Rugby, Heaven and sinners
Israel Folau is a wonderfully talented athlete and a mesmerising joy to watch. Even those (can’t imagine why) who are not fans of rugby should be in awe of his skill. Also he is a transparently good man. Is he capable of hate? Only in as much that all human beings are. Was hate towards other human beings in his head as he took to social media – I do not think so. So what has gone so terribly wrong, both for him and for his fans, of whom I am unapologetically one.
Israel is a devout member of a Christian Church, open to all but especially attractive to fellow pacific islanders. In that sense his Church is both a place of Christian commitment and of cultural identity and belonging. That he wears his Christianity on his sleeve should be respected for its authenticity, and in a secular environment, for its courage.
Respect, or perceived lack of it, is at the heart of the matter. In Israel’s head he is condemning activity of which he thoroughly disapproves and finds culturally and spiritually repugnant. The problem is that in the heart of those on the receiving end of his message he is not simply judging activity he is condemning identity, the reality of who others are. In the past, including biblical times, it was assumed that homosexuality was the deviant behaviour of heterosexual people. If this view had continuing credibility then, as tough as Israel’s words might be, they could perhaps be accepted as the zealous views of a conservative Christian.
But this view is widely discredited. It is now overwhelmingly accepted (although clearly not completely), that some are born homosexual while the majority are born heterosexual: it is not a choice. While some may experiment with various expression of sexuality, the truth of the matter is that while most humans are heterosexual a not insignificant minority are homosexual by nature and cannot choose to be otherwise. Thus, as gay folk hear Israel’s words it is their being, not simply homosexual activity that is being condemned: it is being said they are unacceptable to God. How can this be? How could God possibly find any human being unacceptable for being who they are? A trite aphorism is “condemn the sin but not the sinner”. Unfortunately Israel’s words fall short of this sage advice, despite the fact he may well have thought this was what he was doing.
The debate surrounding Israel also touches other issues.
Freedom of speech can never be without limit. No one has the right to purposefully and publicly demean another human being. One of the strange rules of parliamentary democracy is that a politician can demean another citizen, fellow politician or not, under the protection of parliamentary privilege, but they are not free to repeat the same outside the parliament. While I still hold the title of bishop, I am rightly obligated to a standard of life expected of one holding that title. On the other hand I am now free from the obligation of office and feel freer to speak on matters of public life than I did while my words could be interpreted as representing the voice of the people of the Diocese.
As one of the highest profile members of the Australian rugby community, Israel is rightly expected to live by a standard that does not demean the code and his peers within it. He gains his profile, and not inconsiderable income from that code and is therefore obligated to respect and honour its rightful and reasonable expectations. Given some members of his code have already declared themselves to be gay, his words cross that boundary.
Freedom of Religion is a very topical matter of debate. I hold that freedom to be very dear. I have exercised that right over the last 50 years by speaking forthrightly in the arena of social justice as an essential expression of my faith. On more than one occasion a Prime Minister has told me to ‘stick with religion’, only to respond to the said Prime Minister that that is exactly what I am doing and why I am speaking. I am speaking out of my deeply rooted faith. However there is a limit even to this right. I am free to speak about the injustice of Australia’s refugee policy or the abject failure of government to address climate change, but I am not free to encourage anarchic behaviour as a consequence. I do not accept that Hell is a place, but is a metaphor for the most horrible outcome that could face a human being. The words carry far more than a condemnation of what is considered by Israel to be immoral activity. The words are therefore an abuse of religious freedom.
At another level Australian religious institutions benefit from government largess through forgone rates and taxes: taxpayer grants are received, especially for schools. This largess should necessitate conformity with Australian social norms. The taxpayer has the right to assume this conformity. At the ballot box the Australian taxpayers have expressed unequivocal support for inclusivity regarding sexual or gender orientation. Schools receiving government funding should reflect this expectation in their staffing and enrolment arrangements.
Israel’s social media comments also highlight the great range of Christian scriptural interpretation. Scripture speaks to scripture. One of the unmistakeable and foundational principles of scripture is respect for all life and in particular respect and honouring of humanity in all its diversity. We now understand that diversity to include gender and sexual orientation. On the other hand promiscuity has been and is rife in every generation. All too frequently this promiscuity has included experimentation that is demeaning and abusive. It is incumbent upon all Christians to condemn such activity.
The bible contains a multitude of images to convey life after death. Heaven and hell are the most well-known. Like all images they are severely limited in their capacity to convey meaning and truth. The Bible conveys a simple message - “God is all in all” To be embraced by God is life, to be without God is death, or nothing. Heaven then essentially means to be with God. To be with God means to be with everything that belongs to God. ‘Hell’ means to be without God. To be without God is clearly non-existence. How or whether it is possible for any human life to miss the outreached hand of God we must say with St Paul:
Now we see through a glass darkly
Later we shall see face to face
Now I know only in part
Then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known
Now faith, hope and love abide
And the greatest of these is love