Xenophobia: Sodom and South Africa

The biblical story of Lot protecting foreign guests has many uncomfortable lessons for us today, writes Reverend Alan Storey

It was 1am when the phone rang. “Alan, they are coming down our street, door to door, searching for foreigners, and I have a woman from Zimbabwe staying with me?…?I will not let them have her!” The call was from Rose, a woman in my congregation who lived in Ivory Park in 2008. I will never forget the mixture of terror and courage in her voice. She saved the life of her Zimbabwean guest. She deserved the Nobel peace prize, as do so many others who love their neighbour bravely.

Once again, we hear of gangs going door to door searching for foreigners and threatening those offering them shelter. It is shocking. Terrifying. But it is not new. The violent scapegoating of foreigners goes back thousands of years. We find it all the way back in the book of Genesis (19:1-11). Even if you have never read it, you have probably heard of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Especially in recent times, the church has been obsessed with this story, because it has been obsessed with matters sexual – with some suggesting the verses are proof homosexuality is a sin. But this (mis)use of the text sidesteps its challenge and creates a new scapegoat: the queer community.

Although there are differences between this ancient story and the xenophobia we are dealing with today, there may still be some lessons in it for us.

Sodom and Gomorrah were wealthy regions, like South Africa. Their per capita income was higher than their neighbours’. This made Sodom, like South Africa, an attractive and logical place to visit if one were hoping to better one’s life.

The story goes that Lot offered hospitality to two foreign visitors, as the Torah instructs (Deuteronomy 10:17-19): “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.”

That night, however, “every man in the city” was banging on Lot’s door, saying: “Bring them out so that we may know [have sex with] them.” Lot showed courage to step outside to face them; challenge them; refuse them.

In the text, we hear Lot’s horrifying suggestion that the mob rather take his two virgin daughters instead of the foreigners. What loving father would suggest such a thing? But it was a painful consequence he was willing to suffer as a result of refusing to hand over his foreign guests. Homeowners who stand in support of foreign guests expose their families to risk. Acts of radical hospitality are costly, and may carry the price tag of rape and death. Lot was told (Genesis 19:9b): “Now we will deal worse with you than with them.” Years later, it happened to Jesus. Long before he was crucified, his first congregation tried to hurl him off a nearby cliff because he had spoken favourably about foreigners (Luke 4:25-27).

Why would the gift of hospitality be so violently opposed? The prophet Ezekiel helps us to understand what was really taking place. He tells us Sodom and Gomorrah were sinful not because of anything sexual, but because they had “pride, excess of food and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49).

Guided by the prophet, I suggest the men sought to demean Lot’s foreign guests so that they would leave and never return. The locals wanted to secure the resources of their region for themselves alone. And the worst thing one could do to a man in that perversely patriarchal society was treat him like a woman. In other words, the men at Lot’s door wanted to rape his foreign guests to show they were as “worthless” as women.

In South Africa, the people going door to door with pangas and knobkerries are not those with excess of food and living in prosperous ease; they themselves are poor and needy. Over the years, they too have been chased and viciously attacked. By who? By those of us who live with excess of food and prosperous ease.

We may not run around in bloodthirsty mobs, but we do follow bloodthirsty markets that squeeze people for profits. It is largely legal, but it is not just. The violence we have witnessed is rightly condemned. Those responsible have been called savage and barbaric, but we should take care not to allow such violent acts to blind us to our savagery and barbarism.

Surely, living with little care for the hungry and homeless when we are overfed and have empty rooms in our houses is equally savage. I have heard many of us now speak of our shame at being South Africans, but where is our outrage and shame at living in the most unequal country in the world?

When someone is literally set on fire, we cry in horror, as all humanity should, but when someone boils slowly to death as a result of being excluded from resources that facilitate life, we fail to see the horror.

That is why I am both heartened and concerned by our response to the xenophobia. We are better at dealing with consequences than causes. The cause throbs in the disguise of legal acceptability, while the consequences rage as unruly mobs. This makes it easier to condemn the consequences than the cause.

We are better at addressing the symptoms than the sources. And perhaps the most powerful motivating factor for us to deal with the consequences rather than the causes is that it is easier for us to approach the consequences from a place of innocence. After all, everyone can see that I am not chasing people with a panga in my hand. Yet when we dare to address the causes, we expose ourselves to our own complicity. This is the pain we don’t want to face.

We are sad, ashamed and horrified at the violence we have witnessed in our land this past week, but we are not as sad, ashamed or horrified at the systemic crime and violence that is the source and cause of so much of the violence we see today. Day in and out, millions are robbed of hope – the belief that tomorrow will be a little better than today. To be robbed of hope for tomorrow is to be imprisoned in the despair of the present. The violent crime that is endemic in our land is mostly ignored by those of us who are outside of that prison.

We must address the symptoms and consequences that are before us, but let us also go to the source and address the causes. Here, we may have to confess that our hands also drip with blood. We will have to start the difficult conversations about pain, poverty, power and privilege. More especially, black pain and white privilege.

It is far easier to speak out against the excesses of Nkandla than to address our own excess. Of course, Nkandla is a crime, but not because the Public Protector says so. It is a crime, as is all our excess, when surrounded by a sea of poverty. The prophets of old are clear: to have too much in the presence of those who have too little is sin, and it leads to deathliness all round.

The work of fixing causes is the work of a lifetime. But if we do not do this work, we will burn like Sodom.

Storey leads the Central Methodist Mission in Cape Town

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