By DeWayne Wickham
As soon as I heard about the passing of the Rev. Peter Gomes, I wondered how many Bible thieves he came across when he arrived in heaven. Whatever the number, I’m sure he was glad to see them.
Gomes, the longtime Harvard Divinity School professor of Christian morals, died a few days ago of complications from a stroke. His life spanned just 68 years, but his professed understanding of God and the Bible is the kind of knowledge that transcended a single lifetime — and challenged the orthodoxy of religious purists.
In The Good Book, a best-seller he wrote in 1996, Gomes told the story of how some of his colleagues reacted when an anonymous donor offered to fill the pews of The Memorial Church at Harvard with a gift of Bibles. They warned that putting The Holy Book throughout the sanctuary would be an invitation to steal them.
Disregarding that concern, Gomes accepted the Bibles, which he said over the years were “happily” lost to quite a few thieves.
That, in essence, was the nature of Gomes’ ministry. He was more pastor than preacher; more interpreter of The Good Book than a literal enforcer of its every word. He’d rather have someone come to church and steal a Bible than stay away and never explore its pages. But as important as the Bible was to him, Gomes realized the harmful impact of its misuse. He constantly warned of those who either “trivialize” or “idolize” the Bible. Both, he said, “miss its dynamic, living, and transforming quality.”
In fact, many of the world’s enduring conflicts are waged in the name of religion, with each party claiming to have God on its side.
But Gomes said God doesn’t pick the winners of wars, presidential elections, sports championships or music awards. When I asked him during a 1996 interview that I did for CBS News why people so often thank God when good things happen to them, Gomes turned the question on its head. “The great question is, ‘What happens when you lose?’ Did God abandon you, or did God cause you to lose? Or did God go over to the other side?” God, Gomes told me, doesn’t take sides.
A Massachusetts-born conservative Baptist, Gomes was nothing if not a contrarian. For much of his life he was a black Republican who in 1991 announced that he was gay. Fifteen years later, he became a Democrat and backed the election of Deval Patrick, Massachusetts’ first black governor.
A past president of the Pilgrim Society, Gomes spoke with the authority and cadence of a New England Yankee and the passion of a black intellectual — an emotion that was nurtured during his stint on the faculty of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, one of the nation’s most prestigious black schools.
In a 60 Minutes interview in 1997, Gomes rocked the primacy of the spiritual beliefs of many in this country. God, he answered Morley Safer, is not an American; the Bible wasn’t written in English; and when Jesus returns, he will not likely show up in Tulsa or some other American city. Gomes’ religious beliefs had no patriotic anchor and established no supremacy of one secular group of people over another.
In this life, he believed, those who would steal a Bible from church were just as likely to find a place in heaven as the people who worried that stocking pews with The Good Book would tempt a sinner to take one.
I'm the next one, I hope he’s proven right.