From the Gettysburg PO
by Michael L. Cooper-White, President
Several events in recent days have caused me to ponder anew a phrase that readily rolls off our tongues in this place that we say sends forth into Church and society public theologians and mission leaders.
Among those heroic public figures I have been privileged to meet in person was the Rev. Peter Gomes, whose unexpected death at age 68 brought back fond memories of when he came to campus a few years back for a special lecture. In both his public presentations and private lunch conversation with a few of us, Gomes was gracious and engaging. As an African American, he seemed particularly interested in the Lincoln legacy at Gettysburg and our description of how the Seminary’s founder Samuel Simon Schmucker was among the small band of prominent Civil War era religious leaders who accepted the call to speak out against slavery.
One cannot be Minister of the Memorial Church at Harvard for four decades and avoid a certain public prominence. But Peter Gomes’ influence was not limited to Harvard or broader lecture circuits and campus ministry circles. As the years went by, he came to be counselor and confidante to prominent public figures in this country and around the world. Often provocative and always prophetic, his sermons and books circulated in ever-widening circles. As a Black man who contended lifelong with racism, and particularly after he “came out” as a gay man, Gomes faced frequent criticism and verbal threats against his person. Rather than cower in the face of opposition, he became emboldened in preaching the gospel’s constant call for a greater measure of God’s justice.
Another named Peter—Bishop Rogness of the ELCA’s St. Paul Area Synod—recently published an op-ed piece in the Minneapolis Star and Tribune, in which he based a call for public civility on Christian principles. Amidst all the publicity surrounding Wisconsin’s struggles over unions, bargaining and budget balancing, the state’s ELCA bishops issued a joint call to the governor and state legislators, urging that they pay particular attention to people who may be vulnerable if certain state programs are eliminated or reduced. In still other recognition of the value offered by the “mainline denominations” in public debates over what makes a good society, both ELCA and Episcopal presiding bishops are among religious leaders recently named by President Obama to a White House advisory council.
In a recent round of visits in several congregations that host Gettysburg Seminary interns, I have been reminded that one need not be a bishop or prominent Ivy League university preacher to serve as a public theologian. This year’s interns in Washington, D.C., Lincoln, Nebraska and Hartford, Connecticut, for example, have front-row seats as St. Paul’s, First Lutheran and Emmanuel offer their public witness in the nation’s and two state capitals. Even in the most remote rural communities, there will be opportunities to publicly offer pastoral perspectives and issue calls to civil discourse, concern for the poor, and respect for the dignity of all persons. Local newspapers often are eager to publish a pastor’s op ed piece on local vexing issues.
In his book, “The Good Life” (Harper 2002), a treasured Christmas gift from valued colleagues, Peter Gomes shares the painful story of his first major failure. After he failed to pass the second grade, he was taunted on the school playground as “Peter the Repeater.” As a high school senior, his application to Bowdoin College in Maine was rejected, a fact for which he thanked the prestigious institution decades later when Bowdoin awarded him an honorary doctorate! As he now moves on into the Church Triumphant, I thank God for the life, generous pastoral spirit and bold public witness of Peter the Repeater. May we all have at least a small measure of the courage with which over and over and over again he kept on repeating the Good News that makes for a good life and better world!