A History of Fire: The Sin of Sodom and an Exploration of Goodness

 

The first time I heard the story of Sodom and Gomorrah I was sitting on a wooden chair in the primary room of a chapel in St. George, Utah. One of my friends had been asked to prepare a brief talk that week to share with the primary and had brought an illustrated book of the story of Lot and his family to read out loud to the rest of us, showing us the colorful pictures inside as he did. The part that struck me most was the very end when Lot’s wife, overcome with sorrow, looks back at the city and is transformed into a pillar of salt. In the book there was a picture of a family on a hill walking away from the city in the background, leaving behind what looked like a mound of white sand.
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Whenever I heard about Sodom and Gomorrah I couldn’t help picturing Lot’s wife turning back to look at the burning city; the illustration of its flames from my friend’s book burned in my mind. It wasn’t until a few years later I learned that the great sin that had incurred the fires of heaven to reign mercilessly on the two cities was the sin of homosexuality, one which had been known for hundreds of years as the sin of Sodom, or “sodomy.” In fact, it was encased in this parlance that homosexuality was first mentioned in an LDS General Conference in 1897 when George Q. Cannon asked of sodomy, “How can this be stopped? Not while those who have knowledge of these filthy crimes exist. The only way, according to all that I can understand as the word of God, is for the Lord to wipe them out, that there will be none left to perpetuate the knowledge of these dreadful practices among the children of men”.[1]
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Reading this, one cannot help but feel that Elder Cannon was unacquainted with the history of the fire of Sodom. He couldn’t have known of history’s brutalities towards gay men, how many times those in power had tried to “wipe them out,” or how many more times they would.
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In his essay “Self-reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that “he who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness.” The story of Sodom and Gomorrah and the history of its use to justify atrocities against gay people forces us to do just what Emerson advocates—to truly question our definitions of good and evil and be sure to assign the right labels to the right actions. We too often allow attitudes formed by cultural history and institutionalized prejudices to shape our definitions of good and evil rather than engaging in a true exploration of goodness.
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“Sodomy” first gained popularity as a word to exclusively describe homosexual acts in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries,[2] but the growing condemnation of homosexual relationships began nearly a thousand years earlier in the fourth and fifth centuries AD as the first laws prohibiting homosexual acts were enacted in the Roman Empire.[3] Despite these laws and a growing cultural distaste for homosexuality, gay literature and homosexual relationships continued in Medieval Europe. In times of difficulty, however, gay people were rounded up with Jews as the scapegoats for disaster, and were often burned or driven out. (To apply the term “gay” to people of the past is perhaps an anachronism, but I use it for conversational convenience as well as modern applicability.)
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During the Inquisition the story of Sodom began to be used in more abundance as justification for the harsh treatment of gay people. Peter Canisius, a leading Jesuit intellectual of the late 16th century updated Aquinas’s teachings on the morality of homosexuality in his Catechism with an inclusion of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, warning that men “should not deal carnally” with each other “because it was an abomination” that would be met with the same fate as the men of Sodom.[4]Tragically, in the absence of God’s punishments, the men of the Inquisition seemed to be determined to enact this fiery fate themselves. It was as “sodomites” that gay Chinese couples were rounded up by Jesuit priests in the Philippines in 1588 and put to death for practicing marriage among gay men. These executions, to the Chinese, were an attack on the traditional family. The inhabitants of the Fujian Province area in China who made up the primary Chinese population in the Philippines at the time had long practiced gay marriage, and gay couples would often together raise children of their own.[5] During his 1581 visit to Rome, Montaigne noted that a few years previously several marriages had been celebrated between men in the church of St. John and that the couples “went to bed and lived together” for quite a while before being burned at the stake.[6] Jesuit fathers leading missions in China and Japan repeatedly condemned those kingdoms for their open acceptance of the “sin of Sodom,” and men were burned as “sodomizers” throughout Christendom.[7]
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And so with that same fate of the vivid fire painted on the pages of my friend’s book, the lives of countless gay men were brought, burning, to a brutal end, and as Lot’s wife was turned to salt when she looked back to mourn Sodom’s fate, so the sympathizers of “sodomizers” were equally condemned.[8]
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The sin of Sodom also began to be used as an explanation for the downfall of past empires.  The fires of Pompeii were said to be a punishment for rampant homosexuality, and Rome itself was said to have fallen because of its lax moral attitudes and open acceptance of gay relationships. This same argument was echoed by George Q. Cannon in his 1897 conference address when he said that the “crime” of sodomy “was practiced by the nations of old, and caused God to command their destruction and extirpation.” This argument has continually been mentioned by LDS church leaders in the last century, and survives to this day. In fact, an article was just published on October 15, 2012 in the USU Statesman in which the author once again repeated the age-old and still-ridiculous claim that the Roman Empire fell because of its open acceptance of homosexual relationships.
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In reality, the last few centuries of the Roman Empire experienced a dramatic decline in the publication of gay literature, the popularity of gay relationships, and witnessed the Empire’s first laws passed against gay relationships.[9] If correlation equates with the will of God, then it could be much more persuasively argued that the rampant praise of gay relationships in the first two centuries of the empire’s founding and the repeated occurrence of gay marriages[10] caused God to give a long life to the empire until the Romans angered God by removing legal sanction from the intimate relationship of those of the same gender.
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Clearly Sodom’s sin provides no explanatory power at all to the rise and fall of nations.
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As we know, the Inquisition period did not end the dealing of death to gay men and women. It is often forgotten that the tradition of a common fate between gay men and Jews was continued into the twentieth century as over 100,000 homosexuals were imprisoned alongside the countless Jews that met their end in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany.
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A history such as this leaves one pondering the true nature of sin and exploring what it truly means to be good. It seems quite apparent to the modern reader that the fiery inferno imposed upon “sodomites” in the past millennium is by far the greater sin. This brings us to the ultimate question we must ask of the story of Lot’s family and their encounter with angels, fire, and pillars of salt.
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What, exactly, was Sodom’s sin?
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The reason that Sodom has so long been associated with homosexuality is because after the angels came to Lot and his family, the men of Sodom demanded the strangers to be brought out “that they might know them.” Of the 943 times that this Hebrew verb for “to know” is used in the Old Testament, only 10 of them are used as a euphemism for physical intimacy.[11] None of them refer to homosexual acts. Overwhelming evidence points that the story of Sodom is not referring to sexuality at all.
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There are numerous references to Sodom and its fate later in both the Old and New Testaments, and not a single of them mentions anything to do with homosexuality. In fact, only one mentions anything to do with sexuality at all. Jude teaches that the men of Sodom went “after strange flesh.” The term “strange flesh,” however, was most often used to refer to prostitutes and was never used to describe homosexual relationships. The Greek term that would have referred to homosexuality would have been “alien flesh.”[12] That Sodom becomes a symbol for abhorrent wickedness is clear,[13] but both later scriptures and centuries of interpretation preceding the Inquisition point to an alternative definition of Sodom’s sin, and thus a different definition of what it is to be wicked.
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Christ connected the sin of Sodom with the sin of inhospitality when he taught that “whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet. Verily I say unto you, it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city.”[14] In the book of Ezekiel the sins of Sodom are listed when God announces that “Behold, this was the iniquity of… Sodom, pride, fullness of bread… neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and the needy.”[15] This proclamation supposedly by God himself concerning the sins of Sodom written by the hand of an ancient author much more intimately acquainted with the story than any of us today mentions nothing of homosexuality, but rather lists sins whose most distinguished attribute seems to be the failure to love.
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Centuries of rabbinical tradition and Christian interpretation preceding the Inquisition labeled the sin of Sodom as its inhospitality to strangers, its pride, and ignoring the hungry and the needy.[16]
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The wickedness of Sodom was its lack of love, not love between people of the same gender. And so it is with irony that history’s true sodomites were not the men who married each other in Rome in the 1580s, and nor were they the gay Chinese men of the Philippines, but rather their persecutors. The true “sodomizers” were those who met difference with inhospitality.
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When I think of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, I feel like Lot’s wife turning back to gaze upon the burning city. I look back on a history of fire. I remember who the inhabitants of Sodom really are and the tragedy that occurs when people misinterpret goodness. The image that burns vividly in my mind is that of flames falling not from heaven, but from the hand of man out upon his fellow man, tormenting countless thousands and unjustly ending their lives because of the way they expressed their love. I remember that there is a “trap of tolerance”[17] and that we fall for it every time we tolerate hatred and bigotry. We fall for it when we tolerate definitions of goodness that result in realities of torment instead of exploring if our definitions of right “really [are] goodness.” We fall for it when we forget the history of fire.
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[1] See October 1897 General Conference, pg 66
[2] See John Boswell, “Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality,” ch 4
[3] Ibid.
[4] See Jonathan Spence, “The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci,” ch 7
[5] See Albert Chan, “Chinese-Philippine Relations in the Late Sixteenth Century to 1603,” pg 71
[6] See Montaigne, “Journal de Voyage,” p. 231 and 481
[7] Spence, “The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci,” ch 7
[8] Ibid.
[9] Boswell, “Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality,” ch 3
[10] Ibid.
[11] Boswell, “Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality,” ch 4
[12] Ibid.
[13] E.g., Deut. 29:23, 32:32; Isaiah 3:9, 13:19; Jeremiah 23:14, 49:18, 50:40; Lamentations 4:6; Ezekiel 16: 46-48; Amos 4:11; Zeph. 2:9; Matt. 10:15; Luke 17:29; Roman 9:29; 2 Pet. 2:6; Jude 7. With all of these references to the wickedness of Sodom, it would make sense for at least one of them to mention homosexuality as the root of its wickedness if that were indeed the case. In fact, none of them do.
[14] Matt. 10:14-15, see Boswell, “Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality,” ch 4
[15] Ezekiel 16: 48-49
[16] See Boswell, “Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality,” ch 4 for more information and for analysis of other Biblical teachings on the morality of gay relationships
[17] See Boyd K. Packer’s most recent conference address

 

 

2 comments for “A History of Fire: The Sin of Sodom and an Exploration of Goodness

  1. Jay
    August 10, 2013 at 6:06 am

    Finally, historical context for historical stories. As someone who has translated for general authorities from English to Mandarin Chinese, I know firsthand the dangers of translation. My first question to the general authority who was about to speak was this: ” I can literally translate what you say word for word, or I can translate what your words mean instead. It’s your choice.” Our most famous religious texts are all multiple translations of the original text, and so eliminate context and meaning with each translator’s ability and style of translation. Care should be taken with any text so translated that today’s context should never be applied. Excellent article.

  2. Rea
    August 15, 2013 at 1:29 am

    This is so beautifully written. I often wonder why things are so backwards in this world… In religion. The scriptures are probably not mistranslated where they convey the simple message, “Judge not.” And yet judgment, wearing many “righteous” disguises, is the foundation upon which most religions are built. It is good to question, and as you have well-stated, to question cultural definitions of right and wrong. We are each accountable for this, even those who want all the answers fed to them by someone else. Thanks for this post.

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