Righting America

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The True Story of Sodom | Righting America

by Rodney Kennedy

Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. The pastor of 7 Southern Baptist churches over the course of 20 years, he pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years. He is currently professor of homiletics at Palmer Theological Seminary, and interim pastor of Emmanuel Friedens Federated Church, Schenectady, NY. His sixth book – The Immaculate Mistake: How Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump – is forthcoming in the next few months from Wipf and Stock (Cascades).

A city burning with black smoke and red flames rising from the buildings as angels lead Lot and his wife away from the city.
“Sodom and Gomorrah Afire” by Jacob de Wet II, 1680, via Wikimedia Commons.

In The Political Mind George Lakoff asks a disturbing question: “Why are conservatives so much better at getting their ideas across?” (5). 

I believe one answer is that liberals are reluctant to engage in the kind of metaphorical warfare required to refute conservative talking points. 

But as a unabashed warrior in the cultural disaster that is contemporary America, as a believer in Nietzsche’s insistence that it is always about a “war of metaphors,” I believe we should tell our story more forcefully, more passionately, and more violently. With Flannery O’Connor I insist that we must shout to the hard-of-hearing and exaggerate for the unbelievers. I take this as license to dispute the arguments that the conservatives keep peddling with triple layers of certainty, piling on the toppings as if they were serving a banana split rather than reading the Bible. 

As a case in point, nothing infuriates me more than the constant ranting of fundamentalist preachers going on and on till doomsday about the stories of Genesis. Take your pick from an entire array of bad readings and worse interpretations. Whether it is a literal creation, an actual flood, or the incredulous claims about how many people God slaughtered here and there, there is no end to the charade. 

For example, if one more preacher or creationist theme park mogul tells me that Sodom was a city of homosexuals in rebellion against God – and hence its destruction – I will throw up. To be more specific, when conservative Christians ignore Canaanite and Israelite customs for a peculiar Western reading of the story as a condemnation of homosexuality, they have – for all their alleged commitment to inerrancy – violated both the biblical text and biblical tradition. 

So it is that I offer an alternative reading of Genesis 19.

It is indeed true that when Israelites talked about depravity, “Sodom” was their “go to” example. But as Gerhard Van Rad points out in Genesis: The Old Testament Library (217-28): 

  • for Isaiah the sin of Sodom was the barbarity of their administration of justice (Isaiah 1:10, 3:9). 
  • for Jeremiah, Sodom’s sins include adultery, lying, and an unwillingness to repent (Jeremiah 23:14).
  • for Ezekiel, “this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49).

In all of this there is no reference to homosexuality.

Instead, the story of Sodom may best be defined as a reliance on victimized, toxic masculinity (See “The Art of Masculine Victimhood: Donald Trump’s Demagoguery” by Paul Elliott Johnson, Women’s Studies in Communication, 2017). The men of Sodom believe Lot and his male guests are a threat to their personhood and existence. Men, men, manly men – that’s the story. 

And the daughters of Lot are mere pawns in this display of toxic masculinity. They are objects to be used, lacking power, will, or choice. They might as well have been sticks of furniture. There are no more frightening words for women than Lot’s offer to the mob of Sodom males: “Do to them as you please.” This has been the history of women. 

The Genesis 19 story revolves around the hyper-heterosexual insistence that Lot turn over his guests so that they can be violated sexually. This act of rape doesn’t involve sexual pleasure; instead, the rape would be proof of the male superiority of the men of Sodom. 

Deborah Tannen says that men view the world as being individuals in hierarchal social order in which he is either one up or one down” (Tannen, You Just Don’t Understand, 24). She adds: “Life, then, is a contest, a struggle to preserve independence and avoid failure.” The proposed action of the men of Sodom would have given a gross visual representation of one up and one down. The men of Sodom have a hard on for the abuse of power. There are no homosexual acts in the story. In fact, Lot attempts to ward off the crazed crowd by offering his daughters to them. Here the sexuality is suggestive. Lot tells the toxic heterosexuals at his door: “Do to them as you please.” And that would have been rape. 

And there’s more to this story. The reality is that Lot had never been accepted in Sodom. Even though he has married a woman of Sodom, is a property owner, and a man of the city, he is still an outsider, a stranger. Again, the story is not about sexuality, but about masculine, nativist, racial issues of status and place and power. 

The men of Sodom call Lot “this fellow.” He remains an outsider despite all his attempts at assimilation. He has been cast as an enemy, and toxic masculinity thrives on the creation of enemies and their destruction. Toxic masculinity is the real culprit in the story of Sodom. The Sodomites are a bunch of greedy, testosterone-fueled toxic males. Anger and the desire for dominance are the driving factors here. 

But generations of evangelical preachers who drank from this same well of toxic masculinity have gone to great lengths to scapegoat Sodom as a den of homosexuals. Blame it on the Queers, even when there are no Queers in the story. 

Sodom continues to be replayed in our own culture. There is a toxic, paradoxically masculine style, whose incoherence is opaque to critics but meaningful to its adherents, as it helps white males – against all evidence to the contrary – to imagine themselves as persecuted, to imagine that they have been displaced from the political center by a bunch of feminist killjoys, angry blacks, and immoral gays. White males now imagine themselves as persecuted even though they are the ones pressing hard against the doors of democracy and are coming “near the door to break it down.” It is an amazing magical trick of smoke and mirrors, but its horrifying power was demonstrated in Washington, D.C. on January 6. And of course, this act of sedition has now been recast, in the conservative magical hat, as a benign tour of the capital.

The argument that white males have been marginalized in America is simply absurd. That said, a host of white males are projecting themselves as victims, and this facilitates demagoguery, a demagoguery that finds its parallel in Sodom. As Patricia Roberts-Miller has argued, Sodom was a case of “polarizing propaganda that motivated members of an ingroup (a rabid mob) to hate and scapegoat an outgroup, largely by promising to save the city from those foreign elements” (“Democracy, Demagoguery, and Critical Rhetoric,” Rhetoric and Public Affairs, 8 (2005), 462).

At the end of this very strange story, the last remaining person of Sodom heritage, Lot’s wife, is turned to a pillar of salt because she looked back at her burning home. Victimize the innocent. Make it criminal. And then pretend that the toxic male is actually the one whose existence is precarious. The well-off, privileged, and powerful white men are allowed to put on the robes of victimhood at the expense of the gays who occupy more objectively fraught positions.

And that is the true story of Sodom. Cue Ezekiel for the postlude: “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”