Friday, February 15, 2013

How Static is Morality?

Christians are fond of telling us that their god is unchanging and his morals are set in the bible and are absolute.  At least some of them, the loudest, do.  The RCC is certainly insistent about that, as are the Evangelicals.

One of the worst things those folks on the hard right can do is to insult you with the epithet that you are a "moral relativist".

Let's take a look at the idea here for a moment.

A popular meme making the rounds on Facebook is a photo with the short version of the story of Lot where the two angels are visiting him in his home in Sodom, looking for just ten good men to save the city.  You know, the one where all of the men of Sodom gathered in front of his home after they discovered they were there and demanded for Lot to produce him so they could "know them"?  Yeah, the one where Lot offered instead that the crowd take his daughters in lieu of his guests.

That is an interesting story from a couple of aspects.

It is one of the stories Evangelicals use to show how god hates gays.  Enough that he would nuke a city that was full of them!  Plus, today, we look at this story and gasp at how callous he was to offer his daughters - his innocent daughters - for the crowd to enjoy and how they refused the offer, so the angels had to blind them all to allow Lot's family to escape.  Further evidence of the crowds' homosexuality, and their depravity!

There are, however, a couple of problems with this story and how modern Americans understand it.

First, this story is badly translated, according to at least two scholars I've read recently.  The part of the passage where the crowd asks to have Lot throw the men out for them, in the original Greek, does not indicate that sex was the motive, but robbery and simple assault.  So the homosexual aspect of our understanding is completely off.

Second, the real point I am making.

In that time and place where the story was first told, guests were uncommon.  The land was harsh, travel was hard and dangerous, and human habitation was an oasis in such harsh conditions.  People had developed a standard custom regarding guests in a harsh land.

First, the guest was bound to good behavior, he was not to harm his hosts nor steal from them.  He was expected to dine with his hosts and provide news of places he had been in return for his host's hospitality and protection.  The word protection here is especially important.  A host was bound by strict custom to hold his guests harmless, to protect them from harm.  Otherwise, people would be reluctant to stop in a strange place with strange people!  So, a balance of expectations.

A man's reputation was based on how strict and proper he was in meeting these expectations.  To allow the crowd to successfully assault and rob his guests was a travesty Lot could not afford to allow to happen.  So, he offered them what he had to offer to appease them.

In this he is held up in this story as a righteous man, which, in his time and place, where daughters were often a liability, was certainly true.

Today, we hold different ideas, and look at Lot's offer of his daughters as being horrifying.  The defense of the guests is overlooked, overshadowed by the anti-gay message in the mistranslation.

Today, we look at guests differently.  We do not take in just any stranger as a guest.  There has to be a connection in order to be invited into someone's home.  The idea that there might be danger we would have to protect a guest from is not often thought of.  Our society has motels, hotels, guest houses, etc., that travelers can stay in, and people are not stuck with the necessity of staying in private homes.  so the morals are different.

In the past, due to the harsh conditions, providing food, shelter and protection to a traveler was an obligation everybody took seriously, because who knew, maybe you would be in need someday, and it was in everybody's best interests to buy into that moral code.

Today, we don't have to, so morals in this regard have changed.  We are not obligated to give food and shelter to any Tom, Dick or Harry that stops by the door.  Of course, those who are allowed as guest are still given free food and drinks, and we often offer a room or the couch to friends in need, and of course, do not dream of harming them or allowing them to come to harm.

But we don't have an obligation to offer our daughters as tokens for that protection, nor are we obligated to offer shelter to strangers!  Then, women were property, today, at least in most western countries, they are not, and have a better, more equitable status.

Different conditions, different moral code.

What do you think?

1 comment:

Living with Patience said...

Could not have said it better! So many people do not understand the time gap with then and now as well as the fact that the customs are very different there. Customs vary slightly even here is the US from North to South or East to West.