Peter J. Gomes, minister and theologian (Black History Month)
Peter J. Gomes, a “Christian who happens as well to be gay,” was a minister and professor at Harvard University who argued that the Bible is not racist, anti-Semitic, anti-feminist, or anti-gay. Bent Alaska presents his story as part of our celebration of Black History Month 2012, with thanks to GLAAD and the Equality Forum.
Peter J. Gomes
“There can be no light without the darkness out of which it shines.”
Peter J. Gomes (born May 22, 1942; died February 28, 2011) offered a look at religion from a distinctive perspective. Gomes, a minister and professor at Harvard University, argued that the Bible is not racist, anti-Semitic, anti-feminist, or anti-gay.
Born in Plymouth, MA, Gomes took an early interest in Puritan history and religion. He spent hours at the local library researching the Mayflower and prominent leaders of the time, such as William Bradford. His father was from the Cape Verde Islands and his mother was African-American. He was baptized a Roman Catholic, but later became an American Baptist. He graduated from Bates College in 1965, received a Bachelor of Sacred Theology degree from Harvard Divinity School in 1968, he also studied at the University of Cambridge, where he was an Honorary Fellow and where the Gomes Lectureship was established in his honor. He was ordained by the First Baptist Church of Plymouth, and in 1970 became Pusey Minister in Harvard University’s nondenominational Memorial Church. In 1974 he was made Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard. His teaching and research interests included the Bible, the history of the ancient Christian church, worship, homiletics, and the black American experience.
In 1991, Peninsula, a conservative Harvard magazine, published a 56-page issue largely critical of homosexuality which led to a rash of harassment and slurs against gay men and lesbians on campus. Gomes, a self-described cultural conservative and registered Republican, stunned the Harvard community by denouncing the magazine and coming out publicly as a gay man at Harvard’s Memorial Church, stating that he was “a Christian who happens as well to be gay.” A small group called Concerned Christians at Harvard immediately called for his resignation, but Gomes received support from the Harvard administration. Gomes, who had never married and was celibate by choice, nevertheless took on a new task. As he later told the Washington Post,
I now have an unambiguous vocation — a mission — to address the religious causes and roots of homophobia, I will devote the rest of my life to addressing the “religious case” against gays.
Gomes held 33 honorary degrees. Religion and American Life named him Clergy of the Year in 1998, and he won the Phi Beta Kappa Teaching Award from Harvard in 2001. Gomes gave the benediction at the second inauguration of President Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration and delivered the National Cathedral sermon at the inauguration of President George H.W. Bush. In 2006 he switched parties to become a Democrat in support of the candidacy of Deval L. Patrick, who became the first black governor of Massachusetts. Gomes preached at his inauguration.
As remembered by the Washington Post‘s Alexandra Petri after his death,
Libraries were an atmosphere the reverend clearly found congenial — the Bible, he noted on multiple occasions, was not a textbook, but a library.
But he was most at home behind the immense wooden lectern, from which his thunderous, widely imitated, but never surpassed, voice boomed out over the assembled throngs.
As an undergraduate, I found myself stumbling into Memorial Church in the admonitory light of a few Sunday mornings. His sermons were always bracing, delivered with a mixture of Old Testament fire and New Testament warmth
Gomes was a widely-published author. Of the ten volumes of sermons and numerous articles and papers he has written, two of his works — The Good Book and Sermons — became New York Times and national bestsellers. The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart (1996) was described this way in a Publishers Weekly review: “His mission in this cogent exercise in nonsectarian Christian apologetics is to help reverse the current decline in biblical literacy by reclaiming the Bible from theological stodginess and lay laziness.” The second of its three parts, called “The Use and Abuse of the Bible,” went into depth about how scriptural passages had been misused in the defense of racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, and antigay prejudice. Sermons: Biblical Wisdom For Daily Living (1998) collected 40 of Gomes’ favorite sermons, guiding its readers through the year by way of the Christian calendar, beginning with Advent. His last book, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good About the Good News? (2008), asks why Christians insist upon making Jesus the object of their attention rather than heeding his message:
The question should not be, “What would Jesus do?” but, rather, more dangerously, “What would Jesus have me do?” The onus is not on Jesus but on us, for Jesus did not come to ask semi-divine human beings to do impossible things. He came to ask human beings to live up to their full humanity; he wants us to live in the full implication of our human gifts, and that is far more demanding.
Peter J. Gomes was hospitalized in January 2011 after suffering a stroke, dying on February 28, 2011 at age 68.
On June 15, 2008 at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, Rev. Gomes discussed why he believed Jesus would have supported same-sex marriage. Watch: