Thursday, April 12, 2012

In Defense of Sodom (and Gomorrah)

Sodom has quite the reputation these days. Gomorrah does, too, although Sodom seems to be more well-known in English parlance and in the stories of Genesis, too.

According to the story, Abraham is showing some men "on their way," when they "looked toward Sodom," which means they were going in the direction of Sodom (18:16, NRSV). As Abraham is still being hospitable, the men share some divine news with Abraham. They share this news because Abraham has been chosen by God to be great, to "[do] righteousness and justice." Abraham's 'chosenness' and future stand in stark contrast to what the men hear of Sodom and Gomorrah. Apparently the sin is so bad that Yahweh has heard it and has to see it with God's own eyes, so to speak.

Before the men say anything about anyone being destroyed, Abraham asks if everyone will be destroyed for the sins, "the righteous with the wicked." Despite a lack of knowledge of this Yahweh character, Abraham assumes some sort of retributive justice where sin is repaid with destruction, even the destruction of life.

Abraham intuited correctly, it seems, and Abraham and Yahweh "discuss," if that is the proper word, what will happen if at least ten righteous people are found in Sodom. Of course, the discussion could imply specifically ten righteous men as opposed to people, since Hebrew, like popular English, uses masculine terms to imply both male and female.

Since Sodom and Gomorrah both likely included young children, I find it safe to assume Abraham and Yahweh are "arguing" over righteous men and therefore completely ignoring the possibility and probability of righteous women and children living in the area. Or, to be more precise: Yahweh mentions nothing specifically to Abraham about innocent women and/or children.

Of course, after I make my argument about innocent children, the story says the young and old men of Sodom come to Lot, presumably to rape the two messengers ("angels," NRSV, et. al.). Still, "young and old" must have a cut off. Infants, toddlers, and other youngsters must not have been involved.

Females, however, may have been involved. Like in English "man" and "men" could include men and women. In fact, the word translated as "men" in 19:4 most often signifies humans, not men. The original Sodomites might not have been as homosexual as we might think. The incident could have conceivably been in favor of a heterosexual or bisexual orgy to "welcome" the visitors. The KJV might give us a better translation here: "all the people from every quarter" as opposed to the NRSV's "all the people to the last man." Here, the word KJV translates "people" and the NRSV translates "man" is a word even more likely to incorporate a people group as opposed to a gender.

Homosexual or heterosexual, rape is not a great way to welcome newcomers.

But what if the culture of Sodom was one in which sex was hospitable? Certainly, my (post)modern mind always conceives of rape as wrong. However, I can understand a group of people wanting to offer an orgy as a welcome, as a doxological celebration of visitors before a god or gods, even. Such a celebration could cause a lot of people to relocate to Sodom. "Move here and get laid--guaranteed!" Could a bureau of tourism hope for a better motto?

But Genesis tries hard to distinguish the seed of Abraham as culturally different from everyone else in the world. For them, hospitality and worship are not sex. And only men can have multiple sex-partners, not women. Even though Yahweh/Elohim/El spends some time talking with Sarah and Sarah is not always your typically suppressed woman in a patriarchal society, Abraham and his progeny lean heavily towards patriarchy, even into current-day Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Sodom, however, paints a picture in which a large group of people, young and old, men and women come to have a public orgy.

If you take Genesis as a single book (or as a part of a Pentateuch or Hexatuech), the sins of Sodom are not necessarily homosexuality. The "sins" of Sodom are not even necessarily worse than anything later developments of Abrahamic religions call sins. Whereas polygamy was OK and sometimes encouraged by the God-character, it has become wrong to many Christians and Jews today. Either God changed or peoples' understanding of God and history changed. Or both.

Regardless, it is hard for me to see as Sodom as necessarily bad. As far as we know, they may have attempted to be hospitable according to their definition of hospitality. When Lot refused them, they were upset because an outsider wouldn't respect their customs, an outsider wouldn't even give them the chance to offer newcomers the culture of Sodom.

From a pluralistic perspective, maybe the people of Sodom aren't the "bad guys" in this story.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

It's Easter and I am looking back to Good Friday

Every year during Holy Week, I hear and read Tony Campolo's powerful, pertinent "It's Friday, but Sunday's Coming." Apparently I've got it wrong, though. It's Easter Sunday and I am looking back to Good Friday.

Specifically, I'm thinking of one sentence associated with the Passion story, a disputed sentence: Luke 23:34: "Then Jesus said, 'Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing'" (NRSV).[1] Regardless of who put this sentence in the story and why, it portrays the Jesus of Luke asking for forgiveness of people ignorant of what they are doing. Likely, they lack full knowledge of the significance of what they are doing, since they obviously know they are crucifying a man. But what else are they doing? Perhaps squashing a revolt against Rome that could free, at the least, the Israelites in that area. Perhaps stopping a spiritual and moral awakening that could change society for the better. Perhaps killing a Messiah. Perhaps killing God or a god.

What did this Jesus think they were doing? Apparently something needing forgiveness, something I assume was not the will of God (unless Jesus' God punishes people for things they are meant/forced/divinely coerced to do). They did something wrong, something they may never understand to be wrong. In that moment, Jesus saw their deeds, judged them to be wrong, knew nothing of whether or not they would ever change or repent, and then he wanted their forgiveness.

I hear a lot of Christians talk about people needing to believe in God, "accept" the sacrifice of "his" son, repent, and then and only then will forgiveness and salvation be rewarded. Forgiveness, though, isn't part of a transaction. If a person does their part and God grants something deserved, something due and expected, not forgiveness. Paying a debt or fulfilling criteria equal righting a wrong, not being forgiven. Forgiveness is something done only by the forgiver and not merited by the forgiven. Forgiveness is a gracious act, not part of a deal. It is an act of compassion, to give someone what they don't deserve.

This Easter, I want that forgiveness to be resurrected. I want to look back to Holy Friday and see the goodness that came from Luke's Jesus (or some redactor's Jesus). I want for that forgiveness to be resurrected and be alive in my heart, my mind, and in my very body that forgiveness will be evident in my actions.

But it isn't. And to get preachy, I know few in whom it is alive. As for myself, I'm bitter and unforgiving. I'm enraged by politics, by waste, by economics, by greed, by religion, even by Christians and the Christ of most Christianities I encounter.

Easter will never be enough if we can't first look back and see what needs to be resurrected. It isn't the man, it is the life he lived.


[1] The sentence doesn't appear in a number of ancient manuscripts and may not have been in the original text. Since I don't look on any of the Gospel stories as factual accounts, I'm not too worried about whether or not the historical Jesus said that sentence or if the author of Luke included the sentence in the first place. These questions are important, but they don't hold the key to unlocking truths from this passage. For more on where the sentence appears and doesn't, including how ancient commentators deal with the subject, I recommend Nathan Eubank, "A Disconcerting Prayer: On the Originality of Luke 23:34a," Journal of Biblical Literature 129.3 (2010): 521-36.