Sin, in its simplest definition, is that which separates us from God. This sin is the condition caused by being human, with the desire to protect one’s self at all costs. Calvin refers to this as total depravity, and the theology that results from it helps us to understand how we need to order our lives. In other words, because our nature is to please ourselves, we must set aside time think about God, and we must second-guess our interpretations of scripture and the world to see if they are in alignment with both being part of the body of Christ and how God calls us to act. More importantly, we must question interpretations which create hierarchies and persecutions in the human situation.
As I mentioned in my sermon Sunday, one of the best examples of this can be seen in the story of “the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah.” The original story was one focused on the question of offering hospitality and welcome. The issue was that the people of those cities were so self-absorbed that they could not and would not welcome others. Interestingly, it is only in the rabbinical interpretations that we begin to see the connection between homosexuality and the Sodom and Gomorrah story. (In fact, the direct connection only occurs in the Quran.)
To make homosexuality a scapegoat for the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, two devastating things happen. First, rather than focusing on hospitality, this interpretation introduces human judgment. Paradoxically, that accomplishes the exact opposite of what the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is speaking against. Because of this, governments and individuals have used this passage as justification to persecute, torture, even kill in the name of “righteousness.”
As sad as the first point is, the second is even more amazing. Often when the Bible calls us to offer hospitality, we find a way to make it about something else. It is understandable; welcoming the stranger is not easy. Although one of the most consistent and recurring themes of the Bible is just that, in almost every circumstance, interpretations and readings have come along to take the biblical mandate and twist it into something else, often something more comfortable for the majority population.
To be honest, this is exactly the point that that many agnostics and atheists make against the church, because we often rely more on other people’s interpretations of scripture than looking at what the story actually says.
It is important to note that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is not the only occurrence of a mandate of hospitality and welcome in the Bible. It is also not the only time that someone’s interpretation flipped the meaning of the passage from communal responsibility to self-serving.
It took the very public moves of our current president to reveal a movement that has actually been underway for years. As our country has been creeping closer and closer to an isolationist mentality, we have made it harder and harder for many groups to come in, especially those unwilling, or perceived as unwilling, to assimilate into our culture. In a very real way, we are on track to becoming a new Sodom and Gomorrah because of our isolationist trend. For years our denomination has been struggling with this trend. It is important that we follow biblical guidance and look at the many narratives calling for welcome and a more just community. That is the basis for our current stance on immigration and refugees:
The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and its predecessor denominations have consistently called the church to welcome refugees in the name of Jesus. This call began when the 160th General Assembly (1948) of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America called for the resettlement of persons made refugees and displaced by World War II and continued through the 222nd General Assembly (2016) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) statement calling the church to “respond to the ancient biblical directive to provide for the stranger and the sojourner.”
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen