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.