Statehouse Sodomites, and Other Challenges Around “Religious Freedoms”
I rarely find it difficult to teach about Sodomy. Recent events here in Indiana have, unfortunately, made this biblical story even more relevant.
Over a week ago, Governor Mike Pence signed the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” flanked by a number of conservatively religious lobbyists. When I was asked to comment on such “right to refuse” legislation (here, here, and here), it was fairly easy to point out that such legislation contradicts not only Indiana’s (semi-)famous “Hoosier hospitality,” but also the prominent biblical ethic of hospitality.
Such an ethic, or at least the problems with not keeping it are on display in the story of Sodom (Genesis 19:1-29; though for further context one should really consult 18:1 all the way through 19:38). Contrary to popular belief, the story of Sodom is not focused upon same-sex eroticism, or on homosexuals as a group, or even “gay sex.” Rather, the men of Sodom are foils to Lot because their attempt to assault Lot’s guests is the opposite of the hospitality to the traveler and the stranger encouraged by biblical texts (and many ancient cultures). Indeed, in both the Jewish and Christian versions of the Bible, protection of, solidarity with, and hospitality for the stranger, the foreigner, the outcast, and the marginalized are stressed. For Christians specifically, Jesus is often depicted in gospel traditions as eating with such marginalized people. But for both Jews and Christians, the Hebrew Bible refers to this code of hospitality and the problems of injustice in instances like Sodom. “Sodom,” in fact, is repeatedly invoked as a kind of short-hand for selfishness, corruption, greed – an unwillingness to help the vulnerable and oppressed – and the divine judgment that would follow such practices (see Isaiah 1:10-17; or Ezekiel 16:46-50).
Such a textual tradition suggests that those who would advocate for a law that would allow people to refuse to serve those they believe to be different are engaging in what the Bible defines as the sin of Sodom. In short, they are “Statehouse Sodomites.”
This is an easy enough point to make. For a biblical scholar, it is low hanging fruit (no pun intended). And it has the added virtue of frustrating and complicating the way religion and sexuality, or terms like “Christian” and “gay,” are still so often treated as dichotomous, opposite, even polarized categories in the United States. One positive outcome from the outrage surrounding this bill demonstrates that there are just as many religious people, organizations, and principles that would oppose such actions, as those that would support them. The Disciples of Christ, based here in Indianapolis, have been particularly outspoken, but so has the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis. Freedom Indiana, one of the most active groups to oppose this legislation and previous attempts to ban same-sex marriage in Indiana, has especially stressed its partnerships with religious groups. The terms of reporting have changed locally. The truth is that the relationship, or the intersections and overlaps even, between religious groups and LGBT groups has always been more complicated than most are willing to admit. Indeed, recent scholarly work by Heather White and Anthony Petro are just two great places to start with such complications.
While we are being honest about complications, it is crucial to recognize that biblical traditions and the settings in which we might still deploy them (like these) are far more fraught and conflicted than a simple, if punchy analogy can indicate. There are just as many biblical texts that call for exclusion, judgment, and violence as those that seek justice, hospitality, and solidarity. On its own, then, it is not at all clear what one should do with this collection of texts, with such a mixed heritage. And for those Christians who would insist “that’s not us, that’s not my Bible”: yes. Yes, it is. (Some Christians still insist that the “Old Testament” presents a judgmental God, who only later becomes a God of love; yet, pound for pound, the New Testament more than holds its own in terms of violence, judgment, and exclusion.) In this context the text cannot be the ultimate authority, and users of it must move away from treating it like a monolithic and absolute source that it is not. Rather, we have to be honest about how the process of encounter, of interpretation, can itself become a resource, but not a source, for reflection and action. In such a process, the responsibility for what one does with these texts and traditions ultimately rests with us. Yes, us.
While it is indeed heartening to see how many Hoosiers have voiced outrage or concern about this kind of legislation over the last couple of weeks, this also means that we have to refute a similar claim that this is “not us,” this isn’t “the Hoosier way,” or doesn’t reflect “the values of Indiana.” Not us? Yes, us. Purely in terms of electoral politics, most of the officials who passed this legislation are known entities; Mr. Pence has historically been quite clear about what he thinks counts as a “religious” view, and what his views are of sexual minorities. To my knowledge, his election as governor and regular re-election to Congress before that were neither particularly close nor unexpected. Before this recent controversy relatively few people had shown concern that there were no statewide protections for discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. The so-called “fix” of this bill still doesn’t really address that. It remains to be seen if people will move on to other matters now that the concerns of at least large corporate constituencies (those who flanked the governor for the second bill signing in as many weeks) have been addressed. Notice who is and isn’t in the picture, whose freedoms are protected.
To be fair, it is not surprising that a more capacious, vigilant, and vigorous movement of reflection and action has not emerged in Indiana, because one would be hard pressed to find it, even in the big-name LGBT rights groups (or in those coastal regions presently enjoying some ill-founded confirmation of their regional and class biases). For too long such groups have steered a once rambunctious set of grassroots liberation movements into a politics of respectability, focusing on access to the three M’s: marriage, military, and money. Freedom Indiana, for one, grows out of such a politic. But freedom for whom and for what? (For related reflections on the politics of marriage and its very loose relation to “biblical” marriage, see this previous post.) The most frequently cited problem in the case of this current legislation is the potential for a baker to refuse to make a wedding cake. Is this what queer politics has been reduced to? (And can we stop it with the “lunch counter” analogies for now? Is it any wonder when black queers and allies are silent or side-eying when such “like race” arguments are trotted out, as if the civil rights movement is already concluded?)
Do such groups represent those who are stigmatized, marginalized, or oppressed on the basis of sexuality or gender nonconformity? If so, where were Hoosiers, Christians, and queers (three intertwined, not easily separable groups, mind you) when Ashley Sherman was killed last year, just weeks after the right to same-sex marriage was upheld by the US Supreme Court? How does marriage, or the right to kill for one’s country, or inherit like the 1% stem the tide of trans women of color targeted for harassment and violence, or shelter and serve the thousands of homeless (so many of whom are also LGBT)? One recent rallying cry is that “we,” primarily in the form of this or that business, serve everyone. In our focus on only certain kinds of service, or a constrained set of rights, have we obscured those who could most benefit from a more radical (dare I say biblical?) mode of hospitality? Not us? Yes, us. We might just be the Sodomites, and not for the sex we are (or just as frequently aren’t) having.
If you find yourself nodding along to everything so far, we would do well to pause before imagining that we can easily inhabit the role of (divine) judgment against “them,” other people, those who are inhospitable. After all, it is important to remember that the deity depicted in the Sodom story destroys everyone and everything in Sodom and Gomorrah for the (attempted) assaulting actions of the men of Sodom. Overkill, yes. But, wait, why then are the women and girls of Sodom, or even the city of Gomorrah (and everything in between) destroyed? Some of the more careful interpreters of this text have described their fate as one of “collateral damage” – an apt reminder not only of the mixture of hospitality and violence (a kind of “justice” in the form of brutal judgment) to be found in these texts, but also of the need to think laterally, reflect and act on the basis of wider horizons and intersections. To live into some of the better traditions of religiosity and/or queerness requires attention to as wide a range of inhospitable institutions and practices as possible.
In Indiana, for instance, this could indicate louder and more active resistance to the steady encroachments into women’s bodies (as the cases of Bei Bei Shuai and Purvi Patel reflect) or the massive divestment from education (and even school bus service). For our friends and allies elsewhere, this should show up in resistance to other cruel acts of inhospitality, like the addition of spikes outside buildings or on park benches, sprinklers on the grounds of cathedrals, or bans on even feeding the homeless. The disturbing lessons of our encounters with Sodom are everywhere, our histories and complicities with them should disrupt any easy analogies or identifications with an ancient text, but motivate us to reflect and act in intersectional, coalitional, and robustly queer directions. Yes, us.