Friday, September 01, 2017

Don't quote Genesis 19 on Same-sex Marriage

Illuminated manuscript picture of Sodom burningJem Bloomfield, in the blog quiteirregular, writes about the collision between the stance on same sex marriage held by some churches, and the culture prevalent in university settings:
One of the major points of view that I hear is that Christianity is immoral.  They don’t use exactly that word: they’re more likely to describe things as “discriminatory”, “oppressive” or “unjust”, but that’s the general gist.  There are moral principles of inclusion and justice which are central to their lives, which they see the Church as transgressing.  They are used to looking at the media, or at politics, and criticising the misogyny or homophobia they see, and institutional Christianity is no exception.  The same disdain for minority groups, the same discrimination.
 This strikes me as a pretty accurate set of observations, but I would go further. To interpret one of the biblical passages commonly cited against Gay men as a condemnation of same-sex behaviour requires accepting a claim nearly everyone today views as outrageous, and many contemporary governments have made outright criminal.

Genesis 19:4-13, reads (NRSV)
But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; and they called to Lot, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.’ Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him, and said, ‘I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.’ But they replied, ‘Stand back!’ And they said, ‘This fellow came here as an alien, and he would play the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.’ Then they pressed hard against the man Lot, and came near the door to break it down. But the men inside reached out their hands and brought Lot into the house with them, and shut the door. And they struck with blindness the men who were at the door of the house, both small and great, so that they were unable to find the door.
Then the men said to Lot, ‘Have you anyone else here? Sons-in-law, sons, daughters, or anyone you have in the city—bring them out of the place. For we are about to destroy this place, because the outcry against its people has become great before the Lord, and the Lord has sent us to destroy it.’
This passage contains an account of a straight-up attempt to commit gang rape. The context, and other Biblical verses referring to Sodom, particularly Ezekiel 16:49, make this clear. Biblical authors describe the people of Sodom as proud, living in luxury, and despising outsiders. According the Genesis 19, they felt free to humiliate those who came to them seeking hospitality by raping them. The use of gang rape in this way, as a tool of social control, as a way to maintain privilege, has not died out; consider its prevalence in prisons, where prison gangs and judicial authorities have an obscene alliance based on a shared interest controlling their particular social spheres, and a shared willingness to use rape as a tool to do so.

As long as humans use gang rape or mass rape to express power, to exert control, or induce fear, so long the story of Sodom, and the horrible punishment suffered by its inhabitants, will retain its relevance, if only as a clear statement of the rage felt by those who suffer this treatment. But for some time, opponents of equal marriage and other opponents and haters of Gay men and Lesbians have used these biblical verses to condemn loving, consensual same-sex relationships.

This does not just amount to a twisted interpretation of the meaning of the scripture. It also frames the story as a denial of values, which today we accept by consensus. More than perhaps any other biblical interpretation, it has the potential to send unbelievers or even believers away in disgust.

When the men of Sodom congregate at his door, demanding he send his guests out so the men of Sodom can rape them, Lot offers his daughters instead. The story makes it clear Lot's daughters are young women awaiting marriage. If you read the fate of Sodom as a warning against pride, as a demand to treat people with respect, then this simply underlines the depravity of Sodom. But looked at through another lens, a lens that bends the narrative into a wholesale condemnation of all same-sex sexual relationships, then Lot's offer looks almost like an out, like chance for a depraved parody of redemption, as though if the men of Sodom had simply gang raped Lot's daughters, G-d would have spared them.

We don't need to guess what Jesus would have said to Lot about offering his daughters to the rapists of Sodom:
Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven. (Matthew 18:10)
Our extreme revulsion against the exploitation and violation of children originates, to a great degree, in Christianity. If we read the story of Sodom as anything but a condemnation of gang rape, without regard to the gender of either the rapists or their victims, then we can only read it as also contradicting central Christian doctrines, which have evolved into a modern moral consensus.

Preach a doctrine condoning the gang rape of a pair of adolescents, and in many jurisdictions you will provoke a police inquiry. But worse than bringing the police into the church, you will chase decent people out. I do not agree with people who claim the Bible calls for the persecution or rejection of Gay men and Lesbians. But I acknowledge biblical verses a decent person can read as anti-Gay without endorsing theological monstrosities do exist. These verses do not include Genesis 19. I appeal to my fellow believers: do not quote Genesis 19 in support of homophobia.

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