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The Protestant Dilemma (Jer. 31:7-9; Ps. 126; Heb. 7:23-28; Mk. 10:46-52.)

by Peter J. Gomes

Peter J. Gomes is a professor at Harvard Divinity School and minister in Harvardís Memorial Church. This article appeared in the Christian Century, Oct. 15, 1997, p. 905, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Once upon a fairly recent time it was common knowledge, at least to Protestants, what a Protestant was. On the last Sunday in October Protestants gathered together to celebrate the fact that a Protestant was not a Roman Catholic. Reformation Sunday was meant to affirm the inheritance of a reformed and evangelical Protestantism, with a particular emphasis upon the contributions of Martin Luther. More often than not, however, it was an exercise in affirming the negative. Like the Pharisee in the story of the Pharisee and the Publican, we rejoiced that we were not like others -- that is, like Catholics.

I recall the Reformation Sundays of my youth, 40-plus years ago in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Culturally, the town was Protestant. After all, it had been founded by the Pilgrim Fathers and Mothers fresh off the Mayflower, and you could not get more Protestant than that. But the town enjoyed a large Catholic population, descendants of immigrants who had come in the 19th century to work in the mills, and they filled two large and thriving churches.

There was no overt hostility between the two communities, and one might have argued that the Italian, Irish and Portuguese Catholics were well on their way toward the then-prevalent American dream of total cultural assimilation. Generations of common schooling, shared economic and patriotic interests and increasing social intercourse suggested that the old dividing line between "natives," meaning the Yankee Protestants, and everybody else was vanishing. It was only in religion that the line was still firmly fixed. Catholics and Protestants rarely entered one anotherís churches except for the occasional wedding or funeral, when each felt thoroughly foreign in the otherís place.

Protestants were hardly more ecumenical among themselves, and it was rare that Baptists joined up with the Methodists, or that Congregationalists spent time with Episcopalians. The Unitarians, the old moneyed establishment, stayed to themselves and worshipped their ancestors. Only on Reformation Day did the Protestants suspend their mild hostilities toward each other and, in a perverse parody of an ecumenical movement, unite in hostility toward the Catholics.

One year the Protestants invited a notorious former Catholic priest, Emmett McLoughlin, to speak at the union service on Reformation Day. He had made something of a name for himself through a book in which he denounced the Roman Church and through nationwide speaking tours. He confirmed the worst fears and prejudices of Protestants about lascivious priests and nuns and the unbridled ambitions of the hierarchy to subvert the public schools and make the U.S. a satrapy of the Vatican. To be a Catholic in small-town Protestant America on the last Sunday in October in those days was perhaps similar to being a Jew in medieval Catholic Europe on Good Friday.

That, thank God, is mostly ancient history. Now Roman Catholics routinely sing "Amazing Grace" and "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," and for many Protestants the pope is one of the few bastions of orthodoxy left standing. Catholic bashing is not the "done thing" on Reformation Sunday, and a Protestant identity that continues to define itself by what it is not is in an increasing state of crisis. What are we to do on Reformation Sunday?

To begin with, we can make sure we donít read the lessons for the day as if they were written to define the issues of the Reformation. That may seem obvious, but not obvious enough to prevent careless preachers and listeners from assuming that Hebrews 7:23, with its criticism of the former priests, has to do with the clerical abuses of Rome, or that the blindness in Mark 10 has to do with the blindness of the prereformed church. It is true that we read in particular; that is, we always come to the text from where we are. The notion of our objectivity in reading is a myth, one which has done much damage, as the history of biblically based intolerance will amply demonstrate. So, if we must insert ourselves into the text, and there is no way not to do so, let us do so without the arbitrary lenses of the Reformation, or, at the very least, let us be mindful that there is a pre-1517 gospel. That is the gospel to which we appeal and which appeals across the ages to us.

Why should we make the effort? Certainly not to demonize, diminish or deconstruct our Protestant inheritance. Rather, in our preaching, our reading and our teaching we seek to find our place in the scriptures, and to find the scripturesí word for us that is not dependent upon the arbitrary lines of a Protestant or a Catholic reading.

If Catholics and Protestants in these enlightened times share any belief, it is that God and the word of God are not constrained by the cultural context and prejudices in which we have been accustomed to operate. If we take seriously the laments of Jeremiah, the best point of departure and of re-entry into the text may be to understand that we are among the lame and the blind and those gathered from the farthest parts of the earth "a great company, they shall return here. With weeping they shall come." This is about us, not as Protestants or Christians, but as those once lost to the one who loves us enough to want us back.

It is in that sense, then, that we sing with Psalm 126, "The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad." Here too we understand with the blind man that the recovery of his sight made it possible for him to follow Jesus "on the way." Thus reformation is really re-creation, and we are enabled to get on with Godís will for our lives.


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