Israel Folau is an Australian of Tongan descent. Until recently he was best known as a talented rugby player. He has won 73 caps playing for Australia, has been the Wallabies’ Player of the Year for a record three times and he is the fourth-highest try-scoring Australian international player ever.
However, Folau is also a Christian, and his social media posts have got him into trouble in the past. This month posted a message saying “Drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolators – Hell awaits you.” This prompted Rugby Australia to terminate his contract, and the Australian Rugby League banned Folau from any NRL team in the future.
These events have been widely reported, both nationally and internationally. His comments are usually reported as being “anti-gay” or “homophobic”, something that Folau himself denies.
A Personal Reaction
My personal reaction is that Folau’s comments are simplistic and negative.
The Bible says “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23, my emphasis). It emphasises that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). One of the most famous of all Bible verses states “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16, again my emphasis).
In my view, the problem with Folau’s judgement is that it sounds like he wants sinners to be punished. This is the exact opposite of the Christian message. From the first disciples to this day, Christians have sought to spread the ‘Good News’ (Gospel) of forgiveness.
Some will post or tweet “hate speech shouldn’t be allowed”. I’ve seen this simplistic and negative reaction on social media. Others will point out that social media is full of simplistic and negative statements, so why is this any different? Folau is just another troll: ignore him.
Many Australian rugby and football players have been in the news for the wrong reasons. Posting lewd videos of themselves on social media doesn’t get reported much anymore. Players have been in the news accused of drink driving, rape, sexual assault and domestic violence. Folau’s lifetime ban for making a controversial statement looks harsh compared to the sanctions that others have suffered.
The Core Issue
Now Folau’s comments are, IMHO, misguided, but are they ‘hate speech’, ‘anti-gay’ and ‘homophobic’?
The first thing to note is that Folau isn’t just stating a personal opinion. He is reporting what is in the Bible. The Bible doesn’t spend much time talking about gay sex, but when it does it forbids God’s people from practising it. Jesus himself said “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them” (Mathew 5:17). It’s worth noting that when Jesus found people being punished for their sins he never said that they weren’t in the wrong. Instead, he forgave them.
It’s also worth remembering that other world religions and cultures take a similar view to Folau’s. Western, liberal views are not commonly found elsewhere. Even in Australia, when we had the vote for same-sex marriage, 38% voted ‘NO’.
Same-Sex Marriage in Australian Politics
For the benefit of readers outside Australia, it’s worth briefly explaining why this issue is not just controversial, but a party-political football (no pun intended).
Back in 2004, the government of Prime Minister John Howard changed the law so that “Marriage means the union of a man and a woman” and “A union solemnised in a foreign country between: a man and another man; or a woman and another woman; must not be recognised as a marriage in Australia.” Understandably, this move enraged the LGBT community.
Now, the Australian left hates John Howard, and his legacy, with a vengeance. He has a similar stature to Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan. All three leaders took their countries to the right of politics, and all three were very successful, repeatedly humiliating their left-wing opponents in popular votes.
Same-Sex Marriage Vote
I didn’t know any of this when I came to Australia in 2012.
I was puzzled. The Liberal Party (‘Liberal’ means right-wing in Australia) had promised this vote in their manifesto, they won the election, and then they tried to hold the vote. The Australian left did everything they could to prevent it.
‘Why?’ I wondered – the left are bound to win! (Maybe they weren’t so sure.)
Eventually, the Liberal Prime Minister found a way to hold the vote, despite opposition from the right wing of his own Party. In the run-up to the vote, there was a positive campaign for LGBT rights. However, there was also simplistic and negative campaigning on both sides.
Some LGBT pressure groups sought to suppress or eliminate any kind of debate, and they were very effective. Anyone who disagreed with them, however politely or respectfully, risked being labelled a bigot, being reported to the police or having their business boycotted.
Even when we voted decisively for same-sex marriage, this vengeful spirit persisted. As the Prime Minister celebrated (he would probably have lost his job if he had lost the vote), some on the left sought to deny him any credit. This was ironic, even hypocritical, seeing as they had tried to prevent it in the first place!
A Different Standard
So when Folau fired his Instagram broadside against “Drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolators” he was kicking a hornets’ nest.
Interestingly, he hasn’t been taken to task for lambasting the other groups – that barely gets a mention. Don’t their feelings count?
I also note that Christians are frequently insulted and derided by atheists and secularists. (Some in Australia are calling for all churches to have their charitable status revoked, even though they raise their funds through voluntary donations and do valuable work in the community, just like…a charity.) Nobody is suggesting that these critics should not be allowed their say, or that they should be fired from their day jobs.
Whether we agree with him or not, Folau might think that he is being judged by a different standard to many others in Australian society. He is.
As I write this it is Easter weekend, when Christians commemorate Jesus’s death on the cross to win our forgiveness: forgiveness we don’t deserve. Jesus said, “do not judge, or you will too be judged” (Matthew 7:1) Perhaps this is good advice for Folau, the rugby authorities, the PC bullies, and for many of us on social media.