The Israel Folau saga is set to continue, now into its second year, and could well continue into a third, but I am hoping not.
There are so many inter-related issues with this matter that it is hard to actually to get through them all.
Recently, my attention was drawn to an article by a former Chaplain of the Brumbies, with another of the genres of articles it is all Rugby Australia’s fault, Rugby Australia is failing and either because of its management of the Folau issue or the Folau incident is putting the nail in the coffin of Ruby Australia[i]. (https://www.spectator.com.au/2019/06/exclusive-dear-rugby-australia/?fbclid=IwAR1ISBDs9eLSICuQodjHH9n1kItQFWg8286Ol739CBVNE8aNKkJWUSovBVI)
Warning this is a long blog, as responding to short blog that may seem to be inconsequential by that author, but it needs detailed consideration, analysis and an appreciation of nuance, which unfortunately many who want to attack LGBTIQ people wish to avoid.
So, get a cup or a mug of coffee or tea, with your favourite biscuit and settle in for a read!
I propose to respond to the key challenges and issues with this article and why there are other perspectives that I personally believe is more important and more valid.
But as a refresher, I am an active Christian, with multiple leadership roles in one of the largest Christian denominations in Australia. And for transparency, I am also gay. This means that I regularly struggle for acceptance within the broader Christian community, and because of the harm that Christians have caused to the LGBTIQ community, sometimes treated with caution within the LGBTIQ community.
Let’s start with some broader context.
Some years ago, the Out on the Field study, one of the first and most extensive studies of homophobia in sport, it involved many countries and identified significant homophobia within the sporting community[ii].
- 80% of participants in the study experienced or witnessed homophobia in sport.
- 75% of participants in the study believe that an openly gay person would not be very safe as a spectator at a sporting event
- 34% gay of participants in the study have been bullied, 27% of gay participants have received verbal threats, and 15% of gay participants have been physically assaulted
- 70% of gay youth (under 22) believe youth sport is not safe for gay people
I would encourage readers of this blog to read the report in detail. A link is in the endnotes.
This follows on from years of gay bashings, LGBTIQ people suffering discrimination in all types of situations. In the Australian context, we know that LGBTIQ kids can currently be discriminated in non-Government schools in Australia, and many religious organisation are fighting for the retention of this right of discrimination, under the guise of religious freedom.
I recently had some conversations with several leaders within my Church about repetitive and cumulative trauma.
I have been concerned about this for some time as an issue for many in the Aboriginal community. There are those among us and within the media that go out of their way to identify flaws or weaknesses within the Aboriginal people, and upon finding one or two individuals, entire communities are then made to feel at fault.
I have also been aware of the concept of ongoing trauma within the community of people who have suffered from ‘institutional child sexual abuse’. Firstly, they were abused. Then when they told someone, it is unlikely they were believed. Later (if they were brave enough to report it to the police or other authorities), they were often considered to be making up stories, or the authorities interfered to protect the institutions or individuals within them.
Later, with the Royal Commission, many had to retell their stories, provide facts to investigators, both privately and publicly when asked to take the stand. This only added to the trauma they have suffered.
Now, as cases are going through the criminal courts (even if the situation doesn’t involve a particular individual), the wall-to-wall media interest in high profile cases brings back their trauma. They are being repeatedly traumatised.
While LGBTIQ issues are very different from these issues discussed above, they have a parallel. As I journey through writing my book coming out early next year, “A Journey Towards Acceptance – an evolving memoir”, I have seen the impacts of little events and challenges along the way. These little things cumulate.
When I talk with people around the Israel Folau matter, there are those that say there are no consequences concerning Folau’s posts. But there are. We all know the saying ‘The straw that broke the camel’s back’. Cumulative trauma is a real issue within the LGBTIQ community.
The last few years have been huge for LGBTIQ advocates, and from reading about some of the 30-year plus veteran advocates, they say the previous three to five years have been the most intense in a long time. In just the recent few years my own experiences:
- Engagement to have Parliament directly deal with marriage equality
- Commitment to stop the plebiscite on marriage quality
- Campaigning for marriage quality through the postal survey. In my case, I received numerous social media nooses as threats, and many other horrendous comments such as “all LGBTIQ kids should die”
- Dealt with my own homophobic attack in late 2017
- Continuing the momentum during the marriage equality debates in Parliament
- Engaging with the Church process around same-gender marriage decision
- Advocating during the attempts to delay the Assembly decision through a clause in the Church’s constitution never used before
- Supporting transgender people’s rights who have received inappropriate treatment by medical practitioners
- Engagement around the Israel Folau issue that is now into its second year
- Engagement with the secretive Ruddock Inquiry into Religious Freedom
- Responding to misinformation by so many around Transgender people, across the media, some elements of the medical profession (usually driven by conservative Christian views overriding medical knowledge), and politicians, including our Prime Minister before the election
- Upcoming engagement with the Australian Law Reform Commission on the Prime Minister’s referral of religious freedom to them
- Meeting with Local, Federal and State MP’s on LGBTIQ issues, including HIV in our area
- Post the 2019 Federal election I am seeing an increase in hostility towards the LGBTIQ community as a result of the recent election, primarily due to the stance taken by News Corporation and the conservative Christian Churches and associated lobby groups who feel they are owed something from the return of the Government.
So, this is some of the context that brings me to the writing of this particular blog. I have selected some quotes from the blog, and offer an alternative perspective that I believe better meets the sporting arena and also a Christian reflection.
“It has been reported today that Israel Folau wants to play Rugby for Australia again, and he is willing to allow vetting of his social media posts. He is also willing to seek expert guidance on using social media to express his Christian views. Rugby Australia, there is your window.“.
It is always challenging to comment upon “it is reported” without actually providing a reference. The Australian reported on 2 June 2019[iii] that “Israel Folau was set to accept a deal with Rugby Australia that would have saved his job until his father intervened to stop him, according to a report out today.”
Folau first fell foul of his social media roughly 12 months earlier than this current incident that led to his contract being terminated. Surely, he should have taken on the process of social media education after Rugby Australia provided him with a lifeline from that earlier incident.
He was provided with a window, and he decided to smash it.
“You have made a mountain out of a molehill. Israel was writing to those who chose to follow him on social media. They chose.”
This is one of the most egregious points in this article and shows a lack of understanding of social media and its reach.
Many young people follow their stars from a very young age. What we know from research that from around the age of 10 is the age of development of sexual attraction and sexuality[iv].
Therefore, a young person may be following their idol not being fully aware of their sexual orientation, and then as that awareness develops, they are still pursuing their hero, who then posts messages of condemnation.
I know that Christians like Folau sincerely believe that they are loving homosexuals by telling them unless they repent, they are going to Hell, and unfortunately, there are many that support of his position. However, this is why LGBITQ teenagers are significantly over-represented as homeless people, why LGBTIQ people attempt self-harm and suicide many multiple times more than compared to their peers. The Folau comments are not “love”, they are based, in my opinion, on a prejudice that is not substantially supported through Biblical enquiry, nor following the principles of the key person they purport to represent, Jesus Christ.
The issue is that a post like Folou’s may be unlikely that this is the first and only message that may cause a suicidal event (but it is possible), but it may well be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back, leading to suicide.
When LGBTIQ have suffered, and continue to suffer abuse, you don’t know whether your minor comment can cause a catastrophic effect. Folau’s post was not a minor comment, but the continuation of misuse of the Bible and a history of Christian attacks on the LGBTIQ community.
Even the Liberal Government recognised in the last Federal Election that there are significant mental health issues in the LGBTIQ community. These mental health issues are not because people are LGBTIQ, but as a result of the response of others towards LGBTIQ people.
“What is more, you know it wasn’t hate speech. It was a warning based on what he believes is the truth and it was motivated by love. You’ve seen enough hate speech to know the difference.”
I wonder if the author has ever experienced actual hate speech. They may well have, but if they had, I am surprised they would make this comment.
I have suffered hate speech, I have been racially abused, which may seem strange given that I am a white male Australian. The tribunal dealing with the matter was following the protocols used in these type matters.
The accused in the hearing kept saying it wasn’t hate speech, but I, as the recipient of the hate speech, knew and felt it was hate speech.
It is a common position of conservative Christians in their interaction with LGBTIQ people that their comments, no matter how inappropriate, no matter how theologically dubious they are, if you add the clause “the comments were made in love”, all is alright.
When you are telling anyone that they are going to Hell simply because of the way they were born is abuse. The more subtle abuse is to say being LGBTIQ is not sinful, but acting on your natural sexuality is. God doesn’t call people to celibacy, it is acknowledged it is a very hard calling and only a few are called, there is no blanket call to celibacy for a class of people in society.
Imagine you are a 15-year-old person, perhaps even playing in your school or local rugby club, coming to acceptance of your sexual orientation, knowing that others will cause you grief, and then your idol tells you that you are going to Hell? That is not a great scenario for any young person.
Yes, I’ve seen hate speech, both hate speech towards LGBTIQ people and myself, and other forms of hate speech, and the Folau social media post meets that threshold.
Most concerning is that if this author is a Chaplain, I am very concerned about their capability to provide adequate pastoral care to people who are “others” in our society, if they seriously maintain that Folau’s comments are not a form of hate speech.
“Rugby Australia, you are alienating so much of your player base and your supporter base. Where would we be without our Polynesian brothers and sisters? Where would we be without our Catholic, Anglican, and other church school teams?”
There is much to talk about theology and its understanding across all our communities. In my business life, church life and theological education, when I have provided a different theological interpretation that makes sense, most people respond, why haven’t I heard this?
That’s because many religious leaders will only provide their congregations with a view that suits their theology, rather than having the strength of their own understanding to explore with their congregants a wide variety of interpretations to develop their own robust theology.
As we research cultural history, we understand that in so many countries and cultures, LGBTIQ people were accepted, and the English colonisation and its Victorian perspectives on sexuality and associate laws removed the acceptance of LGBTIQ people. As a significant number of Western countries have recognised that damage imposed on LGBTIQ people by laws and societal attitudes, unfortunately, many of the colonies are only starting to follow these reforms.
Most people in Australia would be shocked to learn that the first time the word homosexual appeared in the English versions of the Bible was in the Revised Standard Version in 1946. More concerningly is that research that has been underway for the last several years on the translation of the RSV and the subsequent NIV Bible is indicating that no serious academic translation work was undertaken around its introduction. This research project is expected to be published in the USA later this year. Some have argued that the translation of “arsenokoitai” and “malakos”, as one-word “homosexual” was driven through a cultural lens and an ideological construct rather than detailed academic and theological work.
So, the word homosexual hasn’t been a lifelong word in the English translations of the Bible.
If we look the various translations of Folau’s selected versions, the New Revised Standard Version uses “male prostitutes”, the New Living Translation also uses “male prostitutes”, but then adds “or practice homosexuality”, the King James Version uses “nor effeminate, nor abuses of themselves with mankind”, and the NIV translates as “nor men who have sex with men.” We clearly have translational issues. Do we use a version of the Bible that fits our cultural and ideological perspective?
So how do we move forward with this? We can take a literal view, and rely on our preferred translation of the Bible, for a construct we wish to achieve, but unfortunately, this leads to issues around consistency. Remember, that the Bible was used forcefully to justify the continuation of slavery in the United States of America, the country from which much of the evangelical Christian thought emerges. The Bible is still used to exclude women from leadership roles in the Christian Church, even here in Sydney right now.
The Bible was part of the justification for the taking of Aboriginal people in Australia from their homes and culture into the Missions, destroying their culture, hope and spirituality.
Is there an alternative? I tend to follow the Biblical interpretation method of trying to understand the Bible through an understanding of the text, the culture and context of the time, and what history might tell us. Being a member of the Uniting Church, our Basis of Union calls us to “enter into the inheritance of literary, historical and scientific enquiry”.
I contend that Paul’s world at the time, Rome, Corinth, there certainly was a significant level of sexual immorality. Sexual exploitation, and in particular in the context of the Folau references, the practice of pederasty, men were maintaining young boys for sex. What is also important from a literary inquiry perspective is there is very little in the subsequent literature around the word “arsenokoitai” to help translators understand its use, context and meaning. There are equal reasons to surmise that “arsenokoitai” may be more connected to economic sexual exploitation.
Peeling this back further, there are only 6 verses out of some 31,100 verses in the Bible that some people use to condemn homosexual people. However, if this is considered through the lens I am offering, they do not refer to homosexual relationships as we understand them today. This is where our understanding of homosexuality (our medical and scientific knowledge) comes into play. I would suggest that homosexual people have been in existence since the beginning of humankind, and why would God create people only for the purpose of condemning them to Hell?
The arguments for LGBTIQ exclusion are not strongly supported in the Bible. What is strongly encouraged is the concept of Love, which is mentioned in the NRSV 601 times, NIV 590 times and the King James only 310 times.
Australia and Rugby have benefited from our Christian Schools, however, when Chaplains at a Christian school in Sydney within the last 20-30 years tells LGBTIQ kids to commit suicide so they don’t infect other children at drag them into Hell, you have to ask is that firstly appropriate, secondly does this attitude represent Jesus Christ, and finally it adds to homophobia in sport discussed earlier?
The New Testament, the books pointing to God through Jesus, is summarised in two principles “Love God and Love one another”.
“You have painted Izzy into a corner.”
This is false victim narrative. The religious conservative movement in Australia, since the Marriage Equality process have tried to claim the victim position, often not telling the truth in the process. The current religion freedom (which I call privilege) debate post the Australian 2019 Federal Election is trying to build a narrative that Christians in Australia are suddenly being threatened, abused and oppressed, none of which is true.
What is happening is that communities of faith that have historically had their position accepted without challenge are now having to present and justify their place in society, and with a more informed society, the faith demand for acceptance of their position is not automatically being accepted. That is not abuse nor oppression.
“You demanded that he take down a post. That seems reasonable, but you haven’t attempted to walk in his shoes.”
This is potentially the second most egregious comment in the article, may I suggest that Folau and the author actually walk in the shoes in the LGBTIQ community and also LGBTIQ Christians. When they are walked in those shoes then we can revisit this comment.
I refer readers to my earlier blog article on the man born blind and the shoes that Jesus actually asks us to consider (and spoiler alert this passage is not about healing)
“Take the opportunity to forge a new future for religious and cultural liaison in Rugby. Lead well. Show some grace.”
This one area that I agree, but not in the way I suspect that the author intended. When Folau’s first anti-LGBITQ tweet came out I tried to connect with Folau on Twitter asking that he and some of his friends and that some of my LGBTIQ Christian friends and I sit down and talk. Maybe together on a Tongan mat. Unfortunately, I was blocked.
I am not sure that it is Rugby Australia needs to show grace. Rugby Union understands the issues of abuse of LGBTIQ people and is one of the launch national sporting bodies of Pride in Sport, intending to reduce homophobia and transphobia in sport.
Folau would have been well aware of Rugby Australia involvement and support of these initiatives.
Folau breached the code of conduct earlier and was given another chance. I know the Bible encourages us to forgive our fellows seven times seven but does Folau have some responsibilities in this issue.
He has been provided grace.
He chose to reject that grace.
In rejecting that grace, he again has put the lives of LGBTIQ people at risk.
Freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, freedom of religion does come with responsibility, it does come with consequences.
I contend that the author of this article and Folau need to
engage in a religious and cultural liaison with LGBTIQ Christians and people in
the LGBTIQ community gracefully and show grace in that direction.