It has only happened to me once, but it was devastating. I was invited to the home of someone I liked and respected. It was going to be a small gathering—just a few close friends—and I was honored to have made the cut. Against all of my better judgment, I even bought new clothes.
And it was lovely for a while. Good food. Good people. Interesting conversation. And then came the sales pitch. It began with the standard opening moves: What if you didn’t have to work full time to earn a living? What could you do for your family with gobs of extra money? Wouldn’t it be great to work for yourself? It was all on a video with through-the-roof production values.
And there were circles. I never did quite get the circles. But apparently, all of the rich people are in the big circles. And from what I could tell, we were all being asked to join one of the little ones. The big circles would come later, after we had done whatever it is the people in the little circles are supposed to do.
I was crushed. All of a sudden I was not a person with intrinsic value; I was a customer—and a potential circle dweller. What I had perceived as a human relationship had melted away, and in its place sat a commercial transaction. It was a very bad evening.
I think of this experience whenever I hear discussions about “the sin of Sodom,” as described in Genesis 19:
Before they had lain down to sleep, the men of Sodom, both young and old, everyone without exception, surrounded the house. They called to Lot: ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we may have intercourse with them.’ Lot went out into the doorway to them, and, closing the door behind him, said, ‘No, my friends, do not do anything so wicked. Look, I have two daughters, virgins both of them; let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But do nothing to these men, because they have come under the shelter of my roof.’ (Genesis 19:4-8, REB)
For a gazillion years or so, these verses have been used to define homosexuality as “the Sin of Sodom,” since the men of Sodom wanted to have sex with other men (angels, really, but they thought they were other men). This is why homosexuality has been referred to as “sodomy” for most of Western history. But this common interpretation doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny.
In the first place, there are a lot of things going on here beyond someone acting on a same-gender attraction. The men of Sodom are using force to attack a household and commit rape. And then there is that whole thing with Lot offering up his young daughters to the mob. Arguably, both actions—forcible rape and pandering one’s own children—could be considered worse than a consensual homosexual relationship—and therefore, a more likely candidate for Sodom’s great sin.
Many modern commentators have argued that the real sin of Sodom was a sort of extreme inhospitality. According to this argument, the culture of the Ancient Near East was built on a sacred bond between a guest and a host—a bond that required a host to protect his guest at any cost—even to the detriment of his own family. In this reading of the story, Lot’s actions take on a heroic quality: he is willing to sacrifice his own children in order to fulfil his sacred duty to protect his guests.
But here’s a thought: what if the great sin of Sodom was the inability to see other people as intrinsically valuable and to see them instead as tools of personal gratification? The men of Sodom did not care who Lot’s guests were—men or angels—for they did not consider them individuals at all. They were merely instruments that could satisfy desires. Beneath the radical inhospitality of the men of Sodom lay a radical selfishness that made genuine human connection impossible. Under such a worldview, the only way to view other people is as extensions of our own desire for comfort and pleasure.
There has been no shortage of this kind of thinking since the days of Sodom. With some justice, it could be considered the root of human evil. Viewing other people instrumentally is at the heart of much of what has gone wrong in human history: slavery and war, colonialism and commercialism, gender inequality and racial prejudice—and in far too many cases, the preaching of gospels. The worldview of Sodom crops up in every culture we have ever observed in every epoch of human history.
The one place that this worldview cannot exist is called Zion. The Kingdom of God must be built by human beings having human relationships with each other. The only people who can build Zion are those who know how to see other people as God sees them—as imperfect, wonderful, complicated, broken, amazing, and divine individuals worthy of love and respect for who they are and not for what they do.
Elsewhere in the Bible, the prophet Ezekiel defines the sin of Sodom as having “the pride that goes with food in plenty, comfort, and ease, yet she never helped the poor in their need” (Ezekiel 16:49, REB). This goes hand in hand with what I am arguing here. From a purely transactional world view, the poor are those who can do nothing for us. They require our attention and our resources, but they cannot satisfy any of our desires.
Unless our desire is to be like Christ, to consecrate our lives to the cause of Zion, or to build the Kingdom of God. And the Kingdom of God, from everything I have heard, will not have any circles.