The Israel Folau Debacle: Why This Isn’t a Holy War

“Don’t write an article on Israel Folau” I told myself. “Don’t do it. Don’t do it.” Which is all well and good but I knew I *had* to do it. Especially when I saw this article and others about religious freedoms. It seems this has sparked a whole lot of panic over the rights of Christians to practice their faith. I even saw whispers of proposals for a so-called “Folau Bill” to be put before Parliament. I couldn’t find the article when I looked for it again so I’m hoping its dead in the water. But I felt compelled to write today because there is a whole lot of fearmongering out there about what this means for Christians.

Here’s the answer: it means nothing.

On the 8th of May, Peter Fitzsimmons wrote a piece for the Sydney Morning Herald dispelling the 6 worst misconceptions about the Folau Case (which, for the uninformed, was a Rugby Player violating his code of conduct by posting an inflammatory statement vilifying homosexuals and others on Instagram. He has since been stood down by Rugby Australia for that violation). Common sense is out there, like Fitzsimmons wrote in this article which everyone should read (I’ll wait…).

But so far common sense has taken a back seat to cries of “we’re not free anymore” from the Christian Right. Don’t let Fitzsimmons tone of “Do I seriously have to explain this again” deter you. Underneath that, there are some well-made points.

Here is my take on it: I was blissfully unaware that this time a year ago, Folau did a similar thing. It caused a stir that lasted three weeks and threw Rugby Australia under the bus. In their handling of the case, it is alleged that Folau was warned against doing it again as it broke their code of conduct. The caution was given and then business resumed as normal.

But then he did it again. This time, the meltdown has been much longer than three weeks.

The fact is that this is not about religious freedom or freedom of speech. The core issue is about employee-employer relations. And its reasonable. I have friends who worked for councils during local council elections.  It was against their code of conduct to post about their preferences because they were employees and needed to stay apolitical. I have friends who work in the public service. None of them post anything that would bring their branch of it into disrepute. I am sensitive to the political atmosphere that surrounds my line of work, so I stay away from anything that would draw it into the mire. This is not encroaching on any of our rights to free speech. All of us could break the implicit or explicit code of conduct if we chose to. We would  not be free from the consequences of it though, and that would be reasonable. A reasonable employee knows they need to uphold the reputation and values of their company.

What makes Folau’s case so special? 1) Because the Christian Right seem to have made him a martyr for the so-called cause of Christ and 2) Because he was supposedly making statements on his own Instagram feed – i.e. away from work. This raised the question over whether our employers could take action based on what we do away from work.

Well if it violates their code of conduct, if it brings their brand or business into disrepute, and especially if the person in question has already been warned, then I’d say yes, they can. But I would argue that Izzy Folau wasn’t away from work when he made the post. Allow me to explain:

  1.  Folau, as a player in a major sport, has amassed many followers. It would only be an extraordinarily (perhaps wilfully) naïve player that was unaware that they are role models to that following. Rugby Australia hasn’t been without its challenges on the actions of players, but each of these seems to have been met with various attempts at just responses. Folau’s is no exception, apart from that the potential damage was done not to one person but to a group of people who have already got a raised likelihood of depression and anxiety.
  2. A predictable perk of sporting fame is the social media following it seems to attract. This following was made possible because of Folau’s Rugby fame. Sure, he would have had some followers, but not the 364,000 he has at the time of writing. The majority of them follow him because of his sport, not his faith. While Folau may be tempted to use this platform to evangelise that number of people, he needs to remember it’s a following basically handed to him by his Rugby career. It is completely reasonable for this crowd to be offended by such ranty, legalistic posts as the one that caused the stir.
  3. Currently “Social media influencer” is a job in and of itself. SM influencers can be paid in the thousands if they have a much, much smaller following than Folau. But the thing is Folau’s social media following is tied directly to his career as an athlete. So are his sponsorships.

What am I saying? Folau wasn’t away from work. His social media activity is part of it. Rugby Australia, and the majority of Australia it seems, kicked up a stink not because of Folau’s Christianity, but because we are really sick of the whole “let’s use the Bible to target LGBTI+ people.” I say “we” because I am right there with those who feel that way. Its Pride Month, so my next post will tell you about why. Anyway…

The Freedom of Speech Issue

There are some Christians and Christian groups who took this as an assault on Freedom of Speech and Religion, and this has sadly left them open to fear that Australia isn’t the beautifully free place to live, love and practice our faith. This is an absolute fallacy. Why? Check out what else the UN has to say about the right to free speech (remembering that article 19 is the free speech bit):

Article 29:

“(1) Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.
(2) In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.
(3) These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.”

What does this mean? Our right to free speech is balanced by our responsibility to the community. We can’t just cherry pick the bits that let us say what we want. If it victimises, targets, vilifies or puts at risk another group, then its not okay. If it makes it difficult for another persons personality to develop fully (as I’d argue homophobia in churches does), then we have a responsibility to adjust our expectations of “freedom.” If the community kicks back, then that is fine. It is to be expected. We can’t just say what we want and call it religious freedom. We have to be considerate of others. Ironically, that is what I believe Jesus would want us to do. Show love. Show compassion.

Anyway…

Fitzsimmons put it this way: “While he [Folau] has broad freedom of speech, he has no freedom from consequences. Secondly, those who are howling loudest about freedom of speech for Israel – Alan Jones et al – are precisely those who howled loudest against the likes of Yassmin Abdel-Magid – who tweeted on Anzac Day 2017 we should also reflect on Manus Island. Ditto, when Scott McIntyre tweeted his own views about the Anzacs and those who commemorated Anzac Day, there was not a single peep out of them about his rights to freedom of speech. They wanted him sacked from SBS, and he was.”

Again, we can’t just cherry pick the bits that suit us and kick up a stink when other peoples right to freedom (of speech, religion, and development of personality) is at odds with what we want.

The Freedom of Religion Issue

There have been those like Jones who believe Folau is under attack for being a Christian. This, to be honest, is ridiculous. This isn’t Folau’s first ride on the homophobia bandwagon. Rugby Australia have had to deal with this before and they did not fire him straight away. If they were anti-Christian, then they’ve already had a chance to be rid of him and didn’t take it. They have made no anti-Christian comments. The community may have, but there are a couple of points I feel compelled to raise to rebut this:

  • We can’t get caught up in the Facebook discussions on this. Comment sections on news articles have always been and will continue to be where mud is slung and anger is vented. It does not reflect the policies of Rugby Australia or of the Australian government where discrimination based on religion, sexuality or gender is not allowed.
  • The rage vented against Christians who have defended Folau is likely to be, in a good many cases, based on the fact that the community is sick of the carry-on. Marriage Equality passed because the majority of Australia felt it should. It passed because the majority of Australia believed that love is love and that LGBTI+ people deserved equality in every manner. We can’t be surprised about at people’s lividness that such judgements still exist.
  • I get that Folau’s motivation may have been evangelism and not hate speech. That’s all well and good, but it all came out the same. There are better ways to reach people than to scream from the loudest megaphone we have that “you are going to hell.” My personal take on it is that we should follow Jesus because He is/was God and set us the ultimate example of love, not because we are afraid of what He’ll do to us if we don’t (which is a topic for yet another day).
  • If Folau, nobly, felt that preaching fire and brimstone would be an excellent witness for Christ, I’d counter that it isn’t. It simply entrenches attitudes that the church is nasty and out of touch.

On the final point, Pastor Brian Houston (of Hillsong fame) had this to say:

As Christians it is equally important to look at ourselves and our own failings and imperfections,” Houston wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald.  “If you look at the list of sins that Izzy listed there’s not too many people he’s left out, including Christians. There isn’t a person on earth who hasn’t told a lie or put something before God (idolatry). In 40 years of telling people about the good news of Jesus, I have seen that the ‘turn or burn’, approach to proclaiming the message of Christianity alienates people. Scaring people doesn’t draw them into the love of Jesus. The world doesn’t need more judgmental Christians.”

Its a point well made. As a Christian, my gentle challenge for all of us is to recognise that legalistic, narrow minded, homophobic rants do nothing to further the cause of Christianity which has always been and will always be to disrupt the status quo with love and draw people closer to God. My gentle encouragement to everyone else is “Be encouraged. Christian Progressives do exist. We are just quieter than the far right for now, but we are finding our voice.”

Australia is a great place to live, love and practice faith. We are free here, to live as our conscience and faith demands. We are not free from the consequences of our actions, nor should we be. Because Jesus, who sat with society’s outcasts and gave his life for all, is not represented well by fear-mongering and exclusion. The irony is that Jesus was looked down upon by the religious establishments of His day because He was inclusive. Yet many of the religious establishments of today seem to look down on inclusiveness because of Jesus.

Don’t let Israel Folau become a martyr for that cause. Don’t let this debacle draw you into a place of fear. We are free here. Truly.

This article is already as long as it needs to be. I have long run out of time to talk about why the Christian fundamentalist tendency to use the Bible to justify homophobia is simply a case of “lost in translation.” That’s a topic for next week. While it is deeply entrenched in Christendom, and not easily shifted, it is not all it seems.  There is a growing movement of Christian progressives who are willing to challenge the status quo, and a growing number of scholars willing to look into the original translations of the Bible and reconstruct it. Nestled within that are many things that have been hidden in plain sight for as long as there has been terminology for same sex attraction.

I’ll break it all down for you next week. In the mean time: Happy Pride Month to all Queer Christians and LGBTI+ people everywhere. Ignore the rhetoric: You are loved by God. You are loved by me.

See you next week.

Kit K

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. HAT says:

    Thoughtful post, and right on about the social media influencers. You may also appreciate the following response to the substantive issue of Folau’s comments by Professor Joan Taylor here: http://historicaljesusresearch.blogspot.com/2019/04/joan-taylor-responds-to-israel-folau.html?m=1

    Like

    1. Kit K says:

      Thank you so much for the link to the article! It’s exactly what I’ve been looking for!

      Liked by 1 person

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