Paradise Postponed, or, What Do We Do Until Then?
Peter J. Gomes
Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and
Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church
Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
Address to the 2001 Covenant Conference
November 2, 2001
If it is possible to be co-opted into this most elite of Christian communions, God’s frozen people, the Presbyterians, I have been co-opted by the Reverend Dr. J. Barrie Shepherd. It was in part his persuasive influence and his heroic and faithful witness in this Covenant Network that persuaded me to accept your invitation, and to journey here to be with you. I am glad that I have done so, for you are going about a great and heroic work, and it is in that work that I wish to encourage you and share with you in both the short term — today — and in the long haul — which will be as long as it takes.
Those of you who are followers of a certain B+ level of British novel and C+ level of British television, which we turn into A+ television by calling it educational television, will be vaguely familiar with the source of my title this morning. It is from a series of novels by one of my favorite contemporary British novelists, John Mortimer, who has given us the remarkable, memorable character of Rumpole of the Bailey, and the most formidable ‘she-who-must-be-obeyed,’ Hilda Rumpole.
It is not from that series, however, but from another one where Mortimer, who is wonderfully, classically trained — which shows what one can do with a good Arts degree — has written a series of novels, the middle one of which was entitled Paradise Postponed, which is, I’m afraid, in these parlous times, a reference lost on perhaps eighty per cent of those who bought the novel or watched the series. Not everybody nowadays knows about that Presbyterian chap called John Milton, so they didn’t know that paradise had been lost, let alone postponed, and the notion of it being regained just beggars the imagination. Years ago this novel came out about the great day that we all keep waiting for and living for in the interim, and I have used that title on a variety of occasions. Repetition, in preaching as in music, is a good thing, and I keep at it as long as someone is willing to listen.
The notion of paradise postponed in some sense describes, to me at least, the moment where we now find ourselves. The question I had planned to pose to ourselves today was ‘Paradise Postponed, or, What Do We Do Until Then?’ Your people are prodigiously well organized, for after all you are Presbyterians, and so it was months ago that your committee insisted upon a title. We in the clergy all know that we do not require ideas but we do require titles, and it is always easier in my trade to supply a title rather than an idea. So, when I had to fax the title, my vision then was of an imaginary time we could all envision where, in the words of the old spiritual:
The wicked would cease from troubling, the weary would be at rest,
and every day would be Sunday by-and-by,
and some thoughts of what we do until that blissful happy day is reached and that bright and shining shore is breached.
That was in May. Well, the world is a different place today. That is a cliche on the lips of all the cliche-makers, and we clergy are pikers in the manufacturing of cliches, as you know. The cliche-makers in this country make infinitely more money than we make, have many many more congregations than we have, larger audiences than we can imagine, and appear not once for twenty minutes a week but for twenty minutes every night of the week, ceaselessly. Our high priests, such as Tom Brokaw in the night and Katie Couric in the morning, and the people who manufacture that annoying running legend at the bottom of the CNN broadcast, are the cliche-makers, and I actually think that from time to time they are mildly annoyed by the kind of flyspeck competition that we preachers give them. They’re a little annoyed at us right now because people are actually turning out, thinking that we might have something to say to them in these moments, and not taking all their consolation from watching the cliche-makers break down periodically on talk shows. They’re the ones who make the cliches, and they’re the ones who have decreed this as the most extraordinary of all times, and the times that have changed all time.
If they listened to us and we told them what we know, we would tell them that the times are indeed always times that have changed all time before. We are used to living in such times, at least we ought to be; and our playbook is full of advice as to how to live in times just like these. We do not have to scramble to find a metaphor, or a cliche or two to describe this terrible moment in which we live; and if we are true and faithful to our calling our situation will be that we do not have enough time to speak to the nature of the time in which we now are found.
One of the elements that becomes clear to me, in the light of the events of September 11th, is that everything we hear now sounds different. The same things sound very different, and we hear them differently. Let me give you an illustration. I’m sure that each of you can repeat the same situation to me, but in our University church it has been Easter every Sunday since September 11th. The aisles and the gallery have been filled — standing-room only — with vast congregations of people both curious and needy who look to me, and are willing — unlike your normal congregation — to receive anything, however inadequate, that we may have to offer. I’ve been speculating about what it is that has done this.
It has not been simply the sense of crisis or the sense of ennui or the sense of anxiety. I am convinced that it is the fact that we now hear things differently than we did before. It was pointed out to me by some of these people, and even by some of our regulars, who, in listening before September 11th to the routine reading of the psalm for the day — we read a full psalm every Sunday; we don’t go this little responsive reading route where all the hard parts have been edited out in the interest of time and of not offending anybody — we read the whole thing all the way, and most of the time people think that it is something to be got through. Never is the Gloria Patri more welcome than it is in signaling the end of the psalm of the day!
But someone recently said to me, “Either these psalms have been rewritten, or I am hearing them for the first time.” Every one of the psalms has spoken in some extraordinary way to our present condition, and it is not because we have rearranged them. We read them in order, and somehow the same old stuff that’s always been there is now heard differently. It seems to me that we are living in a moment that is both crisis and opportunity, and it is not the kind of opportunity that we are used to seeing.
I wonder if you caught, in Barrie’s poem so thoughtfully included in our registration packets, the line in the last verse, where he says, “A noontime prayer service begins/The self-satisfied bromides of organized religion.”? You know who is saying that. As one sophisticated critic said recently on NPR, there is a kind of crisis envy on the part of our secular colleagues who are used to having it all to themselves, and to interpreting reality to a complacent and indifferent crowd. They are, our sophisticated commentators, hardly prophets, hardly theologically insightful, and hardly concerned with bringing anything into judgment or condemnation, except a lapse in good taste. So they tend to be rather annoyed that people might be prepared to hear what we have to say, and that what has been said for thousands of years may actually be more relevant than the latest book review or tomorrow’s celebrity interview. We have this extraordinary moment, it seems to me. We hear things differently, and in so hearing, there is a double phenomenon at work.
First, we have had confidence in confidence shaken, and secondly, we are discovering that we need faith in faith. These are moments for listening and hearing prophetically. These are moments that put things in proper perspective. These are moments that force us to distinguish between the passing and the ephemeral, the permanent and the transforming; and there could not, in my opinion, be a greater moment, paradoxically, for the work of the Covenant Network than this moment of significant crisis and introspection in which we now find ourselves.
I wish to recommend a book to you — not one of mine and not one of Barrie’s — but one that I have discovered in the last week. It’s called The Best of Times: America in the Clinton Years, by Haynes Johnson, who often appears as one of the talking heads on various television programs. It is published by Harcourt, and it has been out for probably two months. It is a book whose prescience about our present circumstances is astonishing, and the opening chapters in this book are almost a game plan for our response and reaction to the events of September 11th. They describe a self-indulgent, self-deluding, pettifogging culture which, having lost its concern for great things, has been bedeviled and obsessed by little things. And the great question that Johnson asks in the end is, “When will we rise to a moment of nobility and opportunity that transcends the kind of pettiness and divisive silliness which has obsessed us for the last decade?”
The analysis in the opening chapters — about the gods of technology and the seductions of scandal and the sense of self-absorption — reads like the playbook for the collapse of a moral culture; and since this book had no contemplation of the uncontemplatable events of September 11th, but coming out, as it does, in the aftermath of them, it is a book I commend to any of us concerned about our present time and our present circumstances. The self-indulgent and self-transcendent myths which have absorbed and diverted us for so long are now, in a moment of severe crisis, put in proper perspective. It is within that context that I offer these words and remarks to you about the work in which you are now engaged.
Let me offer yet another set of contrasting observations that I think puts the issues that concern the Covenant Network again in some larger perspective. Last June, as has been the case more or less since 1642, Harvard conferred more degrees than perhaps it ought to, and sent the graduates out into the world to do mischief, as they have for all of this time. One of my colleagues asked me, “What do you think would happen if we stopped sending people out into the world every year? Maybe things would get better.” We don’t dare risk that, but as part of the Commencement tradition there is always an undergraduate oration. I’ve been on the committee to choose the orations, and it is usually a pretty grim affair because they are usually bathos, pathos, and banality writ large. But since no one expects any more and no one deserves any better, we just go along with it.
Last year’s undergraduate orator, however, took a slightly different tack. His speech went the usual route, and then he came to a recitation of the great and the good, and he said, “We must ask ourselves what it is that the great have in common.” He mentioned the usual cast of characters: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Helen Keller, John F. Kennedy. “What do all of these great Harvard people have in common?” he asked, and he paused to wait an appropriate moment, and then said, “They’re all dead!” He said, “That’s what they have in common: they’re all dead; and this is our time, and this is our moment.” His somewhat plaintive question to his fellow graduates was, “Our fathers and our mothers each had a moment in which nobility was summoned from them, whether it was World War II or Korea or Vietnam or the Civil Rights movement or the Feminist movement. Whatever it was, they had a moment which summoned nobility out of chaos. But what do we have but MTV? Will there be a moment to summon nobility from us?”
That was in June. I think he has his answer now. This may well be the moment, and, for the foreseeable future, a succession of moments will summon the best and the most demanding nobility from us as we rise to our time in a dangerous time.
Well, you may argue, what does all of that scene-setting have to do with the rather gritty business at hand, which is to persuade Presbyterians to do the right thing? We know that that is not an easy task. No one knows it more than you, but you are in company with James I, who is reported to have said, “There is nothing more dangerous than a Presbyterian fresh off his knees.” I think you can appreciate that, as James did, having been the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the father of Charles I. There is the great task that you have of persuading your brothers and sisters that they have not yet seen the last word of scripture on the question of an inclusive, wholesome, and affirming church.
You have a long enough tradition to know that your tradition will always hang onto the wrong idea with the deepest of passions, until there is no clear alternative. So, in one sense, the very thing that may inhibit and intimidate you as you take on this task in which you have been engaged for now twenty-three years, to deal with this issue among your brothers and sisters, the very thing that might intimidate you — the reluctance to change, the appeal to scriptures, the desire, very much contrary to St. Paul, to be conformed to this world — that very quality should suggest that even among your brothers and sisters, change is inevitable, and change for the right is God’s intention and design. If the doctrines of predestination still resonate in the empty chambers of your theological memory, you should take long views and deep comfort in the fact that sooner or later the right, which we know to be the position where we are at the moment, will prevail.
You cannot grow weary in well-doing. It is not a question of ‘if;’ it is a question of ‘when.’ And it strikes me that the model that you have adopted, which is to keep together and to keep talking, is a faithful model which ultimately assures success. Not success for your position, but success for God’s position, to which you have come by prayer and study and deep conviction. If you are not persuaded of that, it will be impossible for you to persuade others; but here you are, I believe, persuaded. And by that I have confidence both in the short term, for your own health, and in the long term, for the great and spiritual health of your great and good church. The right and the good will eventually be done, and you will have had a faithful hand in doing it.
Achieving the right by any method possible is one way of doing things; but achieving the right by the right way, the good way, is a heroic enterprise, and you are engaged in a heroic enterprise. I have watched this effort in a variety of denominations, including my own, the American Baptist, and I have watched the other forty-three Baptist denominations in their various stages along the way. Have you ever wondered why every Baptist church initially calls itself ‘The First Baptist Church’? It’s in anticipation of schism! So, one does not expect easy or consistent answers there. The Episcopalians are not quite sure of what to do. They can’t afford to look at all of the facts, which is why they usually don’t; and the Congregationalists and the others have made their peace and have done with it.
You, however, are large and visible, and in many ways normative. You are, to all intents and purposes, the American religion; and how you conduct this particular conversation, and how you determine how you wish to bring it to a successful and correct conclusion, is a moral lesson that the nation itself will take to heart. You have discovered that it is not easy, and that it doesn’t happen always on your timetable or entirely on your terms. But what has been encouraging to the rest of us is that you have not grown weary, you have not thrown in the towel, you have not given up; and you have been persuaded to love under the most demanding and difficult circumstances. For those of us on the outside of your church looking in, this to us, to me, is your most heroic moment, and I wish you every encouragement in it.
Now, one might ask — as some of your brethren and sistern who are opposed to you may very well ask, if they have the wit to think about it — given the state of the world now, and given the tremendous issues that face us, does it not seem pettifogging, even self-indulgent, to engage in these on-going and even embarrassing conversations about sexuality, and about homosexuality in particular? It has always struck me as curious that a tradition such as yours, which is so uptight about intimacy, spends so much public time talking about sex. I think you’re obsessed with sex in the Presbyterian church: maybe this is public therapy for a denomination that could free itself from some of its old shibboleths.
The argument might very well be, “Look, we must now face larger and grander issues.” That argument needs to be turned on its head, however, because in some very real sense the very survival of Christian culture as we wish to know it — not as we have known it — would appear to be at stake. And hence, how we treat the strangers within our gates, and how we read our own sacred texts, suddenly become more important rather than less important in these dangerous and difficult days. Debates about sexuality seem petty because the sexual issue is so divisive, when the church itself ought to be united in an effort to make a faithful witness to the world. But that argument has always been a small-minded and petty one, and to define what it means to be moral along these cultural, sexual lines has always been a mistake. It has always been the church’s temptation to conform itself to the most unexamined of conventional social mores. Indeed, one would think that the sexual issue is too small to absorb the church, and too great to be allowed to stand as it is in the moments that now affect us.
When I teach my course on the history of the interpretation of scripture, I have two lectures on Harry Emerson Fosdick’s great sermon, ‘Shall the Fundamentalists Win?’ preached from Barrie Shepherd’s old pulpit in New York — but preached, as I always hasten to remind him and everybody else, by an unrepentant Baptist. The Presbyterians invited Dr. Fosdick to unite with the Presbyterian Church, but he was smart enough not to provide the rope for his own hanging, and wisely eschewed your hospitality. In that sermon, remember that one of the things he argued was that the fundamentalist/ liberal debate on the Virgin Birth and the Atonement and the literal authority of scriptures were all little pettifogging issues in the face of a world going mad in the 1920s, with starvation and genocide in Armenia, and the collapse of western society in the wake of World War I. In that sermon, Fosdick screams out, “Ought we not to be concerned with the larger matters of the law, and not the little ones?”
It strikes me that we are now in somewhat that same position, for the amount of money and energy spent by your co-religionists to maintain what is at best a dubious construction and at worst an ultimately divisive one, in the face of the needs both of the church and of the society as a whole, is nothing less than scandalous. So, if the argument is raised that we should move beyond this in order to attack the greater issues, remember that you cannot attack the greater issues unless your church has put right this very particular issue. And unless you have reached the point where the bodies that wear these stoles that surround us today are actually present, functioning, and ministering in this and in all other churches, our witness in all other matters is held hostage to this particular problem and this particular dilemma. Surely the sexual issue is important, and so important that it needs to be resolved, so that inclusively we may move beyond it to the work of the Kingdom.
Now, from time to time the argument is made both explicitly and implicitly that a gospel of inclusion that includes practicing homosexual men and women in holy orders is incompatible with Christian teaching and Christian scripture. I’ve spent a lot of time and a fair amount of ink on this particular subject. But I think I haven’t spent enough, because it looks sometimes as if we who are on the side of change and inclusion are there at the cost of allegiance to scripture and scriptural principle. I argue that we do not have to leave either scripture or scriptural principle in order to make our point, and our point is sustained by the most sustainable of scriptural principles and Christian practice.
We have scripture on our side. It is not on their side. They have practice; we have principle. They have a few verses; we have the law and the prophets. We have to understand that. So, I want to give you three scriptural principles that must be remembered, must be affirmed, and which form, in my opinion, the bedrock upon which your constructive and necessary movement stands.
The first scriptural principle to be remembered and affirmed is the principle of what the Latin theologians always called the Imago Dei, the ‘Image of God,’ the doctrine of creation that says that we are created in the image of God. That understanding of who we are is a reflection not only of who God is, but of what God intends and has intended by the very act of creation. To suggest otherwise is to suggest that God is either an imperfect creator, which no good Presbyterian would want to be required to affirm, or that God purposely has created a hierarchy of beings in order to provide something for those in the upper reaches to do with those in the lower reaches. Alas, there were Presbyterians who were convinced of that view, hence the long divisive argument about slavery and segregation; but every one of us in our time has lived to see the total and complete repudiation of that argument, on the biblical principle of the Imago Dei — of being created in the image of God.
If we are created in the image of God, then it is our duty to honor the image of God in all people, and we cannot use sexuality as one unique way to distinguish the image of God in some, from the image of God in others. That is a sound, unambiguously biblical principle. We should not concede biblical principle to matters of law, or sociology, or anthropology, or even to matters of social equity. They all derived, in our minds at least, from that fundamental biblical principle. Our opponents must not be allowed to build a fence around the scriptures. The scriptures belong to us, and this particular biblical principle is paramount in our construct of our discussion.
The second scriptural principle that we must remember is that while the creation is good, we do live in a fallen world. Presbyterians would hardly need to be reminded of the fallen state of the world. But when we come to a notion that we have the perfect description, and the perfect ideals, and the perfect formulary, there ought to be a certain modesty in our attempts to legislate out of principles of our own perfection and goodness. In other words, one fundamental biblical principle is modesty: be careful where you stand, be careful where you step, be aware of the fact that we live not only in a fallen world but in an imperfect world.
Therefore the rule of charity must obtain as we attempt to deal with our brothers and sisters. We all understand the doctrine of the fallen world, the evidence of it is always sitting right beside us; and therefore it is important to remember that we must exercise charity to that poor fallen besotted person beside us, because he or she too has evidence of the fallen world. You, I believe, understand this, and the high level of charity with which you have conducted this campaign is exemplary. You may have been tempted to a different tactic, and you may yet be tempted, in times to come, to a different tactic. I urge you against it. I think you must love your enemies into extinction, and not destroy them by more conventional methods.
When fundamental and evangelical antagonists come up to me and lay me out in lavender as best they can, I have found that the most effective weapon I have is to let them do it all, and to hear their words, and then to say to them, “I just want you to know, I’m praying for you.” That drives them to distraction! “Who are you, to pray for me?” they will say. “Just a fellow sinner saved by grace,” I reply. What can they say to you? What can they do to you? So, the second principle is that we live in a fallen world, and that therefore charity and modesty are the becoming characteristics of it.
The third scriptural principle is that we believe, we know, the scriptures tell us day in and day out, that redemption is not only possible, not only necessary, but inevitable. Redemption is the turning around of the very worst into the very best. It is possible even for the church to be redeemed; and because of that possibility of redemption we do not give up. We do not lose heart. We do not give in. We do not cease to pray fervently. We do not cease to vote, to picket, to lobby, to write, to witness, to do whatever it takes. We do not fail in that, because we know that redemption is inevitable, but that it is not inevitable without the faithful work of the people of God.
Those three biblical principles — the image of God, the fallen and hence charitable world, and the inevitability of redemption, illustrated on every hand by the two testaments, by the teachings of Jesus, by the example of Paul, by the witness of the martyrs, the saints, the doctors of the church, and by the example of our own contemporary martyrs to the faith — form the tripod upon which this campaign of yours — dare I say, ours? — must stand. We must not cede any of it to anyone, for without all of it, the nature of our effort, in my opinion, is compromised.
What is at stake as you prepare to go forward? You are in the middle of yet another campaign. It strikes me that on the one hand the General Assembly will do ‘A,’ and hence the Presbyteries will do ‘B;’ or if the Presbyteries do the right thing the General Assembly will do the other thing. You have built a wonderful fail-safe system in which nothing can ever really happen. That’s the risk of being so orderly.
But on the other side, it is possible for grace to break through this and shake up even your most perfect constitution. Students of the history of government say to me, “Do you know what was the most rational and perfectly devised constitution ever known in the world?” Of course I don’t know the answer, so I fall into the trap. And they say, “It was the Constitution of the Weimar Republic.” Remember that little moment between World War I and World War II, when Germany, under force of the Versailles Treaty, had to create a new non-monarchical government? They brought the brightest and the best of the minds of Germany together to devise a constitution which would be better than anything that had ever been done before, and they achieved it in the Constitution of the Weimar Republic. Well, so much for the best constitutional form of government. A little chaos, a little confusion, a little disorder will do you no harm, and possibly may be the window through which the refreshing winds of the Holy Spirit may blow.
So, what is at stake in this latest effort, where the General Assembly appears to have done the right thing and the Presbyteries are busy being organized to go against it? It seems to me that there are six things I might leave with you at this point, for you to chew on.
The first thing is that we must not yield to the temptation of defining the identity of one of God’s creatures simply in terms of sexuality. I do not say that in order to minimize sexuality, which is a gift and a defining characteristic of God given to us; but it is not who we are. I refuse to be defined in the exclusive terms of homosexuality, not because I am ashamed to be a homosexual but because I am so much more than that. I am much more interesting than being merely a gay man. I am more than that, and God meant me to be more than that, and God knows that I am more than that. So you must understand that no matter how hard our opponents seek to describe people simply in terms of their sexuality, it must not be permitted. It goes contrary to the doctrine of creation as I have just tried to enunciate it. We must remember that: do not define identity as mere sexuality, for it is a good deal more than that.
The second thing that I think we ought to remember is to allow the church, in its comprehensiveness, not simply to tolerate sexual minorities but to embrace them under the gospel, as their different and sometimes estranged, and sometimes even strange, brothers and sisters. They are brothers and sisters under the gospel. The effort must not be mere toleration: it must be reconciliation.
Third, the church in this effort must understand that one of its important witnesses is to provide the guidance, the reassurance, and the consolations of the gospel to the sexual minorities who have been both seduced and reduced by the secular culture. The worst thing that can be said about the homosexual and lesbian subculture in America is that it has been persuaded to buy its own caricature by those who would make those caricatures outside of the transforming grace of the gospel. The church must be the clarion call that says we will not affirm the secular identity; we offer you the identity of Christian brother and sister in the gospel. This is our affirmation.
Fourth: you’re already doing this, but you can’t afford not to remember it. To conduct this debate for as long as it takes, in a civil and transforming fashion, remember Romans 12:1-2: “I beseech you, therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.” That is, give all that you’ve got to this; and then comes that great verse: “And be not conformed to this world” — or to this church — “but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” — that is, your capacity to think about who you are, who God wants you to be, and to discern what is God’s perfect will — “that you may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” That has to be the context in which you carry on this campaign.
Fifth: you should remember to engage in acts of forgiving and loving resistance and transformation, all at the same time. It is possible to do many things at the same time. It is possible to walk and chew gum at the same time. It is possible to love and to argue. It is possible to witness and to disagree. It is possible both to condemn and to love; and you must be witnesses to this. You must be the salt in this particular issue.
Sixth, and last, which we all know but need to hear over and over again: “Do not,” as James puts it, “grow weary in well doing. For to those who persevere to the end shall come the reward of God.”
We are not in paradise — although we are in Pasadena, which I expect to many could be confused with paradise — nor in a place of perfection. We have been called to work, to toil, to labor by the sweat of our brow and the sweat of our jaw: that is the mission to which we have been called and which you have accepted. It is a powerful thing to accept the trust and responsibility that the living God gives us for our brothers and sisters. I am ultimately confident that God has chosen you and this movement for that particular reason — to be the agents not only of transformation but of reconciliation.
The only basis for an appeal for your ultimate victory is the transforming power of the gospel: Christ transforming the world, Christ transforming the culture, Christ transforming even the Presbyterian church. Good luck in your work of transformation.
Questions and Answers:
Q. Could you please repeat the title of the book you referenced, and the author?
A. It’s called The Best of Times: America in the Clinton Years, by Haynes Johnson, and it’s published by Harcourt. It’s a very good cultural history, and written without any references to our present moment, which makes it in my view all the more prescient. It is a serious indictment of the kind of trivial culture in which we have lived in the last decade. Many good sermons to be got out of this, I think.
Q. There is a certain theory advanced from time to time about our conflict in the Presbyterian church that we’re returning to the War between the States when we merged southern and northern, and there is some evidence of that. Our former moderator, Marj Carpenter, and a bunch of other folks from the south recently signed a position paper urging all the Presbyteries to vote against Amendment A. As a resident New Englander, could you help us think about that question, and whether in fact there is a great war between the states returning, as it’s playing out in the Presbyterian church?
A. Well, I’m sad to say that I think there is some truth to that, and my analysis, not as an historian of Presbyterianism but as an historian of American culture, is that the fundamental issues that divided the country in the first half of the nineteenth century have never really been fully resolved. Your reunion, dare I say it? was a heroic attempt to paper over significant cultural differences which had never been addressed within the Presbyterian church.
My sense as an outsider is that you were moved by the spirit of unity, moved by the spirit of reunion, and you were part of the then world-wide ecumenical movement which said that division is scandalous. What you did, in some respects, if I can say this as an outsider, was that you decided that the scandal of division was greater than the things which divided you. As a result, in a sense you agreed not to really look at some fundamental cultural differences between the northern and the southern church. It is unrealistic, to an historian of America, to suggest that there are no cultural differences in our judicatories, in our cultural styles, and whatnot; and in a desire to achieve unity at all costs, one of those costs may well have been papering over fissures that at a later day — and this may be that day — would be pulled and strained.
In the Episcopal church, about which I know a little more — it’s a smaller denomination and I’ve spent some time studying it — the threat that the conservatives constantly use on this homosexual issue is that you people in favor of inclusion will split the church, and that is the nuclear weapon in the conversation. So if you don’t want to split the church, you won’t offend us because we won’t split, but you will leave because we won’t change, and there’s a kind of blackmail, to use an unfortunate term, that is in use there.
You have in some sense, as Presbyterians, a tradition which will force you to talk it out until you can’t do anything else; and you have also a precedent of doing the right thing only when there is no other alternative. I do not want to minimize the fact that you have an apparent unity that is at risk over a fundamental principle, and you may have to go to the brink in order to square the principle of unity on the one hand with the principle of the gospel on the other. Nobody wants to be responsible for fracturing the body of Christ, but there are some who are prepared to use the fear of the fracturing of the body of Christ to maintain an un-Christian principle, and I think that is one of the hard facts.
This is not just a moral or a biblical business, this is also a political business. You are the most political church on earth. You are the ones who framed the discourse for the Declaration of Independence, and so on, and — I don’t know whether General Henry M. Robert was a Presbyterian, the man of Robert’s ‘Rules of Order,’ but he should have been — and so it’s almost as if you know you’re always going to be divided and therefore you have to have an orderly process by which to deal with your troubles. That may be the blessing at work here. I think your analysis is quite right, and my counsel would be that you not be intimidated by that. Recognize it, acknowledge the risk, and proceed as far as conscience will permit you.
Q. I’m just interested in your list of principles, those that you may not have included, and particularly why you did not appeal to the principles of love and justice.
A. Actually, I believe that love and justice frame or contextualize the three biblical principles to which I alluded. I could have made seven, I could have made nine, and I’ll continue love and justice to make a nice five the next time round. I don’t have any copyright on this; my point was to try to say that this argument can be conducted on the most rigorous and thoughtful of biblical grounds. You do not have to be extra-biblical or extra-theological to do this.
Maybe part of my thinking, as I’m now rehearsing why I did it that way and not this way, is — you must forgive me for saying this — that in a sense the love/justice thing almost sounds like a cliche. I don’t mean that it is a cliche, but we have used it in such a way for so long that its power to bite and to grasp is a little compromised, it seems to me. Sure, love your neighbor, yes, we know all about that; justice will come down like running waters, we know all about that too; but in the meanwhile we’re going to carry on. And so I guess I wanted to step back from the love/justice paradigm and provide what would be in a way, for those opposed to this particular point of view, slightly fresh and maybe even more angular principles with which to work. I certainly don’t diminish love and justice, and I hope it was understood that my notion is that this is a cause of justice and it can only be prosecuted ultimately by love. I didn’t make that explicit, so I thank you for the question.
Q. Dr. Gomes, in looking at this audience, there are some significant constituencies that are significantly absent. One of those constituencies consists of the racial/ethnic people in the western church, and the other are people under forty. Would you comment on what you think Covenant Network could do to involve racial/ethnic constituencies and younger people in its efforts? Thank you.
Q. Dr. Gomes, may I join that question over here, because I’m asking a similar question, and I find it very strange that two African Americans are asking this question. My question is, would you comment on the difference — if there is a difference — between the African American treatment of the issue of sexuality versus that of the white Anglo American?
A. I’ll try to answer those three questions. The African-American treatment of sexuality I think is very problematic because of our own peculiar history as a racial minority that has tried to prove its bona fides by not frightening the horses. Putting it another way, we have predicated so much of our whole career in this country on the basis that the country has nothing to fear from us, that we are just like you, and that although we might look different, we are fundamentally just like you, and in fact we are more like you — which goes with our historic, high, disproportionate participation, for example, in the military, and patriotism to the country. We always have to be more loyal than anybody else to prove that we’re not a threat.
This is also true in our religious life. Christianity is not our native religion; it was brought to us under dubious circumstances. But we took to it, and so we’re better Christians than the Christians who forced it on us. So, we have an exemplary kind of ethic which is designed, in my opinion, to say to white America, “Look, you have nothing to fear from us, we have accepted essentially your basic values, we have incorporated them into ours, we are not amoral, we are not unpatriotic, we are not a threat to the fabric of society, and to prove that, we are even as conservative as you are. We’re even more conservative than you are, and we’re going to demonstrate to you, either in our affirmation of a particular lifestyle or in our disapprobation of a particular lifestyle, that we accept the fundamental social constructs that you have given us.”
Hence, we African-Americans, on the issue of sexuality, have more to repent of, I think, because we are a people who were not in the king’s house, were brought into the king’s house, and have forgotten what it was like not to be in the king’s house, and we have sucked up to the king for so long that we actually believe that his principles are ours. That is a very dangerous social principle on our part, particularly given the rampant nature of homosexuality in our own black culture, where we have very little to say to the reality of homosexuality in our own community. If you took all the homosexuality out of the black church, there would be few singers and many problematic holes left in the leadership in so many of our places. It’s an issue we don’t want to talk about, because to talk about it confirms what we understand to be the stereotype of our race as oversexed and promiscuous, and all of the things that we lay on the homosexual community are things that have been laid upon us, and we have internalized them.
Now, believe you me, that is not a popular speech to give, and I take no pleasure in giving it. The NAACP wouldn’t invite me to give it, nor would the National Baptists, or any predominantly black cultural institution; but it’s a fact of life, I’m prepared to postulate. I’ve written on this subject, and it concerns me. The chance for that conversation to take place in predominantly white denominations such as yours, where there is a significant black presence, is a greater possibility, it seems to me, than it would be for the National Baptists, or the Church of God in Christ, or the AME Church. In some sense it is possible for that conversation to take place, but it has to be made explicit. And one of the reasons that it would be problematic is that no matter how deeply we are in, as black people, to integrate a cultural institution, we still feel ourselves sufficiently marginalized that we don’t dare, as a rule, take steps that will make our marginality explicit, like joining the Covenant Network. That would raise too many questions.
So that, I think, is a problem that the black membership in the Presbyterian Church has to face and the black clergy has to address in some way, and it means taking risks. Nobody in all of scripture has said that we black people are immune to risk, or that we should be spared any divisions or difficulties. We have rather bought the assumption that we’re God’s victim of choice. We have assumed that mantle; but it’s a failure in understanding the gospel, I think, and it’s a failure of leadership on our own part. I do think that’s part of the problem, and that is the opportunity for solution.
Now, the question about young people in all this. I’m not saying that all bets are off as a result of September 11th, but I am going to say that my reading of young people, at least in the places where I go and travel and have a sense of what is going on, is that what has been a bubbling concern just below the surface, a concern for a value-added lifestyle where it is possible to be engaged in something that is noble and good and transforming, that that subliminal issue is going to become more and more visible. As this war will go on, (as it will go on, for I do not expect to see the successful conclusion of these days of terror and anxiety for a very very long time to come, contrary to any cheerleading that we may hear elsewhere), that sense of opportunity and responsibility I think is going to rise rather than simply stay where it appears to be at this moment.
By and large, questions of sexuality are not necessarily resolved among young people. But they are not by any means the make-or-break kind of defining moments that they appear to be among middle-aged and older people. There is a chance, it seems to me, in this teachable moment, to address this issue among young people who eventually are not going to be so young, and will take their places in the councils of the church. The risk of that is that young people, despite all evidence to the contrary, are tremendously conformist. They’re all individuals who look alike, talk alike, eat alike, dress alike, and do everything alike to show their individuality — so they’re not necessarily willing to step out front, especially on moral issues.
It is in that case that we have to be helpful to them. They are not going to guide us, we are going to have to help guide them to take their places in this kind of movement. I think that the longer the struggle goes on, the greater is the opportunity you will have to broaden your demographic base, but it has to be an explicit thing. You can’t expect that they will see the right thing and do it. They have to be invited. You have to tap them, invite them; you can’t expect them to say, “Gee, the Covenant Network is such a cool thing, maybe I’ll take a day off and go to Pasadena.” They’re not going to do that, but somehow, in your churches, where you see them in the Sunday School, in the Youth Group, and in the young parents, you have to evangelize — I know that’s a dangerous word to Presbyterians — but you have to evangelize among them. Here is an opportunity for witness.
Think of the civil rights movement. The civil rights movement was really carried on the backs of young people. It amazes me to think that King and his people were in their thirties. It amazes me to think of all those kids from colleges and universities on those freedom rides and marches. It amazes me to think that all of the martyrs were killed, or died, before any of them reached forty. There was something about the moral compulsion of that movement that brought out the need to be involved. We have to translate that, it seems to me, into this issue — a little harder, not exactly analagous, but it’s the same kind of conviction, and we will be modelling it for them rather than they modelling it for us.
As for other ethnic minorities, I think my answer to the question about the black marginality in our culture also applies. Because there is such a desire to be seen as not a threat, the cultural minorities will tend to conform to what they believe to be the prevailing norm; and the prevailing norm is at this moment an unsatisfactory one. They shouldn’t be condemned for perceiving that, but they must be persuaded that that really is not the gospel way. It’s going to take more work, but there is a natural constituency for social change among people who wish to be socially accepted right now.
Q. My question goes back to your remark about the differences between the southern and northern church, which we papered over. You didn’t say what those differences were. I wonder if you’d be willing to probe that a bit further?
A. All right. The obvious difference that split the church in the nineteenth century was the question of slavery. But the real difference between the two cultures is the difference we could see more clearly in the 1920s, which has never been resolved. The Civil War, and practically everything else, is not a question of states’ rights versus the federal government, or agrarian south versus industrial north: the question is the authority of scripture. That’s what it all comes down to: how one reads the Bible.
That’s where your denomination is fractured. The Briggs case in the nineteenth century is current business in your church. There are still people who will spill blood over the documentary hypothesis, or people who will still insist on the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch — to say otherwise is to be immoral. One of the reasons that the debate on homosexuality has taken such a disproportionate amount of time in the church — when you think about what a small matter this is in terms of the law and the gospel — is not to do with sexuality, about which you really are not interested. You really don’t want to know what the differences are between heterosexual practices and homosexual practices — you don’t even want to know what heterosexuals do. It’s not sexuality that has engaged you; it is the notion that if you give way on what appears to be the clear sense of scripture (which is a nineteenth-century argument out of Princeton, I am sorry to say) — if you give way on that, everything else will come crashing down like a house of cards.
It is the same argument that Charles Hodge and all of his Princeton pals were arguing in the 1840s and 1850s. Presbyterianism has staked its colors to the mast of biblical authority, and if that is compromised by different ways of reading scripture, then the whole house of cards comes down. You do not have a pope. You have made of the Bible a pope, and if the Bible cannot be read with the same clarity that the pope declaims, then you are nothing more than Congregationalists, or even Unitarians, for heaven’s sake.
So, your tradition has forced itself to gather around this totem of scripture, and scripture understood in a particular way, and that’s where your division is. The homosexuality issue says that scripture may not mean what it says, or, if scripture does mean what it says, in this case, who cares? It’s wrong, or it’s out of context, or whatnot. If that is true about homosexuality, is it true about the Ten Commandments? Is it true about the Beatitudes? Is it true about all of the other scriptural values that people who are people of the Book must take seriously?
That’s the papering over, that’s the issue you’ve never resolved, the fundamentalist/modernist controversy in the Presbyterian church. You’ve never addressed it squarely; and the other issues of slavery and sexuality are a manifestation of that problem. They are not the problem, but they are the manifestation of the problem. So, you have to know that that’s the problem before you can understand why your brethren and sistern are so vigorously attached, almost trapped, in the point of view that they have to make. I have had conversations with conscientious, devout, conservative Christians who say “My heart tells me I want to accept this point of view that you’re putting forward. I want to love my brothers and sisters, I want to understand it as a mere cultural difference to which I must become accustomed. But my head says that if I let this go, everything that I believe in will fall apart, and I can’t do that.”
That is why the passion is so strong on the other side. It’s not that they’re wicked or evil, and they’re certainly not stupid. But they are terribly fearful that everything they hold dear about their identity, about their Christian witness, and about the scriptures, will now be subject to compromise because of this. This is the line in the sand as they see it. In the nineteenth century the line in the sand had to do with science, it had to do with certain extra-biblical doctrinal principles — the Virgin Birth, the verbal inspiration of scripture, or the Atonement, or whatever. I haven’t heard a good debate about the Atonement in the Presbyterian church in years, and even some Presbyterians don’t know what the Atonement is; but that is not the burning issue that it was. The question of what the scriptures say or don’t say, and how one reads, is what the issue is today; and homosexuality rather than predestination is the issue that is at risk there. That is my sense of what has been papered over, and is maybe too hot to address. That will put sexuality to shame, I think. That issue is almost too hot for you to handle.
Q. I was intrigued and inspired by your statement that six weeks after September 11th, the Memorial Church is still overflowing with undergraduates. Are we on the verge of a Great Awakening in New England? Are there lessons that any of us, without necessarily having to be brilliant preachers and authors, in the mainline church can learn in order to help young people understand the church as a place of personal and societal transformation?
A. Well, I’m delighted with that question; it’s the thing that has intrigued me in the last couple of weeks. I was at Yale last Sunday, preaching in Battell Chapel, and the dean there said exactly the same thing; and I’ve been on the horn with my Ivy League colleagues, and in other college chapels, and even in local churches who have been reporting the same phenomena. Somebody said to me, “We always knew the church was here, and we’re grateful, but I never knew how essential it was to me until I was thrown for a loop by all of this.” We know it in personal circumstances: somebody loses somebody in the family, there’s a little spurt of religiosity and they come for two or three weeks, and then they’re gone again, into the mists. Our situation now is that a million times over, and for a whole civilization.
That’s why this book I’ve mentioned is so good, for while the book was written months before September 11th, it describes a civilization waiting for a crisis, waiting for a knock-down blow; and the question that the book asks is what interior resources will a culture, that has allowed its interior resources to wither away in favor of all these other things, have for its people to cope with? The answer is that they go back to the last thing they remember — and we are the last thing that they remember. I guess the most important thing that we can say is that we’re still here, and, thank God, we did not, by-and-large, pin our colors to what appeared to be the permanency of an ephemeral culture. We did not do it. We tried, but we did not know how to do it. So, we shouldn’t get credit for being what is no longer necessary, but let me ask you this psychic question.
I represent one of the most stodgy churches on earth. I mean, if I took a poll here, I bet there are maybe three or four churches that still begin divine service with Old Hundredth. We still do. I don’t say that boastfully, but we don’t change very fast. I’m sure that when I’m gone it will be overnight Kumbaya, or whatever the new thing is, but not before I’m gone. But some of my friends have been saying, “Don’t you think that the whole culture of praise that we have had in the last decade sounds rather tinny these days? ‘I’m just so happy, Lord, thank you for giving me everything. God, I’m just so in touch with everything that you do…'” That’s a little tinny right now.
This is where we could do with a little repentance, a little sin, a little introspection, a little judgment, even; and we still know the words to that. We still know how to do that, we still have that capacity. What we thought was the New Age has suddenly been destroyed before our eyes and we are back, in some cultural sense, to the Middle Ages. We are living in an age of uncertainty; everything in which we put our confidence is shaky.
What is it that endures in times like these when nothing else does? We are the ones who do that, we are the custodians of that, we are the monasteries in the Dark Ages, and to remember that as not accident but perhaps even as providence may be the saving of the mainline church. I pray God that it is. We have done nothing in our work that seems to have adapted itself to our new circumstances. We have done nothing. We do what we have always done.
A friend of mine used to say, “Well, even a cheap clock is right twice a day;” and this might be, not in a self-aggrandizing way, a moment for us to renew our temporary position in this world, which we have forgotten about. This world is not what it’s all about, the World Trade Center is not what it’s all about; I refuse to be defined by that. I weep for that, but that is not the symbol of who I am or what I represent. I was reading in USA Today, for lack of a real paper this morning, a feature article about the rise in popularity in crosses, that people are investing thousands and thousands of dollars now in wearing crosses, along with a little flag in the lapel. The analysis was that in times of need people are looking for these kinds of gestures.
I had said, in my sermon on the Sunday following September 11th, that the cross is not a sign of solace, it is not a talisman; it is a sign of judgment and redemption. You don’t wear it to ward off evil, you wear it to contend with evil; and to use it as a decorative little thing like the American flag is to have got it all wrong. Who can say that but those of us who are custodians of the cross? Who can say that but those of us who serve a Savior who died on that cross? It is not a cultural icon which we cherish and proclaim. This may be the time, such as we have not had in our generation, at least, to deal with this. All I can think of is that wonderful line in the book of Esther: “Have you not been called to the kingdom for just such a time as this?” The great thing is, don’t blow it. Let’s hope we can use it wisely.