Sodom's Sin

The following is the text from a sermon I delivered on the 23rd September 2018, exploring the real sin of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the harm a traditional reading continues to inflict on LGBTQ+ people today. You can listen to the recording of this sermon HERE:

Picture your favourite story: this could be a book that you’ve loved since childhood, a recent novel that has captured your imagination, or perhaps a film or television series that you’ll watch time and time again. What is it about this story that excites you? Challenges you? Provokes a reaction from you? Why do you love this story? Is it because it’s well written? The characters? The plot twists and turns so as you never know where you might end up with it?

Stories are beautiful, wonderful expressions of our humanity: our desire to connect with the other through the sharing of a narrative through a variety of mediums. Perhaps you’ve been reminded a little of that beauty by taking part in that exercise just now?

However, our experience of storytelling can be quite a fickle beast. It is often a love-hate relationship between the author or deliverer of that story, and the one who is reading or receiving it. And on many occasions, our interaction with characters from narratives can develop into emotional connections – bonds that seem disproportionately large considering those with whom we find our new-found affection (or disaffection) for, are fictitious – or at best, historical. There have been many occasions in which I have become emotionally involved with characters from books and long-lasting, story-arc TV dramas, and many a tear has been shed and laugh surprisingly blurted out over the years.

Such connections are usually harmless and are one of the many complexities of the human condition. Sometimes these connections remain harmless, but they can have an altering effect on either the content itself, or the individual who is engaging with it. A good friend of mine refuses to watch the end of The Titanic because that allows them to imagine that (spoiler alert) the ship did not sink, and that Jack and Rose lived happily ever after. And for myself, I have been tempted on more than one occasion to stop reading a book at the point at which I know it digresses from my own hopes for the characters that live within its pages. I’m thinking particularly of The Amber Spyglass by Phillip Pullman, where the two protagonists are lying side by side before everything changes for them. If I just stop reading at that point, I can almost allow myself to believe that their story continues in the way that would make me happy.

Another classic example of our mixed relationship with storytelling is when narratives are retold for different audiences. I was utterly aghast when I watched Rusalka at Glyndebourne Opera a few years ago. I had been led to believe that it was in essence, “The Little Mermaid” – well let me tell you, there was no singing crab, no loveable guppy fish, and no sassy teenage mermaid with fabulous hair, seemingly maintained with just sea water and a fork. Of course, Rusalka was based on the Hans Christian Anderson story “Den Lille Havfrue”, and not the rather Disney-fied version of “The Little Mermaid” that I had grown up with. When we are confronted with stories with which we are familiar with, even love, but that have been retold, transformed, or even told incorrectly when we first encountered them, it can throw us through a loop somewhat.

Which is exactly where many of us find ourselves with Scripture. Whether we are taught Bible stories in Sunday school, or encounter them for the first time as adults, the way in which they are told is often simplistic, romanticised, or completely contradictory to another narrative we have been told previously. Or, often more than likely, a combination of all three. I mean, Noah’s Ark for children becomes this bizarre fluffy episode of genocide:

“The animals marched in two by two,

But not you, you or you.

Noah’s family were safe on the boat,

But everyone else had to try and float…”

(I’m quite proud of that little rhyme!)

I particularly love finding illustrated versions of the story of the flood in which the two lions are male… I mean, affirming or not, you’d have a hard job ensuring the continuation of the species with two male lions…

But this story is problematic isn’t it? And our acceptance of a God who destroys creation on a whim is equally problematic. It’s not enough to say that God is love and that’s why some were saved, and the world could start again, because that is contradictory to our relationship with the rest of Scripture.

This is perhaps not the first time that some of you have questioned some of these famous Biblical narratives that are “softened” for children, or even for mature audiences who aren’t ready to journey through the deconstruction of palatable faith and hopefully come out the other side. And it seems highly relevant for a series that focusses on the tough passages in Scripture that are never taught on, our very own anti-lectionary, that we allow ourselves to pick apart traditional understandings of stories we may have known for our entire lives.

And gosh, the narrative of Sodom and Gomorrah is just such an episode that could do with a little deconstructing. Where do you even begin?

Perhaps the problematic conversation between God and Abraham prior to the destruction of the cities (and before our readings today)? In which they haggle on the total number of people who need to be God-fearing to ensure the cities are not destroyed.

Could it be that when the visitors are threatened with sexual violence, Lot offers up his virginal daughters in their stead?

Does it strike you as odd that every man in Sodom and Gomorrah seems to be gay or bisexual? Because the passage definitely indicates that every local man turns up at Lot’s door, and a traditional understanding of this passage suggests that the sin of Sodom is homosexuality.

Maybe you find it particularly disturbing that Lot and his family make it to safety, only for his wife to be turned into a pillar of salt when she foolishly turns around to look at the smouldering city?

Or, might it be that God willingly commits yet another atrocity in the name of love? It’s fine, it’s not global genocide, it’s just two cities… so God is definitely not reneging on the rainbow promise that was made to Noah… No, definitely not…

Firstly, and perhaps rather obviously, I’d like to dispel the harmful myth that this narrative is about homosexuality or sexual identities that are not considered to be the societal normative.

To be clearer: Sodom and Gomorrah is NOT about gay sex.

It is alarming that even today, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer peoples are, in much the same way as they have in the Sodom and Gomorrah narrative, attributed blame for a variety of ills ranging from the breakdown of the traditional family unit (good riddance in my opinion, there’s nothing healthy about a unit that is devoted only to the needs of its patriarchal leader), to even modern day catastrophes which any reasonable amount of common sense would instead be attributed to the heating up of the planet and humanity’s continual misuse of natural resource.

Think I’m joking? In 2014 both Hurricane Harvey in the US, and the extreme flooding in the UK were blamed by a small minority on the quote-unquote “gays”. The UKIP councillor David Silvester wrote to the Henley Standard blaming gay marriage for the suffering of those afflicted by the extreme weather. In that letter, he said:

“I wrote to David Cameron in April 2012 to warn him that disasters would accompany the passage of his same-sex marriage Bill, but he went ahead… it his fault that large swathes of the nation have been afflicted by storms and floods.”

It is grossly out of character for me to say something in support of the legacy of the former PM but blaming David Cameron for problematic weather does seem unreasonable to me.

Biblical narratives that retain the messy handprints of those that have wrestled to offer meaning to them can often be found as the root cause of the problems that marginalised groups have experienced for generations; and it is that misappropriation of Scripture that continues to lurk insidiously in the background of many ills that these people still face.

Across the Commonwealth (largely those countries which were formerly occupied by the British during the days of the established Empire), “homosexual activity” remains a criminal offence in 35 of the 53 sovereign states. It is commonly understood that this is the direct result of British interference in the development of the individual states, and that anti-gay legislation exists as a legacy of the “sodomy” acts introduced by the colonisers in the 19th century.

The penalties for private and consensual sexual activity between members of the same sex remains eye-wateringly harsh in a high percentage of Commonwealth states, and their uniformity in punishment can be attributed to “Section 377” in the penal codes of the former British Empire. In Jamaica and Kenya, it is punished by 10 and 14 years imprisonment respectively, whilst it’s 20 years plus flogging in Malaysia. Bangladesh, Guyana, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, Tanzania and Uganda have a maximum sentence of life imprisonment, and in the 12 northern states of Nigeria, the maximum penalty for male homosexuality is death.

As a British gay man, I am repulsed by my inherited complicity in these very current laws.

And let us be clear, Victorian sensibilities concerning morality find their foundations in a particular interpretation of Scripture. It is of course not a coincidence that these laws were, and remain colloquially, the sodomy acts.

However, the recent decision by the Indian Supreme Court to decriminalise homosexuality is cause for celebration. India, after all, has a rich history of gender non-conformity, homosexuality, and homo-eroticism according to the historian, politician, and social commentator Shashi Tharoor, and it was the British Empire that sought to bring native morality and sexual practice under the control of Victorian morality. Tharoor suggested some years prior to the Supreme Court’s decision, that it was time for the Indian government to get out of the bedroom of its citizens “where the British were unembarrassed” to intrude.

A particular understanding of Sodom and Gomorrah and the mistreatment of LGBTQ+ people is not unique as the only example of marginalisation in the name of Christ and His Word, as Dawn explored last week when uncovering Christianity’s complicity in slavery. Tackling these issues face on is essential if we are to take our call as emissaries of the Kingdom of God, and not soldiers of the Empire of the Church, at all seriously.

Looking again at the narrative of Sodom and Gomorrah with this perspective, we can begin to appreciate (if we hadn’t already), just how necessary reclaiming Scripture is. And so, what on earth are we supposed to do with a text that has been to date used to clobber people into submission?

It seems likely to me that the author was most concerned about the violation of the Israelite code of hospitality, and that this rather extreme example was put forward to forewarn anyone who might not welcome the stranger into their home and protect them as if they were indeed one of their own.

In our second reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, the passage from Exodus, it is categorically stated that harming, oppressing, or wronging any foreigner in the land is completely out of the question, because the people of Israel were they themselves once foreigners in the land of Egypt. It’s very much a “we know this feels, gang, let’s not do it unto others, aye?”

Jesus affirms this in his command to the twelve in the passage that Solomon read to us from Matthew. By likening an unwelcome reception to the behaviour of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, he is clearly drawing a parallel that indicates the real sin of Sodom.

And if this isn’t enough for the naysayers, in Ezekiel 16, the author explicitly states the sin of “your sibling Sodom”: “they and their children were arrogant, overfed, unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.”

“They did not help the poor and needy.”

Here are a few relevant snippets of information for you relating to the cause of those we might identify as “poor and needy”:

Our friends at the Jubilee Debt Campaign estimated that by 2017 82 countries would be experiencing some form of debt crisis, and that as of the same year the total debt owned by governments, companies and individuals to individuals, companies or governments in other countries was $74 trillion. A figure that is equivalent to $10,000 per person, or 100% of global income.

In the UK, it is estimated that 3.1 million children are currently living in poverty – an increase of around a million since the introduction of the austerity programme in 2010. This is in a country that according to GDP is ranked as being in the top 5 of global economies. (By the way, we’re currently spending £5.2 billion on a military nuclear deterrent scheme that isn’t up to operational standards – but I’m not suggesting anything by mentioning that here…)

Towards the end of 2017, the UK had accepted somewhere in the region of 8,000 refugees whose lives had been impacted by the ongoing war in Syria. However, some two years prior the government committed to taking in 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020. In Germany, by comparison, more than 1 million asylum seekers from Syria, Iraq, Somalia, and Eritrea, have been accepted since 2015.

In the years between the introduction of the Conservative government’s same-sex marriage Bill in 2013, and the issuing of their statement on human sexuality in 2016, the Baptist Union of Great Britain spent a disproportionately large amount of time discussing, debating, and deliberating over the issue of same-sex marriage and the particular impact on ordained Baptist ministers wishing to officiate such services. When searching for a similar zeal on issues of debt, child poverty, or asylum seekers, my search comes up all but empty.

“They did not help the poor and needy.”

Hidden perhaps not far below the surface of the sin of Sodom is a warning against the abuse of power (in this instance the threat of rape), the desire to subjugate and dominate, and the pervasive nature of xenophobia – all expressed through the rejection of the hospitality code. Problems that are far from being unique to the ancient Israelites.

As I have been musing on this sermon across the past week, the headlines around Brexit have managed to trump themselves on their sensationalism. However, after listening to the Prime Minister’s statement on Friday afternoon, it is not hard to see why many in the UK do not feel like they are being invited in as the welcomed stranger.

And closer to home, to us here at Bloomsbury, is the stranger welcome among us? Those who do not look, sound, think, or believe as we do? Recently I’ve been challenged to look around at the faces of those who lead, those who speak, those who have a voice in our community, and ask the hard question: are we really a safe space for everyone?

I passionately reject the idea of a God who smites those who do not love them or behaviour according to a set of hard and fast rules, but I passionately embrace the challenge that Genesis 19:1-29 presents us with.

The sin of Sodom is indeed a warning to all of us, but it has nothing to do with our sexual orientation, but instead our orientation towards the gospel that is indeed good news to the poor and needy.