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Missing the point

IN the torrent of articles on the Internet offering analysis, protest, justification, or mere prurience in the wake of the recent allegations of sexual misdemeanours in high places, I was fascinated to find one article namechecking the cities of the plain, Sodom and Gomorrah. It is from the deeds of the men of Sodom that sodomy, now perhaps the most celebrated of criminal offences in Malaysia, takes its name; but what exactly is the nature of this crime?

Missing the point of sodomy

Section 377 of the Penal Code deals with “unnatural offences”, which seem to refer only to sexual acts. (The word “unnatural” here is used technically, and derived from the doctrine of natural law, but it would take more space than is available here to explore the way natural law is misunderstood and misused by religious and civil authorities alike, or how “nature” usually becomes a code word to cover personal and societal prejudice.)

377a and b penalise “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”, defined as anal or oral penetration. Note that this law criminalises consensual sexual acts between adults. Anal or even oral sex between even husband and wife is covered by the Section, though I am unaware of such a case ever having come to trial in Malaysia, presumably because the courts would grind to a halt under the weight of the cases. In perception as well as in fact, the real target of these laws is sexual acts between men.

It is true that 377c provides for penalties against those who commit these “unnatural” sexual acts without the consent of the other person, but the penalties prescribed therein for anal or oral rape are no heavier than if those acts were consensual. In other words, the law does not care whether the anal or oral sex is consensual or forced: it carries exactly the same weight of criminality.

Even more amazing is 377e, which prescribes a far milder punishment for those who commit acts of gross indecency with children. The message is clear: The law regards the rape of a child to be less serious a crime than consensual sex between two men, just as it equates such consensual sex with oral or anal rape.

It makes no difference then whether Anwar Ibrahim is accused of having raped a man or whether the man in question was a willing sexual partner: the crime in question is that of homosexual sex.

Many Christians refer to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Hebrew Bible, Genesis 19:1-11, when the issue of homosexuality comes up. The narrative actually begins one chapter before, when Abraham and his wife are visited by God in the guise of three men. Abraham and Sarah show extraordinary hospitality to their visitors, and are rewarded by the promise of a son. Two of the men then leave for Sodom, because “the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is very great and their sin is very grave” and the Lord wishes to see whether the inhabitants are really so sinful. The two men (who are now referred to as “angels”) are offered hospitality yet again in Sodom, this time by Abraham’s nephew, Lot. However, the men of Sodom surround Lot’s house and demand that the two visitors be handed over to them to be used sexually.

The Christian churches have often claimed that it is because the men of Sodom desired to have sex with other men (they did not know that in fact these were angels, or even manifestations of God’s own Self) that they were destroyed. The very sin they sought to commit, the sexual penetration of other men, is named after their city: sodomy, the sin of Sodom.

A hospitable Lot

The Hebrew Bible has another reference to the sin of Sodom, in the book of the Prophet Ezekiel, 16:49, where God addresses Jerusalem thus: “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, surfeit of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” The Hebrew Bible itself then reads the story of Sodom as that of the arrogance of the wealthy and their inhospitality to the stranger, the one in need. The men of Sodom were condemned by God because they violated the principle of generous hospitality to the stranger. Instead they sought to exploit their visitors by gang-raping them.

It is instructive to see how Lot appeals to the principle of hospitality: he tells the men of Sodom not to do the deed because these men are his guests. There is no mention at all in the text of sexual acts between men being the offence in question. Lot then offers them his virgin daughters; by the reckoning of the time, the girls were his property to dispose of, and better to have them used and made worthless for marriage than that he should violate the principle of hospitality to the stranger.

The story of Sodom bears no implications about the morality of homosexual acts. It is a story of attempted rape. There is a deliberate contrast in the narrative with the story of Abraham’s generous welcome and hospitality to the strangers in his midst, which is rewarded with the guarantee that his line will continue forever. The inhospitality of the men of Sodom and their attempt to abuse and humiliate the stranger in their midst results in their utter destruction.

To read the story of Sodom as a condemnation of homosexuality is to miss the point of the text completely. This misreading deprives our schooling in morality of a powerful tale about how sex, whether heterosexual or homosexual, should not be used as a weapon of domination.

What is also lost by such a reading is the key notion of hospitality: that in generously honouring the strangers in our midst, and being humble before them, we unknowingly give honour to the Divine. Seeing in the text a condemnation of consensual homosexual acts also lends divine sanction to prejudice against homosexual persons. Wherever else one may seek for justification to label homosexual acts a sin, or a crime — and we should never confuse these two categories — the story of Sodom is not the place.

The real Sodomites

The sphere of religious discourse in Malaysia is by and large an intellectual wasteland, as though reason were not God’s greatest gift to humanity but rather an optional and rather inconvenient extra. The use of religious texts as a basis for morality should be an exercise in acute and subtle discernment, all the more when a particular version of morality is policed the way it is in Malaysia. The “plain sense” of scripture is something often appealed to by those with a fundamentalist bent of mind, but there are layers between us and the texts before us that prevent such a naive reading of the texts.

Just as Thomas Nagel once posed the famous question, “What is it like to be a bat?” (the answer being that we haven’t a clue), we have to ask ourselves what it was like to be a Jew 2,500 years ago, or what it was like to live in Medina in AD 632. Most Muslims in Malaysia would be horrified by the notion of stoning a woman for adultery (even if the requisite number of witnesses to the act could be found) — and rightly so. Our knowledge of human nature and motivations has surely moved beyond the worldview of our ancestors, and this must be taken into account when we read ancient texts.

False and mistaken ideas about God and religion give rise to false and mistaken ideas about morality. If we could peer over the walls of our religious hypocrisy and small-minded prejudice, we might be able to ponder anew the story of Sodom and ask: who exactly in Malaysia today are the Sodomites who risk destruction by the Divine?

The narrative of Sodom is concerned with how we treat the stranger, the Other, in our midst. Are we more concerned with the fortunes of our own ethnic or religious community than the good of the Other who is unlike us, the “stranger” in our midst? Do we demonise or exploit the migrant, the refugee, the sojourner on the margins of our society? Do we fail to aid the poor and the needy? Religions tend to obsess about sex; God clearly has other things on His mind. End of Article

Aloysious Mowe, SJ is an International Visiting Fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center, Georgetown University, Washington, DC. He is a Jesuit priest with an academic interest in Islamic law and history.

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6 Responses to “Missing the point”

  1. Sivin Kit says:

    Aloysious, this will drive some of our own Christian brothers and sisters up the wall. But then again, we need to get a kick in our … “behind”, to put it mildly.

    I think that sacred books like the Bible have often been misused consciously by those in power and misinterpreted by those who may be sincere unconsciously, and the challenge is to get us to relook at the texts we try to base our views on with fresh insight, and discernment.

    I love your closing line. If obsession with sex dominates one religion over issues of social justice, then perhaps it’s time to sing “losing my religion”.

    I’m converting to the One who has better things on His mind. If I recall correctly, that’s scary because his obsession with the “other” landed him on the “execution chair” of his time.

  2. Nigel says:

    Hey Father Aloy, great article. Loved reading it. Hopefully, it’ll generate more thought and discussion; things, which as you rightly say, were “as though reason were not God’s greatest gift to humanity but rather an optional and rather inconvenient extra.”

  3. ann savarimuhu says:

    So glad to have read your article, Father Aloysius. Not only did it make so much sense – but it grasped the core of the situation. God bless.

  4. ahabee says:

    While I can mostly agree with what Aloysious has said on the misnomer of the word sodomy to the name of Sodom, nevertheless the act of homosexual rape is wicked in the sight of God as deduced from that chapter in the book of Genesis. Anal intercourse as an abomination to God is clearly stated in the Books of Romans and Corinthians.

    There is much debate on whether sexual attraction of people of the same gender is an inborn or learned behaviour, but the Bible is clear that anal intercourse is wrong in much the same way adultery is wrong but sexual intercourse between husband and wife is acceptable, if not encouraged.

    People with homosexual tendencies may not have to be ashamed about it but would have to be celibate.

  5. Angela M. Kuga Thas says:

    It’s about time that such an article is written. Too often, Christians tend to read the bible selectively and literally, choosing to use certain texts as more important in their literal meaning over others. If Jesus says that the two most important commandments is to love God above all else, and to love “the other” as much as you love yourself, how can some of us continue to treat “the other” as badly as we do? God gave each of us the gift of free will, the right to choose to do what’s right and what’s wrong and to be answerable for each choice. God is all powerful and does not need human beings to play judge. God only asks us to love and to give unconditional love to “the other”. We have not only failed miserably but we nit-pick with the biblical texts to try and defend our thoughts and actions and non-actions. We have, instead of doing our best to rise to what God asks of us, embraced fear and put our utmost trust in that fear.

  6. Pang says:

    Dear Ahabee, thanks for your comments. I have some thoughts for you:

    You said: “While I can mostly agree with what Aloysious has said on the misnomer of the word sodomy to the name of Sodom, nevertheless the act of homosexual rape is wicked in the sight of God as deduced from that chapter in the book of Genesis.”

    On this point, I don’t think we need God to tell us that rape of any kind, homosexual or heterosexual, is wicked. Any kind of sex that is not consensual is an abuse of the person who does not consent, no matter where you stick what.

    I am curious however to know how you surmised that the the act mentioned in the book of Genesis constitutes to a rape. Was that the actual phrase? “Homosexual rape”? So, is consensual homosexual sex then not wicked in the eye of the Genesis god?

    (By the way, do you know that the word “god” in Genesis is in the plural, as in “gods” in the original language? Biblical scholars like to say that this is a foresight by the writer to God’s trinity, however that trinity is largely a later invention (the history of which is more fascinating than the Da Vinci Code). It seems to me the writer had been influenced by prevailing believes about god(s) at his time – which makes me think that his opinion of homosexual rape/non-rape might have been formed this way).

    You go on to say: “Anal intercourse as an abomination to God is clearly stated in the Books of Romans and Corinthians.”

    Firstly, I am amazed how you jumped from “homosexual rape” to “anal intercourse”. They are not the same thing. Anal intercourse can happen between heterosexual and homosexual couples, it can also be rape or it can be consensual. So, you clearly cannot use both instances of the bible to justify each other.

    But more specifically, I do not recall the word “anal intercourse” mentioned in the New Testament. The phrases in question suggested that the writer believes it is an abomination for a “man to lie with man as with woman” or something like that. There are many ways to interpret this phrase, so let’s not assume it is necessarily about anal intercourse. For example, maybe the writer thinks that when you are lieing with a man, you should treat him as a man, not a woman…!

    BUT, ultimately, even if at the end of the day, it was an abomination, it should be an abomination only to those who choose to believe it is an abomination. Religions and their various schools of interpretations represent at best the slipperiness of principles and positions. Everything in religion then is no more than an opinion. In your opinion, God exists and passes his instructions through the bible, which cannot be questioned. In my opinion, if God exists, he is different and far more complex than all the scriptures of all the religions put together, and the bible has to be questioned regarding its editorship. Hence it becomes truly mindboggling when one attempts to impose one’s opinion on another by turning that opinion into a legal framework underwhich all who don’t share the opinion have to abide. Expecting others to restrict their behaviours based on your opinion, especially when they dont share that opinion, is (in my opinion) wickedness and abomination.

    So, when you say: “People with homosexual tendencies may not have to be ashamed about it but would have to be celibate,” I feel you perhaps you are presumptious in your attempt to jump in conclusion how “humanity” should resolve its sexual desires through your opinion. Firstly, if one doesn’t have to be ashamed, then why would one need to abstain from doing something one is not ashamed of? Logic please? You jump easily from “homosexual rape” to “anal intercourse” to “people…”, displaying the flimsy rhetoric of those who necessarily argue from a tautological position (“it is true because it says it is true”). Perhaps you could rephrase that to: “Christians with homosexual tendencies need not be ashamed but would have to be celebate.” Though you must realise there are an array of different interpretations within Christianity to the position you take. So yet again, perhaps more accurately: “Christians with homosexual tendencies who believe that homosexuality is an abomination to God and believe that their sexual behaviour should be the subject of public scrutiny need not be ashamed but would have to be celibate.” Or even better, since faith is a personal matter, and as I said, an opinion to yourself, maybe you could could just look in the mirror and say: “If I had homosexual tendencies, I need not be ashamed but I would need to be celebate.” For why should anyone else need to be celebate just because YOU think anal intercourse is wrong for you?

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