He also wrote extensively on intolerance.

“‘Religious fundamentalism is dangerous because it cannot accept ambiguity and diversity and is therefore inherently intolerant,’ he declared in an Op-Ed article in the The New York Times in 1992. ‘Such intolerance, in the name of virtue, is ruthless and uses political power to destroy what it cannot convert.’

“In his 1996 best seller, The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart, Mr. Gomes urged believers to grasp the spirit, not the letter, of scriptural passages that he said had been misused to defend racism, anti-Semitism and sexism, and to attack homosexuality and abortion. He offered interpretations that he said transcended the narrow context of modern prejudices.

“‘The Bible alone is the most dangerous thing I can think of,’ he told The Los Angeles Times. ‘You need an ongoing context and a community of interpretation to keep the Bible current and to keep yourself honest. Forget the thought that the Bible is an absolute pronouncement.’

“But Mr. Gomes also defended the Bible from critics on the left who called it corrupt because passages had been used to oppress people. ‘The Bible isn’t a single book, it isn’t a single historical or philosophical or theological treatise,’ he told The Seattle Gay News in 1996. ‘It has 66 books in it. It is a library.'”

Gomes died on February 28, 2011 from complications due to a stroke.

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