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Ignore Them This Time

Gomes’s legacy is far too precious to be tarnished by seven idiots with signs

By Avishai D. Don

They’re back for more. Fresh from a Supreme Court decision that enshrines their military funeral protests as protected under the First Amendment, the Westboro Baptist Church will once again make their way to Cambridge on Wednesday. This time, however, the members won’t be protesting the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School for its gay-straight alliance, or the Harvard Hillel for bolstering Jewish life on campus. Instead, next week, the WBC will be protesting the memorial service for Reverend Peter J. Gomes, Harvard’s spiritual mentor who passed away last month.

Quite simply, Gomes is the epitome of everything the WBC opposes. There is nothing that gets this church’s blood boiling more than a homosexual Christian preacher who spent his career pushing for pluralism, tolerance, and religious compassion. “He, in the name of God, teaches rebellion against God,” said spokeswoman Shirley Phelps-Roper.

When the WBC protested the Harvard Hillel in December, students organized an absurdity protest to counter them. From Jerusalem, I voiced my full-throated support for that rally in my column, arguing that a WBC counter-protest can often be a positive and constructive community-building exercise. But Wednesday is different. Rather than organizing a response to the WBC clan—who won’t even be allowed on University property—the best thing our community can do is spend the day honoring Gomes’s memory as though they aren’t there.

It’s crucial to distinguish between two different kinds of WBC protests. When the WBC pickets institutions like synagogues, churches, and schools, their aim is to provoke bystanders and gain media attention. As I argued in December, assuming that these protests only happen once in a while (unlike, for example, in their native Kansas, where much of the population has rightly decided to ignore them), good-natured counter-rallies can often offset the media attention the church receives as a result. Indeed, The Crimson estimated that between 200 and 300 people participated in the absurdity protest, and those interviewed for the article gushed about the positive impact the rally had on our community.

But it’s extremely counterproductive to act this way when the church protests funerals and memorial services. Here, the church’s aim is not merely to inflict emotional distress, but also to take the spotlight off of the deceased and put it directly on themselves. The Supreme Court decision that made this church the darling of civil liberties groups nationwide came out of a case where they protested the funeral of Lance Corporal Matthew A. Snyder. Most people will now most likely remember Snyder—who died in the service of his country in Iraq—not for his heroic deeds, but for the fact that the Westboro Baptist Church protested at his funeral. Sadly, the same seems to be set to happen at Harvard, judging by how one of The Crimson’s headlines in the print edition, “Protest to Upset Gomes’s Service,” framed the WBC’s visit to Cambridge.

We have the power to prevent this from happening. Gomes’s memory does not deserve to be associated with these people. Queer Students and Allies and other student groups who helped organize the absurdity rally in December should encourage the Cambridge community to spend Wednesday learning about Gomes’s life rather than spending any time engaging the WBC.

So instead of making a counter-protest sign next week, read more about what it meant for Gomes to come out as “a Christian who happens as well to be gay” in 1991. Read his best-selling “The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart” to learn about how zealots like the WBC abuse scripture to justify bigotry. Read his article defending “the Harvard accent” in The Crimson in 2007. Watch his interview on “The Colbert Report,” where his mischievous wit garnered him more laughs than Colbert. All of these are much more conducive responses than acknowledging the WBC’s presence.

“I go into Harvard Square,” Gomes remarked in a sermon last year, “and I see all these people with their signs and their placards, everybody ready for an argument, everybody ready for a debate. Not me,” he said. “That sort of thing does not turn me on.” The sermon is called “Religion For Smart People,” and you can download it for free on iTunes, along with many of his other speeches—all of them eloquent, all of them entertaining, all of them uniquely Peter Gomes. I encourage you to download a few and listen to them as you walk to and from his memorial service on Wednesday, so that you won’t even be able to hear the WBC members protesting. In our busy schedules, the College has set aside a single day in April to honor a figure whose thoughtfulness, dignity, and unwavering faith in the human spirit defined everything that is beautiful about our university. The best way to drown out the hate of his detractors is to learn more about what made him truly spectacular.

Avishai D. Don ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a Social Studies concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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