Sometimes a group of people can become very dangerous.
Recently I’ve been reading Leon Kass’s 2003 book, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis. Kass was chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics during the Bush administration. The Beginning of Wisdom is a philosophical inquiry into the roots of human existence as explored in the first book of the Bible: politics, family, society, truth, manipulation, envy, sex, murder.
I was inspired to read it after reading a statement made by Erik Voegelin in his exploration into the dynamics of millenarian movements, New Science of Politics. Millenarianism is a heresy that has taken on numerous forms throughout history, but at its core is the belief that a select group of people has been given the assignment of transforming the existing world order. These people are working to initiate a revolution that will lead to a never-ending utopia. Examples of millenarian movements include the Nazis, Soviet Communists, modern-day Islamists, and some Charismatic sects. Voegelin considered it the world’s most dangerous heresy.
And he makes this fascinating statement about the millenarian worldview. These utopians (or “Gnostics,” as he calls them), have created their own dream world. And in this dream world, they have overturned the two most basic principles of human existence. The first is that everything that has a beginning will have an end. “To everything there is a season” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). And, second, the mystery of existence, why we exist and for what purpose, is impenetrable. “No one can know the work that God does from beginning to end” (v. 11).
Millenarianism, writes Voegelin, “not only ignores these principles but perverts them into their opposite” by assuming a society that will come into being but have no end. There is then no mystery to human existence, because the purpose of existence is to create this new society; to be heroes; to bring about, through catastrophe and bloodshed, the ultimate purpose towards which history is moving.
By creating a set of counter-principles to the principles of human existence, says Voegelin, utopians are able to exist in a world all their own. In my own experience, it has been a scary thing to see whole groups of people for whom death had no meaning.
And to read the Bible in light of this worldview is to empty its words of all substance. So I wanted to reclaim the Bible from those who had hollowed it out. And I knew there was deep wisdom to be found, especially in the Bible’s great “wisdom books”—Job, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, the Wisdom of Solomon, the book of Genesis; deep, elemental truths that if understood and adhered to could resist the rising tide of utopian thinking that seeks to pervert the Scriptures into their opposite. But I also knew that I needed people to teach me, because my own faith has been twisted seemingly beyond recall.
Which brings us to Sodom and Gomorrah.
It is one of the Bible’s most mysterious and moving passages. Three figures appear one day in the shade of Abraham’s tent. The leading figure explains that he is about to go and visit the cities of the plain, where Abraham’s nephew and his family dwell, because their injustice has ascended to heaven. Abraham pleads with the man not to destroy Sodom if he can find in it ten righteous people.
Two “angels” then go to Sodom at sunset. Lot receives them into his house, but when the men of the city seek to force down his door and rape them, the entire mob is stricken with a sudden blindness. Lot and his family flee as the city and its inhabitants are destroyed by fire from heaven. Lot’s wife turns to look upon the devastation, and is transformed into a pillar of salt.
Why did God annihilate the cities of the plain? Growing up in my (very) conservative church, we were taught that it was because they were full of homosexuals. Yet even a cursory reading of the Bible presents a more complicated picture. “Behold,” says the prophet, “this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom, pride, fullness of bread, and abundance of idleness was in her and in her daughters, neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and the needy” (Eze. 16:49).
Thus, as an alternative to the nakedly political reading offered by some fundamentalists, many liberals have seen the sin of Sodom as its lack of hospitality.
But the truth, as is often the case, is more complicated than that.
In order to understand why Sodom and Gomorrah (and Admah, Bela, and Zeboim) were destroyed in such a brutal manner, we have to go back one chapter, to Genesis 19. You see, the narrative is setting up an explicit parallel between the hospitality shown by Abraham to his three guests and the hostility encountered by the two men when they reach the gates of Sodom. We note at the outset that Lot’s offer of food and lodgings, while cordial, is much less effusive than that made by his uncle. Where Abraham brought them a “tender and good calf,” the “angels” in Sodom (they are called angels for the first time in this chapter, as though to suggest that they have made themselves more conspicuously angelic so that Lot would recognize them) have to be content with unleavened bread. And where Abraham was assisted by Sarah, Lot makes his preparations alone.
So, to a degree, the champions of hospitality have been right. In the ancient world the perimeters of a city were defined by their walled borders. Those walls defined not only who was in, but who was out. Up to this point, we don’t have any way of knowing whether the men of Sodom are hostile to strangers. But they are indifferent. Their self-absorption is already becoming evident. People are coming to stay in their city, and only one person can be troubled to show them kindness.
But wait. It gets worse. A lot worse.
But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house. And they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may know them.”
Lot went out to the men at the entrance, shut the door after him, and said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Behold, I have two daughters who have not known any man. Let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please. Only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.”
Indifference to strangers has become bestial aggression. What was at first merely hinted at—the love of the Sodomites for their own people, and their corresponding hatred of outsiders—is now made explicit. All the men of the city surround the house. Not one is absent. Not content to satisfy their carnal urges with one another, they seek to objectify, to destroy, the only two people in the city who don’t belong there.
It’s a bizarre form of sexual scapegoating. All their pent-up rage and lust, their narcissism and xenophobia, must now find an outlet in the form of these two men. Nor would a woman suffice them. They have utterly lost the capacity to be charmed by the opposite sex.
This is not a minor point. Where the depravity of Israel during the time of the Judges was characterized by its abuse of women (cf. Judges 19), the depravity of Sodom is characterized by its indifference. It has become a sterile town, so obsessed with itself that its love of like has taken on an explicitly sexual character. Women have been rendered of no account. They are non-persons. The men of this town care only for one thing, and that is each other. The natural order has been upended. “Here, in the city,” writes Kass, “whose characteristic sexual ‘error’ appears to be homosexuality, misogyny is taken to an extreme and women are treated with complete disdain. Devoted both to political unity and immediate self-satisfaction, and indifferent to their vulnerability and the need for replacement, the city dwellers have taken non-procreative sex to its logical and sterile conclusion: sodomy” (Kass, 330).
But they said, “Stand back!” And they said, “This fellow came to sojourn, and he has become the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.” Then they pressed hard against the man Lot, and drew near to break the door down. (Genesis 19:4-9)
Lot, a long-time resident and elder of the city, is about to become its next victim. This is what happens when a group becomes dangerous: eventually, no one is safe—not even its own members. It will turn on its own and destroy them.
This is the progression of corporate wickedness. A group of people gathers together. They develop an intense loyalty to one another, a loyalty that excludes all outsiders. Over time, indifference becomes outright hatred. Elitism hardens into xenophobia. Increasingly, the group defines itself by its opposition to outsiders. There is a euphoria in its uniqueness, and in the corresponding failure of others to experience this corporate identity. But over time, even this is not enough to satisfy them. Women are humiliated and placed into subjection. Men become bestial in their lusts for one another. This is the threshold of depravity: an entire community living in sterile self-absorption, venomous, murderous; a place where no woman is safe, and no outsider. And, finally, where not even the members are safe from each other.