Disclaimer: This blog post will be different from what most readers are used to. I have to take you back to Sunday School for ten minutes. Whether you and I believe the stories below is irrelevant. In view of the rising Christianophobia that’s gaining traction on the internet, the rape of the Northern Cape schoolboy will add fuel to the fire and I would bet good money that some people want that fire to burn out of control.
Imagine the confusion amongst Christians (whom many of us are trying to teach to affirm sexual diversity) when well-intentioned writers like Brad Cibane reinforce the traditional understanding of sodomy as consensual male anal sex, while those of us working towards reconciling the Christian and the LGBTI communities explain the biblical story as detailing an attempted male rape, and therefore, sodomy as male rape.
Because as long as Christians believe that the sin of Sodom was Sodomy as “consensual male sex”, then they will also believe that their God was destroying the cities for having gay sex. This will inflict irreparable harm on the gay liberation movement. Whether its champions like it or not, a great number of the people they are speaking to are Christian, and in spite of overwhelming evidence suggesting otherwise, some Christians have read the bible.
That these writers and activists have a different worldview does not give them license to bludgeon their readers with those worldviews as though having decided upfront that the one is “more accurate” than the other. But that’s not the issue at stake. I don’t have to be a/theist to agree with many a/theists’ basic understanding of justice. But if someone with a different worldview makes his case for his preferred path towards justice by trashing my worldview instead of taking the time to find out what we have in common, he doesn’t get me closer to agreeing with him. He might be impressed with his own syllogisms and what he understands to be the superiority and clarity of his own mind, but he’s alienating me by dismissing the lens through which I interpret reality. It’s very counter-productive. South African audiences comprise not only of “enlightened atheists” and “brights”, but also of people from at least one Abrahamic tradition – be it Islam, Judaism or Christianity. Convincing them to read their holy books differently is tough enough. Convincing them to throw those books out would be nigh impossible.
Much ink has been spilled about City Press’ choice of words in the initial headline about the schoolboy who was raped by his classmates. I believers they initially used the word “sodomize”. Many have correctly pointed out that in South Africa’s legal history, the word “sodomy” referred to prohibited consensual anal sex between two males. They pointed out that the headline, though possibly an innocent mistake, may have also indicated society’s deep discomfort with what is still considered taboo. “The word ‘sodomy’ betrays the entrenched homophobia in South Africa. Sodomy—or male anal penetration—was a common law crime until it was declared unconstitutional in 1998. Today, the word ‘sodomise’ is derogatory; it refers to consensual male sex,” wrote Brad Cibane.
This is where things fall apart. There hasn’t been an unbroken transmission of meaning for the word “sodomy” through history. So whose definition of the word is correct, if each definition is based on slippery matrices of prior opposite (sometimes incorrect) definitions? This isn’t about semantics: it’s about forecasting the Zeitgeist that’s being birthed before us.
Through their many travels from Europe to Africa, laws against Sodomy have presupposed that the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah tells of an invitation to consensual male anal sex by the inhabitants of a city that had gay orgies night after night. But the story is about a man whose uncle had a feud with the king of the city (Genesis 14) he lived in. His name was Lot; his uncle was Abra(ha)m, and the city was Sodom. One evening, Lot took it upon himself to shelter two traveling strangers. It was Bedouin custom to extend hospitality in this manner.
Feeling that this man was testing the tolerance of the city-dwellers, the men of Sodom gathered around his house and demanded that he bring out his guests so that they could “know them” or, denuded of biblical euphemisms, “fuck them up”. Panicked, Lot offered his virgin daughters instead but this gesture only made the hostile mob even more aggressive. He didn’t realize it, but his repulsion at the crime they wanted to perpetrate played right into their plot to get him to say something bossy, something that made it sound like he thought he was in charge of them and could tell them what to do or not do. They’d been looking for an opportunity for payback, and in a five-minute kangaroo court at his doorstep, they’d accused him of “coming here as a foreigner, and now he wants to play the prince!” Their sentence? “We will do worse with you than with them!”
Then as though things were not chaotic enough, all hell broke loose. Or was it heaven? Something like history’s first stun grenade was detonated: a blinding and disorienting light paralyzed the mob. It turned out the two strangers were angels who’d infiltrated Sodom to investigate a report or an “outcry” that had “risen to heaven” against the city. As numerous Jewish commentaries and biblical passages (Ezekiel 16:49) reveal, the Sodomites were greedy and indifferent to the plight of the poor and oppressed. They were territorial and violent. They committed war crimes and were given to robbing and raping passers-by for sport. Lot’s uncle had barely got his people and relatives out of Sodom alive during the war that had led to the feud.
One legend says a little girl offered a piece of bread to an outcast, for which the people of Sodom tortured and executed her. She cried aloud and it was that particular cry that made God say, “Okay, now, this is ridiculous” and start planning for the overthrowing of the Jordanian plain and all the cities that had been infected with its violence. By the time the angels entered Sodom that evening, God had already revealed his decision to incinerate the city (Gen 18:17). The angels only went in to run a final “trial” on its inhabitants, the dismal result of which was Sodom’s third strike. The city was doomed.
The same angels were sent also to find righteous people they could rescue or on whose behalf the city could be spared. But overall, they were sent to condemn a city-state whose wanton crimes against humanity had moved even God to intervene in a cataclysmic display of Old Testament justice that stood as a monumental warning to civilizations for centuries to come.
In its original context, then, the word “sodomy” never was about consensual same-sex couplings. It was about an instance of attempted male rape by the inhabitants of a city called Sodom. Commentators, preachers, translators, theologians, bible scholars, historians and in turn, law-makers down the millennia have gotten this wrong, sticking whatever definitions suited the prejudices of their day on the word. Sodomy has been redefined and mistaken for oral sex, mastubation, Onanism (named after a kinky bastard in Genesis who wanted to do his brother’s widow as custom allowed, but didn’t want to impregnate her as the same custom required) and a whole host of really repressed meanings by people with more hang-ups and neuroses than we can keep track of.
Cibane goes on to report that “the word (‘sodomy’) maligns an acceptable, legally-protected sexual practice, thus marginalising a minority group. Sodomy—which is reference to ‘unnatural sexual relations’, such as those imputed to the inhabitants of Biblical Sodom—reinforced biblical stereotypes about same-sex relationships”.
But nowhere does the bible impute “unnatural sexual relations” to the people of Sodom, though in other discourses the bible speaks of “unnatural sexual relations” among – guess who? – the Greeks. But that’s in one of Paul’s rhetorical diatribes about the redundancy of the Mosaic Law. His sermon is written, in part, to unify the non-Jewish Greco-Roman believers with Jewish-Christian converts on the fundamentals of the Christian faith, fundamentals which needed clarification in what was otherwise a cultural (and sexual) melting pot. Whether those passages were meant to be taken at face-value or not is left, quite deliberately, open to interpretation. The reader is warned to tread carefully (Romans 2:1). Other biblical passages cancel others out by a change of well-marked ages (“aeons” or “eons”) and changes in the Law (Hebrews 7:2).
The closest the bible comes to imputing “unnatural sexual relations” to the people of Sodom is in the Epistle of Jude where it speaks about how the people of Sodom went after “sarkos heteras”, or “strange”, “other flesh”. This could easily be a reference to how they attempted to rape the two strangers, who weren’t human. It could just as easily be a reference to Sodom’s cultic rites. Sleeping with representatives of “other” deities is a practice as old as the hills in henotheistic and polytheistic worlds.
To read the bible as suggesting that the people of Sodom were judged for homosexual relations, one has to first find an example of a consensual homosexual relation in Sodom for which they could be judged. The bible as such gives no such example. Law-makers have been reading it into Genesis 19 to feed their own heteropatriarchal fears and prejudices. Today’s Christianophobes join their ranks.
The danger with believing that there are “biblical stereotypes about same-sex relationships” is that people will think that the bible has a single narrative on same-sex relations when there’s a wealth of evidence to the contrary. The bible has a messy, nuanced and highly contextual body of teachings and stories about sex and sexuality. That’s why there’s a shift in contemporary Christianity towards the recognition and celebration of same-sex love relationships.
One of the outcomes of that shift is that the word “sodomy” will be restored to its biblical meaning of “male anal rape”. Leviticus 18 will be read together with Leviticus 15 and Romans 3, and many other things will fall into place. Religion will be disarmed. I’m glad that cultural Christianity is in decline, but I’d prefer for worldviews to die natural deaths. We cannot afford for people to affirm the traditional legal understanding of sodomy.
But if the one-story view of Christianity prevails, it’s going to be lumped together with how there’s a monolithic Christianity that is conservative, homophobic and a menace to twenty-first century progress. That is not a natural death: it’s death by slander.
I submit that because it will keep their lives and research simple, some writers and intellectuals want exactly the negative perception to win out. It’s convenient. It’s expedient. It suits the story they want to tell about civilization today. I don’t think Brad Cibane is one of those writers but he has unwittingly handed them ammunition.
If this Christianophobic view does win out, though, then the thing that would have failed to survive into the twenty-first century wouldn’t just have been Christianity. It would have been the search for objective truth, of which many of these writers say they are champions.
Not only is this a tad hypocritical, I find it saddening.
Brad Cibane’s piece
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