For nearly a half-century, Sodom has been a key symbol in the American culture wars. On the one side, we have an aggressive movement among homosexuals that has first decriminalized homosexual conduct, then to force cultural and legal recognition of homosexuals as a minority and to normalize homosexual behaviors, finally to change the laws of marriage so that same sex relationships have the same legal status as traditional marriage. On the other side of the barricade are others, mainly Christians, who insist that homosexual acts are sinful, contrary to God’s law. In the eyes of many Christians, the US has become an American Sodom. It’s only a matter of time before the fire falls from heaven and turns the fruited plain into a salt waste.
It’s plenty obvious, but in the current climate, it needs to be repeated, and often: Scripture and Christian tradition declare that homosexual acts are sinful. Sodomy was not tolerated in Israel (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13), and, several decade of exegetical ingenuity notwithstanding, it’s plenty obvious that the New Testament doesn’t soften that stance. Paul sees rampant homosexual desire as a sign of cultural decay. When people give themselves to idolatry, the Lord gives them over to sexual perversion, including homosexual perversions; when people throw themselves into perverse sexuality, then the Lord gives them over to cultural, social, and political disarray (Romans 1:18-32). Elsewhere, Paul says that “fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, effeminate, homosexuals, thieves, covetous, drunkards, revilers, swindlers will not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9; NASB translation).
Somewhere in the no man’s land between the barricades of the culture wars are leftwing evangelicals who employ the symbol “Sodom,” but to very different effect. They point to Ezekiel 16. The text is replete with graphic and grotesque sexual imagery, but the actual sins being targeted liturgical, social, and economic. Sodom is invoked not as a hothouse of sexual perversion but as a city without justice and compassion: “Look, this was the iniquity of your sister Sodom: She and her daughter had pride, fullness of food, and abundance of idleness; neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy. And they were haughty and committed abomination before Me; therefore I took them away as I saw fit” (Ezekiel 16:49-50). “God destroyed Sodom . . . because the city stubbornly refused to share with the poor,” Ron Sider wrote in a 1980 Christian Century piece. In his 2006 Living God’s Politics, Jim Wallis quotes the same text and then cites Tony Campolo’s claim that, biblically speaking, “sodomy includes pride, luxury, and the failure to hear the cry of the needy.”
Some leftwing evangelicals have cozied up to the gay rights agenda. Still, these writers have a point, and Ezekiel is not the only prophet to invoke Sodom as a symbol of injustice. In Isaiah 1, the prophet denounces Judah as a Hebrew Sodom, an Israelite Gomorrah. Throughout the passage there is not a single reference to sexual deviance. Judah has become a Sodom by tolerating and indulging in very different sins. Judah has become a Sodom by failing to seek justice, by failing to reprove ruthless oppressors, by failing to stand up on behalf of the widow and the orphan (vv. 16-17). In verse 23, Isaiah condemns the rulers as rebels and companions of thieves because they use their public office to enrich themselves with bribes instead of to do justice and deliver the oppressed. Judah is a Sodom because the hands she stretches out in prayer are full of blood (1:15).
This aspect of Sodom’s sin is implicit in Genesis 19. While Lot shows the visiting angels hospitality, the men of Sodom want to “welcome” the men by raping them. They want to humble the visitors and aggressive seek to disgrace them, a common way to abuse prisoners, strangers, slaves, lower classes in the ancient world. In many cases, sodomy was not about pleasure but about humiliation, about beating down the stranger, the weak, the orphan. This doesn’t mean, however, that the sexual dimension is absent from the story. As Robert Gagnon has argued in his careful reading of the story, “A strict either/or interpretation, either homosexual/bisexual lust or an aggressive disgrace of visitors, goes beyond the wording of the text and imposes a distinction that did not always hold true in the ancient world.” Rather, the “stress is entirely on the mob’s horrible plans for mistreating the seemingly helpless visitors – not just that they wanted to mistreat them but the way in which they chose to mistreat them.”
The prophetic oracles against Sodom-Israel highlight an important dimension of the biblical portrait of rule. On the one hand, the law requires that judges judge impartially. “You shall do no injustice in judgment. You shall not be partial to the poor, nor honor the person of the mighty. In righteousness you shall judge your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:15). They are not to give favor to the rich because they are rich, or to the poor because they are poor. At the same time, numerous passages instruct kings and other rulers to stand up for the poor, rescue the widow, defend the orphan and the stranger. The ideal king of Psalm 72 “will bring justice to the poor of the people; He will save the children of the needy, and will break in pieces the oppressor.” Psalm 82 condemns the “gods” of Israel because they fail to “defend the poor and fatherless” to “do justice to the afflicted and needy” and to “deliver the poor and the needy from the hand of the wicked.” In Isaiah’s Advent prophecies, the ideal King is going to come to judge the poor with righteousness and decide with fairness for the afflicted of the earth (9:7; 11:4).
The presumption of the biblical writers seems to be that the wealthy have many ways to get a fair hearing. They get the best lawyers; they are prominent and can intimidate judges and manipulate the media; when necessary, they’ve got an arsenal of sticks and carrots to bribe and threaten. (Can you say O.J.?) By contrast, the poor, the un-connected have no way to get justice unless the judge is truly impartial, truly just.
Sexual sanity is an essential part of the health of any society, and rightwing culture warriors have been entirely correct to put their energies into promoting sexual virtue. But a biblically informed public philosophy should emphasize with equal vigor that fair treatment of the poor and weak is in Scripture the sign of a truly just system. Of course, advocates for the poor have to press for structures and policies that actually benefit the poor, rather than locking them into a system where they are constantly losing ground. My point is not so much about policy as about the emphasis of political rhetoric. Even if the gay rights movement had never appeared, we’d still have to be warned and warned again not to become an American Sodom.
Peter J. Leithart is President of the Theopolis Institute.