This is a post about what christians believe, how we should express our belief and how cultures can clash.
This is a post about an unfortunate episode in Australian sport and culture, from which no-one is likely to emerge a winner.
And hopefully this is a post that won’t add, even in a small way, to the problems, but instead point to a mature response.
For those who don’t know, Israel Folau is an Australian Rugby footballer of Tongan descent. He’s a very good footballer, highly paid by Australian standards. He has played for Australia many times, the youngest player ever to do so, and is the record try-scorer in Super Rugby. (For US readers, a try is similar to a touchdown, and Super Rugby is a competition for teams from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina and Japan.)
Folau was a raised a Mormon, but converted as an adult to Pentecostal Christianity. He is apparently very committed in his belief.
Three social media posts
In the past year or so, Folau has posted several tweets about his beliefs. A year ago he was asked “What was God’s plan for gay people?” and he replied: “HELL. Unless they repent of their sins and turn to God.” He received a fair bit of flak for that, but not long after, his football contract was renewed.
Then he posted a video by the late well-known US evangelist David Wilkerson, together with these words: “With great love i wanted to share this video in the hope that people watch it and think about it. Jesus is coming back soon and he wants us to turn to him through repentance and baptism in the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 2:38) please don’t harden your heart”
But it was an Instagram post just a month ago that brought things to a head. He posted a meme which said “Warning Drunks Homosexuals Adulterers Liars Fornicators Thieves Atheists Idolators Hell awaits you Repent! Only Jesus Saves” He added this plea: “Those that are living in Sin will end up in Hell unless you repent. Jesus Christ loves you and is giving you time to turn away from your sin and come to him.”, and quoted from Galatians 5:19-21 (KJV) which says that those who commit a long list of sins (which didn’t include homosexuality) would “not inherit the kingdom of God”.
The storm that followed
All hell broke loose, so to speak. Representatives of the LGBTQI community and other social progressives lashed out at his homophobia. Many others lamented his outspoken and conservative views without attacking him personally. His employer, Rugby Australia, found him guilty of breaching the players’ Code of Conduct that says all people, regardless of sexual orientation, ethnicity, etc, should be treated “fairly and with dignity”. Folau has refused to back down, so it seems likely his contract will be terminated.
But Folau has also had his supporters. Conservative media figures cried freedom of speech. Several christian leaders, including the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, expressed support or argued for freedom of religious expression. A few fellow Pasifika footballers, who tend to have a stronger christian culture than the average Australian, spoke in his support, which could be a big problem if this goes further, as Polynesians make up about a third of the Australian team.
I feel ambivalent about the rights and wrongs of this situation, but it seems to me that there are many lessons we christians can learn from this episode, and probably a few questions postmodern Australia can ponder.
Israel Folau follows a fairly traditional interpretation of hell and salvation, but I believe he is mistaken on several points.
- The Bible verse he quoted from Galatians doesn’t mention hell. In fact the author of Galatians, the apostle Paul, never mentions hell (Greek = “Ge’enna”) in any of his writings in the New Testament. Instead the passage says people who exhibit certain behaviours won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Perhaps that means hell, but I’m not so sure.
- The Galatians verse doesn’t mention homosexuality either, although several other passages by Paul do.
- Jesus is really the only one in the Bible to mention hell, and he clearly means something different to the traditional christian view – see Hell – what does the Bible say? – and mainly uses it to warn the religious and not to scare “sinners”. So like most christians, it seems Folau is following tradition rather than Jesus on this matter, though he wouldn’t see it this way.
- The second post quoted above, shows clearly that Folau believes, as do most christians, that everyone needs Jesus, not just gays or other “sinners”. But the wording in the most recent post obscures that, and focuses attention on bad behaviour and punishment rather than on Jesus, love and forgiveness. This is unfortunate.
Folau’s Tongan and Christian cultures are a long way from middle Australia’s culture, so his communication had to cross several cultural barriers before it could be heard by most people.
- Very few Australians, apart from conservative christians, take seriously the threat of hell.
- Very few people are willing to believe that a God of love would condemn people to hell.
- Most Aussies are at the very least accepting of gays, as indicated by the positive response to the recent vote on same-sex marriage.
- The culture of our time is moving towards labelling any criticism of gays as “homophobic”.
- Social media posts have to be short and simplistic and are more likely to polarise than to convince, so may not be a good place to present a difficult idea.
So it is hardly surprising that the message he wanted to present (a loving warning of a real danger) was completely misunderstood and rejected, often in disgust. A public figure like Israel Folau probably needs to learn to be more media-savvy.
It seems quite possible to me that some critics have put the worst possible spin on Folau’s remarks for their own purposes. The inclusion of “homosexuals” in Folau’s list led many people to report his post as being “homophobic”, ignoring that he included many other behaviours in his list, and that his motive was not to vilify but to warn. We can understand why the LGBTQI community, which has suffered much discrimination over the years, would be sensitive on this point. But others seem to me to have deliberately put the worst spin possible on Folau’s remarks. For example, journalist and former footballer Peter Fitzsimons seems to have conducted a vendetta to ensure that Folau’s contract is terminated, without any attempt to see both sides of the question.
Not all the criticism has been unsympathetic. For example, former Australian Rugby League player, Ian Roberts, the first elite footballer to come out as gay, spoke very respectfully and in a measured manner when he said he felt sorry for Folau, but that his words had consequences.
On the other hand, “homosexuals” is the only item on Folau’s list that relates to an orientation that is generally not a choice, which means the wording of Folau’s quote condemns people for something they probably can’t change, which may justify the criticism he has received. It is noteworthy that most christians these days understand this, and don’t classify homosexual orientation as sinful, though many still regard homosexual behaviour as sinful. Folau’s post may have been better to have made this distinction
What is homophobia anyway?
Homophobia is defined as “dislike of or prejudice against homosexual people”. But Folau has never expressed dislike for gays, and has said several times that he loves and respects all people, he just wants to warn those he thinks need Jesus.
It may surprise some of his critics to know that he has previously supported a gay world Rugby competition, appeared on the cover of a LGBTQI community magazine to promote the event, and was described as a “strong advocate for ending all forms of the discrimination in sport”. Whatever we think of his comments, it seems like “homophobic” may be an unfair and inaccurate description.
But there are other effects
Even if not homophobic as such, psychologists say that comments like Folau’s can build a sense of non-acceptance in young gays that leads to poorer mental health. Statistics show that LGBTQI people are many times more likely to commit suicide than the general population. Christians and others who believe homosexual behaviour is sinful need to be aware of these statistics, and try to express their beliefs and opinions very carefully, to avoid harming sensitive and at risk people.
Israel should have known, and probably did, that his comments would be offensive and rejected by many sportspeople, journalists and other public figures. He presumably felt the message needed to be said, but one wonders why it needed to be said when this is a sensitive subject and there are many other sins that could be highlighted. After all, Jesus spoke many times about the potential evils of wealth, but never about homosexuality.
Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling that the reaction probably did more to raise the issue in young gays’ minds than the original post did, so the measured approach of Ian Roberts was surely better than the intemperate language of some critics.
In recent years, a number of footballers, more likely Rugby League players than Rugby Union, have been accused, and sometimes convicted, of bad behaviour ranging from drunkenness and antisocial behaviour to violence and sexual assault. Many have been sanctioned, but not always as severely as contract termination and effective banishment from the game. Some say Folau is being harshly treated.
Freedom of speech?
Perhaps the biggest issue for many Aussies is freedom of speech. Isn’t Folau allowed to express an opinion? Isn’t it an opinion held by many Christians (and Muslims too) and contained in the Bible, a book which has informed much of western ethics, law and culture? Why is he condemned for making his beliefs clear, yet others are allowed to use stronger language to criticise him?
Has political correctness gone mad?
Many people have raised this issue with some sense of alarm, and it may well represent the views of the majority of Australians, just not the most vocal. And it needs to be considered. But I think it misses a very simple point.
No-one I have heard is suggesting the Folau has broken any law. Most people believe he does indeed have the right to express his opinion, even though some find it repugnant and wish he would be more sensitive, just as they have the right to criticise that opinion. I have heard gay people argue that way.
The issue is that Folau is a highly paid footballer, and much of the money that pays him comes from sponsorships by companies wishing to use the high standing and visibility of champion footballers like Folau to advertise themselves and their products. But if these companies are not willing to sponsor Rugby Union if its highest profile Australian player has become unpopular in the public eye, then Rugby Australia won’t have the money to pay his salary.
So it seems to me that this matter is, in the end, a commercial one. Folau’s employer requires certain behaviour of him so they can retain important sponsorships, but he hasn’t followed the code of conduct as required. This isn’t unreasonable of Rugby Australia. Part of my work used to be to talk to farmers and other stakeholders about the use and health of rivers, but I wonder how long I would have kept that job if I had told those I was consulting with that they were going to hell?
Some say his employer should be able to dictate what he says while he is playing and on official Rugby business, but not control his private life. But I think a high profile player like Folau is “on business” whenever he is in public, including when posting on public social media. It is a big burden to bear, but that seems to be part of life for highly paid professional sportspeople, like it or not.
Nevertheless, freedom of speech is an important aspect of cultures developing new ways to see important issues, and slamming people who disagree with you isn’t very helpful. It may be that the pushback has been too vehement, and some compromise can and should be found. Perhaps Folau can be dealt with sensitively and a clearer, more nuanced code of conduct be prepared for hm which he may be able to agree with and comply with.
A decent guy
When it’s all said and done, Israel Folau is seen by most people is a decent person who means well. Former Australian Rugby captain (and christian) Nick Farr-Jones has presented this view. He says Folau is genuine and caring, but didn’t express himself well and hadn’t been given clear enough guidelines on what he should and shouldn’t say on social media.
What can the average christian learn?
Communication is all about the other person receiving a message in a way that helps them understand and respond. Christians sometimes seem to think that boldly speaking something they believe is true is sufficient, but too often this doesn’t communicate at all, but polarises. I think we can do better, especially in matters like this:
- Hell is such a divisive topic, and tends to reduce people’s sense that God is loving, so christians need to think (and pray!) hard about whether their current understanding is true to what Jesus said (I think it isn’t) and whether it needs to be mentioned at all (Paul never spoke of it).
- The primary truth of christianity is that “God is love”. If any teaching or any way of presenting a teaching leads people to doubt that fundamental truth, we may have lost more than we have gained.
- Therefore, if we are going to talk about God’s judgment, we need to work out ways to present it sensitively and accurately within the bigger picture of God’s love and his plan for restoration of “all things”.
- Homosexuality is also a potentially divisive and hurtful subject. Christians need to be careful and sensitive in what they think is the truth and how they talk about it, to ensure they don’t harm people and present a false view of God.
- We should also ask ourselves why we need to talk about it at all. Is our task to lecture people who aren’t following Jesus on how they “should” behave? Or are christian ethics a matter for those who have chosen to follow Jesus? For the rest, isn’t our task to serve them lovingly and share our faith in the best and least confusing way possible, as opportunity allows?
I hope a way is found for Israel Folau to continue playing Rugby for Australia. I hope he is willing to reconsider what he needs to communicate and how he goes about it. Like all of us, he is still growing in his faith, and God hasn’t finished with him yet.
- What I wish I could have said as a Christian to Folau before he took to Instagram. Simon Smart
- ‘Hell awaits you’: Israel Folau embroiled in another anti-gay social media storm. News.com.au.
- Legal hurdles on both sides: the Folau ‘free speech’ case explained. Sydney Morning Herald.
- Israel Folau and the importance of protecting free speech. Canberra Times.
- Israel Folau and the rules of prejudice. Independent Australia.
- Gay former rugby league star Ian Roberts feels ‘sorry’ for Israel Folau, but says posts have ‘consequences’. ABC News.
- The statistics at a glance: the mental health of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people in Australia. National LGBTI Health Alliance.