Category Archives: Sport

, ,

Is James Faulkner going to Hell? Or are we?

Aussie cricketer James Faulkner set tongues wagging this morning with an instagram post; a post that in many ways may have initially seemed a breath of fresh air from the Folau controversy, but, that ultimately will just further entrench the axiom that our athletes probably should get off social media, or we should stop holding them up as champion representatives of some ‘ideology’ or ‘ideal’ rather than just as representative players of sports.

Faulkner posted a picture from his birthday celebration with his mother and “boyfriend” — and the internet (including some teammates) went gangbusters seeing this language not in the way that women can talk about each other as ‘girlfriends’ without it being immediately sexualised, but as a coming out; this reading was especially fed by his hashtag #togetherfor5years. Faulkner seemed to initially seek to bring clarity and to temper the reaction when he edited the post a few hours later to add the words “(“best friend”)” next to boyfriend.

One of the conditions of our hyper-sexualised age is that we don’t do platonic relationships; every relationship is shot through with sexual tension and re-interpreted through that grid. This gives rise to, for example, the ‘Billy Graham Rule’ where men won’t be in a room alone with a woman because the sexual tension will be impossible to overcome, and to the re-reading of historical same sex friendships as homosexual (think David and Jonathan in the Bible, or Jesus and the disciple he loved — or Jesus and Mary Magdalene). This view of the world is fed by a culture of objectification and pornography that does turn any innocent scenario or engagement into an opportunity for an interaction to degenerate into sex. We saw this play out on the sporting field a few years back when football legend Craig Foster put his hand on a pre-teen girl standing in front of him during the anthem, and twitter blew up, and continued to blow up as people doubled down even after it was revealed she was his daughter and he was comforting her; we also saw the ‘objectification’ culture play out closer to home when fly-in-fly-out T20 star Chris Gayle hit on a reporter as she tried to do her job in a post-match cricket interview.

In our new view of the world, every relationship, unless clearly defined otherwise, is inherently possibly sexual, so it doesn’t take much for us to jump into assumption.

So Faulkner has had to ‘come out’ today as straight; clarifying that the bloke in the photo has been his housemate for five years, that he’s his business partner and best mate, and also having to, with Cricket Australia, find ways to appease the LGBTI+ community or Spirit of the age, lest his clumsy wording become a transgression worthy of judgment.

There seems to be a misunderstanding about my post from last night, I am not gay, however it has been fantastic to see the support from and for the LBGT community. Let’s never forget love is love, however Rob is just a great friend. Last night marked five years of being house mates! Good on everyone for being so supportive.

We know what happens when athletes are insensitive about the culture’s sexual gods on social media. Cricket Australia has jumped into damage control with its statement.

“His comment was made as a genuine reflection of his relationship with his business partner, best friend and house mate of five years. He was not contacted for clarification before some outlets reported his Instagram post as an announcement of a homosexual relationship

“James and CA are supportive of the LGBQTI community and recognise coming out can be an incredibly emotional time. The post was not in any way meant to make light of this and, though the support from the community was overwhelming and positive, Cricket Australia apologises for any unintended offence.”

An apology for ‘unintended offence’ is an interesting one; and while I suspect Faulkner was probably playfully transgressive in his presentation of his relationship in the terms he used, complete with heart emojis, there’s a real fear at the heart of this apology that Faulkner has committed a transgression that will earn him the judgment of the modern day online inquisition. He’s definitely been potentially unhelpful in playing with an issue that matters in substantial ways to real people (and starting to see some backlash on that). Whether that backlash translates into outright condemnation and being ‘excluded’ — tossed into the fires of the modern day Gehenna — does remains to be seen at this point. But this scenario is super interesting coming on the heels of the Folau scenario, and one has to ask whether Faulkner faces Hell on Folau’s terms now for lying rather than for homosexuality, but more than that, what sort of hell his casual instagramming will earn in the form of judgment from the modern world. Will he escape the treatment Folau has received for his insensitivity, or is his repentance (and the vicarious repentance on behalf of his peak sporting body) enough to earn him ‘salvation’ from the Internet, and perhaps more importantly, the games’ sponsors.

Perhaps instead of asking questions about Faulkner’s future, or social media policies for our national athletes, we might start asking ourselves questions about the role sexuality and sex play in the ‘spirituality’ of our modern age, and if they can bear the weight of defining who we are, and what is sacred, to the extent that a new orthodoxy wants to insist they do; perhaps we could be asking how healthy our view of the world is if every relationship has to be interpreted through the grid of sexuality, and if we might all end up running the risks of pornifying every interaction (seeing and collapsing all relationships the potential for sex), and so avoiding intimacy or deep friendship (boy friends and girl friends) as a ‘Billy Graham Rule’ that will ultimately rule out any deep connections with anybody. We can’t say “love is love” about a friendship when our prevailing culture believes and teaches, in a reinforcing echo chamber/circular force, that love is sex. Faulkner runs the risk of elevating his friendship with his housemate to a place that only a sexual relationship is allowed to hold in the lives of the modern ‘believer’ in the sexular religion; this post was potentially a form of sexular idolatry. A heresy.

For us Christians this presents some interesting challenges because we’ve adopted the sexualised view of relationships in our churches in pretty damaging ways; ways that idolise marriage as ‘the relationship’ that carries all the expectations we have for intimacy (and sexuality), and correspondingly reduce friendships to superficial, we’re just as likely as the world to sexualise the relationship between James Faulkner and his housemate (and to ask questions about David and Jonathan). We’re also likely to have the Billy Graham Rule operating as a cultural norm in male/female relationships, so we’re not ‘brothers and sisters’ first — spiritually in a way that is truer than biologically — but every relationship was the capacity to be sexualised (partly because we’ve been ‘formed’ by our pornofied culture, certainly, and how to unwind that is tricky)… but we haven’t yet come to terms with what that looks like for the same sex attracted in our midst. Bizarrely, it’s probably actually the voices of the only people our present culture might consider more transgressive than Folau, or, now, Faulkner, those who refuse to participate in our ‘sexual’ worship at all; the celibate, same sex attracted, Christians who can guide us through this journey. Voices like Ed Shaw in his book The Plausibility Problem, or Wesley Hill in his books and blogging, especially at Spiritual Friendship, or the Revoice movement and its statement, or locally, someone like my friend Tom Pugh who has just launched The Integrate Project. He posted yesterday about why the church needs Same Sex Attracted/LGB+ people.

“If marriage and the nuclear family has become an idol in our churches, then how important is the celibate gay Christian in reminding The Church of central Gospel truths regarding sacrifice, waiting, and community? And if sex has been elevated to the level of godhood in western culture, then this kind of person is testament to what it is to be whole and human outside of our sexual obsession, confusion and entitlement.

The LGB/SSA Christian often finds themselves in the crossfire between the most prevailing narratives in our culture: the heteronormative narrative versus the sexual liberation & gender non-conforming narratives which usually go hand in hand.”

I think this is true, but I’d also add that it’s not just marriage and family that is idolised, but sex and sexuality as the ultimate forms of meaning and our ultimate access to ‘transcendence’ or something ‘heaven-like’ — and that part of teaching us about waiting and community is about teaching us about seeing these created goods as having an ‘ends’ beyond themselves, but also teaching us the practices of intimacy and friendship that aren’t defined by the sex act (though they might involve ‘attraction’).

Our whole culture is going to Hell. Hell isn’t ‘other people’ as much as it’s ‘other people with no intimacy, love, or friendship’… because it’s other people without God… and we’re all heading there together if we don’t start repenting and trying something new. Perhaps something more like James Faulkner and his housemate. Good on them. Happy anniversary. But more than that, it’s about finding how our desire for intimacy, friendship, and sex aren’t ends in themselves, but part of our human experience that echo the image of the Triune God who is, in the three persons of God, love, intimacy, and friendship — and from whom these characteristics flow as blessings to us; and alongside those blessings there’s an invitation out of ‘hell’ or even the false-heaven of sex, and into that eternal intimate relationship through the death and resurrection of Jesus. The ‘oneness’ or intimacy he offers is a fuller experience than any romance, or bromance… Check out these words from Jesus (the sort of thing where if we were to express them about another person some questions might be asked on Twitter).

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you…I have made you[e] known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.” — John 17:20-21, 26

, ,

The rugby field and common objects of love

Rugby Australia’s Inclusion Policy, published in 2014, is specifically designed to ensure LGBT+ people are included in the rugby community, and especially on the field as participants in that community.

Rugby Australia’s goals, as stated in the policy, are:

“Rugby AU’s vision is to ignite passion, build character and create an inclusive Australian Rugby community. Our vision can only be achieved if our game is one where every individual participant, whether players, officials, volunteers, supporters or administrators feel safe, welcome and included.”

And so, the Inclusion Policy codifies ‘inclusion’ as ‘freedom to participate… without fear of exclusion’  — and broadens the focus beyond sexual orientation to include gender, race, and religion.

“Rugby AU’s policy on inclusion is simple: Rugby has and must continue to be a sport where players, officials, volunteers, supporters and administrators have the right and freedom to participate regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race or religion and without fear of exclusion. There is no place for homophobia or any form of discrimination in our game and our actions and words both on and off the field must reflect this.”

It’s perhaps a sad thing that the history of sport is littered with examples of exclusive policies around exactly these categories; this sort of policy is, in the face of history, a necessary policy. It ensures people can gather around a common object of love — Rugby — and form a community.

Theologian Oliver O’Donovan wrote a book called Common Objects of Love unpacking a bit of the philosopher/theologian Augustine’s thinking around how shared loves build communities, and how these communities are a necessary part of our social fabric — they bring together people who are different in a certain sort of unity. O’Donovan (building on Augustine and before him, Cicero), defined community as: “a multitude of rational beings united by agreeing to share the things they love.”

Note, this doesn’t say anything about the areas where we don’t agree, or where we have different loves, it holds out the hope that a ‘common unity’ might foster the coming together of a multitude; and when this happens it is both good and beautiful. When Muslims and Christians set aside difference and take the field together as opponents with a shared love of a game, or even better, as a team, great things happen. I’ve witnessed that first hand in the football league I play in in Brisbane. One of the first things I talk about when meeting refugees or asylum seekers in Brisbane is our shared love of sport — even if they’re Real Madrid or Arsenal fans — but there’s evidence beyond my particular experience. When Israeli and Palestinian children take the field together through a program run by a group called Mifalot, this produces real changes in attitudes towards the other, through that shared experience. So after participating in a program, and being surveyed:

  • Among the Palestinian children, a 35% increase in trusting all or most Jewish Israelis, a 23% increase in hating none or almost no Jewish Israelis, and a 22% increase in thinking that none or almost no Jewish Israelis hate Palestinians.

  • Among the Jewish children, there was a 20.5% increase in those who trust all or most Palestinians, a 16.5% increase in those hating none or almost no Palestinians, and a 17% increase in thinking that none or almost no Palestinians hate Jewish Israelis.

The ‘commons’ being inclusive, or holding common what can be held in common, while other things might divide us, is a vital thing for human flourishing; and arguably, for the reduction of exactly the sort of issues Rugby Australia seeks to eradicate with its Inclusion Policy. If Rugby Australia was to hold to a robust, generous, pluralism that allowed people who have different views and backgrounds to take the field together around a shared love of Rugby, that wouldn’t just be good for the individuals involved, but for the people the players selected for those teams ‘represent’ (on the power of ‘representation’ consider Black Panther or Wonder Woman and the impact those movies had).

How our ‘common’ or public institutions function has real potential to shape the way we interact with one another around loves we do not share.

The problem we’ve seen in the Israel Folau case is that inclusivity runs into a bit of trouble if the ‘common objects of love’ aren’t clearly defined and limited (ie rugby), or if the ‘centre’ — the shared love — of the community changes in such a way that it excludes people it claims to be including such that, perhaps, rugby becomes a means to the ends of inclusion, rather than inclusion being the means to the shared ends of rugby. In Folau’s case, potentially, someone who, from a ‘religious object of love’ has expressed a different moral position on homosexuality in that sphere/love (ie the religious sphere), the question is then how inclusion is defined. If the inclusivity platform seeks to go beyond the shared love, it is no longer aimed towards community (a common unity) but something else; and if the insistence is that LGBT+ players will not feel safe or welcome with players who hold religious convictions (about supernatural, spiritual, matters like heaven and hell) that don’t impact that individual’s approach to the Rugby field, or community, then this is a problem that must surely lead to an amendment of the Inclusion Policy to exclude religion as a protected category. It’s clear that, in this case, these religious views do not stop the individual in question being prepared to take the field with, or support the inclusion of LGBT+ athletes on the Rugby field — Folau was a former face of the Bingham Cup, described as “the biennial world championships of gay and inclusive rugby,” tournament organisers said he was a “strong advocate for ending all forms of the discrimination in sport.” It seems to me that Folau is better able to embody the inclusion policy of Rugby Australia than the leaders of Rugby Australia.

Here’s the perennial disclaimer I include in every Folau post — I think his social media comments were irresponsible, as a fellow Christian his views on the way the good news of Jesus should be articulated, and probably on what the Bible prohibits in the passages he mashes up on Instagram, are fundamentally at odds with mine. The Bible had no conception of ‘homosexuality’ as an orientation or identity; this is a relatively modern development of ‘identity’ built from desire; it does, however, provide a framework where our ‘chief’ or ‘ultimate’ love will shape the way we use our bodies in relationships and sex, and it prohibits same sex sex. This is to say, I wouldn’t say ‘homosexuals’ are condemned on the basis of identity, orientation, or attraction, but like all people, we stand forgiven or condemned based on what we do with Jesus, and whether we hold the God who made the universe as the chief, defining, organising love of our life; ie whether we worship him. I note, having chatted to a friend this morning, that it’s interesting that a bloke with a $4 million contract posted a meme that omitted greed from the list of sins that lead to hell… and that this is a bit of a blind spot in our Christian culture, that we’re happy for a champion to say hard things about sexuality, but we’ll give him, and each other, a pass on how we approach money. I think, if reports of his contract and agreements with Rugby Australia are correct, they’ve got good grounds to terminate his contract.

While I disagree vehemently with Folau, I’d still ‘take the field’ with him if I could tolerate Rugby Union (and if I had the ability; a national sporting body has to draw a line somewhere). This is because communities built around common objects of love are necessary not just for finding common ground, and reminding ourselves of our shared humanity, but because relationships built on connection and trust are also vital for having the sorts of conversations that will change attitudes and hearts.

Rugby Australia needs to decide if it is a public organisation or institution, or a private business. It needs to decide what ‘good’ it is pursuing in its vision and what ‘inclusive’ really means. It needs to decide if, as a private business, it must make decisions based on what is commercially beneficial, or as a public institution, it must make decisions about what sort of society it imagines, and what sort of virtue or character it wants to build. It has a real chance to lead Australia towards a generous picture of community; where people feel safe and welcome even while disagreeing in other spheres; where deep and significant conversations can take place face to face, amongst embodied humans — rather than disconnected conversations happening where we are mediated to one another as pixels, and where it is so easy to dehumanise and shout past one another. Rugby Australia has to ask itself if it wants to exclude Folau because he failed to ‘represent’ a version of an ideal (held by the powerful), or if in excluding him they also set an exclusive standard that might ultimately trickle down and exclude all those who hold his views who are lacing up their boots and taking the field next to LGBT+ players all over the nation, sharing a love of rugby, and building the sorts of relationships and connection that change hearts about one another across things that divide. The media needs to ask itself if trotting out condemnation after condemnation from Folau’s teammates actually reinforces the sort of ‘exclusivity’ that is ultimately damaging from the grassroots up, not just the top ‘ideological champion’ representative players down.

There are significant dangers with exclusivity — and these are dangers Christians need to stare down in places where we run the show. Firstly, when the parameters for exclusivity are set by the powerful, on their own terms, the inclusivity isn’t genuine, it’s colonisation; it requires people to be included on terms other than their own. This is where I suggested the Folau furore, and his condemnation by ideologically drive, white, upper management types, is a bit racist. One must, when seeking to include LGBT+ members in a community, consult and understand what it is that leads those individuals to feel unsafe; what homophobia looks and feels like, and what the gay experience involves; one hopes the leaders of Rugby Australia have done that work, that they are framing inclusivity in the interest and from the experience, of the outsider or minority… but this is true for all forms of inclusivity; one hopes they’re also consulting women about what inclusivity in an historically male sport would look like, ethnic minorities about inclusion in a sport that has been the property of exclusive, typically white, private school education in Australia’s sporting class war, and, people with religious convictions about the nature of religious conviction — of loves other than Rugby, and how they cascade in to the approach people take to Rugby. It’s tricky in a culture where sport often occupies the chief place in the heart of the Australian, or a space that competes with other loves, to conceive of itself as something other than an ultimate love, but an inclusivity program that recognises that people aren’t rugby players or members of the rugby community first, but come to this ‘common ground’, the rugby field, from other spheres is a good start.

The second danger of exclusivity is one that should be familiar to people in the Rugby fraternity — when you exclude a certain class of people from taking the field under your rules, they set up a parallel (and in the case of Rugby League, superior) field. Community fragments when you try to broaden what people are gathering around from a common love, to contested loves. And fragmented community is not a great thing where common grounds might exist (unless, like me, you believe League is superior to Union). In my submission to the Ruddock Review of Religious Freedom, just as in my response to the Benedict Option, a book championing a form of Christian withdrawal into parallel communities, I suggested that the last thing we want in our shared, civic, public, life is for people who disagree to further withdraw into exclusive communities built around not just common loves, but common dislikes. This is part (but not all) of how we get contemporary Christian music, Christian schools, and all manner of parallel institutions (including Rugby League). Rugby Australia, in adopting a more exclusive approach, runs the risk of those it excludes forming (or joining) alternative ‘fields’ where they might seek a more radical inclusion, but are more likely, on the basis of human nature, to be equally exclusive and to lead to more fracturing of our common life, more polarised convictions, and more conflict. The problem with setting up ‘exclusivity’ in the public field, or commons, is the same problem Christians are now running into because we tried to be ‘exclusive’ with our definition of marriage; it sets up a ‘zero sum’ game where the disenfranchised party no longer seeks compromise in relationship, but victory at the expense of the other. And it builds a cycle of resentment, rather than peacemaking, which builds the conditions that allow common love, fraternity, and persuasion in pursuit of goodness and truth.

Our national rugby team represents a vision of the sort of society we hope to be as a nation. The players who take the field are our ‘representatives’; and so the approach Rugby Australia takes to its vision is more important than some of us might like to think, but perhaps, less important than they’d like it to be (if they’re pursuing an ideology in a zero sum way, and people can just take their ball, and participation, elsewhere). Rugby Australia is, at a micro level, facing the same challenge that our nation’s leaders are facing as they work out ‘religious freedom’ and what that means in a contested landscape. So, as my submission to the Ruddock Review said, “surely the best future for our nation is one where our diversity produces richness and resilience through civil disagreement and tolerance, rather than a fragmented nation where different communities withdraw into their own bubbles such that we are able to find less and less in common; less to unite us as citizens?”

,

Wanting ‘hymns’ without ‘him’ is a ‘secular’ myth of ‘inclusion’ that will eat itself (and it’s just a bit racist)

At the 2013 Rugby League World Cup Fiji demolished their pacific friends, Samoa, 22-4. The result was unremarkable in many ways, it was what happened after the game that felt remarkable and somewhat unprecedented. The 17 players from each nation, who’d just been pummelling one another in the name of Rugby League, linked arms, with the support crews from each team, in the name of Jesus. The two teams shared a time of prayer together, captured on film.

This was one of the most iconic moments of that World Cup. It cut through the cynicism and competitive cut and thrust of modern sport and reminded us that the ‘combatants’ aren’t just humans fighting for particular tribes or nations, but friends and brothers. It showed the real power of a shared humanity… at least that’s how this sort of thing gets framed in the secular age where religion is a ‘thin’ concept and tribal identity, marked by ethnicity or something innate like sexuality, is the ‘thick’ stuff that defines who we are. Religious belief in this modern world is something like a thin piece of fabric you don to show solidarity… But maybe there’s something more going on here than that. Maybe these players aren’t linked by a ‘thin fabric’ of religious unity, but rather, it’s the jerseys they wear — markers of their nationality — that we’re seeing exposed as ‘thin’ and their spirituality — their shared belief in a transcendent God — is actually what provides a deeper, thicker, solidarity. A shared identity, even, that’s both culturally embedded, and transcultural. It’s significant, and will become more so below, that what we’re seeing here is how much the Polynesian identity is not just along ethnic unity, but that spiritual unity is part of that fabric. It’s not a thing dropped on top. That rather than seeing ‘the real power of shared humanity’ here, we’re actually seeing ‘the real power of shared religious belief’.

In the more recent Rugby League World Cup, in 2018, the Fijian Rugby League team won hearts and tingled spines with their pre-game rendition of the hymn Noqu Masu. I was at Suncorp Stadium for the semi-final Fiji played against Australia, and the absolute highlight for me was this song before the game. It was one of the most remarkable parts of Fiji’s remarkable World Cup (and was often remarked on by the secular media, like here, and here this one is particularly notable because it’s the NRL celebrating how important religion is to the Fijian team). Had I not rushed out of the ground at full time to avoid the post game ‘peak hour’ conditions, my highlight would’ve been when the Australian team joined the Fijian team for their post-match prayers. When you watch the footage you see Fijian players wearing Australian jerseys, and Australian players wearing Fijian jerseys, and players from both nations singing a hymn together. It’s beautiful. It’s spine-tingling stuff.

But the NRL’s commitment — and the modern ‘secular world’s’ commitment — to this sort of spirituality is only skin deep. Religious commitment — and the singing of beautiful hymns — in this age, are just like a jersey. Something that can be removed in the name of a ‘greater’ unity. Something one might be asked to remove for the sake of ‘inclusivity’. For the Polynesian community it seems much more than that; but it seems the NRL, like the Australian Rugby Union, and most modern sporting organisations are going to be asking Polynesian players to remove something that, for them, isn’t like a jersey — it’s more like being asked to remove their skin. Religious commitment is not just skin deep; it goes to, and comes from, the heart. It’s tied to an account of what it means to be human. People who don’t hold religious commitments about a ‘sacred ordering’ of the world — about the existence of a divine being, or transcendent reality, just can’t come close to understanding this — especially when they have ‘religious’ commitments of their own that these older forms of religion conflict with.

Roy Masters, one of Rugby League’s national treasures, recognised this would be an issue for Rugby League (and for sport in general) back in 2009, when he wrote a story about the religious beliefs of the Polynesian community, observing that 40% of NRL players had Polynesian heritage. He covered the growing number of overtly religious Rugby League players last year too (and the phenomenon of players from different teams praying together), again linking this phenomenon to the Polynesian identity.

When Peter Beattie speaks out against Israel Folau for failing to meet Rugby League’s ‘inclusiveness standards’ — he might be talking about a clumsy expression of belief, but it’s hard not to see that as coming from a misunderstanding or religious belief as largely about ‘expressions,’ and for a religious person not to understand that as a rejection of their core identity. It’s also hard to understand for a religious person to understand why the NRL will celebrate hymn singing (as an external ‘marker’) but reject other things that come from the same heart level convictions that lead to hymn singing. The modern secular world wants hymns without a ‘him’, and prayers without an object. This won’t work for Polynesian athletes (or any other religious athletes), and to force it, frankly, is a form of racism. Folau’s church, the Truth of Jesus Christ Church is a Polynesian church. Its Facebook page features Bible readings and songs from Tongan and Samoan members, worshipping in their heart language. It features videos of men preaching in Polynesian dress. Folau’s religion like the religion of many other Polynesian athletes, is fundamentally integrated with his cultural identity

Though this has, thus far, been about Rugby League, it’s also an issue in Rugby Union. Not only because Folau published an unfortunate Instagram picture that took some of the New Testament out of context, but because his post has received likes from Polynesian Rugby Union players around the world. A couple of fellow Wallabies, and, notably, English representative Billy Vunipola. Vunipola liked Folau’s post and was then pressured from certain corners to unlike it (if sports journalists are ill equipped to commentate on religious matters, as they appear to be, the weird mix of religious matters and social media conventions represent a totally new world order). Vunipola, instead of backing down, expressed support for Folau’s views because they represent a shared conviction. He’s now facing his own issues over in the UK. England’s equivalent to the ARU, the Rugby Football Union (RFU) issued a statement, that echoed Beattie’s, and again modelled the new ‘virtue’ that will ultimately exclude any who don’t get on board.

“Rugby is an inclusive sport, and we do not support these views.”

True inclusion would grapple with this and find ways to include people with fundamentally different understandings of what it means to be human — even when those differences are conflicted and at odds. Sport could be a powerful way of finding paths to our shared humanity and our ability to occupy a field not just as opponents who stand together after a conflict is over, but as teammates who co-operate despite deep divisions. This is a generous pluralism. Our sporting bodies talk that talk, but they don’t walk that walk. True inclusion would issue a statement that ‘Rugby is an inclusive sport’ and not feel the need to define whether an organisation supports certain views or not.

There’s an idea at play in ‘identity politics’ (and I don’t mean this pejoratively) called ‘intersectionality’ — it’s that all excluded and oppressed classes or identities share a common experience (oppression), often from a common oppressor (western power, or patriarchy… typically male and white), and that all identities ultimately ‘intersect’. There’s lots to this, and it’s important that we recognise that there are ways that a certain sort of ‘status quo’ assumes a central position in determining who gets what status in the western world. The problem is not with ‘intersectionality’ in this case; it’s that intersectionality defined by a particular class of people isn’t being ‘intersectional enough’. It’s that modern ‘intersectionality’ doesn’t have a thick enough concept of ‘religious identity’ to see it as a real thing. It could be that this shows some fundamental problems with trying to build an ‘inclusive’ life without a robust account of difference and different identities, and an appeal to a ‘thin’ concept like ‘our shared humanity.’ It’s fascinating to see those so opposed to western power, and so interested in ‘inclusion’ now wielding ‘western power’ against polynesian athletes; Folau won’t be the first. The question is how long it will take for the game’s administrators to catch up — and I suspect it will take as long as it takes for our ‘secular’ institutions, including our media commentators, to catch up.

Intersectionality built around a centre of power will ultimately eat itself. Much like the LGBTQ+ umbrella is a fraught ‘unity’ when certain trans- or queer activists want to undo the categories of gender that are so fundamental to a homosexual identity, a commitment to ‘inclusivity’ that requires people check important aspects of their personhood or identity at the door is not actually inclusivity at all. And that ‘inclusivity’, at the moment, is being pushed by powerful, white, middle-aged (or older), people is a bizarre irony. There’s something both patriarchal and colonial about imposing a westernwhite, view of religion upon the Polynesian community, much as there would be if we sought to impose western religious values on Hindu, or Muslim, athletes.

I don’t share Israel Folau’s understanding of God (he doesn’t believe in the Trinity). I don’t share his understanding of the passages of the Bible he cites (I think they’re for Christians who have already accepted the Lordship of Jesus over all of their life). I don’t share his understanding of how best to articulate the Gospel and why somebody would repent, and, thus, what repentance is. I would be much more careful using ‘homosexual’ as a category of person to pronounce judgment on people than Folau is (based on how I understand the Bible, and sexuality). I know lots of homosexuals who are Christians, who grapple with their sexuality at that point and resolve their identity in a variety of ways, some I agree with, some I don’t. I think his blanket, un-nuanced, statement is unhelpfully obscuring when it comes to the reality of people’s lives. I have a different view of Hell to him. I believe, ultimately, God judges us based on whether or not we reject the (fully divine) Jesus as Lord, not on how we live if we reject that (the substance of Folau’s post)… But I have no doubt that his views are thoroughly consistent with his religion, and that for him, religion and identity are intertwined. And if we’re going to talk ‘inclusion’ we need to really mean it, and include positions and opinions we ‘enlightened’ white westerners don’t like — especially if we claim ‘religious inclusion.’

What’s interesting, in the realm of ‘inclusion,’ is that it’s actually the Polynesian communities who seem to model it best, at least in sport. It’s the Polynesian teams built around a Christian faith that bring people together across divides. Israel Folau doesn’t just tweet and instagram about homosexuality (in ways I’ve been outspokenly critical of), he also takes the field for, and acts as the face of, a tournament that aims to stamp out homophobia in the game. It’s only when you’re utterly sure of, and convicted about, who you really are, that you’re able to generously include others without feeling threatened. In those pictures and videos of people coming together in prayer and song — there’s stacks of people in those pictures who don’t share the same religious belief as the Christian players, but they’re being brought in, loved, welcomed, and included — maybe those players are the last people our powerful, white, organisation leaders should be excluding as we navigate these new cultural waters together.

, ,

How the church failed Israel (and modern Australia is too)

Izzy is in hot water again with calls growing for the Australian Rugby Union and the New South Wales Waratahs to tear up his contract because of his (admittedly clumsy) public expression of reasonably orthodox, mainstream, Christian views about sin and salvation.

The ‘Australian church’ and by that I mean, those who belong, visibly, to the kingdom of God, in both its ‘institutional’ forms and those who gather on Sundays claiming to follow Jesus and to belong to communities of people who gather around certain beliefs (as expressed in statements like creeds or doctrinal statements), has contributed to the mess Israel Folau now seems destined to face alone. I’m defining ‘church’ up front, because many Christians might feel like we, as individuals, simultaneously belong to or represent the church while not being complicit for, or responsible to, Israel Folau… and I’m going to make the case that those of us who share similar orthodox, mainstream, Christian views (and even where we’d quibble) bear some responsibility for the tonne of hate and anger that will now be poured out on Izzy, and that we shouldn’t abandon him even if we profoundly disagree with the way he has expressed himself, in form, content, or forum.

And I’m going to paint with a broader brush and say that an entity, Australia, via its institutions — such as the press (and our ‘social media’), a Rugby fraternity including a governing body and a national representative team, and the ‘market’ — and the way this entity ‘Australia’ responds, to this (and other) expressions of religious belief is also failing its citizen, Israel Folau, rather than him failing us (even if there are ways his expressions of his beliefs, publicly, hurt others and are clumsy or even uncivil). The way we collectively respond to incivility expresses something about our ‘civilisation’.

How the church is failing Israel (Folau)

Our current cultural milieu believes that religious belief is a private matter that shouldn’t be expressed publicly — so Israel is transgressing on this front, and while we might want to point the finger at ‘society’ or ‘Australia’ for this problem, it’s a problem that begins with us; it’s a problem because on one hand we Christians, ‘the church’ have bought into and promoted an individualistic understanding both of what it means to be a human and of what it means to be a Christian; the Gospel Israel preaches is a Gospel of personal salvation, with personal, individual, implications (salvation), and little corporate or communal impact. Israel is a preacher of this Gospel it would seem appointed by nobody except our celebrity driven culture (that cares far too much about what celebrities say or think on instagram), and a church that wants its celebrity members to operate as public champions of Christian belief simply because they are Christians with a platform. If Israel was a Christian whose approach to promoting the Gospel I found more personally compelling (and my take on Israel’s public Christianity hasn’t changed since last time), wouldn’t I be encouraging him to use his platform to promote the Gospel? Of course I would; but is it his responsibility? Is this actually his calling (or the way we view how Christians should operate in the world?).

We fail Israel when we want him to be a solo point-scoring champion for Jesus off the field, rather than freeing him to be point-scoring champion on the field, and part of a bigger team, the church, off it.

I don’t want to be a broken record banging out quotes from James Davison Hunter’s To Change The World, but he makes a point towards the back end of his book about our particular corner of the church (evangelicals) and our view of work being not super different to an anabaptist view of work (which he takes umbrage with) even while we have a more robust doctrine of creation in the reformed theological tradition. In identifying a certain sort of Christian posture with regards to the physical world, to culture and politics (basically to what we would see as ‘secular’ rather than ‘sacred’) that he labels ‘defensive against,’ he writes:

“In the “defensive against” paradigm, it is the Evangelicals and Fundamentalists who have fashioned a somewhat unique approach to these issues. The backdrop for their approach is the dualism created by the division between public (and secular) and private (and religious) life inherent to the modern world. As we know, this dualism is both embedded within social institutions and legitimated by political philosophy and they mutually reinforce each other in powerful ways. Though in theory Evangelicals and Fundamentalists believe God is sovereign in all of life, in practice their traditions of pietism actually reinforce this dualism. All of this has resulted in a peculiar approach to faith and vocation. For generations of faithful Evangelicals and Fundamentalists, vocation in the secular world was at best a necessary evil. To the extent that work had “kingdom significance,” it was as a platform for evangelism. The mark of true piety for a committed believer whether in skilled or manual labor or in the realms of business, law, education, public policy, and social welfare, was to lead a Bible study and evangelize their associates in their place of work. In this paradigm, work was instrumentalized—it was regarded as simply a means to spiritual ends. Thus, if one achieved some distinction for the quality of one’s work in any field or for reason of an accomplishment, its significance was primarily because celebrity brought attention and credibility to the gospel. As Eric Liddell’s father says to him in the film Chariots of Fire, “What the world needs right now is a muscular Christian—to make them sit up and take notice!” “Run in God’s name and let the world stand back in wonder!” Likewise, if one achieved any disproportionate influence in a sphere of life or work, this had significance primarily as a bulwark against the tide of secularism or liberalism.” — To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World

In sum, for Israel to feel like a full participant in the life of the church — as a good ‘religious’ person participating in a ‘sacred calling’ — we’ve set up the game in such a way that he must necessarily use his platform to evangelise (or to give generously to evangelism), because pursuing excellence of character and performance, and loving the people around him is not enough. Or not all it could be. What sort of pressure does this place on those Christians who happen to be able to make an income in fields that produce ‘celebrity’ and a ‘platform’ — how would my tweets, or blog posts, or social media presence stack up with the sort of audience Israel gets? Is it fair to expect him to champion orthodox Christianity or to ‘evangelise’ simply because he has a platform that most of us do not? Is that what ‘faithful presence’ requires of him; if so, how have we, the church, equipped him for this task?

On the ‘individual’ Gospel front; I wonder if this is precisely both how Israel has been equipped — in terms of how he has been evangelised, and discipled, but also a product of the bifurcation between secular and sacred Hunter (and others like Charles Taylor) observe; the ‘secular age’ we live in makes religion a private matter and ‘salvation’ not a call to belong to some new public order, or kingdom, with an accompanying account for human behaviour and morality that comes from a spiritual commitment or something transcendent that we connect to and belong to (that Christians would typically say comes, literally, from the Holy Spirit and a real encounter with God as a reality not just an abstract concept). We feed that by how we talk about and understand both the Gospel of Jesus and conversion; this failure is one Scot McKnight unpacks in The King Jesus Gospel, a book I might have some quibbles with in terms of the ‘bigness’ of the alternative Gospel he offers (whether the Gospel is ‘Israel’s story’ that began in the Old Testament or God’s cosmic story of redemption that began before the creation of the world). In Dallas Willard’s forward to McKnight’s book he describes McKnight’s work as addressing ‘contemporary misunderstandings that produce gospels that do not naturally produce disciples, but only consumers of religious goods and services’ — that’s not far off the problem the church must bear some responsibility for here (fascinatingly, Folau devotes much more Twitter air time to rebuking prosperity theology than he does to calling out homosexuality as a sin that leads to Hell). McKnight identifies a phenomenon that you might recognise at play in Folau’s own presentation of the Gospel where he says:

“Most of evangelism today is obsessed with getting someone to make a decision; the apostles, however, were obsessed with making disciples.”

This Gospel, or this approach to evangelism, also makes ‘repentance’ the act of ‘making a decision’ not the life of turning to Jesus from alternative kingdoms, visions of the good, or ultimate loves. It makes repentance what Folau proclaims it to be — a rejection of sin — without the expulsive power of not just a new object of love, Jesus, but a new way of loving life. An instagram post can’t possibly capture or convey the bigness of what this looks like, or what’s at stake in repentance or following Jesus; but instagram is all the faithful champion athlete has in a world where his religious views won’t otherwise be heard, but he’s told that faithfulness for him looks like using his platform to share his faith.

This is dangerous when coupled with a broader social trend that sees religion simply as a consumer choice in pursuit of the ‘authentic you’ — part of your constructed ‘identity’ or story you tell about yourself — rather than as a fundamental conviction about a bigger story you belong to, that shapes the way you engage with the world as a person, while also seeing religious practice as a ‘private matter’ not something you take with you into the public. If identity construction via consumer choice is where we think ‘it’s at’ and identity is performed and constructed via social media (which it is, when identity is so thin a concept and is about authenticity), then where else should Folau perform his faith publicly? It’s either instagram or the Rugby field with painted on (or tattooed) Bible verses… A ‘decision’ to be religious then is about a personal preference, evangelism about ‘the expression’ of such preference, and we, the church reinforces this in extra-bad ways when we make religious belief — the Gospel message — about personal salvation alone (rather than seeing discipleship as forming persons who participate in public together as members of the church, an alternative kingdom — ie, where I think McKnight is spot on is that the Gospel is not just about Jesus as personal saviour, but Jesus as king of a kingdom).

We’ve also, simultaneously, both had a low view of the ‘church’ so that to even speak of the church being responsible for an individuals actions feels like ‘over stating’ what church is, and we’ve contributed to a view of religious belief that sees the very nature of religion as ‘private’ not public in how we’ve, as an institution, participated in public debate. On the first, point, we’ve arrived at a moment where “church” is either an ‘institution’ that doesn’t speak for its members (because we want to distance ourselves from the worst expressions of institutional church — like the Royal Commission or the way institutions behave in public), or we see ‘church’ as an event that is only constituted in the gathering of people to worship together on a Sunday, not a community of interdependent ‘belonging’ to one another. This latter point would mean that when Israel, or anybody, speaks, he speaks for ‘us’ not ‘him’… but my first response to his instagram post this week was to seek to distance myself from him, rather than recognising the things we have in common as religious believers, and possibly as members of a universal church (though, I believe there are certain heretical beliefs he holds, and beliefs I hold, that would see both of us excluding one another — in that from what I understand he denies, and I affirm, the Trinity). I do wonder what accountability Israel Folau believes he has, as a Christian, to any particular community, tradition, or institution — because in an age of consumer Christianity and individual, personal, salvation that sort of accountability is not a thing we do any more, we don’t belong to a church we choose a church, and we leave if it challenges our ‘personal’ authentic expression of faith in ways we don’t feel comfortable with to find places where we feel a better ‘fit’. On the second point, the privatisation of religious belief, when it comes to not the moral standing of homosexual behaviour in modern Australia, but the spiritual standing of such behaviour — and those other Folau calls out as sinful — we don’t participate in public debates in good faith; ie we didn’t argue against the legislation of same sex marriage on a spiritual basis, or even for a pluralist accommodation of our spiritual position on homosexual relationships; we (the institutional church) argued on secular terms that same sex marriage was ‘unnatural’ and not a civic good (because parenting and gender are ‘naturally ordered’); once the public at large dismissed that view we couldn’t (and can’t) fall back on the spiritual account of such behaviours and expect to be understood or welcomed in society (or its institutions, such as the national football team).

If this comes close to describing how the church conceives of itself — or if it describes a complicated mess of contradictions — which is does — then what else can Israel do as a Christian? There’s no real institution behind him, articulating his views in public or shaping his sense of how to engage in public as a Christian; nobody offering a view of being part of the church that is not ‘being an individual who must save individuals using his individual platform,’ then how else is he meant to act? If there’s no ‘good news’ except ‘repent or go to hell,’ then what else should he proclaim?

It’s one thing to deconstruct how the church has failed Israel, and so, how Israel is failing to articulate the Gospel; both in content — even if what he says is totally true, it is incomplete in a way that is unhelpful and distorting (when it comes to repentance, and conversion, and the relationship between sin and Jesus), and in form, even if what he said was complete, saying it on instagram, as a celebrity, is unlikely to ultimately be helpfully geared towards actual repentance (the sort of turning to Jesus that is about discipleship — the shaping of a life around the Lordship of Jesus), not simply a decision (the realisation that one is a sinner in need of a saviour), it’s another thing to deconstruct the way Australian society is failing Israel and other religious people because of how it has replaced ‘thick’ or substantial religious belief and institutions with ‘thin’ alternatives.

How Australia is failing Israel

When I read people like Peter Fitzsimons go to town on Israel Folau I feel like I’m reading a post-religious zealot attacking a heretic. The church used to burn heretics at the stake because we realised how important orthodoxy was, and pursued unity in that orthodoxy by eradicating anybody who threatened it. This lead to some pretty dark chapters in church history, but since the modern secular mind is so keen to remove any religious influence from the way we do business we’re unlikely to see secular priests and prophets learn from those mistakes. And so, where once we had religion occupying a place in our understanding of what it meant to be human — so that our understanding of personhood came from the divine order and the ‘givenness’ of reality; now we have less inclination to look for transcendence (so religion is just one choice we make about how we understand ourselves, and it’s a private thing… see Charles Taylor, again), but we replace the role religion and religious institutions played in giving us a sense of who we are with other institutions. Like Rugby teams. Where the national Rugby team, or other Aussie institutions, used to be purely secular, operating in society alongside ‘sacred’ religious institutions like the church, they now have to carry a more sacred mythology and purpose to fill the void left by the privatisation of the ‘religious’ sacred (the same is true of things like ANZAC Day, and other common objects of love in our modern world). Where once you were chosen to play Rugby for Australia because of Rugby ability, now you are chosen to uphold certain quasi-religious values and to be a ‘role model’ for those values, especially in public. Here’s Fitzsimon’s pontificating (he’d probably like to be a pope) about Folau’s ability to hold a place in the game once he’s expressed, publicly, his reasonably orthodox, mainstream, even if un-nuanced, religious views.

In the wake of his latest homophobic outburst – gays, among other sinners, are heading to hell once more – Israel Folau has to go, and will go.

Quick. Clean. Gone. At least until such times as he repents.

His contract will be suspended or terminated on the grounds of having breached either rugby’s social media policy, or his contract.

Rugby Australia simply has no choice. They cannot go through one more time the agony of last year when Folau’s social media comments trumpeting that gays would go to hell, saw rugby lose sponsors, fans, and support.

Then it took three weeks for Folau to pull his head in, and it seemed like he got it: that you couldn’t be a standard bearer for the inclusive game of rugby and put out bigoted nastiness like that.

This time, it won’t take three weeks. Rugby must surely move quickly, or be made to look ridiculous.

All of the dynamics that applied last year – outrage in the rugby and wider community, people swearing not to go to games, volunteers threatening to leave the game, sponsors looking at tearing up their contracts – apply this year, but there is one difference.

Back then, it seemed it wasn’t clear to Folau what he could and could not do.

Rugby is tolerant and inclusive so long as we’re talking about bits that are public and part of somebody’s identity, not the bits that people should be keeping in private — but Rugby is also now part of a civic religion, and it can’t handle such heretical views being expressed. Because our public square isn’t pluralist, it’s aggressively monotheistic. Its monotheism isn’t the traditional religious monotheism, where there’s a transcendent God who sets moral standards and judges accordingly, it’s the new monotheism, where our personal, individual, liberty — our freedom to self-determine our own authentic identity through personal choice, where nobody but the self can sit in judgment — except against those who reject this view or refuse to conform.

Fitzsimons points out (perhaps poisoning the well) that there’ll be objections to Folau’s dismissal on the grounds of ‘freedom of speech’ — because all issues are now interpreted through a grid of individual freedom. He’s right that commercial ramifications aren’t actually restrictions on Folau’s free speech, but ‘free responses’ to Folau — that the market will solve the problem (and force the hand of the new ‘religious’ regime which is thoroughly wedded to the market). Free speech and ‘religious freedom’ are ultimately concerns that come from a certain sort of view about ‘the good’ being tied to unfettered personal liberty… But my argument about Australia failing Folau isn’t about freedom of speech or expression, but about a failure to accomodate or understand religious belief (perhaps as a result of the failure of the church outlined above). There’s a great new podcast, The Eucatastrophethat has been exploring some of these foundational issues in recent episodes — which I’d commend to anyone who wants to think more about this stuff.

Australia is failing Israel in precisely the way the church is — in needing a celebrity to use their ‘platform’ to promote a particular sort of ‘gospel’ — but further, in refusing to make space for other expressions of other convictions. The church failed to embrace pluralism when we were tested in the same sex marriage debate; we failed to properly account for our belief in a spiritual order and made natural arguments, and we failed to make space for different spiritualities or understanding of life. We pushed a zero-sum agenda; we pushed for monotheism (bizarrely without making a case for monotheism), and now ‘secular’ Australia, after a decisive public decision making process, has adopted that zero-sum, monotheistic, approach when dealing with opposition. We’re reaping the whirlwind, and it’s unclear how the Australian ‘public’ square is going to change any time soon, especially if we, the church, can’t recognise our failures and shift accordingly.

,

What the Hell?

Look. There are plenty of issues that should be occupying your attention as a global citizen, but the question of the eternal destiny of people is a big one and worth probing a bit; especially as it relates to how Christians operate in the here and now.

“People’s lives are not for me to judge. Only God can do that.

I have sinned many times in my life. I take responsibility for those sins and ask for forgiveness through repentance daily.” — Israel Folau

In the fallout to his controversial answer to the question ‘what is God’s plan for gay people,’ Israel published a long piece titled ‘I’m a sinner too,’ and it’s good, but it has also revealed some issues facing Christians in Australia that are much bigger than religious freedom or freedom of speech. The issue seems to me to be that people in Australia expect us Christians to be trying to ‘play God’ when it comes to how they live, while simultaneously believing that the idea of any god is harmful nonsense, when the function of God’s judgment isn’t to have us reaching for the pitchfork and forming angry mobs, but taking up our cross and laying down our lives in sacrificial love in the hope others might experience God’s merciful love, and the gift of life.

There are two very public responses to Folau’s two pieces that I’ve found particularly provocative… this one, from University of Queensland Political Science professor, Katharine Gelber, and this tweet (and resulting media storm) from one-test All Black Brad Weber. Weber tweeted:

“Kinda sick of us players staying quiet on some of this stuff. I can’t stand that I have to play this game that I love with people, like Folau, who say what he’s saying My cousin and her partner, and my Aunty and her partner are some of the most kind, caring & loving people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. To think that I play against someone that says they’ll go to Hell for being gay disgusts me.”

There’s been a whole lot of hatred, outrage, and ‘disgust’ from people who don’t believe in the God Israel believes in, or the Hell he speaks of… and a lot of this outrage is built on a fundamental misunderstanding of how belief in hell is meant to work in the life of a Christian towards those who are facing it.

Hell isn’t meant to motivate us to hate others; but to love them. 

There are plenty of good reasons to be outraged at God and the prospect of Hell if you do believe in God; but there’s only two reasons I can see to be disgusted about the idea of Hell if you’re Brad Weber; one is the reason given by Peter FitzSimons in his piece on Folau — the mental and emotional wellbeing of gay people in Christian communities who believe there’s a destination just for them just because of their sexuality (which is part of why I didn’t like Folau’s first post, and love his second), two is if belief in Hell as the appropriate destination for ‘those people’ caused Christians to act judgmentally or with hatred towards ‘those people’ (in this case, gay people, but the ‘those’ can be just about any group because all groups of people, all people, are heading towards God’s judgment without Jesus, if the Bible is true).

And here’s the rub — I can see why people would believe that Christians take the judgment of God and use it to make moral judgments of others and to cause harm rather than using God’s judgment as motivation the same way Jesus did — to sacrificially love those who are God’s enemies in the hope that in laying down your life for them in myriad ways they might be confronted and arrested by the great sacrificial love God has for them…

Hell — or God’s judgment — isn’t meant to motivate us to sit in judgment over others, but to love them.

We aren’t God. To put ourselves in God’s position is the very definition of sin, the ‘original’ sin.

If Israel’s answer to the question ‘what is God’s plan for gay people’ is the same as his answer to ‘where would you like gay people to end up’, then there’s a real problem. If he puts himself in God’s place and acts as though he is God — or if we do — then there’s a problem… which is why his follow up is so important.

The problem in the other direction is a whole bunch of secular people who aren’t conversant with Christian teaching (but perhaps are with Christian practice) assuming that you can infer an ‘ought’ from this ‘is’ — that saying someone is destined for Hell is a personal expression of judgment and an assumption that ‘you’ are worse than ‘me’… to say judgment exists is not to say someone is more deserving of it than we are (even if it often comes across that way), nor is it to say we should treat a person differently to how we expect to be treated — two of the fundamental moral teachings of Jesus are ‘love your enemies’ and ‘treat others as you would have them treat you.’

Watching people who don’t share these categories try to understand and respond to what they think they mean is as painful as the meme pointing out that homosexuality is ruled out in Leviticus, but so are tattoos and Israel proudly has those — it’s just a poor understanding of how the Bible works from cover to cover (in case you’re wondering: there are several references to homosexuality in the New Testament letters to churches, and the idea that Old Testament Jewish laws should apply directly to non-Jewish converts was the subject of debates recorded in the Bible, in Acts 15, the Old Testament pointed to and is fulfilled in Jesus (Matthew 5, Luke 24)).

Hell and judgment are meant to motivate us to say ‘there but for the grace of God go I…’; to have us put ourselves in the shoes of the other.

God’s plan for his people is that we be like Jesus, inviting people to know the reconciling love of God, as his ambassadors, so that we no longer face eternal death and judgment, but eternal life. Here are a couple of quotes from the Bible (from the apostle Paul, about how he lived, and how Christians should live, if the stuff about death and judgment, and Jesus, is real). He says:

“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” — 2 Corinthians 5:10

This judgment thing is fundamental to Christian belief. It’s not an added extra (and it’s not us sitting in the judgment seat, but Jesus, it’s not ‘our plan’ but God’s plan). And this reality motivates Paul’s way of life with people who are facing judgment.

He says:

“Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others.” — 2 Corinthians 5:11

And then, that this persuasion isn’t motivated by earning bonus points with God, or to persuade people that they deserve judgment, but instead to love, and to invite people to experience the love of God.

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God” — 2 Corinthians 5:14-21

If there’s no sin, and no judgment, then there’s no need for this reconciliation stuff — but Paul’s profound motivation for speaking about sin, death, judgment, and Jesus is God’s love; it’s taking that loving invitation to the world that needs it.

The thought of people facing death and judgment is so troubling for God that he sent Jesus to die on a cross as an act of reconciliation; he took the first step. This stuff only makes sense if you’re prepared to believe there’s a God who has a standard, and that we fall short of that standard (what we call ‘sin’ — literally, etymologically, an archery term for ‘falling short of the target’), and that this falling short is total (not just about our sexuality or particular ‘transgressions’), a deliberate departure from God’s will, and destructive for ourselves, others, and the world, and means we don’t get heaven but face judgment. Without these categories anything a Christian says about God, hell, Jesus, reconciliation or judgment will sound like nonsense.

But for people who do operate with those categories, one needs to consider how they operate to produce a coherent way of life rather than just picking one bit to get offended at in isolation.

Paul also says, elsewhere:

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” — Romans 12:1

The ‘in view of God’s mercy’ bit; if you were going to unpack that, is basically ‘because you are meant to face God’s anger and judgment as his enemy, and instead, through Jesus, are his child’ — the reality of God’s judgment and our place as Christians is that we’re meant to lay down our lives just like Jesus, in response to God’s love for us.

There’s lots of good reasons to probe around Christian beliefs and teachings around Hell (and lots of how we picture Hell that comes more from Dante’s fiction than from the Bible, and a reasonable theological case to be made for conditional immortality as an alternative to eternal death-as-death); but the idea that Christians believing or speaking about Hell is inherently evil or harmful, is only really true if either ‘being told things we disagree with and don’t like to hear’ is evil, or if somehow we’re acting not just as messenger but judge, jury, and executioner and sending people there ourselves, when we deserve exactly the same fate. It’s really God that Weber should take umbrage with, not Folau.

In his follow up, Folau said:

I think of it this way: you see someone who is about to walk into a hole and have the chance to save him. He might be determined to maintain his course and doesn’t want to hear what you have to say. But if you don’t tell him the truth, as unpopular as it might be, he is going to fall into that hole. What do you do?

In this case, we are talking about sin as the Bible describes it, not just homosexuality, which I think has been lost on a lot of people.

This is good stuff — though that last line troubles me because I think it was Folau’s initial answer that created what was ‘lost on a lot of people’… and it presents a dilemma for Christians if views like Weber’s or Professor Gelber’s start to shape the way public conversations about the afterlife happen.

Professor Gelber raises the spectre of Folau being brought the courts on vilification charges; it’s a fascinating thought experiment revealing the default assumptions in the secular frame our academy, political and legal spheres have adopted — which will be utterly incompetent for assessing issues around religious freedoms if allowed to sit unchallenged, and if they can’t make room for the assumptions of religious participants in a truly secular (no official state religion), pluralist (many religious groupings), society.

My view is that it is unlikely the comment would reach the threshold of vilification, by which is meant that the comment was capable of inciting hatred in its audience against a member of the targeted group.

Well. What a relief. But given his comments were, by (theological) definition designed to be both an act of love in themselves, and are reflective of a theological belief that should motivate love for the member of a targeted group either our society has problems in how it perceives Christians and understands this stuff, or the way we Christians take this teaching and run with it is problematic.

Professor Gelber, like many in a post-enchanted secular world where there is no transcendent or divine foundation for morality or ethics has adopted an ethical framework based on harm, our apparent right not to be harmed, and our responsibility not to cause it.

“The responsibility that attaches to freedom of speech is the responsibility not to use one’s words, or one’s position, to hurt others. And despite the nursery rhymes, we know now that words can hurt, and hurt badly.”

Words about hell, judgment, or death, certainly describe something harmful and a prospect that is meant to motivate us to consider how we then live; but if hell is real, and Israel believes that it is, then the harm based ethic becomes a paradox. Who gets to define or choose which harm Israel should perpetrate on his neighbour — the harm potentially caused by speaking what he believes to be true, or the harm potentially caused by not speaking what he believes to be true? Gelber wants Folau to be a ‘role model’ and use his platform carefully, and responsibly, to minimise harm — but that is precisely what he was attempting to do.

“Folau has failed to appreciate the special responsibilities he carries as a role model for young people everywhere.

He is entitled to his religiously influenced view. But as a role model and national sporting star he should not have chosen to air a view so imbued with prejudice on the stage that is social media.

The best take-home from all of this should be a greater appreciation of the fact that words matter, and that the more powerful the speaker, the more aware of this they should be.”

What’s really going on here is a value judgment, from Weber and Gelber, that Christian beliefs are nonsense, ‘imbued with prejudice’ and so airing them is, essentially, always harmful (and again, a caveat, Folau’s answer would have been much less controversial if he’d broadened it immediately to include himself as a sinner, as he did in his follow up, rather than answering the question as framed).

Perhaps we’ve given them the ammunition for this belief by assuming we can operate in a secular world with totalising ‘natural’ arguments, rather than asking for our religious ones to be accommodated (like in the marriage debate), and by not denouncing those who do attempt to respond to sin with judgment (and exclusion) rather than with costly, sacrificial, love.

Love isn’t love; that’s a fluffy logical nonsense… but.

The cross is love. 

A loving response to God’s judgment, and God’s own invitation to be reconciled to him, by grace, not because we’re more deserving than anybody else but because we accept the invitation.

,

Dizzy about Izzy: Why ‘religious freedom’ is much less important to our society than being able to discuss questions of substance

The fallout from Israel Folau’s un-nuanced (both theologically and pastorally) comment on social media last week continues. Lines have been drawn. On the one hand, he’s become a champion for free speech and religious freedom, amongst pastors, political conservatives, and Libertarians… on the other, he’s become a homophobic ‘demon’ in the eyes of atheist commentators (and former Wallabies), sponsors, and the LGBTIQ+ community.

Sydney Anglican Archbishop, Glenn Davies, said:

“Israel Folau should be free to hold and express traditional, biblical views on marriage and sexuality without being penalised, just as other players have spoken out with their differing views…”

Peter FitzSimons weighed in on why ‘religious freedom’ shouldn’t cut it (along with this, he asks some legitimate pastoral questions about the way Folau’s un-nuanced answer might cause damage, that are worth hearing and heeding):

“…the greatest of all rugby values is inclusion. We want everyone on board: white, black, tall, small, fat, thin, abled, disabled, straight, gay, men, women, young, old, etc. Saying gays will burn in hell really is anathema to that. What has shielded Folau from a stronger reaction, so far, of course, is the ‘‘freedom of religion’’ line.

See, if any other famous sportsperson had said: ‘‘I think people who are gay should be roasted on a fire forever more, because, well, that’s just what I think,’’ their own lives would be hell in an instant. It would be classic homophobia, and we just don’t do that shit any more, and certainly not in the public domain.

But, if you say: ‘‘I seriously believe, as a grown adult, that there is a really good supernatural being, called ‘God’, in a paradise above the clouds called ‘heaven’, and a really bad one beneath us, called the ‘Devil’, living in ‘hell’, and though God must have created some beings as being attracted to their own gender, because he created everything, he still so hates his children for having that same-sex attraction, he will send them to hell …’’ we’re all meant to back off.”

MP Tim Wilson, a gay man with a particular expertise in human rights (and the way they bump against each other), and some strong opinions on the necessity of religious freedom came out in defence of Folau’s right to say things he disagrees with

“Respecting diversity includes diversity of opinion, including on questions of morality… Targeting Folau falsely feeds a mindset that he is persecuted for his opinions. Everyone needs to take a chill pill, respect Folau’s authority on the rugby field, and also recognise that he is employed in a profession that values brawn over brains… It is ridiculous for sponsors to walk away from Rugby Australia because of Folau’s opinions,” he says. “Companies have the freedom to sponsor organisations that share their values, but it would be absurd to make a collective sponsorship decision based on an individual player who isn’t hired based on his opinions. If Qantas and other sponsors punish Rugby Australia they’d be saying Australians can’t associate with them if they have religious or moral views.”

Folau, himself, has tweeted since the scandal, suggesting that he is being persecuted for righteousness. I see his point, in that he has attempted to speak truth about the eternal destiny of a segment of the community, and what could be more loving and righteous than that… and yet, I don’t think he answered the question well — and my problems with his answer are largely aligned with the pastoral objections FitzSimons raised:

“But whatever happens, you must reflect on the effect your words have most particularly on troubled teens – many of them, undoubtedly in your own community – struggling with their sexuality.

Do you have the first clue of the agonies they go through? Do you know how those agonies must be compounded by a respected figure like yourself saying they deserve to burn for all eternity? Most of us can laugh off such nonsense. But what of the kids who are 14, raised in it, and born gay? What of them right now, Israel? How can you visit such pain upon them?”

This is exactly why I think Folau should’ve been much more careful not to create (or legitimise) a separate category of person called ‘gay people’ — while sticking with his truth claim that those who reject God face death and judgment, while those who turn to God (repent) are given eternal life through the loving sacrifice of Jesus. It would’ve been nice for his response to be about good news — that we are all sinners who face a shared future without Jesus, but God loves all people enough to offer us a way out… Jesus’ love is for gay people, straight people, and “white, black, tall, small, fat, thin, abled, disabled, straight, gay, men, women, young, old, etc” — he’s much more inclusive than the Australian Rugby community (who only want you if you love Rugby).

If there’s one thing you can bet on in the current political climate it’s that haters are gonna hate; or polarisers are gonna polarise. On any issue. The collective ‘righteous mind’ kicks into overdrive on any issue that can be turned into a political football that can serve a cause.

We’ve lost the ability, as a community (and as individuals) to talk about things that matter — rather than how we feel about things that matter.

But here’s the thing… Debates about free speech, freedom of religion, and the polarised nature of any public conversation in the current environment are getting in the way of our ability to exercise free speech, and religious freedom, and to actually have conversations about things that matter… and maybe what we should do is just model those conversations, rather than speaking about why they’re important. Obviously all these issues are like a scrambled egg; and they’re very difficult to unscramble… but we perpetuate the scrambledness by scrambling to talk about those secondary issues and how this is an exemplary case, rather than dealing with this as a legitimate public conversation that needs having.

We shouldn’t really get bogged down into the conversation about whether or not Folau should be allowed to say what he says (clearly he should), our time would be better spent on whether or not what he says is true or helpful. The best way to honour his speech and legitimise it, is to engage with it.

If we make religious freedom, or the freedom to not be offended, or popular community held beliefs the issue we discuss in the fallout of Folau’s comments, and not their substance, we’ve already lost. The conversation about what sort of speech we should allow is a ‘secondary’ matter; and it fills almost all the airtime that we should be given to the primary matter; if we had public conversations well (and if we’d stewarded our place in public conversations better in the past) we wouldn’t have to spend all this time talking about what is or isn’t acceptable. If Folau is being ‘persecuted’ because people are trying to exclude him from the public conversation, then the LGBTIQ+ community has been, historically, persecuted in exactly this way in Australia for years; excluded from conversations about what is good, true, and beautiful, when it comes to life in this world…

What’s really at stake here is a conversation about whether there’s any legitimacy to religious belief, or any possible truth at the heart of Folau’s view of the world, and the default assumption from people like FitzSimons is that there isn’t — and that such speech has no place in the hard secular world we now live in, by making the case for free speech, or religious freedom, rather than for religious truth (or even the legitimate place potential religious truth has at the table in a pluralistic society), we’ve allowed FitzSimons and others to move the goalposts from a world that may include a transcendent reality, to a world where only matter matters — a material world.

The tragedy here, is that whatever truth, or untruth, or lack of nuance there might be at the heart of the substance of Israel Folau’s comment on the eternal future of ‘gay people’ gets lost in the noise. And I’d have thought the possible eternal destiny of anybody was maybe worth pondering before we jumped in to temporal tribes and started beating the stuffing out of this football in order to score as many points against the dreaded ‘other’ as possible.

It’s one thing to talk about what Folau got right, or wrong, it’s another thing entirely to argue about whether he was right or wrong to say it; and whether such speech should be allowed; I fear that we Christians have jumped into the second conversation, rather than showing why the first type is actually profoundly good and valuable to our society.

This isn’t about religious freedom; or it shouldn’t be. It should be about whether or not Folau’s statement is true.

We’ve jumped to asserting that Folau should’ve been able to say what he believes, rather than trying to establish the goodness, truth, or beauty of what the Bible actually teaches about life, death, and judgment — about the potential eternal destination of all people.

We’ve, by default, slipped into discussions of a temporal, or immanent, nature — political or secular concerns — rather than talking about things that are transcendent or spiritual. Which is to play the game on the wrong terms; to adopt a ‘limited end’ or a truncated, flattened, vision of the world.

How will we then pull back the curtains of reality and try to talk about the substance, and the legitimacy of ‘transcendence’, if first we’ve adopted a posture to this conversation that makes the important bit ‘should Folau be allowed to speak’ rather than ‘was Folau right in what he said’?

Isn’t the latter of much more importance to everyone?

Isn’t that importance what actually legitimises the offence his free speech may have caused?

I’ve always loved the way atheist magician Penn Jillette (who often reminds me of Peter FitzSimons) responded to being given a Bible by a man who believed he was going to Hell

“It was really wonderful. I believe he knew that I am an atheist. But he was not defensive, and he looked me right in the eyes and he was truly complimentary, it didn’t seem like empty flattery… and then he gave me this Bible. And I’ve always said, I don’t respect people who don’t proselytise. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe there’s a heaven and hell, and people could be going to hell and not getting eternal life, or whatever, and you think, well, it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward, and atheists who think that people shouldn’t proselytise ‘just leave me alone and keep your religion to yourself’ — how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytise? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them? I mean, if I believed, without a shadow of a doubt that a truck was about to hit you, and you didn’t believe it, and that truck was bearing down on you, there’s a certain point when I tackle you… and this is more important than that… this guy was a really good guy… he was a very, very, very good man… and with that kind of goodness, it’s ok to have that deep of a disagreement, I still think that religion does a lot of bad stuff, but in the end, that was a good man.”

I’ll be banging on about Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind for some time, I reckon, but his work on moral psychology and the way we polarise and how dangerous that is, should be a must-read for anybody interested in public conversations and civility. Here’s a quote that I reckon cuts both ways in the fallout around Folau — the public conversation is full of blind people with different views of what is sacred, and so different participants who see the ‘other’ as deluded.

I call it a delusion because when a group of people make something sacred, the members of the cult lose the ability to think clearly about it. Morality binds and blinds. The true believers produce pious fantasies that don’t match reality, and at some point somebody comes along to knock the idol off its pedestal. — The Righteous Mind, page 33-34

When he says this he’s not talking about religious delusions, but the common Western myth that the rational mind is a bigger deal than ‘the passions’; the “worship” of reason in western philosophy, it’s not a long bow to draw to make a connection between the worship of reason and the modern western blindness to the possibility of transcendence, or supernatural or religious truth (though Haidt, himself, is not religious). He talks about this tendency we humans have to hold things as sacred, and what that means for our ability to demonise the other in a way that explains the zealous and religious nature of the fallout around Folau’s comments, from FitzSimons, Qantas, and the rest, as much as it explains Folau’s comments.

Whatever its origins, the psychology of sacredness helps bind individuals into moral communities. When someone in a moral community desecrates one of the sacred pillars supporting the community, the reaction is sure to be swift, emotional, collective, and punitive. — page 174

Haidt makes the point that rich, robust, committed disagreement — deep disagreement like Jillette talks about — is actually vital for the pursuit of truth and goodness; but this requires people speaking from conviction in conversation together with people who hold different convictions, not speaking about civility, or pursuing some sort of uniformity of opinion and declaring that civil. He says we need to listen to people who don’t think like us if we genuinely want good outcomes.

“… each individual reasoner is really good at one thing: finding evidence to support the position he or she already holds, usually for intuitive reasons. We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. This is why it’s so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth (such as an intelligence agency or a community of scientists) or to produce good public policy (such as a legislature or advisory board).” — Pages 104-105

When it comes to middle aged white atheists and their concerns about people talking about Hell, we need a public conversation shaped more by Jillette than FitzSimons. The only way for us religious types to get there is to be more like that bloke with the Bible.

Image Credit: Flickr user Tim Snell, under Creative Commons license

,

What I’d say to Israel Folau (and those who read his comments about God’s plan for gay people)

God’s plan for gay people is the same as his plan for everyone else; and his offer for gay people is the same as it is for everyone else: Jesus; forgiveness and eternal life in and through Jesus. If a gay person rejects God’s plan — and this offer — then their destiny is the same as the destiny of every person who rejects God. Death and judgment.

Israel Folau found himself in a little bit of hot water during the same sex marriage plebiscite; earning some anger from the wider community, and some comparisons to the prophet Daniel (who refused to bend the knee to an idolatrous regime in the Bible and ended up facing lions who were meant to eat him for his troubles) in the Christian community.

The temperature of that water is heating up a little more after a tweetstorm this week, following this instagram post.

If the image quality isn’t up to scratch on your device; a commenter asked ‘what was God’s plan for gay people?’

And Folau, perhaps still inspired by the Daniel story, courageously answered (emphasis his):

“HELL… Unless they repent of their sins and turn to God.”

Now; the Aussie equivalent of Nebuchadnezzar’s royal guard (King Neb was the king who reluctantly threw Daniel to the lions), Rugby Australia will be ‘speaking’ to Folau about his tweet — and perhaps the corporate danger presented to Australian sporting bodies when sporting superstars cause community outrage… this story ominously mention’s Qantas’ sponsorship of the Wallabies, Rugby AU CEO Raelene Castle said:

“We are aligned in our view that rugby is a game for all, regardless of sexuality, race, religion or gender, which is clearly articulated in Rugby’s inclusion policy.

“We understand that Israel’s comment has upset a number of people and we will discuss the matter with him as soon as possible.”

So. What’s wrong with Israel speaking out to articulate his religious convictions? Nothing. Really. The marketplace will decide what views are and aren’t acceptable — and how to accommodate difference; and it might be lions for Israel (just not the British variety), though ultimately his on field talent will probably protect him (in ways that it might not your Joe average, with similar views).

But, just as Rugby AU would like to talk to Israel about how he uses social media, I’d have a few tips for him from Team Jesus. These are offered humbly from my experience in Public Relations, and as a pastor who cares about how Christians engage with the LGBTI+ community

The first is: don’t make the mistake of reducing a person’s identity, or standing before God, to their sexuality.

Israel should’ve rejected the premise of the question — if he was going to answer at all. By answering he turned ‘gay people’ into something other than ‘people’ — and singled them out in a way that makes it seem like God has a special plan just for their lives; just for being gay, when he says ‘their sins,’ it’s hard not to see it directly connected to just the sins he is being asked about.

Not reducing people to their sexuality (or not accepting the premise of the question — which was obviously a trap) might’ve avoided a bunch of controversy — because it’s not being gay that earns judgment from God… it’s the very sin that Daniel refused to commit that earns judgment — idolatry — turning from God to worship anything else. Because that idolatry leads to death and earns us the death penalty. It’s ultimately rejecting Jesus, and so joining in with the world as it crucified him that makes God’s punishment just — it wasn’t Jesus on trial before Pilate on that first Easter; Jesus is the judge of the universe; it was humanity — us — on trial.

In Romans 1 which is a text in the Bible that talks about homosexuality and God’s design for life, the root cause of God’s judgment is, essentially that we humans “exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.” Now; sex is a created thing, so our desire as modern western types to find our satisfaction and identity in sex, and pursue life — or ‘worship’ — on those terms rather than pursuing God above all, and having him shape our lives (including how we deal with sex and our sexual attraction) is what earns us judgment. To buy into the idea that being gay earns you God’s judgment is to somehow treat a particular group of people as worse than all the rest of humanity; it’s not a thing the Bible does (you won’t find a verse that isolates gay sex from any other sin — including straight sex outside of marriage, nor will you find it outside an explicit reference to idolatry). Gay, straight, or bi — we earn God’s judgment because we reject him; and, because none of us meet his standards for eternal life — absolute perfection (sinlessness).

Sexuality is complicated too — inasmuch as sexuality is part of a person’s identity, there are plenty of same sex attracted Christians around who have chosen to put Jesus first, so they are ‘gay Christians’ — their attraction and identity are part of what they bring to Jesus, and part of what they sacrifice when they turn from worshipping other stuff to worshipping him. Their sexuality is not what condemns or saves them, what they do with Jesus is. Gayness isn’t what earns people judgment; what someone does with the Bible’s teaching on sexuality is an indicator of who occupies their hearts and shapes their desires.

The second thing Israel should’ve done was to be really careful to make it clear that all have sinned. Including him — there’s less distance between me and my gay friends (or him, and his) than this tweet suggests. 

To sin is to fall short (that’s literally what the English word means)… it’s also to transgress God’s law — and the first commandment in Israel’s ten commandments (the nation, not the footballer) is to have no God before God (Exodus 20:3), and to worship him only. Sure. Many gay Aussies put many things (not just sex) before God in their lives… but so do many not-gay Aussies. God’s plan for all people who reject him is judgment; death, even… but that’s not just for gay people (and, it’s not even because of someone’s sexuality). Here’s a couple more things Paul says in that same letter to the church in Rome.

“There is no one righteous, not even one;
    there is no one who understands;
    there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
    they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
    not even one.” — Romans 3:10-12

… all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. — Romans 3:23-24

It might seem tricky to capture this in an instagram comment or tweet — but I’ll put a suggested response at the bottom…

It’s not that Israel was totally wrong about the destiny for people who sin (had he broadened the category of people he was talking about to ‘all sinners’ — well, Romans says:

“For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” — Romans 6:23

Here’s my third suggestion; and it’s probably the biggest.

Make a bigger deal about the goodness of Jesus so that repentance is about the positive step of turning to him because he is better than alternative gods, and the turn involves good news not just escaping punishment. 

Israel’s tweet holds out a little bit of the good news of life following repentance, but it’s kinda buried under his leading words. There’s a good case to be made that Israel has the order of operations a bit wrong in his picture of what God wants for people — the idea that we repent of our sin and then turn to God rather than turning to God and away from our sins (because of the goodness of God revealed in Jesus) is an interesting one; especially if God actually calls us to him, so that coming to life (away from death) is at God’s invitation while we’re still sinners. Here’s a couple of things Israel might consider.

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. — Romans 5:8

It’s unlikely (though possible) that fear is going to motivate people who’ve rejected God to switch worshipping pleasure, sex, and self-determination — which seems to be the strategy in Israel’s comment — what’s perhaps more likely is understanding exactly who it is they’ve rejected — the God who gives life and love, and sent Jesus to reconcile us to himself. The truth that should set people free is that Jesus is better than sex, or any alternative ‘created thing’ we put in the driver’s seat of our life; the other truth is that it takes a work of God’s Spirit to make this change possible. Because when it comes to God’s plan for people, ideally, Paul has a bit more to say:

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. — Romans 8:1

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. — Romans 8:28-30

So. How would I have answered the question: what was God’s plan for gay people? If I was Israel…

“That’s an interesting question — because it assumes somehow that God’s plan for gay people is different to his plan for anybody else just because they’re gay. It’s not. God’s best offer for all people is Jesus who came so we might ‘have life to the full’ forever — his plan for people who trust him is good and loving. Turning to Jesus changed how I think about life, including sex — but what we Christians believe about sex doesn’t make much sense without him. My hope is that all my friends — whatever their sexuality — might have a look at the life and teachings of Jesus. I’d be happy to help you find out more.”

My fourth piece of advice, as an added bonus, is the suggestion that with great social media power, comes great responsibility — and Israel, as a public Christian, should be stewarding his platform (and his talents) with wisdom and boldness for God’s kingdom. He’s got the boldness bit right; and we should applaud him for that. It’s clear he’s more worried about God than man… but his words have the power to do more than just turn off some sponsors, or have his contract torn up… It’s interesting to read the rest of James in that light. It has wisdom for how to use social media, like:

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry…

Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” — James 1:19, 26-27

,

Steve Smith: A Barabbas in need of a Jesus this Easter

“For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” — Jesus (Matthew 7:2)

What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked.

They all answered, “Crucify him!” — Matthew 27:23

Picture this.

There’s an unjust empire; an enemy. There’s been a promise of a level playing field, a fairer approach to life. But the promise is trodden into the dirt, and you and your comrades are left to take matters into your own hands. You reach for the sandpaper to hone your weapon so it swings more sharply. Then, before you know it… before you’ve achieved anything… the empire comes down on you. Crushing you. The crowd, who moments before were on your side — cheering on your insurrection; seeing in you the courage and conviction of a champion — sniff the wind and they turn on you. Baying for blood. Your blood. Waiting for you to be made a spectacle; calling for your execution. You walk a lonely path, surrounded by guards, people hurling abuse at you…

Your friends are going to be publicly humiliated; shamed; destroyed; beside you.

It’s curtains.

This is the story of Barabbas. The ‘every man’ — the ‘son of the father’ (literally)… just as the captain of the Australian cricket team is our ‘every man’ — our chief ‘representative’ (or so we sometimes speak); how appropriate that his name is also the ‘every-name’: Smith… Because it’s also his story. Steve Smith’s story.

Barabbas the ‘every man’ was a first century insurrectionist who counts Good Friday as his luckiest day… because instead of the crowd calling for his blood, another stood in his place. Maybe this Good Friday could be Steve Smith’s lucky day?

For Barabbas, there was another ‘every man’ earned the attention — the outrage — of the crowd, and took the death Barabbas deserved, lives exchanged… He’s there for Smith too. Same deal.

So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” For he knew it was out of self-interest that they had handed Jesus over to him… 

“Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” asked the governor.

“Barabbas,” they answered.

“What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked.

They all answered, “Crucify him!”

“Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate.

But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!” — Matthew 27:17-18, 21-23

Without Jesus entering the scene you can imagine the crowd directing its outrage, and anger, the sheer tonnage of pent up bloodlust, at Barabbas. Crucifixions were the most popular show in town. They still are. They were designed not just to punish guilt, but to bring shame on the offender. To humiliate and destroy a reputation. To bring a person into disrepute.

Steve Smith is walking in the footsteps of Barabbas this Easter.

He led a motley crew into enemy territory. The hostility in this test series is seemingly unprecedented. Smith carried a Rabada sized chip on his shoulder into Cape Town — the ICC deciding to clear South Africa’s champion for strong and aggressive contact made with Smith in the previous test (overturning a two match ban in what seemed to many to be a miscarriage of justice). Smith’s team mate (and comrade) Warner carried the anger of not just an angry clash with South African Quinton De Kock over offensive remarks made about his wife, but of a couple of South African administrators joining in the ‘fun’ in a photo that exacerbated the offence. I can understand their anger. Their desire to swing their weapon. To wreak havok on their enemies. To overthrow a tyrant… to carve out space for themselves. To right wrongs. But of course, two wrongs don’t make a right. Their guilt in these situations is reasonably clear; what happened in the first three tests was actually South Africa playing the ‘mental disintegration’ game better than the Australian team who previously claimed mastery… most insurrections are an attempt to overthrow a tyrant but end up looking a lot like tyranny… or worse than the tyranny they replace.

Smith and co wanted justice. They felt the need to hone their weapons. They roped in a comrade and attempted an insurrection. They were caught. They faced justice… leaving Smith a dead man walking; to be crucified beside his two friends.

The best piece of commentary on this fiasco I’ve read thus far was this piece titled “Disgraced ‘New Bradman’ left to search for salvation” — it rightly draws implicit parallels to the shame culture and the public spectacle at the heart of Rome’s crucifixion strategy.

Wrapped inside Smith’s cheating in South Africa is personal disgrace, a public crucifixion and a mystery about human psychology…

And then:

The cycle we are in is: detection, punishment, fallout. And it is the fallout that is most complex, because it places Smith (and others, but mainly Smith) at the old crossroads between ignominy and salvation.

And:

“Many will not care, but he must be in turmoil. Hell must be raging through his soul.”

Smith is a guilty man. He did the crime. He’s caught in the fallout. And it’s a terrible crossroads to be caught at with only your own cross to carry… if you’ve got to save yourself.

Enter the baying, outraged, crowd. Whose job, it seems, is to amplify the fallout and decide whether redemption happens, based on some sort of fickle whims and where they (we) are most likely to get out taste of blood. The crowd which operates not on guilt, but on shame… and whose hunger is fuelled by outrage, which is like a drug. It’s like when a dog gets its first taste of blood and then can’t get enough.

And this is where things get messy for Smith and co. The International Cricket Council punished their transgression for breaking the rule, a punishment was meted out appropriate to their guilt. A one match ban and a fine for Smith and a fine for Bancroft… the sort of punishment handed down for similar (though less ‘three stooges’ performances around the world, following a certain precedent). The crowd bayed for more blood, and the ACB did a Pilate; it decided to give the crowd what they wanted, and to punish the trio not for their guilt, but in order to shame them; to punish not for a rule being broken, but a standard being breached. For ‘bringing the game into disrepute’, Smith and co had to be made disreputable. It had to be clear they didn’t represent the game, or represent us.

We’re increasingly living in a shame based rather than a guilt based culture here in Australia. Social media is a big part of that where we all get to play the angry mob. In a shame based culture it becomes necessary not just to punish a wrongdoer for guilt proportionate to their crime, but for shame, proportionate to the response. The punishment for shame is to ostracise or cut off a wrongdoer from their community. Guilt is about a transgression being wrong, shame is about a person being wrong. Shame is met with dishonour and disendorsment. With humiliation. It’s the ugly side of our outrage culture. It’s particularly ugly for the victim… but it’s also ugly for us when we find ourselves in angry lynch mobs baying for blood and then realising that it is on our hands.

When Jesus said ‘judge not’ (one of the most commonly quoted verses in the New Testament) he followed it up with the words “for in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” This is scary… because when it comes to the words of the crowd later in Matthew’s Gospel it’s clear they’re, by their own standards, earning judgment for themselves. If an innocent man is worthy of death — how much more the guilty, and how much more those who were guilty of calling for blood simply to satisfy their own self-interest.

Character matters; as I argued in my last #ballgate post… but these sorts of public situations — our outrageous clamouring for blood — reveal something about our own character. Something deficient.

We are the crowd.

And so we set a certain standard; a measure; and it will be given to us. At the end of Jesus’ trial (and Barabbas’ great escape), Pilate tries to wash his hands of the blood of Jesus by pointing out that his blood, instead, is on the hands of the crowd.

“I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!”

All the people answered, “His blood is on us and on our children!”

Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified. — Matthew 27:24-26

Barabbas goes free; Jesus gets flogged then crucified… but the crowd… they’re stuffed.  The measure they use will be used against them.

Smith, in the depth of his own personal hell… facing his own crucifixion, could do with finding Jesus.

But the crowd could do with the same…

Because without him, the fallout continues… what goes around comes around, our measure will be used against us… in the trial of Jesus it’s very quickly the outraged crowd in the firing line — blood on their hands. Blood on our hands… If we decide we want to play the shame game, not just the guilt game, and so mete out disproportionate punishments for ‘disrepute’ or totally subjective charges built around ‘measures’ of the community, we too become subject to those measures, it’s us in the firing line too.

And that’s a scary thought.

To be stuck in that cycle of detection, punishment, fallout — but to move from detective to detected… from crowed to punished…

It means that like Smith is in need of a Jesus to take his guilt and shame, we too are waiting for a Jesus. How sweet, might it be, for Smith-as-Barabbas to find Jesus this Easter; to see himself in the story as a dead man walking who is miraculously saved — offered mercy, a stay of sentence, at the 11th hour with an innocent one to take his place.

We, in the crowd, we need Jesus too. Because the measure we use will be used against us, and we will all be found wanting — and if all our conduct was made public there’d be plenty of fodder not just for guilt, but for its more nebulous counterpart, shame, with its arbitrary punishments dished out only in proportion to scale of a crowd’s anger determined largely by a dark and unpredictable whimsy, and just how much the media needs a story.

The thing about Jesus is that he adds a couple of stages to the cycle…

Detection. Punishment. Fallout. Redemption. Forgiveness.

He stands in our place — he dies in our place — the place of Barabbas, the place of Smith, the place of the crowd… and offers to take the guilt and shame we each deserve… to change the ‘measure’ from ‘judgment’ to ‘mercy’…

We, as the baying crowd, could do with a little bit of a measure change this Easter; and the best way to do that is to weigh up Jesus. As I’ve been following the Smith story I’ve had this song, Gracious Redeemer, by Austin Stone bouncing around in my head, especially the ‘no guilt, no shame… new life, you gave’ refrain. What good news it would be for Smith, the every man, to find Jesus in his place this Easter. And for us.

I was lost in sin, held captive by my fear
’til your mercy showed your hand was reaching near
My God, you came and made a way for me
You made a way for me

My Jesus, gracious Redeemer and friend
There’s nothing like Your love without end
My hope was purchased by the blood of the Lamb
My Jesus, Redeemer

You defeated death, You trampled over sin
You’re the Risen King, You’re coming back again
Oh God, You came and made a way for us
You made a way for us

No guilt, no shame
no curse, no chains
new life, You gave
Redeemer

My debt is paid
my soul now saved
oh God, You came
Redeemer

Image source.

, ,

True grit: A tale of two Aussie teams in Cape Town (and how we get the teams we deserve)

If you haven’t heard about the Aussie team’s capitulation in Cape Town over the weekend, then you might be hiding under a rock. Though they lost, they lost with grit and with character, and their coach was able to praise them for having a go… in previous years they’d have simply folded under the pressure and the opposition would’ve mounted a cricket score against them. They had no backbone. No go-forward. No character.

And character counts.

Character counts for everything.

In previous years the team’s reputation relied on a couple of superstars who it seemed believed they transcended the game — they thought, it seemed, that they could behave with impunity, that they could get away with anything on and off the field, so long as their performances occasionally justified the massive dollars thrown their way… but those superstars have been shunted in the name of ‘cultural change’ — an attempt to play the game ‘hard but fair,’ and a coach firmly committed to a famous Aussie ‘no dickhead policy’, and the nurturing and development of backbone, grit, and character. Because character counts.

By now it’s clear I’m not talking about that other Aussie team who capitulated in Cape Town.

There were two sporting contests pitting the best of Australia against the best of South Africa in Cape Town over the weekend. One involved a ‘national disgrace’ and displayed the cost of a winner-takes-all approach to sport, that in many ways is emblematic of an Australian ideology, the other displayed the counter-culture that perhaps should regain the ascendency in the Australian psyche.

While the Aussie Cricket team got down and dirty, using ‘grit’ to take the shine off both the ball and our reputation, the Queensland Reds, a rugby team who until this year were the epitome of flakiness won praise for going toe-to-toe with a vastly superior (and more experienced) Stormers, even though they lost 25-19.

The two teams, and their culture, are interesting pictures of what sport can be, and what it represents, and in some ways they’re a picture of a contest to define the Australian soul; our psyche… and it’s on us, the populace, to help define what we’re on about as a nation, and what sporting teams (and cultures) truly represent us.

We get the sporting superstars we deserve; because we get what we celebrate… and what we celebrate, in a cyclical way, comes back to shape who we are.

And this is a vicious cycle. It can literally, if we aren’t careful, be a cycle of vice.

For a long time the Queensland Reds were terrible representatives. Not only were they terrible on the field, they were led by enfant terribles Quade Cooper, and Karmichael Hunt. Cooper, whose early off field misdemeanours included charges for breaking and entering while on sleeping pills, and Hunt, a ‘three-code superstar’ whose on-field talent saw many prepared to turn a blind eye to his off field proclivity for party drugs and partying. But not this year. Not in this team culture. Not under this coach.

Enter Brad Thorn.

The new Reds coach, who has surprised many with both his approach to team culture — and these two superstars — and with how he has, in a short time, started stamping something of himself into this outfit. Now, disclosure, I’ve had the privilege of being part of a church with Brad, and having him stamp some of that character into me (not on the sports field, but there was a time when he took it on himself to train me and give me some vision for masculinity that came at a particularly formative time — which involved long runs, hard chats, and spewing up after gym sessions), but I have no particular insight outside knowing his character and reading his comments, into how he is approaching his job as coach. I’m totally unsurprised that it turns out the man can coach, and I’m not surprised by his response to his team’s gritty loss over the weekend (it was a performance unironically described as gritty in a match review that happened pretty much next door to the controversial cricket test at the same time).

Here’s what Brad said about the performance:

“I’ve seen games when 18-0 down easily blow out but these guys just kept on competing… They’ve had a round-the-world trip this week, a lot that wasn’t rosy out there and with all the challenges to get within that range of winning is a great effort.”

Can you imagine an Aussie cricket coach or captain describing a loss in those terms? Not in recent years. I can’t remember the last time an Aussie cricket team displayed non-literal grit.

What Brad champions is character over talent. It’s why Cooper and (probably) Hunt won’t feature prominently in his team, his his description of his hard-but-fair ethos:

“I’m big on caring about, the team caring about each other, caring about the cause they’re trying to achieve and they’re striving for and big on caring about who you’re representing, be it the family or the fans and stuff like that.”

And elsewhere:

“I take defence personally. It’s a reflection of character … what you want to do for the mate beside you… Physicality is something I’ve always enjoyed. It’s a contact sport we’re playing and that’s got to come with a competitive mind-set.”

Defence (and so character) was the reason Brad gave for Cooper dropping to club rugby. Because character is everything. It’s bigger than winning — but it’s pretty clear that for Brad winning flows from character (and he is, from first hand experience, remarkably competitive, even at chess, table tennis, and Golden Eye on the Nintendo 64). It’s no surprise to read story after story about how Brad leads by example — how he’s still putting up gym numbers that inspire his charges, and leading the weights session after a win to keep his team humble.

The Australian cricket team — needs a culture change — especially if they play an important role in modelling the Australian character back to Australians and so reinforcing it, modelling it, developing it… and character change is possible through leadership, modelling, and the will. They need someone like Brad to stamp themselves — their character — on this team.

But the jump to condemn the Aussie team, and to demand their heads — and Smith’s weird apology, which felt like an apology for being caught — reveal some things about a deep issue in the Aussie psyche. It’s not just the national team that needs a culture change — and maybe a sweep through with the broom, from the top of the administration through to the players on the field… or at least a thorough recalibration of our metrics and our culture. It’s all of us.

Character is everything. It’s not a bonus. And character is forged, it is stamped, it is hard won. This, from my favourite piece of summer reading:

The word “character” comes from a Greek word that means “stamp.” Character, in the original view, is something that is stamped upon you by experience, and your history of responding to various kinds of experience, not the welling up of an innate quality. Character is a kind of jig that is built up through habit, becoming a reliable pattern of responses to a variety of situations. There are limits, of course. Character is “tested,” and may fail. In some circumstances, a person’s behavior may be “out of character.” But still, there is something we call character. Habit seems to work from the outside in; from behavior to personality. — Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head

Character is stamped upon you by repeated actions — but it is also revealed in our actions.

The character flaws revealed in the ball tampering episode reflect poorly on Australia because they hold a mirror up to an Australian culture that makes winning more important than character. We allow all sorts of on field practices (and all sorts of people on field) because winning is so important to us; it’s our ‘virtue’ — we drop players for a dip in performance and replace them with people of questionable character, we let sledging slide, we adopt a win at all costs attitude when it comes to our metrics, and we are so slow to forgive poor performance from our ‘representative’ athletes while being quick to forgive character flaws.

This is what we get — it’s not just reflective of poor team culture within the sport (as fast bowler turned commentator Brett Geeves suggests, and Fairfax columnist Malcolm Knox argues), but poor national culture.

I’m struggling to muster the same sort of outrage, or desire for retribution against Steve Smith and his cohort that so much of the Australian public is presently voicing on Facebook (and talkback radio). Am I disappointed? Sure. Do I think they should be punished? Absolutely. But is this a large scale national disgrace that has brought shame on our collective, corporate, Aussie identity? Perhaps. But it’s not entirely on those 11 men in the middle (or 12, because Peter Handscomb was involved in the cover-up, or 13 if you include coach Darren Lehman who must surely have been aware, and who radioed Handscomb to involve him in the cover up…), there’s an ever expanding circle of culpability…

The actions of a team reveal the character forged in a team by its repeated practices, and those practices are shaped by what the team prizes, and what the team prizes is shaped by those they represent. Now, there’s certainly a sense that these players only represent themselves, but I’m not so sure. I think they prize what we prize, and maybe Smith’s apology for being caught is on the money.

It is bizarre to me how quickly we’ve jumped to judge, jury, and would-be executioner on social media — calling for the heads of those involved — without questioning our own culpability, and our own buy-in to the idea that results are more important than character; that winning is everything. How many of us, away from high definition cameras capturing our every move, are creating competitive advantages by cutting corners or breaking rules? How many of us look to examples or champions based on the results they produce not the lives they live and the character they display? How many of us put results above grit in our own metrics? How many of us celebrate a team because of its results rather than its ethos? How many of us want to split, for example, the moral lives of our politicians from the results they deliver for us (hint, see Joyce and Trump)?

Our cricket team, like our nation, prizes winning above virtue; performance above character… it has put the cart before the horse, and until we re-align our priorities as a nation, and they re-align their priorities as a team, we’ll get what we saw in Cape Town over the weekend. The solution wasn’t far away, you just had to look in the stadium next door at a bloke who takes his marching orders from someone who defined character and grit differently. Brad Thorn, the coach, who gets his game plan from Jesus, the king. Here’s an interview (with my old man) where Brad shares how his values come from somebody who redefines the win, who was big on character, and who models exemplary true grit by shouldering a cross and marching towards a victory built from character.

,

Some ‘F’ Words: Footy, Fifita, Foran, Friendship and Forgiveness — what the NRL’s culture problems reveal about life together

It seems you can learn about real friendship from the most unlikely people.

fifita

Image credit: ABC News

I was pretty devastated last year when my team’s (the Manly Warringah Sea Eagles) clean-skin five-eighth, a prodigious talent, and potential future captain, Kieran Foran walked out of the club to join arch-rivals Parramatta.

There’s a long history of players switching between these clubs — usually in our favour, like the great Jamie Lyon, but this one hurt. Foran was said to be a family man, a humble and patient bloke who was widely respected by his peers and the press. He was not a boofhead. He was polite and well-spoken, not a boor. He was not like those other players who generate negative headlines for the game. Even in leaving, the headlines being generated were positive ones about him and the game. He was not, in any sense, like Andrew Fifita from the Cronulla Sharks, a gifted footballer whose career, many suggest, will be limited by the disruption he brings by bringing his larger-than-life character wherever he goes. If you’d told me a year ago that I’d be saying the game needed less Kieran Foran’s and more Andrew Fifitas, I’d have laughed in your face.

A year later and things have unravelled somewhat for Kieran Foran. His reputation is in tatters; his new club tore up his contract because it turns out he’s not the messiah, nor even the golden haired child they thought he’d be. And it is clear he’s battling a whole range of demons. Mental illness is a terrible scourge for those experiencing it. It has reportedly been a tough year for Foran and for those who love him. I’m not at all writing this to judge him, or to comment on his decisions; life for him, and for many others, is complicated, and he’s made some mistakes and done some stupid things; and it’d be amazing if he were able to pull his life together, or have it pieced back together for him. Nobody is unredeemable. As I write about this year and reflect on his fall, I’m praying for him. Personally I reckon it’d be especially good for him if he found Jesus in all this; it seems Jesus isn’t far from an NRL field most weekends.

What is clear is that Foran needs new friends. It’s become apparent that one of his closest friends is at the heart of match-fixing allegations surrounding the NRL; specifically surrounding games involving Foran. This friend is an undesirable sort of character who has brought Foran’s reputation into question by doing such stupid things as trying to deposit gambling winnings into Foran’s account. This undesirable friend has mixed in circles with NRL players for years to get access to inside information; keeping them close using methods as morally questionable as providing free sex for NRL players and jockeys in a brothel he ran in Sydney. This undesirable claimed in a bizarro press conference this week that if it wasn’t for him, Foran wouldn’t be alive, and perhaps that’s true; but he is also cutting off his relationship with Foran so that he can pursue a return to the football field. I’m no expert, but from the outside (and from the inside perspective of Foran’s ex-partner) this undesirable has not actually been a good friend to Foran; and his undesirability has rubbed off on Foran’s reputation.

What are friends for?

Another friend of Foran’s, his god-father, Don Mackinnon is stepping in to help pick up the pieces; he’s described as a father-figure (Foran’s father lives in the U.S where he’s the CEO of Walmart), and he’s been doing what friends should do; standing with Foran and encouraging him to pick up the pieces of his life, and his career. The media love him for it because he’s doing something positive for Foran, and, for the game that makes us feel like we’re stakeholders in Foran’s life decisions; the footy. This sort of thing is apparently what friends are for. Making us better people. Friends who make us worse, or who cost us something, are to be cut-off.

Is that real friendship?

Clearly you’re not being a friend if you’re using and destroying on the person you claim to love for your own ends; as it seems is the case with Mr Undesirable; but what should a friend be doing for someone who has done the destroying themselves?

Enter Andrew Fifita.

Andrew Fifita has also had a rough year and apparently been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. He’s done some stupid stuff in the past, like badgering a referee at a junior football game, and this year has continued to do some questionable things; he, is, in some corners of the media, painted as a walking undesirable; a blight on the game.  It’s been suggested that he also needs new friends after he wore an armband bearing the letters F.K.L; apparently in support of his childhood friend ‘K.L,’ who is in jail for a coward punch killing. This friend is rightly paying for a stupid mistake that had deadly consequences. Fifita, despite all the advice he has received suggesting he do otherwise, is standing by his friend. He’s not just doing the token thing with some letters on his wrist, but has made multiple visits to his friend in prison. Apparently the authorities in both the game, and the government — the NRL’s Integrity Unit, and the New South Wales Police — don’t want our footballers consorting with this sort of character. This friendship doesn’t appear to gain him anything; in fact, Fifita seems to know that it costs him. If there’s one thing Fifita does seem to be, it’s loyal to his childhood friends; that was his explanation for running across the field to join a fight in State of Origin this year that saw him head to the sin bin. Sure. He’s done some dumb stuff. But there’s some sort of virtue there in the background. And it’s there when it comes to his costly support of his undesirable friend. People are worried that continuing to support his friend; visiting him in jail and wearing the letters on his wrist, brings both Fifita and the game into disrepute. Fifita has been pilloried from pillar to post by the media and the game’s hierarchy for daring to stand by his undesirable friend.

There’s been lots of speculation about what the “F” on his wristband stood for; and a widespread belief that he was calling for his friend to be freed; which would be insensitive for the family of the victim, and would fly in the face of campaigns against alcohol fuelled violence. A bunch of former-players-turned-media-pundits and NRL CEO Todd Greenberg piled in on Fifita; rightly concerned about the family of K.L’s victim. Greenberg told the media:

“Players are generally free to support any person or cause they like. But in circumstances such as these, they cannot use our game as a platform to do that.

We understand players have a life outside their club and the game and that may include mixing with people who have gone down the wrong path in life. But players must ensure they do not engage in any activity which damages our game… Arm guards can often be used for messages of support for family, sick children and other worthy causes and we would prefer not to get in the way of that.”

But it seems the F stands for the thing at the heart of real friendship. Perhaps this is a worthy cause. Perhaps it teaches us something true about friendship. A lesson the NRL might need if Foran’s undesirable friend has connections, as it seems, that run wide, not just deeply into the life of the Foran family.

It seems Fifita might actually be a guy the NRL (and its public) could learn from (though he’s still a boof-head and this is quite a specific thing to learn). It seems Fifita understands that real friendship crosses the boundaries of desirability at one’s personal cost; that real friendship isn’t just for fair weather, or for your own benefit. It seems he knows that the way to cross the boundary is via the toughest virtues of all.

First, a few weeks back, Fifita made it clear that he wasn’t downplaying the cost K.L’s actions had for the Kelly family (and they have been incredibly costly) — or calling for K.L, Kieran Loveridge, to be freed. He is simply humanising Kieran in a world that wants to use shame and guilt to dehumanise people when they make mistakes. One of the quickest ways to dehumanise someone is to cut them off from friendships and relationships. We’re wired to need relationships. And Fifita seems to get this… he said:

“… I think about the Kelly family when I think about Kieran. My support for Kieran is there because he is sitting without a glimmer of hope and I want to give him some hope. There are very few people who are going to support him and my bond with him runs deep.

“But to say that I think he should be free is just so wrong. It upsets me that people would think that. He has to do his time because he did the wrong thing, but I can’t ignore a bloke who grew up with me as family.”

Then, yesterday’s Danny Weidler column in the Sun Herald contained this little bit of info (which is consistent with what Fifita has suggested since the scandal broke, not just a convenient excuse to make up after the fact).

“What is also of interest is the “F” in the infamous “FKL” acronym worn by Fifita earlier this season was not “Free” or “For”. This column understands it’s “Forgive” – something Fifita wrote after two years of trying to find forgiveness for a mate who did the wrong thing.

It was something he struggled with and still does because he knows how brutal Kieran Loveridge’s act was. It is my understanding Fifita doesn’t want the world to forgive the one-punch killer. He’s not silly enough to push that down people’s throats. He wasn’t pushing it on to teammates or anyone else, it was a reminder to look for that in himself.”

Forgiveness is hard especially when the sin in question makes a person particularly undesirable. There’s a reason Jesus gets called ‘friend of sinners’ — and it’s not just that he spent time with undesirables like prostitutes and tax-collectors — it’s because his mission in life was to forgive people at his cost (the cost of his life, and death) in order to make us his friends. Just after Luke’s Gospel, where the Pharisees have been having a go at Jesus for hanging out with undesirables, Jesus says:

The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by all her children.” — Luke 7:34

Just after he says this, Luke tells a story about an undesirable woman approaches him to wash his feet with expensive perfume (which she’s no doubt purchased with the money she made from her undesirable labours), the Pharisees think Jesus should cut off contact with her because she is a “sinner,” and he shows that Fifita is pretty on the money when it comes to friendship, while the NRL and the footy-loving media, might have something to learn. Jesus smashes the pharisees, while giving hope and friendship to this undesirable woman.

Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”

Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”

The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”

Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” — Luke 7:44-50

You could also easily go to the parable of the Good Samaritan here and its final question: ‘who was this [undesirable] man’s neighbour?’ — the example of Jesus is the example of extending friendship to someone, via forgiveness, at your own cost.

We can learn something Biblical from Foran’s story too; “bad company corrupts” (1 Corinthians 15:33), and that’s what happens if we take our lead from undesirables rather than seeing friendship as a costly outworking of the Gospel. The thing about the story of the Bible is that it becomes pretty clear that we’re actually all corrupted and undesirable; some of us are just better at hiding it than others, while some of us are more hypocritical than others (there’s a great irony to me that the line of pundits stepping forward to condemn Andrew Fifita includes Matthew Johns). The danger Paul is speaking about in 1 Corinthians 15 is the danger of forgetting that Jesus calls us to leave our old ways, but not our old friends, behind. We can love people without being corrupted by them; and this, too, is where Foran went wrong. Jesus managed to do this friendship thing without being corrupted — but he did it with compassion, and for people who nobody else wanted to see as human or give any sort of hope to — just like Fifita, and ultimately this will require a degree of forgiveness.

There’s something that people who want to follow Jesus and live in response to his vision of costly friendship for undesirables (us) can learn from Fifita here, inasmuch as his approach to friendship looks like Jesus’ approach to friendship. Forgiveness is hard. And yet Paul, who’d been greatly undesirable, a killer of Christians, before being forgiven, says it’s at the heart of our new life following Jesus:

“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” — Colossians 3:12-14

, ,

It’s not just cricket: Trying to make sense of the tragedy of death

Like the rest of Australia – and perhaps like anybody who follows sports around the world — I’ve been struggling to put words to why the death of cricketer Phillip Hughes has hit me for six. And then some.

Death is part of life as we know it. Everyone dies. This fundamental truth faces all of us — I will die, you will die, the people we love will die.

Why then does death feel the way it does? Unnatural. Broken. Empty.

Why do we feel the way we do about death? Sad. Powerless. Afraid.

And if we’re all just a finite number of heart beats away from death — why has this death in particular rocked us to the degree it has?

I suspect part of the answer is in the tragic elements of the story, the countless what ifs, and the absence of someone or something to blame. We’ve been conditioned by whodunnits and our ability to diagnose and dissect every event to want something or someone to point the finger at when things go wrong. We want a clear link between cause and effect. We just don’t have that here. People are searching anywhere and everywhere (apparently it’s Mitchell Johnson’s fault and it’s Michael Clarke’s fault and it’s all of our faults – and that’s just one article). We’re sure that we can’t blame Sean Abbott, the bowler.

Rightly sure — and perhaps the most touching thing in the washup of this awful mess has been the way people have rallied behind Abbott. His was a routine delivery. The Cricinfo ball by ball coverage of Hughes’ last innings shows just how routine the short ball was — and how untroubled Hughes had been up until ball number 161.

Abbott to Phil Hughes

No run, another short one, ducks, he’s in no hurry

Abbott to Phil Hughes

No run, low bouncer, still ducks

The thing that strikes me in tragic accidents like this is how many opportunities there were in the moments leading up to the event for things to go differently.

For the accident not just to be avoided — like the millions of other bouncers that have sailed past batsmen all over the world, and throughout the history of the game – but for it to not have the possibility of happening at all.

I’ve found myself trying to play the what if game, unravelling the various causes from this fatal effect. Not apportioning blame where none exists, but reliving those past moments that plot out some sort of alternative future?

And there are so many in the game of cricket. So many potential causes — causes that are almost always clearly linked to their effects. Our understanding of cricket has been totally atomised, in part, as a result of the technology we use as part of our lens for viewing the game, partly because every aspect of the game of cricket is understood scientifically, or geometrically. Cricket is not a game of inches, but millimetres.

So — as I have when confronted with any tragic accident like this — I’ve spent the last few days falling down desperate rabbit-holes of what-ifs, as though that will help unlock some hidden meaning in this event that will make it all make sense.

What if Hughes had chosen to play this ball the same way he’d played every other short ball in the innings? What if someone had paused to tie a shoe lace, and even that small interval prompted a different series of choices for the actors in this tragedy? What if the bowler had changed his mind and bowled a fuller delivery?

What if a heckler in the crowd had — or hadn’t — distracted a player at any point in proceedings, delaying play for just a moment, sharpening or distracting the concentration of the players to impact their actions by just one degree?

What if there’d been a misfield and they’d stolen a quick single at the end of the over before, so that Tom Cooper, Hughes’ batting partner, had been on strike?

“No run, blocks to off to end the over. SA 2/134 (Hughes 61, Cooper 5)”

What if, on the previous delivery, the batsmen had run a single, rather than taking two? What if the fielder had scurried to the ball quicker?

Two runs, on leg and swung away fine

What if. What if. What if.

It doesn’t help. The asking. It is not cathartic. The questions splinter out into other questions. Questions that can’t possibly be answered. Questions that make for interesting, but unhelpful, speculation. Questions that involve trying to rewrite events of the past to change the future.

But this approach is no more, or less, rational than the other ways of processing this sort of tragedy.

I think one of the more shocking things about the last few days is not so much how improbable everything seems, but how unfair it is — a young man, in his prime, about to regain his place in the Australian team after yo-yoing in and out of the team. A prodigy about to deliver on his potential. Struck down.

It’s not just unfair, it’s a reminder of how beyond the control of everyone involved this cause-effect nexus actually is. We are powerless. One of Australia’s best batsmen was felled by the sort of ball he had faced thousands of times. A handful of Australia’s most qualified surgeons were powerless to change the outcome for Hughes. Millions of Australians joined in prayer hoping to have some input into securing a different outcome.

That’s what we want when it comes to causality, isn’t it? The ability to nudge or cajole the objects we’re presented in our circumstances, tweaking whatever causal knobs we can, to secure our desired future. It’s no good playing the ‘what if’ game, because it deals only with knobs unturned, paths untaken, the past. It feeds this belief that we are in control.

And this, I think, is part of why this sort of death hits us so hard.

We are not in control.

I think that maybe we think we’re ok with death. People seem to be able to process death, to grieve, to move on. Not our own. Of course. But others. Maybe we can be philosophical about death. Maybe we can cope with its existence as a universal reality. Maybe we can see it as part of life. So long as it seems to be something we can face up to, or control, or fight against. Hughes was robbed of all of this. And this is a reminder that we might well be robbed of all this too.

And, personally, that’s where I think I’m struggling, and where others I speak to seem to be heading, even if we can’t all quite put our finger on what’s going on here, or precisely account for why this one death, out of so many other deaths that happened on November 27, has captured the global imagination.

How on earth are we meant to understand and respond to the fragility of human life? To the idea that at any given moment, death is millimetres away, and worse, that these millimetres may not be in our control, but in the hands of another? A driver not paying attention on the road next to us. A builder or engineer being negligent at some point in some process, at some point in the past.

I think. If I’m honest.  The real struggle for me when I play the what if game, and when I play it in circumstances where I’ve prayed, and where there have been outpourings from thousands upon thousands of others who all indicate they’re also praying, is wondering where God’s hand is in all of this?

Here is Australian cricketing legend Adam Gilchrist on Twitter:

Dear Lord, if ever the need for footprints in the sand, it’s now #PhilHughes #courage #strength

— Adam Gilchrist (@gilly381) November 25, 2014

Why didn’t God intervene to sever cause from effect?

Why?

Not just for Phil Hughes, why not for others?

Why death? Why chaos? Why pain?

If I’m really honest, events like this just throw the spotlight back on these existential questions that face all humans. All of us who are bound by cause and effect.

And for those of us, Christians, who believe in the sovereignty of God over cause and effect, this is a startling reminder that death, whatever manner it uses to find us is an inevitable outcome for people. And that life in all its forms — as we experience it, and as God promises it — comes from God. God is ultimately in control. Of cause and effect. Of life. Of death. Every being has their being only as a result of God…

“You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.”— Revelation 4:11

This is the answer to Adam Gilchrist’s question — it’s the same answer the Footprint poem he cites gives – sort of. God is in every life, giving life. He carries every person every step of the way, from birth, to death.

Life is a precious gift. But it is, apart from the life Jesus offers through his resurrection, a temporary gift.

God gives. God takes away. We experience this taking away — the hand of God — death — through cause and effect.

We might wish for him to break cause away from effect in certain circumstances and times in our lives, but suspending the natural order, if the natural order has its being in God, as Revelation 4 suggests, then we’re calling on God to break himself at that point.

A big ask.

God did break in to the monotony of cause and effect. In Jesus. Where he broke in to the world, and was broken. Crucified. The death he planned before he made the world. This death that was the product of an amazingly intricate chain of causes and effects, such that words written in the Old Testament Book of Psalms played their way out in vivid colour a thousand years later at the crucifixion. This death broke death. If Jesus was raised from the dead. And I believe he was. Everything we understand about cause and effect changes at that point. Until this point the effect of crucifixion was death, the effect of life was death, the effect of death was finality. The resurrection breaks that. God didn’t just leave random footprints on some sand to tell us that he was with us — he entered the picture, walked the earth, left his fingerprints everywhere, had nails driven through his hands, spilled his blood, and died, to show us he was with us. And to invite us to walk with him. To life.

If we’re looking for footprints in events like the tragic circumstances of this week, without first seeing the indelible footprint God left on the earth at the Cross of Jesus, we’re going to struggle to see God in these, or any, events.

This quote from one of Jesus’ followers, Peter, grapples with the fleeting nature of human life — the reality of our mortality— suggesting Jesus death, chosen before the creation of the world, breaks the cause and effect connection between life and death. Because Jesus beats death our lives don’t necessarily end in death.

For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.  He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God.

For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.  For,

“All people are like grass,
    and all their glory is like the flowers of the field;
the grass withers and the flowers fall,
     but the word of the Lord endures forever.” — 1 Peter 1:18-21, 23-25

This is what I turn to when I’m asking questions about death. Questions about where God is in the events at the end of every human life. Questions about why God doesn’t just do something. He’s there. He has.

I don’t want this to be preachy. I don’t want it to be cheapening the harrowing events of this week. I’m not really seeking to persuade anyone of anything. I’m thinking out loud. Life, more than ever, seems so fragile. So fleeting. Like vapour. And this is where I’ve found comfort. This is how I’ve dug my way out of the rabbit warren of ‘what if’ questions in my head. This is what I’ve clung to in the face of the reminder that I’m not in control of my life, or the lives of those I love, but God is, and he is good.

Death is unnatural. Death sucks. Death is the ultimate reminder that we aren’t God. That we are creatures. That we are dependant on another for our existence. Death is the ultimate reminder that we were made for life, and that we can be recreated, by the living creator.

 He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. — Revelation 21:6

The Flying O and other football manoeuvres I would like to try

The football (soccer for you children of the US Empire) season has started again. And today, pre-game, I had the opportunity to pitch a few, well, two, new tactics to my team mates. They were reluctant to try them, but should you attempt these, and film them – I guarantee viral success.

The Flying O

  • The goalkeeper catches the ball.
  • The ten field players from your team gather in a tight circle (O shape) in their own goal box.
  • The goalkeeper drops the ball into the O shape.
  • Each player in the O touches the ball in quick succession to prevent obstruction rulings while the O flies, or perambulates, down field, and over the goal line.

This is, of course, an alphabetical adaptation of this famous Mighty Ducks move…

So is basically foolproof.

The Stationary I

On an attacking corner six players from the attacking team forms a wall (an I) on the near post. Players from the defending team may try to join this wall or stand in front of it. If this happens, distract the referee and administer a wedgie. The corner kick should be aimed at the feet of the wall. As the ball is kicked the wall must all step back together and tap the ball into the net. GOAL.

Celebrations ensue.

No. Seriously. That’s all I’ve got. But I figure it’s time for me to write something.

Book Review: Alex Ferguson, My Autobiography

I love Manchester United. I have always admired Alex Ferguson. Even when he appeared to be a dolt.

So I bought his autobiography on release day – it promised to be tell-all, revealing, and controversial. The greatest controversy isn’t what Fergie had to say about people like Mark Bosnich. It is just how inane the prose in this book is. It was clearly rushed to print. It is repetitive. Self-indulgent. And in need of a good edit. Some random examples of just how stilted and language-defying the writing is are included below for your education.

Do not buy this book if you don’t like knowing how sausages are made.

On giving criticism

“Faced with the need to confront a player who had performed below our expectation, I might have said: ‘That was rubbish, that.’ But then I would follow it up with, ‘For a player of your ability.’ That was for picking them back up from the initial blow. Criticise but balance it out with encouragement. ‘Why are you doing that? You’re better than that.’”

An “amusing” anecdote

I was coming out of the Grand National meeting with Cathy in April 2013 and two Liverpool fans came up alongside to say, ‘Hey Fergie, we’ll hammer you next season.’ They were good lads. ‘Well, you’ll need to buy nine players,’ I said. They looked crestfallen. ‘Nine?’ One said: ‘Wait till I tell the boys in the pub that.’ I think he must have been an Everton fan. ‘I don’t think we need nine,’ said the other as he traipsed away. I nearly shouted, ‘Well, seven, then.’ Everyone was laughing.