the PUBLIC FORUM - Homophobia
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Peter Gomes


Paul Lynch:  Our first speaker today is an invited speaker, the Reverend Professor Peter John Gomes. Born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1942, the Reverend Professor Gomes is an American Baptist Minister ordained to the Christian Ministry by the First Baptist Church of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Since 1970, he has served in the Memorial Church, Harvard University and since 1974, as Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church. A member of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the Faculty of Divinity of Harvard University, Professor Gomes holds degrees from Bates College and from Harvard Divinity School and honorary degrees from nine American colleges. He is an Honorary Fellow of Emmanuel College, the University of Cambridge, England.
Widely regarded as one of Americaís most distinguished preachers, Professor Gomes has fulfilled preaching and lecturing engagements throughout this country and the British Isles. He was named Clergy of the Year in 1998 by Religion and American Life. His New York Times and National Best-selling books, The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart and Sermons, the Book of Wisdom for Daily Living, were published by William Morrow and Company. He has published four additional volumes of sermons as well as numerous articles and papers. Most people had no idea that Professor Gomes was gay before he came out, and so when he did, he shook up the university, the church, and all those in the community who paid attention when he did come out. Ladies and gentlemen, Professor Gomes.

Peter Gomes: Thank you very much Mr. Moderator. As I look out among you and have this morning reviewed the very complete program booklet, I think I can say probably without fear of contradiction that this is not my usual beat. I have often wondered what I as a Christian Clergyman would do with a room full of psychoanalysts under compulsion. The fantasy might intrigue you as much as it has titillated me, but my assignment here is not to rehash the ancient enmities between our two professions. It is not for me to tell you how frequently you have got it wrong. It is not for me to tell you how often I have had to clean up after you in various places of my profession. That waits for another occasion and another place. I am sure you might feel the same way yourselves if any of you had been invited to speak before a gathering of Baptist Clergy here or anywhere else.
So you can appreciate, I hope, the delicate and the exquisite sweetness of this moment of which I am not going to take advantage, but rather will try to address the topic that has been assigned to me. I am happy to do so because it is a topic of such critical importance. I would be prepared to posit -- at least for the sake of our conversation -- that the field in which I profess some competence has perhaps the formulative responsibility for the perceptions and the prejudices with which we are now concerned, and I begin with that statement straightforward.
It falls to me as a Christian minister and a practitioner of religion to indicate that in the matter of sexual prejudice, religion is fundamentally a part of the problem and one can only hope that by acknowledging that, it may well indeed become part of the solution as well. Perhaps the one thing that my profession and yours have in common is that we have a great deal to answer for in the question of this prejudice which we are confronting today.
I have been asked to talk about the religious basis of prejudice and I am pleased to do so because I know something about it. I am always happy to speak about things I know nothing about, but I am thrilled when I am asked to speak on something about which I do actually know something and have some opinions. I think I will begin by saying that religion, by its nature, consists of the allocation of strong convictions. It is therefore deeply engaged in the acts of definition, and definition -- as you know perhaps better than anybody else -- is both a self-describing enterprise and a self-excluding enterprise, an exclusionary process by which the one is defined against the other. Therefore, religion has inherently within it a stake as it were in setting its adherents apart from other people and determining the basis of acceptable discriminations.
When I look at what religion in general, and the Protestant Christian Religion, which is the cultural religion of this country, in particular, have had to do with the definition of acceptable prejudices, I have to conclude straightaway that the record is a sorry one, an unfortunate one, indeed an unhappy one. Going back to the landing of the Pilgrims in my native Plymouth, Massachusetts where H. L. Lincoln said, "Upon landing at Plymouth Rock, the Pilgrims first fell upon their knees and then upon the aborigines, all and both of course in the Name of God." Deep convictions, clear identities, have inherent in them, strong prejudices.
The question is whether those prejudices are ultimately destructive or in some sense can be described as constructive. Now, when I look at the religious landscape and try to ask what, in my own experience, was the origin of some of the most profound social prejudices in our country, I have to revert to that wonderful Christian Sunday School hymn with which most Protestants at least were brought up: "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong, they are weak, but he is strong. Yes, Jesus loves me, yes, Jesus loves me, yes, Jesus loves me! How do I know? The Bible tells me so." Well, Protestantism is based on the conviction that the Bible tells me all that I need to know, and only what I need to know.
When anyone looks at the record of our religious treatment of the other in the culture, we find that the first and the last resort used to justify a prejudice is the fact that the Bible tells me so. In my book, The Good Book, I tried to take the hard cases in which this principle was illustrated by looking progressively at the religious treatment of women, for example. All of the subordinate and repressive images with a religious sanction against women had arrived from a particular way of reading Scripture, whether it goes to the notion of that wanton disobedient woman, Eve, who ate us out of house and home as it were, or through the images of the Blessed Virgin and ever docile and faithfully obedient Mary who cancelled out Eveís sin by doing as she was told. Somehow, these images, together with the reading of various Pauline cultural texts as normative provided the basis for centuries of subordination of woman. When reason and decency and logic and ethics all defied such treatment, the last resort of the devout like the last resort of the scoundrel, was of course the Bible.
This is also true in the Christian original sin, as I call it, of anti-Semitism. The great irony is that God, who chose to manifest himself in the form of a Jewish baby to a Jewish mother in a Jewish world and whose people are by acclamation regarded as the chosen people, is understood as now being removed from the particular setting of Judaism. Therefore, Christians by their super-sessionist principles have a right in some sense, an almost constitutional right, to despise Jews. That terrible inheritance, which is documented in Daniel Goldhagenís book, Hitlerís Willing Executioners, indicates that it was not just good Germans obeying Nazi orders, but centuries of Christian anti-Semitism which literally got into the water supply and contributed to a climate, permitting if you will, anti-Semitism to be seen as not at all incompatible with the Christian faith.
We do not have to go to Germany. In our own country, the whole principle of racial segregation was based not on some indifference to Scripture, but on some very clear notion that Scripture sanctioned racial prejudice, Scripture sanctioned racial segregation, and that the most religious, most churched, most piously populated parts of the country not coincidentally happen to be those places in which racism and slavery and segregation long have flourished. The most pious people found the Bible their easiest ally in maintaining the advantageous social status quo, and saw no conflict in their consciousness between their religious profession on one hand, and their heinous social practices on the other. We have seen in recent months where the South African Dutch Reformed Church apologized publicly and profusely for what it called its abuse of Christian scripture in the maintenance of racial and social apartheid. It should be a source of some pause in our country that the Southern Baptist culture -- and I am not knocking them exclusively but they are so representative of this problem -- is so visibly represented even today in the determination of our public policy where there seems to be very little discrimination between Christian conviction on the one hand, and advantageous social policies -- advantageous to them -- on the other hand. As it has already been pointed out, overt discrimination against women, Jews, and racial minorities is mostly legally and even more importantly socially, unacceptable in this country.
The last place where such a prejudice is permitted, so it seems for the same reasons as all of the others have been permitted, is in the question of sexual identity and sexual orientation. It was to this that I turned my attention in my book and have turned my attention in recent years, because I concluded, on the basis of outbreaks of anti-homosexual hysteria in the last five to seven years, that there had to be a sufficiently grounded prejudice to sustain all of the social criticism that would surround such antediluvian points of view as we have seen wherever the issue has come up.
The last and the first resort of the bigot in these cases is the sanctified sanction of religion. If we say the Bible tells me so in our religiously saturated culture, there appears to be no card, no hand, that can trump that particular card or that particular hand. Therefore, it seemed important to me to argue this case from within the religious circle rather than to articulate secularist ideas on the outside, throwing bricks at the ecclesiastical house of glass. It is within communities of faith, it is within communities of religious conviction that the last prejudice really has to be addressed, because the people who hold such a prejudice on religious grounds will not respond to, or listen to, any other basis for the critique of their points of view or of their practices. Now I hasten to say that in my opinion the Bible does not create prejudice, but it does confirm prejudices that already exist if you wish them to do so. It was Francis Bacon, I believe, who said that anyone, including the devil, can find the text for his own behavior and his own predilection.
The fact that the Bible is not a systematic handbook of philosophy or even of religion, but an enormous library means that if you are a clever browser, you will certainly be able to find almost anything to support your particular enterprise. The real issue is not what can be found in the Bible, but what the biblical principles are that allow us not only to read the Bible intelligently, but to live our lives faithfully as religious people. It comes to me, not as an original thought but as a thought that needs to be amplified, that we do not read the Bible in terms of trying to find social precedent or even to justify social practice. What we do try to find in the Bible are those overriding principles that hold together otherwise unresolved and even contradictory social notions.
On the one hand, principles that imply the cheapening of life as it is seen in the subjugation and derogation of women, or the destruction of the enemy, or in such things as polygamy, slavery and social peonage and, on the other hand, those principles by which slaves are set free, by which all are understood to be part of Godís intended design and of Godís new creation in both Hebrew and Christian scriptures and by which identity is formed in the ultimate of blessed relationship we are created in the image of God. If we want to know what God looks like, we therefore have to look at one another in order to get something of that picture and that means that God looks like the woman, God looks like the black, God looks like the homosexual, God looks like any and all of us.
It is a frightening notion and a frightening enterprise and it is no surprise, or should not be any surprise that deeply convicted religious people tend by and large to be socially conservative people, people whose vocation depends upon establishing absolute and other exclusive distinctions. They like the status quo. They will do everything in their power either to preserve it or to return to it, sometimes at the point of a gun and often times through both polemic and subtle forms of intimidation. I have come to the conclusion that, at least for people like myself who are practicing religious people, the way to function within the communities of faith is to address the contradiction, the disconnect, as we now like to say, between profession of principle on the one hand and grievous practice and violation of their principle on the other hand and to do so not simply with a wagging of the moral finger, but by pointing to the moral high ground which the Bible and all of our religious traditions affirm.
When Jesus is asked what is the summary of the law, he does not give doctrinal answers. He does not say he wants to believe certain things. He does not offer half of the rationale that the most Orthodox Christians and the most rabid fundamentalists offer. Jesus answers that question very simply: you shall love the Lord, thy God, with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself. On these two, says Jesus, hang all the laws of the prophets.
The ethical conviction begins with the affirmation of that principle, and from it all else is derived. We have watched in our own lifetime, you and I, each of the walls of prejudice assaulted and brought low. We have watched the prejudice against women addressed and transformed; the same against Jews, and the same against racial minorities. Logic suggests that this last prejudice will meet that same fate. It will meet it with the same combination, in my opinion, of consistent moral rigor, social outrage, political seriousness, and an appeal ultimately to moral and social conscience. It will happen, we have seen it happen before, and I believe that we are seeing it happen now.
The fact that these dreadful, horrific exercises of intolerance and violence, such as the death of Matthew Shepard a few months ago, indicate not the strength of the opposition to a revised view, but the sense that there is an inevitability about it, which makes those who do not wish to see it happen all the more perverse, all the more violent, and all the more determined to stop what they regard in some respects as an inevitable movement. I conclude, therefore, that while religion and, I might add, psychoanalysis have a lot to answer for, they also have a very important role to play in what is nothing less than the transformation of social attitudes and the climate which we construct for honorable men and women and young people to live in. I conclude that it is never too late -- never too late to change oneís mind as you and I have done all the time. It is never too late to change oneís heart, whereby we encourage and encounter the varieties of social and religious conviction, and it is certainly never too late to change our habits. We change them all the time. When you think of the state of racial relations in this country as recently as 25 years ago, and remember when people said you cannot change hearts by legislation, I stand to tell you that you jolly well can, and that the country and the culture is the better for those changes. The last place in which those changes should take place is the subject which is before us today. Thank you.



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all photographs by Mervin S. Stewart, M.D.