One Sunday morning in 1958, I was sitting in the Seventh and James Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, listening to a sermon by a visiting preacher devoted to ideas about Christian approaches to “living the good life.” In the midst of his message the preacher allowed himself a tangential swing into the evils of homosexuality. He first made clear his belief in God’s repugnance towards such depraved behavior, and then with a sly and self-assured smile, he looked down from the pulpit and straight into my eyes (at least so it seemed to me at the time).
“I don’t know a quicker way to take yourself straight to hell and eternal damnation,” he intoned with a quickening tempo and slightly rising inflection in the pitch of his voice, and curiously with an enormous smile on his face. Unbelievably to me, his largely collegiate congregation responded, after a brief pause, with laughter, a deeply melodious and decidedly male affirmation of the pastor’s words. I was seated close enough to the front to see the sparkle in his eyes that conveyed the pleasure this man felt at the success of his skillful and, I must say, effective injection of humor into what was for at least some of us a rather somber reflection.
I had joined this church having heard that it had just opened its membership to people of all “races and colors,” a principle that I strongly supported.
Later that week, I skipped lunch with friends to speak with a church counselor about, as I suppose he would have called it, the “salvation of my eternal soul”. I told him that I wasn’t, actually, a homosexual, but that I had had some feelings in that direction, Furthermore, I told him that I had never felt the matter was a very serious one. I told him that I had engaged in sexual play with both men and women, nothing too serious, and that I planned eventually to settle down with a wife and family. Surely such sexual experimentation was not uncommon and not really harmful, certainly not enough to send someone ‘straight to hell’, as the Visiting Pastor had put it in his Sunday sermon.
“You have no idea of the danger you are in,” he instantly warned me, “you’re simply playing with fire.”
By the end of our two hour session, I was in tears. I felt foolish and repentant. I remember explaining by way of self defense that I read the Bible daily — every single day! — and that I had never seen anything at all on the subject of eternal damnation for homosexuality, certainly nothing that suggested that hell-fire was in the offing.
“Didn’t your mother or father ever talk to you about sex?”
“Yes, of course, Dad did. He told me that I should always respect women.”
“I will need to see you again next week. And perhaps weekly until we work this out. I will give you a biblical passage to read every week, each of which will clearly and definitively show you the evil inherent in the choice of engaging in homosexual behavior. For next week I ask you to read chapter 19 of Genesis about how God destroyed the City of Sodom. Now, just before you go, I would like you to repeat after me: “The wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.’ Romans 6:23.”
“But, I really don’t . . .”
He interrupted to repeat; “The wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. Romans 6:23.”
“The wages of sin is death.” I recited in a petulant tone, then turned to leave the church.
I never came back to see this man, partly from injured pride and partly from astonishment and repugnance at what I would read in Genesis 19, the passage that I was told would ‘clearly and definitively’ explain what I needed to know about homosexuality. I remember his two words “clearly and definitively” like it was yesterday. But back to my story about why I now believe that the preacher told me a falsehood. And that if he didn’t know it was a lie, he should have.
Here is the story from Genesis 19 set out as precisely and honestly as I know how to tell it, following very closely my reading of five or six separate translations. If you have any doubt whatever of my interpretation, please by all means, read it in the bible for yourself.
Before nightfall two angels came to visit the house of a man named Lot in the city of Sodom. This was around four thousand years ago. These two angels must have been very good looking, in fact so attractive that all the men of the city, both young and old, surrounded the house. They called out to Lot, saying, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Send them out to us so we can have sex with them!”
Wow, apparently in this strange city everyone was gay. The Bible is clear: all the men of the city. This must indeed be the first as well as the last time that such a thing ever happened. According to best population figures, before it was destroyed Sodom was home to around a thousand people, maybe more. Are you with me so far?
We have about five hundred gay men and boys (every male in the entire city except for Lot’s household) surrounding Lot’s house and demanding sex with these two unwilling strangers. In other words, what we have here is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a question of same-sex marriage or just simple loving gay relationships. It is rather a question of the proposed gang-rape of two men (angels) by about 500 lascivious men and boys from this remarkably and singularly wicked town.
Lot is clearly distressed by such a proposal, saying (verse 8)“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.”
Boy Howdy! Talk about clear and definitive! Lot would prefer that these 500 men and boys rape his two virgin daughters rather than allow his two visitors to be so mistreated. Do Christians really, for even one little minute, want to suggest that this story is a suitable guide to morality in the twenty first century. Would they, for example, suggest their daughters read it to think about how to conduct their sex lives?
Many Christians around the world still offer this story to gay men and women as a reason why they should oppose gay marriage and remain celibate throughout their lives. To be believed in this day and age, any such story should have at least the slightest modicum of relevance to the life of living people who identify as lgbtq+. This story has no such relevance. None! Not any! Nothing! Zilch! Nada! Not even one tiny little bit of relevance. To say that this story does relate to the life of gay people in the present day is to knowingly dissemble. And dissembling is a concept perilously close to lying or bearing false witness, which, by the way, is condemned fully and directly by the Christian scriptures in a way that homosexuality never was.
The nineteenth chapter of Genesis clearly and definitively outlaws the gang rape of angels. But, not to put too fine a point on it, the chapter does a lot more than that. It suggests that the pack rape of young women is somehow on a higher moral plain than the rape of male guests. If nothing else, it tells us that in those far off days, in those primitive desert tribal communities, morality bore almost no resemblance to what we (Christians and non-Christians alike) believe today. Yet many biblical literalists do believe this story is suitable for modern day instruction in morality.
Furthermore, we have another clear and definitive moral in this same passage which tells us that for the sin of nostalgia, namely for a brief backward glance at the home she was leaving, Lot’s wife was turned by God into a pillar of salt. She was struck dead, nothing left of her but a column of salt on a nasty plain of burning sulfur devoid of vegetation.
Verses 25/26: Thus he overthrew those cities [Sodom and Gomorrah] and the entire plain, destroying all those living in the cities — and also the vegetation in the land. But Lot’s wife looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.
And reader, I’m sorry to bear this sad news, but towards the end of the same Chapter 19, we learn that Lot himself (as if we hadn’t already suspected this) was a man of extremely dubious standards of morality, at least from the twenty-first century point of view. Hold your breath! Shortly after these events, Lot gets into it with his virgin daughters. Over the course of two succeeding nights, he makes both of them pregnant.
Of course, Moses (or whoever was the author of Genesis) believes that this was all the work of Lot’s daughters, who got their father drunk and performed the minor miracle of achieving their pregnancies without their father’s knowledge of the act. Verse 33: “He was not aware of it when she lay down or when she got up.” And also not in between, presumably, when she hit the jackpot.
Oh my! Try to tell that one to members of the #MeToo Generation.
Is there anyone left reading this essay who still believes Sodom’s Destruction has any credibility as a morality tale, i.e. as a biblical story which will help us know right from wrong? Think about it: Lot was saved from the fiery death that God rained down due to the Sodomites’ sexual immorality. Almost immediately Lot proceeds to commit dreadful sexual sins with his own daughters, each of which we are told in chapter 19 bore him sons. Well, that’s alright then.
We must remember that these three incestuous actors were the good guys of this strange 4,000 year old story. Even Lot’s wife was one of the bad guys who had to be killed for glancing back at the destruction. What can we really learn from this story? And precisely what light does it throw on the matter of homosexuality? Not very much at all! Dare I say it? Nothing at all.
I imagine that the several stories told in the nineteenth chapter of Genesis may have some allegorical or metaphorical truths hidden within them.
But whatever religious significance may abide in them for the three Abrahamic religions, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that the sin of the Sodomites was the “sin” of homosexuality.
To be brutally honest, I don’t for a moment believe the absurd assumption that all of the 500 or so men and boys in the city of Sodom were homosexual rapists.
In many parts of the Bible, Sodom is held up as a bad example of a community that came to no good end. The book of Ezekial says that the Sodomites “were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; and did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things.” The books of Jeremiah and Lamentations associate Sodom and Gomorrah with adultery and lies. In Matthew and Luke, Jesus’s words add strength to the notion that the sins of Sodom relate directly to the failure to provide hospitality to the weary traveler. (Remember the hostile reception those two angels got!)
In the end, one major reality gives the lie to fundamentalist accounts which single out Sodom as the Capital of All Queerdom, and that major factor is the sheer irrelevance of Genesis 19 to the loving relationships that are so much the central story of lesbian and gay lives in the modern world. And new understandings of gender which have brightened the lives of millions of lgbtq people also show up the haters and hatemongers that loom so large in the world of Evangelical Christianity.
Talk about “seeing through a glass darkly, and in part . . .”
Footnote on Seventh and James Baptist Church
Although my experience at this particular church 60 years ago may have soured me on the place, according to the testimony of a more recent member, (a man who apparently favors same-sex marriage) the church is now much more progressive, open to discussion with “lively debate, and serious engagement with scripture”. More power to ‘em!