In this series on Sodom we have been open about our interest in applying the lessons of this doomed city to our own time. All the posts in the series have proceeded with confidence that Sodom holds wisdom that we must interpret for the benefit of our needs today.
Some would object to such application of scripture, particularly from the Old Testament. But several scriptures are important to remember:
Jesus stated himself in Matthew 5 that not even one stroke of one letter of the law can fall, until heaven and earth have passed away.
In referring to the “Torah,” Jesus invokes the Jewish principle that the first five books of the Bible, including Genesis and the Sodom story, are part of the law. It is this complete law that we see being read in the times of Ezra and Nehemiah, night and day, as the Jews rebuild Jerusalem.
Also, Sodom repeats as an “example” throughout the Bible. In Jude 7, Jude states, “in a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.” The appearance of “similarity” calls for us to connect Sodom to other phenomena, and the word “example” underscores its relevance. Sodom is something that should be spoken of, and should be considered when we consider the problems facing us today.
The Problem of Contagion
Up until now this series has not contemplated the problem of contagion in the Sodom story. In the most recent post, I did discuss the enigma of God’s severity in obliterating the city. A thorough reading of the scripture makes clear that God’s punishment was extreme only because His mercy was extreme. He had given the city at least seven chances, including the first chance when Abram raised an army to free the Sodomites from slavery. The Sodomites’ refusal to change was the extremism. They were, because of the Lord’s mercies, a free people neither enslaved nor kept ignorant by the time they failed all their tests and faced the brimstone. So we have discussed the mysteries of Sodom’s extreme justice and the plausible reasons for Sodom’s ineluctability (her inability to self-correct), but we have not considered the question of contagion.
How did the sin of Sodom come to pollute the body, mind, and soul of an entire city so thoroughly? Consider the unforgettable image of Lot’s wife turning back and becoming a pillar of salt. Even in Lot’s closest quarters, indeed in his bed, lay someone who sympathized with Sodom’s sin rather than with Sodom’s need to repent. The rot in Sodom’s character had spread so far that every Sodomite male and female had fallen prey to it.
The precise definition of Sodom’s sin remains contested. A careful examination of the story leads one to concede that homosexuality is a principal sin, accompanying and intextricably linked to a host of others: as Ezekiel mentions haughtiness, indifference to suffering, and incontinence; as Paul implies in Romans, the laundry list of evils ranging from gossip to murder; and as Genesis presents, damning flaws ranging from cowardice in war to violent rape.
Contagion follows both horizontally and vertically in the Sodom case: horizontally, from person to person; and vertically, from a person’s head to toe, corrupting their thoughts, actions, feelings, “bowels,” and general conduct.
The collective memory of Sodom strikes the Bible reader so powerfully because of the nightmarish scenario of an entire society falling prey to an evil. While one could choose generosity toward homosexuals and reject the claim that homosexuality is itself the main evil driving all the others, it is a false reading to say that homosexuality has no role in Sodom’s sin. If it is the source (as I tend to believe) gradually compromising every part of a person’s life as the person strains to hide and justify his damaging actions, then homosexuality is a problem. If it is the vehicle by which one evil leads to another–for instance, the means by which pride turns to rape–then homosexuality is still deadly, because it compounds human errors and turns them into fatal abominations. Even if, in the most charitable reading, homosexuality is merely the symptom of other evils, we must acknowledge that in a society that cures its own evils, there will be no homosexuality; hence we must fight against corruption until we see no more homosexuality, which is arguably just as harsh toward homosexuality as simply calling it the problem. No matter how we read the Sodom story, the presence of homosexuality is a warning sign that something has doomed a society.
Cause, effect, symptom—the three-ring circus of Sodom
The contagion of sin in Sodom seems to overpower the city because of its multivalence and its ambiguity. We debate so much about where to chart homosexuality among Sodom’s evils precisely because even when Sodom still existed, homosexuality’s role in the city’s problems was unclear. The Sodomites have lost awareness of their own corruption because homosexuality has either distracted them (causing them not to notice their doom) or obsessed them (causing them to see any doom as worse than being denied homosexual exertion). To self-correct or to hold off the spread of dysfunction, the Sodomites would have to be able to figure out whether they sodomized because they were depraved, or they were depraved because they sodomized. It seems that because they could not figure this out, they had no way of focusing or regimenting themselves; they could not stop this sin from spreading, and it eventually polluted the whole city.
When we debate homosexuality in 2018, we confront a similar conundrum. Years on Twitter, Facebook, and Disqus have schooled me in the myriad obfuscations and manipulations by which people deflect counterarguments against homosexuality. If we bring up the damages of anal sex, someone will mention that lesbians do not engage in it, while others will claim that most heterosexuals engage in anal sex as well (this is partly a lurid myth that comes from pornography, which is the means by which many gays learn about what heterosexuals do privately.) If we bring up the pain that children feel when deprived of a mother or father, someone will bring up divorce, orphans, heterosexual abusers, or single people who adopt. If we bring up the testimonials of ex-gays, people will counter that anecdotes do not equal generalizations. If we bring up statistics, people will bring up testimonials of happy gays who insist they remember being gay when they were toddlers. Ethos, pathos, and logos all collapse into an unintelligible puddle when homosexuality becomes the topic of debate. Emotions run high at the same time that dissenters who reject homosexuality meet with utter callousness from pro-gay people. Statistics abound, as long as they support gay people; if they do not, statistics disappear.
If people do not know whether a problem is a cause, effect, or symptom, then they often become paralyzed and endlessly uncertain. They suffer from a Hamlet complex. Amid their paralysis, the corruption spreads because nobody is resisting its diffusion.
But what if a corruption is cause, effect, and symptom all at the same time? Is not greed like that? One’s greed will lead one to cheat and exploit others. Yet greed could also be the end result of a society’s vanity or lack of true love for people, or its idolatry. There might be a sin of wrath (the cause) leading to a sin of hatefulness (the effect), but as one causes the other, angry people seek to amass money to prove themselves better than people they hate. If we fail to counter greed because we are told it is only an effect or symptom, then we may find that even after combatting the ills of pride, vanity, covetousness, wrath, and concupiscence, we still see rampant greed and we have not changed anything. We failed to note that it was a cause and effect simultaneously.
Similarly, since the 1950s and the rise of groups like the Mattachine Society, homosexuality has spread rapidly throughout communities and corrupted virtually ever major institution in the United States. Partly this is because people thought, at certain times, that it could be cured by healing people from childhood trauma at one point; while at other points people felt it was only a symptom of the larger Sexual Revolution sullying heterosexuals; while at other times people acknowledged that homosexuality caused many social tensions but they decided that homosexuality, the primal cause, was caused by nothing and merely appeared as a deus ex machina, so the most appropriate course of action was to root out the negative byproducts of homosexuality (bullying, inequality, social conflict, sexual diseases) through ameliorations or interventions (condoms, anti-discrimination law, educational campaigns) while leaving homosexuality itself unchallenged. No wonder it spread like wildfire–society did, by and large, nothing to prevent it from spreading.
In Sodom, too, homosexuality is at once cause, effect, and symptom. It caused the violation of the ancient code of hospitality toward foreigners; desire to have sex with sojourners in Lot’s home prompted the menfolk to attempt an invasion of Lot’s home. Yet homosexuality also seems to have resulted from a general disregard for the sovereignty of God, which explains the lines in Ezekiel that emphasize Sodom’s arrogance, selfish wealth, and dissipation. We know from Genesis 14 that even after Abram liberates Sodom and guarantees her freedom, Melchizedek invokes God’s blessing while the king of Sodom does not. The king of Sodom, instead, tries to buy Abram’s service by offering him wealth. Without a reverence to God, the Sodomites lay vulnerable to sundry corruptions including homosexuality. Lastly, homosexuality was also a symptom of everything going wrong in the city: the men were unmanly which is why Abram had to save them from slavery, the women unprincipled which is why Lot’s wife cannot help looking back to her doom, and so little security exists that two angels cannot sleep in the town square without being gang raped.
To find ten good men in Sodom, as Abraham had bargained with God, the angels would have needed signs that the contagion had stopped short of the whole population. They found, instead, that every man in the whole city called together for the guests to be thrown to a mob of homosexual rapists. Homosexuality had spread to every man in the city. Whether that is because it caused the other sins or resulted from them almost seems irrelevant. Certainly, though, in such a confusing type of social breakdown, the sharing of a deleterious sex act spurs new problems while spreading ones that already exist. And where one set of problems causes another set of problems, neither of these sets of problems related to homosexuality, homosexuality still proliferates as a byproduct of both.
Is it sin, crime, or sickness?
How do we stop a behavioral problem from spreading?
To stop something from spreading, we have to know what we are stopping, because our countermeasures are based on the essence of the problem.
Is homosexuality a sin? We combat sin, usually, with virtue and discipline. We teach people that sin is wrong and instill virtues in them that counteract sins: prudence rather than rashness, charity rather than rudeness, courage rather than cowardice. But it seems always difficult to define what the sin of homosexuality is. Is it merely desire or is it the act? If we let the desire blossom in people’s hears and tell them not to act on it, we cannot be shocked if it “spreads” from the imagination to lived experience. We were unrealistic to believe that people could give their hearts and minds to sin and then stop them from concluding that the act about which they’ve freely imagined is doable.
Is homosexuality a crime? We usually combat crime by administering a system of justice, based on the harm caused to a victim. But how do you apply “an eye for an eye” in a case of homosexuality? What punishment is appropriate for engaging in this act if both people wanted to do it, and consented? It is much harder to quantify the harm done to society at large, though that harm is much more severe. Because our notion of crime is so thoroughly embedded in perpetrator and victim, a sex act that people do willingly and long for individually is difficult to define, and hard to adjudicate.
Is homosexuality an illness? For a long time in the West this was the most humane way to deal with the problem of homosexuality. People who have fallen to a virus, infection, injury, or palsy are not entirely in command of themselves. It is plausible to help such people heal from what drive their problem, without condemning them as sinners or punishing them as criminals.
In Sodom, homosexuality appears to be at once a sin, a crime, and an illness. At one point the men are literally blinded. Lot’s son-in-laws are so skewed in their perceptions that they fail to read his warnings as authentic. Lot’s wife cannot keep herself from looking back. Yet there are many details that imply deliberation and free will in the city’s sexual debauchery. Even if they were ill, they were free after being rescued from slavery, so they chose their actions with full responsibility for the consequences. And their actions were classifiable as crimes since they became violent and tried to break down Lot’s door.
The problem of identifying what homosexuality is leads to the bigger problem of suggesting a countermeasure. You cannot offer only healing to someone who is intent on committing a crime against your loved ones who are vulnerable. You cannot offer only healing to someone who needs to be disciplined toward virtue. You can offer some healing to criminals and sinners, but you must also have a way of deterring and disciplining them.
You cannot only punish someone who is ill, because they have not been in control of themselves. You cannot only punish someone who is a sinner, because they may internalize their “bad person” status if they have no sense of what virtue looks like. Some punishment might help people who engage in an activity like homosexuality, but it would seem that healing and virtues would have to be equal or greater in priority.
Lastly, you cannot only preach to a criminal, because those who commit crimes tend to have masterminded ways to commit them despite obstacles thrown in their way. The preaching will fall on deaf ears. You cannot only preach to someone who is sick, because their sickness is out of their control.
Discipline, preaching, punishment, and healing all need to work together to stop a complex, ambiguous evil from spreading through society. Sodom is a telling case study because it shows how thoroughly a contagious evil spreads when people are unsure of what to do, afflicted by fear, unmotivated to act righteously, and lacking in the empathy and charity to know that the problem is really harming people whom God loves.