From a Pride Parade to a Trump Rally: Rethinking Sodom & Gomorrah
“Get your mouth off that balloon, you might get AIDS,” my grandmother warned as I tried to resuscitate a deflating balloon I found at Chuck E. Cheese.
I’m not sure why I remember this randomly specific exchange I had with my grandmother as a child, but I have no doubt that it happened. My grandmother had a knack for lovingly scaring the shit out of her grandkids by pointing out all the ways the world could harm us.
She was the pre-internet incarnation of WebMD. If you had a headache, she would ask countless diagnostic questions to determine if you had a massive brain tumor. When I slept over in elementary school on Fridays, we would watch the most glorious two hours of television ever produced, ABC’s TGIF, combined with the most terrifying hour — Unsolved Mysteries. The alien abduction episodes were the worst. It didn’t help that the room I slept in had a beam of light glowing through the window that I never could be sure was a streetlight and not a UFO. It also didn’t help that when I asked my grandmother whether aliens were real, instead of saying “Of course not sweetie, now go to bed” her answers were noncommittal at best, like she and Robert Stack were in on something together.
The truth is out there.
Just as Steve Urkel epitomized Friday night TV in the 90s, my grandmother’s misinformed comments about contracting HIV/AIDS epitomized the sensationalism surrounding the epidemic. As a kid growing up in a conservative evangelical church in the 90s, paranoia, if not outright demonization, of the LGBT community was the norm.
Perhaps no story influenced the church’s stance toward the gay community more than the Old Testament account of the destruction of Sodom & Gomorrah. The 90s evangelical version went something like this:
God decided to destroy Sodom & Gomorrah because the city was extremely wicked, particularly because of their acceptance of homosexuality. Abraham asks God to spare the city if he can find 10 righteous people living in the city, but he cannot. So God sends 2 angels to rescue Abraham’s nephew, Lot, and his family. When these angels in human form come to the city, the men of Sodom want to have sex with them. Lot tries to reason with the city dwellers, but they are so set on having sex with these visitors that the angels strike the mob with blindness. Then, the angels warn Lot to get out of the city with his family — God’s judgment is coming. He escapes with his wife and 2 daughters just before God destroys Sodom with fire and brimstone. But while fleeing, Lot’s wife looks back at the city and is turned into a pillar of salt.
The application churches made at the time? Societies who tolerate homosexuality will experience God’s judgment, and that judgment must be the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Now aside from anachronistically reading the modern concept of sexual orientation back into an Ancient Near Eastern culture, there are a few major issues with this interpretation.
First, the interpretation I grew up hearing made no distinction between sex and sexual violence. The sin of the 90s evangelical version was that the men of the town wanted to have gay sex with the male visitors who came to Lot’s house. But look at the exchange in Genesis 19:
All the men from every part of the city of Sodom — both young and old — surrounded the house. They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.”
Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him and said, “No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.”
“Get out of our way,” they replied. “This fellow came here as a foreigner, and now he wants to play the judge! We’ll treat you worse than them.” They kept bringing pressure on Lot and moved forward to break down the door.
The sin of the passage is not that the men of the town wanted to have gay sex, but rather they wanted to gang rape the visitors. This is why from the very beginning, Lot grows anxious when the visitors plan to stay in the town square and decline his offer to stay with him. Lot knows it wouldn’t be safe there. The town he lives in has a violent bent, and if the visitors stay in the town square, they would be in danger. So Lot “insisted so strongly that they did go with him and entered his house.”
Unfortunately, the evangelical retelling of this story focused more on the gender of those involved instead of the sexual assault so clear in the story.
The second issue with this interpretation is its failure to notice the underlying violent xenophobia of the men of Sodom & Gomorrah. When the angels approached the gates of the city, it’s unclear whether Lot recognized them as supernatural beings (he does call them “my lords”) or just as men. What is clear is that Lot immediately recognizes that they were foreigners — which is why he implores them to stay at his house instead of the town square. Foreigners weren’t treated so kindly in this city.
The mob’s hateful, ethnically-motivated intentions toward foreigners becomes even more explicit when Lot begs the men of Sodom to leave these men alone, because he has brought them under his roof. “Get out of our way,” the men reply. “This fellow [Lot] came here as a foreigner, and now he wants to play the judge! We’ll treat you worse than them.”
Essentially, the men of Sodom are saying they noticed two foreigners come into the city, and this enraged them. As soon as Lot sides with the visitors, the men of Sodom put him in his place. They remind him that he too is a foreigner, and has no standing to judge them. If he persists, they’ll treat him even worse than the visitors. The text isn’t clear why Lot, a foreigner, was able to dwell in the city while the visitors weren’t, but history shows us that xenophobic communities can often tolerate “model minorities” while directing there racism toward other groups.
Correcting these two misinterpretations of Genesis 19 brings clarity: the men of Sodom weren’t homosexuals desperate to gratify an urge, they were hateful racists desperate to humiliate an inferior. Sexual violence was their weapon of choice.
In The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini, the antagonist Assef provides an illustration to the Genesis 19 story. Assef, who uses his ethnic identity to rise to power in Afghanistan, despises Hassan, a Hazara who he sees as ethnically inferior to himself. Seeking to put Hassan in his place, he rapes him. The sexual orientation of the antagonist is not critical to the act because he isn’t seeking to gratify a sexual urge, but rather to humiliate and dominate.
That’s not to say that the gender of both parties isn’t important. It is, but not in the way preachers of the 90s explained. In patriarchal societies like those in Genesis 19 and The Kite Runner, “women were presumed to be inferior, [so] nothing was more degrading for a man than to be seen as womanly” (see Matthew Vines, God and the Gay Christian, p. 36-38). Essentially, there was no more explicit way to humiliate and dominate a man in a patricarchal society than to force him into the receptive “female” role in sex.
With this understanding in mind, the sin of Sodom & Gomorrah wasn’t homosexuality. The sin was their violent xenophobia exemplified in how they wanted to gang rape foreigners. (I’m guessing your Sunday school teacher didn’t mention that.)
This is consistent with Scripture’s explanation elsewhere of the “sin of Sodom & Gomorrah.” In general, when something in Scripture is ambiguous, the Rosetta Stone for interpretation is when Scripture adds clarifying details if it speaks of the event elsewhere.
Ezekiel 16:49–50 is the most explicit Old Testament explanation: “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.” While it’s possible that the “detestable things” mentioned in the passage could refer to sexual sin, that’s not the direction the passage is pushing us in. The five illustrations of sin mentioned before “detestable things” solely focuses on pride, complacency, and a refusal to help those in need. What an indictment when we are much more comfortable labeling “homosexuality” as a detestable thing rather than lack of concern for the poor. But a read through the Old Testament shows God often reserved the strongest language for how we treat the marginalized (see also Isaiah 1).
When Jesus mentions Sodom in Luke 10, he connects their sin not to sex but to hospitality — in both cases they refuse to welcome the messengers of God. “When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is offered to you. Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town we wipe from our feet as a warning to you. Yet be sure of this: The kingdom of God has come near.’ I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town.”
Luckily for Lot and his family, they welcomed the Lord’s messengers, but Lot is hardly the one to emulate in this story.
First, we notice that Lot’s own morality was so off base that while he refused to let the men of Sodom violate the angelic visitors, he instead offers his daughters to the men to “do what you like with them.” (Note: This should further underscore that reading sexual orientation back into an Ancient Near Eastern culture is unhelpful. If the men that surrounded Lot’s house were homosexual, why would Lot offer his daughters to them? See also Judges 19.)
But it doesn’t stop there. Lot’s skewed morality affects his entire family when his wife, hearing God’s command, decides to take it with a grain — or pillar — of salt. Then later on, Lot’s own daughters get him drunk and decide to, well, add incest to injury.
Second, we notice that while Lot still believed the message of God, his witness to his extended family was so marred that when he warned his sons-in-law about God’s impending judgment, they “thought he was joking.”
It’s tragic this story was used for so long by the church to marginalize the gay community, because Genesis 19 has nothing to do with our stance on marriage equality and everything to do with what happens when we link ourselves to a community teeming with ethnic superiority and violence. Sounds more applicable to a MAGA rally than a pride parade.
I wonder if the “Moral Majority,” salivating over the prospect of political power in the 1980s, could have imagined our current political landscape. Ironically, the offspring of the unholy matrimony of Republicans and Evangelicals hasn’t been a more Christian nation — it’s been more nationalist Christians. Curiosity led to cautious cooperation, then to amalgamation. The same process happened to Lot. First, he “pitched his tents” (try saying that 3x fast) toward the city, then moved closer, then moved in.
As the potential for political power became clearer, the church’s previous moral stances became muddied. Those who spoke up against President Clinton’s behavior in the 90s now tolerate President Trump’s behavior. The end justifies the means.
This is not to say that Evangelicalism is unconcerned with morality, but rather has succumbed to the same moral tunnel vision as Lot. In the same breath when Lot tells the mob not to do this “wicked thing” of violating his guests, he offers his daughters as human piñatas to placate the crowd.
Evangelicals still look to their moral North Star of abortion, taking false comfort that collective political wickedness characterizes only the pro-choice side. They’ve targeted Critical Race Theory and “communism,” not Christian nationalism, as the biggest threat to their faith, yet all the while unaware they’ve partnered with a mob who feeds on xenophobia and violence.
That’s not fair, some will say. Evangelicals condemned the violence at the Capitol, just as they’ve condemned violence from the left. Sure, there were Christians attending Trump rallies and the infamous Stop the Steal rally, but they weren’t the ones participating in the violence.
But isn’t that exactly the question the tragedy of Lot begs to ask: how long can a “righteous person” willingly surround themselves with a culture of hate and violence before skewing their own moral compass and losing their witness?
Sure, Evangelical leaders decried the egregious acts of violence, like the ones seen at the Capitol, but they remained silent during President Trump’s long history of stoking violence, even whole-heartedly endorsing him despite it. Those leaders who denounce Trump are dismissed as “liberal” or “irrelevant.”
And while it might not be Evangelicals producing the content on social media infused with inflammatory statements, increasingly violent titles like “take downs” and “eviscerations” of opponents, and deprecating descriptors such as “libtard” and “snowflake,” they’re certainly consuming the content — all in the name of free speech. It’s bizarre how a Christian can argue for free speech for religious reasons then use free speech to mockingly troll their “opponents” on social media.
Even Republicans see the warning signs. Senator Ben Sasse writes, “The violence that Americans witnessed — and that might recur in the coming days — is not a protest gone awry or the work of ‘a few bad apples.’ It is the blossoming of a rotten seed that took root in the Republican Party some time ago and has been nourished by treachery, poor political judgment, and cowardice.” Sen. Sasse is rightfully worried about what QAnon will do to his party. The church should be equally worried about what QAnon will do to its witness. Lot lost all credibility to his witness in Sodom. The church irreparably damages its witness when the most outrageous thing it proclaims are conspiracy theories instead of how God became man, was crucified, buried, rose again and now freely offers forgiveness, redemption, and reconciliation.
But I could never align myself with the left, some will say.
That’s fine. Don’t.
Why can’t the church be apolitical? Why do we box the Creator of the universe into one political party or another? Perhaps the church could learn from the transgender community and consider that not everything has to be binary.
A lesson from the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Throughout the 80s and 90s much of society, especially the church, chose to elicit hysteria and demonize the gay community rather than embrace compassion and humanize them. While Jesus never spoke of same-sex relationships, he was explicitly clear on how believers should treat their perceived enemies (Matthew 5:43–48). Decades later, our society still reaps the effects of this fateful choice as LGBTQ youth experience increased risk of homelessness and suicide.
As LGBTQ visibility increased, society was forced to see them, hear them, humanize them. They were our neighbors, co-workers, sons, daughters, and congregants. They most certainly were not the violent mob of Sodom & Gomorrah. And so even Evangelicalism, while still remaining largely non-affirming, began to change its stance: religious leaders now refrain from using the pulpit for outright gay-bashing and homophobic jokes, they’ve conceded the change of language from “sexual preference” to “sexual orientation,” and there’s little talk of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. However, the fact that conversion therapy and adoption rights (and up until last year’s Supreme Court decision, job protections for LGBT employees) are still being debated shows there’s more progress to be made.
It’s sad we have to speak at all about how the church has made “progress” in humanizing those created in God’s image. It would be doubly sad if the church failed to learn its lesson yet again. While the church was often a reluctant participant in humanizing the gay community, Evangelicals can learn from their mistakes of past decades and choose to be an example of how one treats their political opponents in the coming decades. They can choose to be led by the Spirit rather than Facebook’s algorithm. They can choose compassion over paranoia.
A lesson from Genesis 19. Despite the angelic warning of God’s impending judgment, Lot hesitated to leave Sodom. He had become so comfortable in the city that he couldn’t stand the idea of separating. But “the Lord was merciful to them” and the angels physically dragged him out. Even still, Lot begs the angelic messengers not to make him “flee to the mountains, this disaster will overtake me.” Instead he asks that they allow him to move to a smaller city called Zoar, which is Hebrew for “let’s try this again in 2024.”
It will be difficult for Evangelicals to flee from the MAGA mob. It will be tempting to regroup, to rebuild, to move to a smaller city (or a smaller social media platform). It might take the Lord’s mercy dragging them out.
Is it a coincidence that Lent begins mere weeks after the inauguration? Perhaps this upcoming Lenten season is the perfect time for Christians to give up their political ambitions and flee to the mountains, away from the crowd, just as Christ did for 40 days of fasting and prayer.
And is it a coincidence, as Holy Week approaches, that Christians will have a similar decision to make as the crowd did, standing before Pilate in Jerusalem — will they choose Jesus, or Barabbas, the insurrectionist?