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

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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.

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Anina
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Anina

Hi Scott, Lots of great thoughts in there and I agree that the hurt caused to those most deeply and internally conflicted between lifestyle and belief is the worst part of this, but I think you might go too far by saying ONLY the LGBTI community within the evangelical community feels that. With that I believe you are now excluding others who, with Job can say from Job 42 “…I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes….”. Perhaps this part of our community feel the most extreme experience of this, but I believe God is moving among evangelicals to… Read more »

Luke
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Thanks for your thoughtful commentary on this. I’m a long-time reader who really appreciates the incisive perspective you bring to polarising issues. The only point I would question is the last one. Freedom to speak one’s mind isn’t the same thing as freedom from accountability. Israel Folau, whose social media platform is significant ONLY because of the nature of his employment, has responsibilities to his employer (and, indirectly, to his employer’s sponsors) with respect to how he uses it. It’s understandable that his employer would require that he not trash their brand with posts that can be reasonably construed as… Read more »

Scott Higgins
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Scott Higgins

Hi Luke,
Thanks for the thoughtful response. You’re absolutely correct that the difficulty that the suffragettes, civil rights leaders and members of the LGBTiQ community was and for some remains vastly greater than for israel folau, who comes from a position of privilege. My point is that freedom of speech/religion needs to be diligently protected whenever and where’ve it is threatened, for the cost of sacrificing it is great.

Luke
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I agree that freedom of speech and religion should be diligently protected whenever and wherever they’re threatened. But I don’t think Falou’s employers’ move to sack him represents a genuine threat to either freedom. Here is part of their statement: “Whilst Israel is entitled to his religious beliefs, the way in which he has expressed these beliefs is inconsistent with the values of the sport. We want to make it clear that he does not speak for the game with his recent social media posts. “Israel has failed to understand that the expectation of him as a Rugby Australia and… Read more »

Ross
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Ross

This is well thought out Scott, thank you. I read Israel’s original comments, repentance and the love of Jesus were also mentioned. I believe he told everyone mentioned that Jesus loved them. I am wary of this space of these discussions. I believe we need to be sensitive, gracious and loving. We have to do the work of contextualising and engagement, i wonder though is there a time where in this effort we allow culure to interpret scripture instead of scripture interpreting our culture? I am chaplain of Rugby SA so i have had some questions regarding this whole issue.… Read more »

Warren Hodge
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Warren Hodge

I agree with Luke’s comments that Folau’s sacking is likely more about infringing his contract than restricting freedom of speech or religion. My other thoughts, and these focus on areas like sports chaplaincy, are around whether the particular views held by one, shared in a certain way in a broad forum, aside from arguments about whether they are a true or fair representation of Christians beliefs as a whole – it is whether sharing them is helpful to those who are deeply engaging with sports people in a context of showing love, human solidarity and welfare support. One person gets… Read more »

John CHURCH
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John CHURCH

I wish it was so easy . Perhaps he should not have signed the contract . We have been deliberately refused to see the contract . But if he is terminated for the use of the word homosexual does this mean Rugby Australia accepts the rest of the statement as being within the terms of his contract . It is very muddled.
Everyone is talking about Qantas but they have not been public on this issue .
So where is trust?

Harm
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Harm

Hi Scott. Nice blog! My bible is dear to me and I don’t like, to see it abused. I take issue with your first point. Israel does deliberately single out homosexuality here; he really does. If you take even only a cursory glance at the instagram post in question you will notice that he is quoting (KJV) Galations 5:19-21 which doesn’t mention homosexuality, it mentions all the others but not homosexuality. Israel deliberately chooses to add homosexuality to the list which must make us wonder if he is in fact fixated. The bible is an incredible and nuanced book. It… Read more »

Andris
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Andris

Come on Scott!
Of course we are all sinners.

But homosexuals are neither sinners because they are homosexuals nor for behaving as such.
And to say that it is their sexual orientation that qualifies them for hell is highly offensive and needs to be rejected without ifs and buts.

Luke Nottage
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Luke Nottage

Fortunately Australian federal employment law prevents discrimination based on expressions of religious belief, overriding contractual stipulations. Falau is clearly expressing Christian beliefs held for 2000 years. His retweet added that Jesus showed us not only how sinful each of us is (the bad news) but also “Jesus Christ loves you and is giving you time to turn away from your sin and come to him” (the good news, thanks to Jesus restoring justice by taking our sins to the cross). I think then Archbishop of Sydney Peter Jensen made a similar point during the same sex marriage public debates. Falau… Read more »

John CHURCH
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John CHURCH

Scott
I am not sure you have represented this correctly you seem to have jumped on pop bandwagon or is Qantas bandwagon ( remember they partnered with Emirates ) a strange bedfellow.I think the important thing to say all knew his views and do not take into account he was prepared to play with players who gay, drunks, adulters, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists or idolaters. Really this issue should not have arisen if RA were able to know where they stand on issues such as liars,drunkards etc.

Scott Higgins
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Scott Higgins

Hi John, I’m surprised you think i’ve “jumped on the pop bandwagon”. I thought I was arguing that the accusations of homophobia, hate speech and vilification levelled against Israel Folau are misplaced and that regardless of how offensive his religious views may be to many people he should have his freedom to express them protected

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