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social sciences

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Gomes, Peter (1942-2011)  
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He accepted the invitation, and in his speech to those assembled in the Yard, declared that "these wicked writings [i.e., in Peninsula] are hurtful, divisive, and most profoundly wrong."

Gomes described the Harvard glbtq community as a "diverse and secular one" and not "as a whole particularly visibly religious." Nevertheless, he assured his audience that "you and I are made in the image of God," and then, to the surprise of everyone, announced, "I am a Christian who happens to be gay."

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Gomes's decision to come out publicly as a gay man--and in the place and the way that he did--was not made lightly. "I determined that I would make my best effort to represent my understanding of the Bible and Christian faith as it applied to the heart of the present discontents . . . . I wanted all and sundry, but particularly these young homosexuals and their polemic antagonists, to see that there was more than one way to read the Bible and to understand the imperatives of the Christian faith," he wrote, adding that he "also wanted to win minds and hearts, or at least awaken them, to a view of Christian faith which in dispute valued charity and humility over mean-spiritedness and arrogance."

The protesters in the Harvard Yard greeted Gomes's declaration of his homosexuality first with astonishment and then jubilation. Embracing each other, jumping up and down, and flinging hats in the air, "they looked like the winning team after the World Series," wrote Mary Jordan in the Washington Post.

The next day Gomes found "hundreds of notes and bundles of flowers" from grateful Harvard students at the entrance to the parsonage. But, predictably, the opposition mobilized as well: a group calling itself Concerned Christians at Harvard organized to demand Gomes's dismissal and held a candlelight vigil for that cause.

The controversy thrust Gomes into the national spotlight, as both print and broadcast media reported his revelation and the conservative students' reaction to it. The irony was that Gomes was a political conservative himself. Of the invitation to address the rally, he wrote, "I fully appreciated the fact that I was not asked to speak because of any radical credentials that I may have had: I had none. . . . I was invited to speak as a member of the establishment."

The furor eventually abated, with Gomes still in his Harvard posts.

Although coping with the unwanted attention had been difficult, Gomes stated that he "found this experience to be one of the most formative and rewarding of [his] ministry" and that it "drove [him] to an ever more intense study of both the relevant passages of scripture and the theories of interpretation."

His reflections on the Bible led him to write The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart (1996), in which he discusses not only what scripture says--and does not say--about homosexuality but also its messages on race, anti-Semitism, and the role of women in society, as well as the very question of the interpretation of a sacred text in a culture far removed and far different from the one in which it was written, yet that still holds a powerful sway over contemporary society.

In his thoughtful commentary on the biblical texts adduced to condemn homosexuality, Gomes asks the essential question, "When the Bible speaks of homosexuality, does it mean what we mean when we speak of homosexuality?" Analyzing the texts at issue, he demonstrates that it does not.

He points out that "homosexuality is not mentioned in the Ten Commandments, nor in the Summary of the Law. No prophet discourses on the subject. Jesus himself makes no mention of it, and homosexuality does not appear to be of much concern to those early churches with which Saint Paul and his successors were involved."

Furthermore, he notes, the egregious behavior that led to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is never specified in the Bible. While "the conventional wisdom is that the city of Sodom was destroyed because its inhabitants practiced homosexuality," that is not in fact what the text says. It is, indeed, silent on that point.

While the Bible may have been silent, commentators have not been. As a result, writes Gomes, "the source [of widely held beliefs about what the Bible says about homosexuality] is not the Bible but the moral assumptions of the Church Fathers with which they read the Bible and interpreted it as part of the teaching tradition of the church." He therefore concludes that "we must change our position on homosexuality if that position is based upon a prejudicial and uninformed reading of scripture."

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