Israel Folau and Freedom of Speech

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Many fear that the firing of Israel Folau impinges on our religious freedoms in Australia. Are they right?

In Australia – as everywhere – I believe we have a collective responsibility to protect freedom of speech. We see challenges to this freedom in other place and we do well to treasure it. Is Israel Folau’s trouble a manifestation of a loss of that freedom? After all he was only  repeating what he has been taught by his faith community. Could it be that this aspect was not fully thought through by those who fired him? One could see it that way. And many do. However, I am concerned that Israel, being a figure who has young people looking to him for leadership and inspiration – whether he wants that or not – has shown, repeatedly, over a period, a lack of concern or awareness with regard to the effect of his words on others.

I am a Christian believer, part of Israel’s wider community of faith. As such I believe that teachers in the Christian community – responsible for followers like Israel – also carry a wider responsibility, and should fully expect to be challenged by fellow believers and by wider society as to whether public statements denigrating or demonising groups of people really are true to the teachings of Jesus and his apostles. As a student of the Bible, I happen to believe that what Israel has been taught is wrong and harmful. I would like to see those who have taught him review the precise contents of our Scriptures more carefully.

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Israel’s Insta post – not quite a quote from the New Testament…

As well as being the member of a Pentecostal congregation, Israel Folau is a member of Australian society. Responsibilities flow from that. I value Australian society as well as Australia’s religious freedoms. However religious freedom should not be a free pass to tout things – especially things that impact our society and the wellbeing of others – without challenge.

When he made similar remarks on Twitter last year Israel was offered some strong and sound advice with regard to his wider responsibilities. On that occasion he complied with his bosses’ and Rugby Australia’s advice – as he would have to in order to comply with Rugby Australia’s code of conduct. I don’t believe it is reasonable for Israel to sign up to that code and its inclusion policy and then expect to run his Twitter or Instagram accounts in the way he has.

rugby posts

This is a sad case. Having been warned by his bosses and taken through a process last year with regard to his use of social media Israel chose to breach the code again only 12 months later. To me this strongly suggests that Israel really does not understand the negative impact of his words – not the words of the NT – on his young followers – especially those of his followers who are gay. I don’t say this to heap condemnation on Folau but to be serious about the profound and dangerous effect on the self-esteem of young gay men who may look to Israel as to a hero, or who may be on the receiving end of the kind of homophobic bullying that can be emboldened by these kind of pronouncements from “authority figures.” It is worth repeating that among young gay men, suicide is the most common cause of death. The stakes are high if we get this wrong and assert “freedom of speech” over and above compassion and civility – whatever one’s beliefs.

I see it as a shame that Israel feels he has to go in to bat (forgive the metaphor) for this point of theology which in my view is built on some false assumptions and poor hermeneutics. His pastors owe him better than that. But even with his view some media coaching might not go amiss. Oh wait a minute, he was offered it and ignored it!

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Hillsong Pastor – Brian Houston – not jumping on the reactionary bandwagon

We are right to look out for religious freedoms and I understand why believers are looking at this case with a ‘thin end of the wedge‘ perspective. I get why the Australian Christian Lobby and other conservative Christian authorities are grandstanding on the issue. But I think they are wrong to do so – and I note that Hillsong Pastor Brian Houston shares the same view that I am putting forward. It seems to me that we who hold non mainstream views – ie orthodox Christian ones – need to be thoughtful about how we preach our doctrines to the world. And Twitter doesn’t necessarily bring out the most nuanced expressions from any of us! Something about being wise as serpents and innocent as doves? Something about if you’re going to be persecuted let it be because you’re a Christian and not because you breached your code of conduct or ignored professional advice or spoke in haste.

Again, I am not saying this to shame Israel Folau. I am sure a lot of us believers are looking on and thinking ‘There but for the grace of God go I.”  Neither do I support Rugby Australia’s decision to sack Israel rather than find a more conciliatory and educational way forward. Rather I would wish to point out that there are other layers to this misadventure that deserve more careful reflection.

Hermeneutics is my thing so that’s the aspect that I light on. So for what it’s worth, this is my take on the theology in question: If we take the time to translate the relevant NT passages accurately and know the context into which they were speaking it becomes clear that they do not correspond with our contemporary thought-categories of “homosexuality,” “homosexual orientation,” or “same sex marriage.” What is proscribed is the raping / exploitation of boys by men, (I Tim 1, I Cor 6) the abuse and ruination of children (Lk 17, Matt 18), and the kind of ritual sexual abuse practised by elite public figures in occult religious cults. (Rom 1) Other sexual proscriptions reference adultery and the use of prostitutes. That’s what I believe the popularly wheeled out “clobber passages” are actually talking about. Very similar to our wider society’s mores today, in fact.

At an academic level it is broadly accepted that the concepts of homosexual orientation or same sex marriage are concepts absent from the NT. It is clumsy, dishonest and untrue to apply the New Testament’s “clobber passages” to matters on which the NT is actually silent. These are the matters that Israel’s Folau’s pastors might have walked him through before he felt the need to use his position to assert the view that he has. It would also be helpful if the Christian authorities who have granstanded on the “freedom of speech” angle could engage with the theology in question before inviting Christians to back themselves further into a position of enmity and hostility towards the wider community – including a significant portion of the Christian community. This is theology that our churches urgently need to do.

There is a takeaway for all of us whatever our beliefs. Freedom of Speech is not a freedom to speak without consequences. And for believers… I Peter 3:15 is as relevant as ever…“In your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…”

 

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