Israel Folau, Religious Freedom & Standing for “the Truth”. Some Thoughts

Israel Folau, Religious Freedom & Standing for “the Truth”. Some Thoughts

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.

Sin as Brokenness

I am reading Derek Flood’s Healing the Gospel and have been riveted by his discussion of sin. He suggests that for too long Christians have held a forensic understanding of sin  when what we need is a medical model. The forensic model sees us as sinners deserving of punishment and focuses on Jesus as the One who rescues us from the penalty of sin, where the medical model sees us as sinners in need of healing and focuses on Jesus as delivering us from the power of sin.

My default approach has long been the forensic one. We willfully do things that harm others, ourselves and creation and will be called to account for it. I continue to believe this to be true.

I don’t want to jettison the forensic model, but I think Flood is correct to say we need to place far greater emphasis on the medical model. This model recognises the language in the New Testament about being caught up in the power of  sin. Human beings are not only perpetrators of sin but victims of it. Sin is an oppressive power that leaves us broken, oppressed, unable to do the good we want. Sin creates systems of power – economic, social, political, cultural – that trap us, hurt us, hold us back from flourishing. This is why Jesus liberated those tormented by demons, forgave the sinner, healed the sick. Here the emphasis is not on culpability but freedom from that which oppresses, holds us back.

When I was younger I read a book by JC Ryle called “Holiness”. Ryle bought into the concept of original sin, that we are hopeless sinners possessed of a nature that is prone to sin. In one memorable passage he describes the parents of a newborn caught up with love for their baby gushing about how beautiful and innocent the child is. Ryle retorts that this baby is no angel but a little sinner prone to evil.

A medical model thinks not in terms of original sin, but original goodness. We are amazing beings created in the image of God. We can’t help but be inclined to love, kindness, generosity. Sin distorts the ways we express this – eg we direct great love to our children while we neglect the poor Indian child – but as Christ changes us we love in ways more and more after the love of God.

At the end of the day I want to hold onto both models. I am both a perpetrator and a victim of sin. Nonetheless, I find the medical model really does frame the gospel as good, hopeful news. May there be more of it.


What’s Wrong with the World?

The Times once invited famous authors to answer the question “What’s wrong with the world?” GK Chesterton gave the shortest reply

Dear sir,

What’s wrong with the world?

I am

We like to think that the world’s problems are of someone else’s making…hate-filled terrorists, greedy CEOs, cynical politicians – we all have someone to blame.

But I think Chesterton got it right. It’s all of us. We make choices with terrible consequences.

Ethicist Peter Singer begins his first year classes at Princeton by posing this dilemma: you are walking past a fountain when you notice a child drowning in it. You are wearing a brand new and expensive pair of shoes. You don’t have time to take them off and save the child. So what do you do? Invariably every student says they would save the child and sacrifice the shoes. Singer challenges them on this. He points out that every year millions of children die from preventable or treatable diseases such as diarrhea.  If we were prepared to donate our money to charities that work in the developing world the lives of almost every one of those children could be saved. But we don’t. We buy the expensive shoes instead.

There are critiques that could be made of Singer’s illustration, but I think the essential point stands. We have the capacity to save lives but we prefer to spend our money on other things.

Or take the environment. We know we are degrading it, making it much more difficult for future generations to utilise its resources. But most of us don’t care enough to do anything about it. We go on consuming as if it doesn’t matter and insist our politicians don’t do anything that will impinge on our lifestyle. Nero fiddled while Rome burned and we do much the same.

Bring it down to the interpersonal and think about the fact that half of all marriages break down. Almost every one of those has seen betrayals big and small; angry, wounding words; and the pain of rejection. These things can occur not only in marriages that break down but marriages that stay together and in a host of other relationships.  We wound each other all too often.

Yes there are quite magnificent things that we do. But if we own our magnificence we must also own our wickedness.

According to the Bible we are magnificent – it says we are created in God’s image. We cannot help but reflect the character of God – we love, we act generously, we empathise with those who are wounded. But the Bible also teaches that we are “sinners” – we are not only flawed and broken but we willfully elect to act in ways that harm others and the world.

The Bible also says that God will hold us to account for this, that a time for judgement is coming. My trouble is believing that I deserve to be judged. I want to cry out that I am basically a good person. I want to blame someone else for all those dying children, for the build-up of greenhouse gases and the loss of species at an unprecedented rate. I want to qualify and excuse myself for the words I spoke that wounded another, and for the words of encouragement that were needed but I didn’t speak. I want to, but in those quiet moments when I am brutally honest with myself, I can’t.

What’s wrong with the world?

I am.


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