Cherry-Picking People

A Sermon About Misogyny and Sexual Assault

After parting ways with his cousin Abraham, Lot eventually settles in the land of Sodom. One evening as the sun sets over the prairie, Lot, notices two unknown men approaching the town’s gate. These men are sojourners. Like Lot, Sodom is not their native home. These men also happen to be holy messengers; although, we’re not told whether or not Lot senses this about them. The messengers are passing through town.

Lot greets the travelers with a great sign of respect. He bows before them and then invites the men to be guests in his home for the evening. There they can enjoy a home-cooked meal, a warm bath, and get a good night’s rest in a cozy bed before heading on their way the next morning. At first the men decline saying they’re content to sleep in the town square. Lot persists, though, urging the travelers to accept his hospitality, and they agree. The messengers go to Lot’s house instead of spending the night outdoors, alone, in the center of a city that is not their own.

At Lot’s home, the men all feast until their bellies are full. Later that evening, as the guests are preparing for bed, there’s a pounding at the door. The men peer outside to discover that every man in Sodom is surrounding the house. They’re all holding torches, and they begin shouting, “We saw two men come with you to your house. Where are they? Bring them out here.”

Now Lot knows exactly what the townsmen want with the sojourners. While Lot has extended radical hospitality to these strangers, the men of Sodom desire to do that exact opposite. In a patriarchal society, would there be a greater sign of domination than for men to dominate other men sexually? That is what the men of Sodom seek to do.

With this great threat right on the other side of his door, Lot takes a tremendous risk for the sake of his guests. He puts himself in danger by braving going outside. Lot shimmies around the door closing it tightly behind him to ensure that the townsmen can’t push past him. He makes sure that the mob can’t force their way inside of his house in order to force themselves upon his guests.

Lot then tries to reason with the crowd, “Look! Don’t do this. Do not sink to this level of depravity.” Then Lot, who up to this point has been honorable, does something that, to our modern ears, should make him just as deplorable as the men of Sodom. Lot offers the townsmen his daughters. He says, “Take my daughters instead. You can do with them whatever you want, but please leave the men alone. They’re my guests, and they deserve to be protected under the shelter of my roof.”

Here we see another grotesque sign of patriarchy in the story. Lot negotiates so that all of the men get what they want: The guests remain safe in Lot’s home while the townsmen still have victims to sexually dominate. Lot solves the conflict by sacrificing the women who are present, his own daughters at that. You’ll notice that Lot doesn’t offer himself to the mob.

Thankfully, the lewd men reject Lot’s offer to take his daughters. However, they don’t do this because they’ve suddenly realized that their behavior is vile. The mob only leaves the women alone because their desire to conquer is so keenly focused on the other vulnerable people in the story, the sojourners who are outsiders in Sodom. In this moment, the mob remembers that Lot, too, is an outsider. The crowd becomes enraged that this immigrant has the nerve to attempt to judge them, and they threaten to do even worse to Lot than they want to do to his guests.

With this, the holy messengers jump into action. They pull Lot inside of the house, and they manage to get him and his family through the back door and out of town before God sends a storm of sulfur and fire to destroy everything in Sodom, including each member of the mob. Well, everyone gets away except for Lot’s wife, who disobeys the messengers’ order to not even stop to look back at the city. She does, and she’s turned into a pillar of salt. But that’s another story.

It’s easy to see that this story isn’t really about what many people think it’s about, right? The story of Sodom and Gomorrah has nothing to do same-gender relationships. It’s more accurate to say it’s about patriarchy, misogyny and sexual assault. This is a story about domination verses hospitality, about exposing the vulnerable verses offering them shelter.

Sadly, there’s a discrepancy here over who deserves shelter and who doesn’t. Lot cherry-picks whose life is worth taking a risk in order to protect and who can be put outside and left to fend for themselves. In her book Texts of Terror, feminist theologian Phyllis Trible writes that, in ancient Israel, the laws of hospitality only protect males. In ancient Israel, women are dispensable if sacrificing them protects men.

We’re seeing a bit of this today, aren’t we? Over the past year and half, we’ve experienced a surge of public accusations of sexual harassment and assault. Like Lot, we Americans are inconsistent in how we respond to them. We believe some stories immediately, yet dismiss others, even if the accusers possess the same credibility as those we readily believe. We’ve removed some perpetrators from public office for their actions while electing others in spite of them. Ben Affleck wrote a public statement denouncing the actions of Harvey Weinstein, but he’s not said a word about his the fact that his Academy Award-winning brother has been accused of sexual assault, as well. Just this week, we applauded that one man reported to prison for sending lewd pictures to a 15 year-old, and then we turned around and referenced the age difference between Mary and Joseph to excuse another man inappropriately touching a 14 year-old. We are cherry-picking people. We must ask ourselves, “Are our actions are all that different from Lot’s?”

In response to the holy family being used to support child molestation, womanist theologian Dr. Wil Gafney tweeted this: “Biblical doesn’t equate right, moral, legal, or even godly.” These words likely sound odd, perhaps even blasphemous, to our Christian ears. Many of us grew up hearing that the Bible is inerrant and infallible, that every word of it is equally inspired by God; therefore, every jot and tittle of scripture should be embraced at face value, no matter what.

This approach to interpreting scripture is part of what got us where we are now. We cannot deny that portions of scripture subjugate women. There are other problems, too. In places the Bible condones, even mandates, slavery, genocide, and all sorts of horrific violence. So, no, not everything in the Bible is right, moral, legal, or even godly. While all of the Bible can teach us something about who God is and how God desires for us to relate with the divine and with each other, not all of the Bible is an instruction manual for life, as some like to call it.

In the Bible, some laws only protect men. The mistreatment of women is permissible, especially when it’s a sacrifice to spare men negative experiences. This societal norm, which is explicit in portions of the Bible, has stayed with us. To some extent, we practice it even to today. We are getting a huge wake-up call right now as to just how prevalent the harassment and violation of women is and just how seldom there is any justice for this mistreatment.

There is good news, though. The good news is that when we become consciously aware of something, we can choose to change it. We do not have to perpetuate the acceptance of violence committed against women. Or anyone. We can choose another way. And we can even find another way in the very same Bible that includes the story of Sodom and Gomorrah as well as the rapes of Tamar, Dinah, and the Levite’s Concubine.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus is standing outside of the Temple when a group of scribes and Pharisees come barreling towards him dragging a woman alongside them. The woman is disheveled. Her uncovered hair flies around her face and over her shoulders. Her underclothes are falling off exposing her bare breasts, and she’s dragging a blanket behind her holding onto it for dear life with one hand.

As the religious leaders toss the woman at Jesus’ feet, they tell him that she has been caught in adultery and that the Torah commands that she be stoned for her actions. For a moment, Jesus stands in silence. Then he looks toward the dusty ground, bends down, and begins writing in the dirt. As the accusers continue to hound Jesus, he stands, and says, “Alright, whichever of you has never sinned throw the first stone.” Then he bends back down and continues writing in the dusty earth. The men watch Jesus. Then one by one they walk away leaving the woman unharmed.

One question this story raises for me is: Why does Jesus write on the ground? In all of the Gospels, this is the only reference to Jesus writing. Why here? In my sacred imagination, I believe that Jesus is offering the woman shelter. The men want to know Jesus’ response to their question, so, of course, their eyes are drawn to his writing, which means their eyes are no longer on her. In this holy moment, the woman has an opportunity to cover her bare body, to pull back her hair, to regain her composure and to stand tall. Jesus’ action gives her a moment to restore her dignity so that she can look her accusers in the eye when Jesus asks which of them is without sin.

Another question this story raises is: What does Jesus write? One of my favorite hypotheses is that Jesus writes, “Where is the man?” If the woman was caught in act of adultery, she certain wasn’t alone. It seems that as the law of hospitality applied to men and not women, laws about adultery may have applied more to women then to men.

Another interesting idea is that Jesus writes the names of each of the religious leaders accusing the woman. In his book, What is the Bible?, Rob Bell points out that chapter 7 of John’s Gospel tells us that those in Jerusalem have been celebrating The Feast of Tabernacles, the festival during which Jewish people thank God for the year’s harvest and begin praying for a winter wet enough to make the next year’s harvest abundant.

According to Bell, one of the passages of scripture read during The Feast of Tabernacles is a portion of Jeremiah that includes the following:

Lord, you are the hope of Israel;

All who forsake you will be put to shame.

Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust…

Perhaps Jesus writes the men’s names in the dust. With this scripture fresh on their minds, they know exactly what Jesus is saying. And they leave with their heads hanging low.

We can choose the status quo. If so, one in four girls and one in six boys will continue to be sexually abused before they reach age 18 and one in five women and one in seventy-one men will continue to be sexually assaulted. The statistics are even higher for those who are LGBT. We can choose the status quo. Or we can choose to stop cherry-picking people and say that these statistics are unacceptable regardless of how famous or powerful or religious the perpetrators are. We can say that we’re going to shelter those who need it and that we will write the names of the guilty in the sand so that sin becomes exposed. Only then will the power-hungry walk away from the sins of misogyny and sexual assault. We can choose another way.



I'm a progressive Baptist pastor, and, no, that's not an oxymoron.

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