Peter J. Gomes, minister at Memorial Church of Harvard University, died Monday, February 28. New York Times obituary here, and Harvard Gazette obituary here.
Gomes is probably best known in popular culture for coming as gay in 1991. It was much more difficult to come out as a gay man twenty years ago; and Gomes was then identified with conservative politics (he gave the benediction at one of Ronald Reagan’s inaugurations) which in those days must have made it even more difficult to come out.
But when I think of Gomes, I think of someone who had the reputation of being one of our living American preachers. I never heard him preach in person, but I heard him on the radio, and he really was fabulous — a gorgeous voice under perfect control, backed up by a sharp intellect.
When I think of Gomes, I also think of his Cape Verdean background. His father was born in the tiny African nation of Cape Verde, and came to the United States to work in the cranberry bogs of southeastern Massachusetts. This is an unusual family history for an African American: a family that chose to emigrate, rather than being enslaved and forced to go America.
And finally, when I think of Gomes, I think of someone who can be considered a religious liberal. In his books, Gomes presented contemporary Biblical scholarship to a popular audience, and sometimes it feels as though he takes great joy in puncturing the pretensions of Biblical literalists:
Jesus came preaching — we are told this in all the Gospels — but nowhere in the Gospels is there a claim that he came preaching the New Testament, or even Christianity. It still shocks some Christians to realize that Jesus was not a Christian, that he did not know “our” Bible, and that what he preached was substantially at odds with his biblical culture, and with ours as well. The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, 2007, p. 14.
I get the distinct impression that Gomes took just a little bit of pleasure in shocking “some Christians” who weren’t smart enough to know that Jesus was not a Christian. Even though I felt Gomes could be a little bit pompous in his writing, I like him for taking that little bit of pleasure in shocking the literalists.