Last week I wrote a piece about the traces of nascent humanism in the teachings of Jesus, and toward the end of that post I indicated that I view those socially progressive threads in light of a larger prophetic tradition within the Jewish faith, a tradition in which Jesus himself may rightly belong:
[PDF version | check back later for mp3 audio]
There is throughout the Bible a consistent prophetic theme in which God visits judgment on his people whenever they lose sight of the things he really wants them to focus on, like caring for the poor, the downtrodden, and the outcasts. Not everyone in the Bible sticks to that message, mind you—it’s a mixed bag. Sometimes the writers of the Bible are much more focused on minutiae and rule-following.
But there has always been a sort of “minority report” running throughout the Bible, a prophetic tradition calling the nation back to its ideals, warning them that God is going to remove his blessings from them if they refuse to extend the boundaries of their concerns to people not entirely within their already too small social circles.
Today I want to look at one particular story from the Old Testament which aptly illustrates this ongoing tension within the Abrahamic religions. And incidentally, by now you must have noticed this is going to be less of a godless “walk” through the Bible and more of a “hop, skip, and a jump” all over the thing. Perhaps you thought I would be working my way through the Bible serially, taking each chapter in the order in which we find them. But I figure if preachers can jump all over the place depending on what the moment demands, I should be afforded the same luxury, right? Okay, let’s get on with it, then.
A Sketchy Story…
Most everyone knows the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (see Genesis 19) since it’s told and retold in all three major Abrahamic religions around the world. What’s not as well known is that these cities most likely never even existed. We’ve looked and looked for them, using all of the best tools of archaeology available to us, but they just don’t seem to have been real places. Of course, that doesn’t stop people today from insisting that the cities have been found (ever read anything from WND.com?).
By the way, probably my most favorite interchange on Facebook ever happened the day one of the friends of my child’s apologetics-obsessed Sunday school teacher (yes, they attend church, let’s not get sidetracked by that right now) informed friends on my wall that a lab in Tennessee is secretly in possession of “sulfur balls” excavated from a tell in the Arabian Peninsula somewhere, and they are quietly analyzing them to ensure that these are in fact from the site of the historical city of Sodom. Coincidentally, a few seconds of googling revealed that this is the same lab currently testing fragments of wood discovered at “the most likely site” of the final resting place of Noah’s ark.
My friends and I henceforth referred to that poor man by the moniker “Sulfur Balls,” although sadly he wasn’t around to hear about it since his initial response to my requesting a link to that discovery got me instantly blocked without any discussion at all. Touchy fella.
But it’s really beside the point whether or not those cities ever existed. What matters for our discussion today is how this story has been used throughout history, to what ends it is employed, and by whom.
…with a Shifting Purpose
To any uninitiated reader, the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah would clearly seem to teach us that God really, really dislikes homosexuality. And I mean he hates it. He hates it so much that while other sins can be tolerated for thousands of years without inspiring an immediate and catastrophic episode of divine destruction, this particular transgression incites divine wrath so forcefully that God once wiped out two whole cities by raining fire and brimstone down upon them, destroying every man, woman, child, and beast living within their vicinity, save for a single dysfunctional family led by a father figure who I’m beginning to suspect would have fared well running for president of the United States on the Republican Party ticket. But I digress.
[Related: “What the Story of Lot Tells Me About the Bible“]
It seems pretty obvious to me that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah was written as a sort of morality play–or perhaps an immorality play, if you will—teaching us a couple of things about gay people, namely that they gross Yahweh out, and that they are predominantly comprised of sexual predators.
Go ahead and tell me you didn’t get that from reading the story the first time.
Sodom and Gomorrah inevitably became bywords for rank immorality, and in time the word “sodomy” came to signify the act of, ahem, “back door satisfaction,” an act former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli found so deplorable he tried to make sure it remained illegal in his state. Sadly for him, he lost that battle as well as his job, in the end. Heh.
But not everyone who recounted the cautionary tale of these doomed fictitious cities singled out homosexuality as the reason why God wiped them out. Some have argued, as the prophet Ezekiel not-famously-enough did, that the primary reason Yahweh rained down fire on these wicked cities had more to do with social justice:
Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen. (emphasis mine)
You would think that evoking Sodom should point to sexual immorality, particularly of the much-maligned homosexual variety. But for Ezekiel that wasn’t the reason for God’s wrath at all. One could try to argue that the inclusion of the phrase “did detestable things” must have referred to their sexual deviance, but one would search in vain for anything within the context of Ezekiel’s proclamation which would support that claim. You can read the whole chapter for yourself here, and what you’ll encounter is an extended metaphor which compares the city-state of Jerusalem to a prostitute so bad at making herself desirable that she has to pay her customers to sleep with her. Ouch.
According to Ezekiel, God’s people failed to honor him as the One and Only True God, making treaties with foreign governments against his instructions, which ultimately led to their dabbling in other religions as well. What’s more, they forsook the very commission which Ezekiel seemed to believe was their chief purpose in the world: To be a beacon of light, life, love, and generosity for the rest of the world to see.
Arrogant, overfed, and unconcerned…they did not help the poor and needy.
He could have led off with any traits in the world to describe the reasons for God’s judgment on Sodom, and yet those are the traits he chose.
Is that what you heard from the pulpit whenever this story was recounted? Me neither.
The sin of Sodomy, if Ezekiel’s prophetic testimony can be believed, was income inequality. He saw in that an institutional transgression for which the people of God had their place in the world taken away. They failed to honor him by making generosity a defining characteristic of their community.
Sodomy According to Jesus
Ezekiel wasn’t the only one who saw a demand for social justice in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. During his ministry, Jesus made reference to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as well. So what did he have to say? Did he use the story to remind his audience about the perils of sexual deviance, and about how utterly detestable God finds homosexuality?
As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near’ …Do not get any gold or silver or copper to take with you in your belts— no bag for the journey or extra shirt or sandals or a staff, for the worker is worth his keep. Whatever town or village you enter, search there for some worthy person and stay at their house until you leave.
As you enter the home, give it your greeting. If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet. Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town. (emphasis mine)
Like those before and after him, Jesus made use of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah as a cautionary tale warning us not to reject the message of those whom God sends to deliver his words to us. But notice that he was specifically calling on people to extend hospitality to his messengers, receiving them into their homes. This was a practical necessity for itinerant evangelists who had left behind their jobs and their families to travel, preaching Jesus’s message to the masses.
The success of the early church depended on this system of hospitality, since at the time they didn’t have the institutionalized religious apparatus we have in place today. Elders in the early church didn’t extract tithes from their congregations like they would later on. That was an anachronism lifted out of the Old Testament days for repurposing by the church after their numbers grew to the point of needing a steady stream of revenue. In the earliest days of the church, evangelistic ministries depended on people opening up their homes to complete strangers bearing the message of Jesus.
Thus we hear from the mouth of Jesus that failing to welcome his messengers into our homes constitutes the same kind of transgression for which Sodom and Gomorrah became infamously known. And it had nothing at all to do homosexuality at all. It was all about failing to show hospitality.
Did God Really Say…?
I’ll be honest with you: I would really love to see progressive religion win out over the angrier, more exclusivist strains of religion which always seem to sprout two new heads in the place of the one that gets cut off. I would love to see the more humanistic versions of the Abrahamic faith beat out all the others until religion finally becomes a net positive influence in the world of tomorrow. I just don’t know how reasonable that is. Incidentally I could say the same thing about forms of atheism as well.
The truth is that the angriest versions of any set of ideas tend to win out over the more nuanced (read: accurate) versions such that the most successful memes and ideas are the ones which make us the angriest, or which prey on our most vulnerable fears. If you haven’t before seen the video below, I hope you will take 7 minutes to listen to it in its entirety. It makes some excellent and thought-provoking points:
Unlike many of my skeptical colleagues, I harbor the notion that religion can be a force for good in the world, and often already is. While it may be true that people do mean and nasty things in the name of God (e.g. female genital mutilation), it is also true that others do kind and loving things under the impression that this is the way God wants them to behave. Obviously I want to encourage benevolence wherever I find it, regardless of what makes them display it.
The problem, though, is that they both are doing opposite things with the same reasoning, which tells me that particular reasoning isn’t really a reliable path to progressive morality. As long as you keep doing the good you do in the world because it’s what you believe God wants, you’ll always be subject to redirection by those who can persuasively argue that God really wants you to do something that is quite the opposite of what you set out to do.
In fact, as I type this there are hundreds of men and women in my country taking to the airwaves (like here and here) to proclaim that God has spoken to them, telling them to vote for the most morally repugnant and unqualified human being ever to be within striking distance of the most visible public office in the world. Pulling the lever in his favor cuts them to the quick, and they generally dislike being put in a position to take that course of action.
But as long as they can be convinced that God said to do it, they will do it whether they can make sense of it or not. And that right there is the problem. As long as your reasoning is: “It’s what God wants” or “It’s what Jesus would do,” there will never be any room to disagree. How can one even reason with that? It is impervious to rational discussion. One would have to prove that God didn’t really speak to them, and good luck trying to convince them of that.
Can Progressive Religion Survive?
There will always be a progressive subculture nestled within almost every religion that is born on this planet. If I’m not mistaken, Buddhism, Christianity, and Sufiism are each in their own ways progressive steps away from their institutional predecessors into a more self-aware, inwardly focused—and therefore often socially progressive—direction. But in time what will come to dominate even those traditions seems to be those elements which mirror the forms of religion that each of them originally were created to correct.
In time, natural selection forces each religion to focus on its own self-preservation, and that means systematically weeding out those versions of the religion which de-emphasize in-group/out-group distinctions by reaching out to “the other.”
I’ve watched it happening in real time. You take a church which formerly focused on things like the end of the world or fighting gay marriage or whatever, then you replace their ministers with more socially progressive leaders who think more deeply and ask harder questions about what the church should be doing in the world, and what happens? For a brief glorious moment a church seems finally destined to express the strengths of this religion without its persistent weaknesses.
But then you fast forward in time, and return to that church ten years later, and where did it go? Does it even exist anymore? More than likely it does not; or if it still does, it is only a dying shell of what it was a decade earlier. Over time it lost its membership through the normal means of attrition, but new folks didn’t make their way into the group because the angrier, more identity-thumping versions of the church stole all their potential new members. They just did a better job of marketing, and they did a better job of scaring people into giving up their tithes and offerings for the preservation of the system itself rather than giving it to the poor around them.
Churches that stoke people’s fears just sell better. I don’t know any other way to put it. I see the same impulse affecting even the secularist movement. The more you can stir up your people to be afraid of some impending threat, the more effectively you can rally the troops around a common goal or a common identity. It also makes for better fundraisers, and let’s face it: In the end, that’s what the survival of an institution requires. For living organisms it’s about getting your genes into the next generation. For institutions, it’s about keeping a steady stream of revenue. But progressive churches are always giving their resources away. Can you not see how that would negatively impact their long term survival?
I say all that to say this: I will continue to encourage my friends who “follow Jesus” to see in him those humanistic virtues which I would like to see the rest of the church emulate. But I also have what I believe is a healthy skepticism toward the long term ability of any religion to maintain a focus on socially progressive values like the ones we see in the prophets and in the ministry of Jesus.
[Image Source: SellerInvite]
Note: When I get the time, I will upload an audio version of this post as well as the last couple of Sunday’s posts. Eventually.