Last week rugby star Israel Folau posted an image on social media that said “Warning: Drunks. Homosexuals. Adulterers. Liars. Fornicators. Thieves. Atheists. Idolaters. Hell awaits you.” Folau then offered a comment to the effect that God loves all people and wants them to repent of their sin and be forgiven. His employers, New South Wales rugby and the Australian Rugby Union, have signalled their intent to sack him.
The whole episode is rather ugly.
First, in the rush to condemn Folau, few people seem to have listened to what he said.
Public communication is fraught at the best of times, even more so when it takes place within the constraints of social media platforms. Israel’s post was confrontational and ill-advised (more on that later), but it did not single out members of the LGBTI community. Rather, he placed homosexuals on the same level as drunks, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters. And if we pressed further into Israel’s faith we would likely discover that he places his own sinfulness on the same level. At the heart of the type of Christianity Israel Folau espouses is the idea that every human being is so offensive in the sight of God that they deserve to be sent to hell. Far from isolating gay and lesbian people as the most heinous sinners, Israel’s faith declares we are all heinous sinners.
If, instead of the rush to condemnation and outrage, people had sought to pause and tease out what Israel was saying, they would have discovered a theology that is (theoretically at least) humble, sees judgement as the prerogative of God not us, and believes that our responsibility is to love and care for every broken sinner.
Second, in their rush to defend “the truth” many Christians have failed to hear the pain of LGBTI Christians.
Having said that, the social dislocation of LGBTI community over the past 2000 years, means that “homosexuals” are likely to hear what was said in a way that adulterers, drunks, fornicators and atheists do not. For the greatest irony of this whole episode is that the only group who genuinely embrace Folau’s theology are LGBTI members of conservative churches. Israel’s theology is grounded in the idea that human beings are so thoroughly corrupt at the very core of their being and God’s holiness is so offended by our corruption that justice demands we be afflicted with the most indescribable torments not merely for a moment but for age upon age upon age. Or as Jonathan Edwards put it in his famous sermon,
“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire … you are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes, as the most hateful and venomous serpent is in ours.”
Anyone who genuinely believes this, who holds this not simply as an article of faith but feels it deep in their soul, is headed for depression and breakdown. Now while most of us who belong to churches own the fact that we are sinners, I don’t know too many of us who genuinely feel the weight of the mediaeval and Reformation formulation of it in our hearts or are driven to the point of despair and mental breakdown that afflicted Martin Luther. A culture that is affirming of our strengths and personhood and a doctrine of God’s love that sits clunkilly and uneasily alongside our doctrine of sin, prevent us from truly believing we are abominable in the eyes of God. So while we may all repeat words declaring we are unworthy of God’s love, the only group I know for whom this theology of abomination has sunk deep into their souls to the point that is not simply an article of faith but an article of self conviction, are LGBTI Christians raised in evangelical churches. And it drives large numbers of them to mental breakdown, depression and suicide.
This is why Israel’s post was hurtful. Statements like his may rhetorically treat all people in the same way, but to many LGBTI people they represent the cold hand of the mediaeval God pulling them or people they know back down into the mire of self-hatred.
And this is why a bare statement of “the truth” can be so damaging. I know many Christians feel that in the face of our society’s acceptance of diverse forms of sexuality it is necessary to hold fast to what they understand to be God’s truth. But communicating truth is never simply a matter of speaking propositions into the ether. Propositions are spoken into a context, and in our context Folau’s way of speaking is unlikely to succeed in communicating the holiness, compassion, grace and love of God to members of the LGBTI community. If a traditional view of sexuality is to be defended, this is certainly not the way to go about it.
Third, now is a time for introspection & reflection.
As I have argued previously, the challenge to the church’s tradition on sexuality has come under fire not only from without but from within. There are growing numbers of conservative bible scholars and leaders who argue that the church has got sexuality fundamentally wrong and are calling for us to reflect critically on our understanding of sex, sexuality and gender. They may well be wrong, but so might the majority position. It may well be that repentance needs to begin with the household of God. But in our rush to defend ourselves we are simply not taking the time to seriously weigh this up.
Fourth, in the rush to protect the recent gains of the LGBTI community, a lot of Australians seem to be laying aside foundational social freedoms
Having said all of this, it nonetheless seems to me outrageous that Israel Folau is to be sacked for stating his religious perspectives. At the core of a free society is the idea that every person is free to choose what he or she does and doesn’t believe about life, God and reality, and is free to say what they believe. Even when what they say is hurtful and offensive to others. Certainly those who are hurt and offended are also free to speak their mind, to express their anger and pain. But the day we penalise people for their beliefs by stripping away their employment or seek to force their silence through contractual agreements is the day we abandon the principles that allowed feminists to speak up at the time their speech was deemed hurtful and offensive, members of the civil rights movement to speak up at a time their speech was deemed hurtful and offensive, and members of the gay community to speak up at the time their speech was deemed hurtful and offensive.
When I heard the news that Cardinal George Pell had been convicted of the sexual abuse of children I felt sick in the stomach. I felt disgust at what he had done; sad for the boys he abused; grieved when I learned that one of the boys had taken his life; and fearful at the damage it would do to people’s capacity to hear the gospel.
Like many others, I read the articles suggesting the verdict was questionable. I wanted to believe they were right. I discussed the possibility with Sandy and a couple of friends. I stopped this when I heard survivors of child abuse describing the pain such discussion caused them.
Cardinal Pell no longer has the presumption of innocence. He has been found guilty by a jury of his peers and all our discussion should proceed on the assumption that he is guilty. Attempts to second-guess the verdict or to retry the case is our own imaginations are inappropriate. We have not sat in that court room, we have not heard the evidence presented, but we do have the best system in the history of the world for acquitting the innocent and convicting the guilty. Twelve jurors had to be convinced that the evidence showed beyond reasonable doubt that Cardinal Pell was guilty of sexual abuse. They had a well qualified judge to ensure both sides made their case in a fair and reasonable way. And the jury found him guilty.
Juries can make mistakes, which is why we have an appeals process. But just as we insist that a person is innocent until proven guilty, so we must insist that a person who has been found guilty is guilty until found innocent.
For many of us this creates a sense of dissonance. John Howard, Tony Abbott and a host of others have testified that Cardinal Pell is a good man. I’ve never met Cardinal Pell, but I have no reason to doubt what two former PMs have found – that Cardinal Pell is a man whose life has been characterised by a deep commitment to his church and the values of grace, compassion, generosity, justice and love. Yet I also have to assume that on at least two occasions in his life Cardinal Pell betrayed those values, took advantage of his position and used his power in a vile and despicable way to sexually abuse two boys. And then there are a host of others who speak of George Pell as aggressive in the exercise of his power, parents of children abused in the Catholic church who describe him as having a “sociopathic lack of empathy“*.
I want to believe that abusers are monsters, human beings devoid of any redeeming virtues. No doubt some are. But most are not. I am forced to the terrifying truth that good people commit evil deeds. Russian dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn discovered this disturbing truth in a Communist concentration camp:
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? The Gulag Archipelago
We will come to grips with the evil in our midst only when we come to grips with this awful truth. The problem is not “a few bad apples” that we must get rid of. The problem is that every apple has the capacity to rot. This is why each of us must be ever vigilant to the state of our heart and mind, to have people in whom we can confide when darkness starts to grip us. It is why our institutions must have systems that disperse power and wherever inequalities of power remain that we have transparent and open systems of accountability.
A recognition that people who can do good in some relationships and areas of their life but do evil things in others enables us to respond appropriately to their evil**. We must not allow our experience of their goodness to blind us to their evil. Cardinal Pell has been found guilty of a horrendous violation of two human beings, of momentary acts that left two boys with a lifetime of destruction, of the most devastating betrayal of those boys, his church and his God. I weep for those boys and the damage done to them. I am filled with indignation that this was done to them by someone in a position of trust. I hope that the surviving man can find healing, justice, recompense and a better future.
At the same time I grieve for Cardinal Pell. I don’t want these acts of evil to blind me to his goodness. A powerful man who dedicated his life to doing what he thought was the good has been brought low, humiliated, shamed and will spend time in the dreary, humiliating and shameful reality of prison and the public exposure of his crime. It is deserved. Such evils as child abuse need to be met with the strongest response, a societal declaration that those who commit such deeds will meet with our disapproval and severe penalties. Yet this is not simply a story of crime and punishment. It is a tragedy for everyone involved, including the perpetrator. The one dimensional caricatures that portray Cardinal Pell as as a ruthless, power-mongering, child-abusing shell of a human being or as nothing but saintly confirm our prejudices and perpetuate the myth that good people only ever do good things. Our human experience is that good and evil lie within all of us. At the same time I decry the evil of which Cardinal Pell has been convicted, I also feel for a man who has given so much to his faith and his church, who has achieved much good and positively impacted many lives but finds that all undone. I will pray for the Cardinal to begin his own journey of healing and renewal.
I am reminded again of the need to guard my own heart. Good people commit acts of evil. For some it is the dark shadow of abuse. For others the shadows threaten to darken other parts of their humanity. But I dare not deny that shadows are found somewhere in all of us and need to be exposed before they lead us down paths that we never imagined we are capable.
How we need to do this for our own sake, but above all for the sake of those we damage if we do not. The years of dis-integration, despair and dependencies visited upon Cardinal Pell’s victims and other survivors of abuse are the disconcordant reminders that human beings are too precious and their hearts too vulnerable for us to pretend that only monsters abuse. Recognising the potential for evil that lies within all of us seems to me the only way to ensure that our presence with others will be life-giving.
*This sentence was added after the article was originally published for the purposes of clarity
** This sentence was edited after original publication for the purposes of clarity
Popping up regularly in my facebook feed is a campaign by the Australian Christian Lobby titled “You won’t Believe Labor’s Latest Attack on Parent’s Rights”.
This is what the ACL campaign page says:
The party’s National Secretary has released a consultation draft of the platform and it contains some radical, extreme material.
Hidden on page 183 (clause 83), we can see the party is seeking to launch an extraordinary attack on people of faith and parents’ rights.
The documents states:
Labor opposes the practice of so-called conversion and reparative therapies on LGBTIQ+ people and seek to criminalise these practices.
This is shocking stuff.
It means that if your son comes home one day from his Labor-sponsored ‘Safe School’ and tells you he wants to become a girl, you must support that decision and attempt to facilitate it.
Discouraging your son from transitioning to a girl, arranging for prayer or counselling to affirm his biological gender would be a criminal offence and domestic abuse under a Labor government.
Before you rush to the ACL campaign page and sign the petition to protect parental rights, you should be aware that:
The clause on criminalising conversion therapy is not “hidden”.
The ACL’s language implies that the ALP is attempting something clandestine. News flash. It’s in the ALP Consultation Platform! This is a publicly available document that the ALP has published months before it is due to be debated at their National Conference. The clause on gender conversion therapies is not located in a footnote or fine print but is listed in exactly the same manner as all other proposals.
The proposal is not “radical” or “extreme”.
Around the world conversion therapy has been slammed by health practitioners. A January 2018 briefing paper by the UCLA School of Law states:
“A number of prominent national professional health associations – including the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics – have issued public statements opposing the use of conversion therapy because it is harmful and ineffective. Some of these associations have called on Congress and state legislatures to pass laws that ban conversion therapy.” (https://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/Conversion-Therapy-LGBT-Youth-Jan-2018.pdf)
The Australian Medical Association, the peak body representing doctors in Australia, “unequivocally condemns conversion therapy”. AMA President Dr Tony Bartone explained why in September this year:
“We know that it’s associated with negative outcomes, it’s not based on any research, it’s archaic, and it’s only associated with long-term harm to the patients involved.” (https://ama.com.au/ausmed/no-place-conversion-therapy).
The ACL trivialises a very real human experience
The suggestion that “if your son comes home one day from his Labor-sponsored ‘Safe School’ and tells you he wants to become a girl, you must support that decision and attempt to facilitate it” is ludicrous. The flippant ease with which the ACL statement trivialises gender identity issues betrays an appalling ignorance of the realities of transgender experience. Trans kids do not suddenly go from being happy, well-adjusted members of one sex to a faddish desire to change sex based on the suggestions of the Safe Schools program. Rather, a discrepancy between their gender identity and their biologically assigned sex is a sustained, ongoing experience, and a “transition” in which sexual biology is brought into alignment with gender identity occurs over a number of years and in consultation with highly credentialed medical services. See the web page of The Royal Children’s Hospital Gender Service for more.
Parents are not going to be criminalised
The ALP platform does not mean parents will be criminalised for having a pastor pray over their child. A 2018 report by La Trobe University on conversion therapies discusses how to balance the rights of all parties in responding to gay conversion therapies. It concludes that:
“An appropriate balance, in our view, would be for governments to regulate conversion practices delivered by health practitioners (or those purporting to be health practitioners by making health claims) or secular professional workers, where there is a legitimate reason for the state to exercise control over the accreditation and training of such practitioners. Law and regulation in health settings in Australia is commonplace and justifiable. There is an expectation within the community that governments will regulate and support the provision of health care, as well as education, child care and other essential public services. Otherwise, individuals should remain free to exercise their own agency and autonomy and to seek out and engage in informal conversion practices within religious settings, despite the risk of harm.”
Whether this is an appropriate balance or not should be met with serious discussion and debate, not the ignorant fear-mongering promoted by this ACL campaign.
One of the most famous stories in the Bible is King David’s sexual abuse of Bathsheba. The account is rather brief. David, who has a demonstrated propensity for violence, is walking on the roof of the palace when he sees a woman undergoing a bathing ritual required by the law. David is consumed with lust. He makes inquiries to determine who the woman is, then sends a servant to bring her to the palace, where he sleeps with her and then sends her home again.
Then comes the complicating factor. Bathsheba discovers she is pregnant and, given her husband Uriah has been away fighting wars for some months, the child must be David’s. David is now gripped with fear that his crime will be uncovered and when his attempts to engineer sexual union between Uriah and Bathsheba fail, David arranges for Uriah to be murdered.
Throughout it all the voice and perspective of Bathsheba are missing. The narrator is telling the story of Israel’s Kings and so the focus is entirely upon David. But this silence has given subsequent generations license to shame Bathsheba. Rarely is it told the way it is. Bathsheba is summonsed to the palace by a king known to be violent, has no option but to sleep with him and is then summarily dismissed. In the popular Christian retelling of the story David’s reputation is protected from the claim that he committed sexual abuse and Bathsheba is seen to have acted shamefully. We are led to believe that Bathsheba willingly went along with David’s plans, or even that Bathsheba seduced David, deliberately exposed herself in order to gain his affections. My son’s youth edition Bible comments like this
Bathsheba found herself in a sticky situation. King David thought she was beautiful, so he invited her to visit the palace. Big mistake. She was married to Uriah, one of King David soldiers away in war. They betrayed Uriah, and Bathsheba got pregnant.… David and Bathsheba suffered severe consequences… Yet God still had a plan for Bathsheba’s life… God loved Bathsheba and forgave her sins, just like he forgives ours when we ask.
Are they serious? Bathsheba’s sin?!. David didn’t invite her to visit the Palace for morning tea and a nudge and a wink about perhaps getting into bed together. He sent his servants to get her, and bring her back so he could sleep with her. Do we honestly think there was an invitation? That Bathsheba had the opportunity to say no? David used his position of kingly power to force Bathsheba to have sex with him and then sent her home hoping he would not be found out.
Our attachment to David as a “man after God’s own heart” seems to stop us from saying what went on here. David sexually assaulted Bathsheba and then murdered her husband to try and cover it up. This was not an isolated act of violence. From start to finish David’s career is bathed in blood. He may have feared taking the life of King Saul, the anointed of God, but he had no qualms taking the lives of others – men, women and children. When he was living in exile among the Philistines he and his men would slaughter every last person in the villages they raided in order to cover up their crime. As he lay on his deathbed he counselled his son Solomon to slaughter his enemies at the palace in order to shore up his throne. This was the man whom God would not allow to build the temple because of the blood he had on his hands.
Surely this is a story for our times. We have been forced to confront the ugly truth that some of the priests we trusted and admired are child abusers; that some of our favourite movie stars and actors are serial abusers. My goodness, I’d have never guessed that Kevin Spacey, Rolf Harris, and Bill Cosby could be serial abusers. The United States has a president who admitted to sexually assaulting women and then explained it away as “locker room talk”. And I’m sure there are more revelations to come.
There are two things that I find particularly disturbing. The first is just how frequently this type of abuse seems to occur when power exists without accountability. There is something particularly dark in the human heart that sometimes leads us into twisted and abusive paths when we think we can get away with it. It seems that unaccountable power not only allows the “bad apples” free reign, but that it erodes the character of the good. We must abandon the mythology that the problem is located in the individual character of a few bad apples and recognise the problem is unaccountable power.
The second is our failure to see the wounds that are held in silence. In the telling of David’s story we’re exposed to his joys and sorrows, his strengths and his frailties, and in the midst of all his violence see someone who has a heart that yearns to do the will of God. Despite the best efforts of our childhood Sunday school stories to turn him into a flawless hero, as we carefully read the story we learn to see him as a multidimensional character. We don’t do the same for Bathsheba and the others who have only a bit part in the story. This gives us the freedom to overlook their pain, the consequences of their abuse, and even to shower them in blame.
We need to be attentive to the voices of the Bathsheba’s among us, to hear their pain, to stand alongside them as they share their stories, go with them on the journey to healing. We have become aware of this in recent days with regards to family and domestic abuse, something for which I’m thankful. I’m hopeful that in the responses to those who have spoken out against Harvey Weinstein and other abusers in Hollywood that we see a turning of the corner in which the power of the abuser will no longer blind us to the reality of the abuse. And I’ve seen it oh so painfully in the story of some of my LGBTIQ friends who continue to be wounded by a church that speaks about them without speaking with them and that does to them what centuries have done to Bathsheba.
The nation has voted for the recognition of same-sex marriage, and the challenge in the coming days is to legislate it. Many Christians are calling for a raft of provisions that protect their right to discriminate.
The principle that it is unlawful to discriminate against somebody on the grounds of their sexuality is already part of Australian law. The Sex Discrimination Act was modified in 2013 to include sexual orientation, gender identity, and intersex status as grounds upon which discrimination is not permitted. It applied to employment; education; provision of goods and services; providing accommodation, housing or land; membership and activities of licenced clubs; the administration of Commonwealth laws and programs.
There are a number of exemptions to the Act. Religious bodies and educational institutions are exempted if the discrimination is necessary to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of that religion, or necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion.
It’s important to point this out, because it seems that some Christians are under the impression that they currently have the right to say and do whatever they like with regards to gay, lesbian, intersex, bisexual, transsexual people and that somehow the recognition of same-sex marriage is going to strip them of these rights.
If you run a small business, it has been illegal since 2013 to refuse to employ somebody on the grounds that they are gay or to refuse to provide a business service to a person on the basis that they are lesbian. Marriage equality hasn’t changed this. If a gay couple walk into a shop today and order a naming day cake to celebrate the adoption of a child, it is already illegal for the shopkeeper to refuse to bake the cake on the grounds that s/he doesn’t approve of gay people adopting children.
When members of Parliament sit down to thrash out the legislation on same-sex marriage, they have no mandate to either tighten or loosen the antidiscrimination laws nor the exceptions to the anti-discrimination laws. If there is some tweaking that needs to be done in order to maintain the law, it should be so. But there should be no fundamental rewriting of the antidiscrimination legislation. Religious bodies and educational institutions should continue to be free from provisions of the anti-discrimination legislation if the discrimination is necessary to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of that religion, or necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion. Churches and schools should remain free to discriminate in employment where the staff position is necessary to maintaining their religion. The marriage equality legislation should not be used as a mechanism to remove these exemptions.
Neither should the marriage legislation be used as a mechanism to extend exemptions to places they don’t currently exist. For example, the suggestion by Christians that business operators should not have to bake cakes for gay weddings, or wedding reception businesses run by Christians should be free to refuse venue hire to gay couples would represent a repudiation of the current antidiscrimination legislation. When Christians argue for this to be part of the legislation, they are asking our parliamentarians to do something they have no mandate to do.
I want to tell you about my Christian LGBT friends.
Almost all of them have had an agonising journey as they have sought to reconcile their sexuality with their faith. They have cried themselves to sleep each night begging God to change them; they have been to counselling; some have sought conversion therapies; they have hated themselves; hated God for hating them; some have teetered on the verge of suicide; many have experienced years of depression; and they have eventually come to a point where they have reconciled who they are with whom God is.
Almost every one of my LGBT Christian friends has spent years pouring over the Scriptures that speak about sexuality. They have read the arguments for, the arguments against, and everything in between. When I ask my straight Christian friends how many books they have read on the theology of sexuality I’m usually met with a blank stare. Most have read none. My LGBT Christian friends have read dozens, listen to a multitude of talks, and discussed them for hours with pastors and scholars.
Almost every one of my LGBT Christian friends has experienced vile hatred in the church. They have been spat upon, yelled at, condemned to hell, asked to leave, been told God hates them, and been told that they are an abomination.
Every one of my LGBT Christian friends displays an extraordinary grace. I have never witnessed a greater willingness to forgive, a greater generosity of spirit, a greater willingness to love those who hate them, than I have seen amongst my LGBT Christian friends.
To my straight Christian friends I plead:
My LGBT Christian friends don’t need you to call them to repentance – they have agonised over what it means for them to live before God in a way few of us straight Christians have. Perhaps you could listen to them and discover from their experience what it means to seek to live faithfully before God.
My LGBT Christian friends don’t need you to tell them what the Bible teaches. When it comes to the issue of sexuality they know far more about the Bible than you do. Perhaps you could ask them to teach you what they have learned.
My LGBT Christian friends do need you to love them. How many times do you think a person can endure hatred, rejection, and have their fellow believer look condescendingly down upon them before their spirit wilts and they walk away?