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?
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.
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.