What’s LGBT Pride got to do with what’s going on with the zero tolerance crisis in the US and the growing global reality of 70 million uprooted refugees? Everything.
Today, June 20th, is World Refugee Day, an annual occasion for awareness and activism declared by the UN in 2000. To be honest, like many of us, I had not been aware of it until last year, but I am proud for Lab/Shul to once again be joining the World Refugee Day March & Ritual TONIGHT> This time of year is when rainbow flags flood our streets and screens, a time when I along with my queer community and allies get ready to march and celebrate the progress, privilege, and purpose of pride. (We’ll be bedazzling giant Queer Saint posters like the one above and marching with 8 faith orgs from across NYC:
But this year it’s different, and it’s all got to do with a biblical city called Sodom that burned to the ground as divine retribution for its sins. This year Sodom is us. And it’s not because of sexual preferences or perversions.
In a harrowing passage found in Genesis 19, a family of four escapes its hometown at dawn, warned by mysterious messengers of the impending doom. One of the runaways looks back at her burning city while the others flee on. She turned to salt, frozen in fear and nostalgia as her husband and their two daughters become refugees and attempt to regain their lives.
Historically “Sodom” became synonymous with non-procreative sexual activity, and “sodomy,” still a punishable crime in many states and countries, is a legal category for several sexual so-called “perversions,” including homosexuality.
The term was invented by Christian translators of the Bible in the Middle Ages, influenced by generations of Judeo-Christian readers of scripture that ascribed the sin of anal sex and thus homosexual behavior to the evil people of Sodom, who allegedly demanded to rape their innocent male guests on the fateful night of the destruction.
But most classical commentaries, and the vast majority of pious Biblical readers these days, neglect to mention a key point about God’s Zero Tolerance wrath: the original scriptural reasoning for Sodom’s demise was not assumed immoral sexuality but rather the townsfolk’s lack of hospitality by refusing to welcome guests or let in strangers in the first place.
This was obvious to the prophet Ezekiel, exiled in Babylon, who compares Sodom to the Kingdom of Israel:
“…this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy. Thus they were haughty and committed abominations before Me.” (Ezekiel 16:49–50)
Writing in Rome, Josephus, a Jewish refugee who saw Jerusalem burn, claims that “Sodomites grew proud, on account of their riches and great wealth; they became unjust towards men, and impious towards God, in so much that they did not call to mind the advantages they received from him: they hated strangers.”
But by the 17th century’s King James Bible, Sodomites are instead linked to sodomy, and the city’s fall is linked to sexual immorality based on one unclear allusion in the New Testament’s Epistle of Jude. From there, the path to othering all others is grounded in holy writ: Homophobia and xenophobia go hand in hand.
So who are today’s citizens of Sodom, aka Sodomites? As my colleague Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg wrote in The Forward, the occupiers of the White House top the list:
“One doesn’t have to look hard to see how this accusation applies to an administration whose proposed budget cuts meal and nutrition assistance for impoverished children, seniors, and pregnant and nursing mothers and infants. The parallel becomes even starker in light of the over $20 million the government has already spent on Trump’s golf trips and $500,000 per day on Melania’s choice to stay in New York. The White House is not only withholding support for our country’s most vulnerable, but burning through public money for their own ‘untroubled tranquility’ and devising tax cuts to further enhance the tranquility of the very wealthy.”
Wake up America. From baker to banker, president to patrol police – Sodom is now.
Today and tomorrow we gather to protest the separation of families, incarceration of children and continued hostility towards asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants. This weekend we raise the rainbow flags to celebrate diversity and demand justice and humanity – for all.
Selective readings of the Bible to prefer law over love is not the Trump administration’s invention. But the scale, hate speech and sheer cruelty that backs up America First and Zero Tolerance are in a league of cynical malice all its own. It is up to us who benefit from progress to demand just and care by treatment of all who are created in Divine images. It is up to those of us whose ancestors and parents have known the horrors of migration and the seeking of sanctuary to cry out and mean it: Never again. There is so much to do, and each of us can rise to the task. Or, we can be implicated.
Proud and loud, along with family and friends, queer and straight, many immigrants like me, of many faith communities, I will rally and march in the streets in the days ahead, praying with our feet and proclaiming the words of the prophets: Sodom is now. America – wake up.