Tag Archives: Israel Folau

Truth made public? Izzy, the ACL, and the smoking gun…

The Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) re-branded recently. It adopted the tagline “Truth Made Public.” New chief, Martyn Iles, has successfully reintroduced religious language into the ACL’s public platform, and has set about creating a new approach to politics that saw the organisation focus its energies on marginal seats, which meant publishing election materials that promoted One Nation, and then defending that position on the basis that the party provides better access to the political process for the ACL (and thus its “Christian constituency” than other parties, and that it had clearer policies on the ACL’s ‘big ticket’ Christian priorities, which included the Lord’s Prayer in Parliament, and religious freedom).

The ACL is enjoying a post-plebiscite moment in the sun thanks to the Israel Folau saga. The organisation stepped in after Folau’s crowd sourcing fundraiser was deplatformed by GoFundMe, donated $100,000, and raised $2.2 million on the basis that Folau’s situation with Rugby Australia was a result of a Christian expressing his Christian beliefs and losing his job as a result. The fundraising page contains a statement from Mr Folau that says:

“I am also a Christian. My faith is the most important thing in my life. I try to live my life according to the Bible and I believe it is my duty to share the word of the Bible.”

Israel Folau has a religious history as complicated as his sporting code history. He grew up in the Mormon church, with his family, left that church (changed codes), with his family, joined the pentecostal church (Hillsong specifically), left that church (changed codes again), with his family, and now is part of the Truth of Jesus Christ Church in Sydney, with his family — specifically his father Eni Folau is the pastor of that church, and he and his cousin Josiah often preach at the church (videos of their sermons are posted on the church’s Facebook page).

After leaving Hillsong, in 2018, the Folaus were caught up in the ‘oneness pentecostalism’ of Gino Jennings. In 2018 Israel Folau tweeted:

“To be born again you MUST, repent of your sins, be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ and then prayed upon asking God to receive the holy spirit. If you’ve done it a different way from this then you aren’t born again. John 3:3,5 Acts 2:38 Acts 19:1-6

Jesus Christ was the vessel of God, God is a spirit. He formed the body of Jesus Christ and was in him. And the holy spirit is the characteristics or functions of God. But it’s not 3 or the trinity but just him alone. Isaiah 43:10

There’s nothing in the bible that says anything about a trinity.”

There is nothing hidden about these tweets, and no reason from Folau’s stream of public Christianity since, or the publicly available teachings of the Truth of Jesus Christ Church (including Israel’s own sermons) that suggest he has changed his position.

These are the sort of tweets that might have a Christian lobby group doing some due diligence before posting a testimony to their website with the footballer claiming to be a Christian.

Because here’s the thing; theology is fundamentally integrated. What a person believes about the nature of God will shape how they understand the person and work of Jesus, and so will frame how somebody understands the Gospel. There’s actually a particularity to Folau’s expressed views on baptism here; like other ‘oneness’ co-religionists, Folau (and his church) believe that if you are baptised following a formula based on Matthew 28:18-20 (in the name of the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit), then you are not born again; you must, indeed, be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ.

Watch enough of the sermons on the Truth of Jesus Christ Facebook page and you’ll see some deliberately strange terminology being used around the Trinity. There is “one God, and his name is Jesus Christ.” The sort of belief the Folaus espouse has a fancy label ‘modalistic monarchianism‘; it ends up with a wonky Christology because ultimately Jesus, the son, does not remain incarnate and human and ascended to heaven as the first fruits of our resurrection, he goes back to being God the Spirit, and people are meant to switch to praying to him as ‘father’. How that works with, say, Jesus interceding for us, or redeeming us, or many other parts of how ‘Christology’ works gets very messy very quickly (because theology is integrated). It’s hard to say at this point that the words ‘Jesus is Lord’; given by Paul as a sort of litmus test for the presence of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12) has the same content or meaning as you’d find in the Bible (not just emerging in the history of the church).

There are a few historic creeds that all Christian denominations recognise. And these creeds are often used as a framework for assessing whether or not a person who claims to be a Christian is a Christian. These are the reason that Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, who also deny the Trinity, are not considered to be “Christians.” These creeds universally uphold the Trinity. I really like this bloke in church history named Athanasius. He wrote lots about the incarnation of Jesus; that he was God’s eternal word made flesh. I remember my mind being blown when I realised that the incarnation of the word doesn’t end with the ascension of Jesus; that Jesus remaining ‘in the flesh’ means that the sacrifice of the incarnation goes way beyond the cross and the Easter event, and continues for eternity as Jesus, though in very nature God, remains fully human and fully divine. That’s a big deal for the way God’s dealing with humanity works in an ongoing sense — the divine human Jesus in heaven interceding for us as we pray, the efficacy of his sacrifice on our behalf and the mystery of our union with him, by the Spirit (which he and the Father pour out on us) such that he is able to stand in our place. Theology is integrated; and the Christian Gospel requires a fully divine Jesus, and a fully human Jesus, and prior to that, a Triune God. The way Athanasius drew threads of the story of the Bible together to help us grasp this picture was recorded in ‘The Athanasian Creed’ (though probably not by him). Here are some quotes:

“Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith. Which faith unless every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the catholic faith is this: that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Ghost.”

And:

“Furthermore, it is necessary to everlasting salvation; that he also believe faithfully the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. For the right Faith is, that we believe and confess; that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man; God, of the Substance [Essence] of the Father; begotten before the worlds; and Man, of the Substance [Essence] of his Mother, born in the world. Perfect God; and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting. Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead; and inferior to the Father as touching his Manhood. Who although he is God and Man; yet he is not two, but one Christ. One; not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh; but by assumption of the Manhood into God. One altogether; not by confusion of Substance [Essence]; but by unity of Person. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man; so God and Man is one Christ; Who suffered for our salvation; descended into hell; rose again the third day from the dead. He ascended into heaven, he sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty, from whence he will come to judge the living and the dead. At whose coming all men will rise again with their bodies; And shall give account for their own works.”

There is of course the earlier (and more widely authoritative) Apostles’ Creed (390AD) which is Trinitarian in its structure, and content, and before that, the Nicene Creed (325AD), which is essentially, explicitly, a statement about the Trinity and the way the Triune God works in the world and in salvation. It also contains the following statement.

“But those who say: ‘There was a time when he was not;’ and ‘He was not before he was made;’ and ‘He was made out of nothing,’ or ‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’ or ‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’ — they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church”

The word ‘catholic’ here simply means universal; these creeds were formulated before the schism between the eastern and western churches, and before the protestant reformation. The Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestant churches all uphold belief in the Trinity as essential. Mysterious and difficult, certainly. But essential to knowing God.

When the Folau family and their theological buddy Gino Jennings stand against the Trinity they stand not only against the Scriptures, and the tradition of the church, but also against intellectual giants like Athanasius. They are choosing to position themselves at odds with these statements of belief, and so, drawing a clear line. They are staking their salvation on the idea that they are right about God, but almost the entirety of church history is wrong. In fact, their bet is that the Mormons and JWs are closer in their understanding of God than the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant traditions.

Because theology is integrated and Israel Folau’s view of personal salvation (shared by his church) involves a particular form of baptism, and particular beliefs about God, we shouldn’t be surprised that his proclamation of what he believes is the “good news” takes a particular form that feels different to the Christian Gospel. Because the Folau’s church insists that they derive their doctrine from ‘the Bible alone’ but they also rule out the Trinity, we should expect the church to have a different, idiosyncratic, interpretive grid. It shouldn’t surprise us when they take hard, literal, interpretation, for example, to the english word ‘homosexual’ without considering what the words might mean in the greek; language study is, for them, a move from the ‘plain reading’ of the Scriptures.

Over the weekend the Sydney Morning Herald published a story about Folau’s beliefs (or the beliefs of his father’s church). Celebrated journalist Kate McClymont spent weeks investigating this piece and validating the testimony of her sources. I know this because I was a source for the story, or, more particularly, because the story is built on the testimony of a ‘concerned mum’ of an up and coming Rugby player, and I know this mum, who sought my advice on some of the theology being espoused by Folau’s church. She reached out to me a few weeks ago and we have since become friends. We had coffee yesterday. She is a real person. She is who she says she is: a mother of a Rugby player, and a Christian who worked for some time in Christian ministry. She’ll be sharing more of her story in coming days, but I’ve seen her evidence from an undercover trip to the Folau’s church, where Israel’s father, Eni, laid out the church’s position on the Trinity. They told her that there is one God in heaven, whose name is Jesus Christ (you’ll also find this in their published sermons), and that when Jesus was alive on earth it was God the father inhabiting a body, and that after his resurrection he returned to be Jesus Christ, the father. When my friend asked how this fit with the Lord’s prayer and Jesus’ instruction to pray to the father he was talking about prayer when he goes back to the title “father,” when he goes back to heaven. My friend also has message transcripts from her contact with the church and its representative (Israel’s cousin) on Facebook.

The publication of this story clarified what was already public knowledge from Israel’s tweets. The Truth of Jesus Christ Church, pastored by Israel’s father Eni, that rents space of a Uniting Church and meets midweek in the Folau family home (where my friend was offered baptism in the backyard pool), is heterodox. It is not a Christian church in any meaningful sense.

When this story broke instead of issuing a mea culpa, acknowledging that Folau’s position puts him outside the Christian constituency, the constituency the ACL turned to to raise financial support for Israel’s trial on the basis that Israel was a fellow Christian being persecuted for expressing Christian beliefs, the ACL’s Martyn Iles doubled down and attacked both the mum, and a multi-award winning investigative journalist. Instead of saying ‘we didn’t do our due diligence on Folau, and we apologise for the confusion caused by presenting him as a Christian, but his legal plight is a matter of religious freedom and we still believe this to be important’… He did a Donald Trump. He played the ‘fake news’ card. He sought to undermine the public’s confidence in the sort of institutions our democracy needs to function by attacking the story; and he did this by bringing Folau closer to the fold. He showed that for the ACL correct politics — or political advantage — is more important than correct doctrine (just as he did in the election when endorsing One Nation because they’d give his organisation better political access).

Mr Iles is quoted in the Herald piece saying:

“I have never heard from him anything which contradicts mainstream Christian belief. That is not to say there is no disagreement – I am sure there is – but some disagreement is normal between Christian denominations.”

Whether or not the Trinity is real definitely contradicts mainstream Christian belief and is not simply the type of disagreement that is “normal between Christian denominations” it is what separates “Christian denominations” from other religions; like Judaism, and Islam.

His Facebook statement said:

“His [Israel’s] alleged beliefs are largely unsourced and unreferenced.

It is written by hostile journalists who have been listening to a woman with an axe to grind against Izzy’s family (who won’t identify herself and has been trying to make trouble for a while now).

Izzy’s people asked to include a comment in the article, even if only one sentence, and was refused.

I can’t claim to know all of Israel’s theology, but I have spoken with him and friends of his enough to know that what’s written contains errors.”

It seems unbelievable to me that Iles did no checking into Folau’s theology before endorsing him on their website (and in his video blog) as a Christian. Folau had been a Mormon, and his tweet about the Trinity became part of the coverage of his first foray into social media controversy. But this is not the smoking gun. It is, however, classic ‘culture war’ stuff; it’s a playbook Trump perfected. You play to your base. You deny. You redirect the attack back to the ‘other’… The “Real Mark Latham” chimed in on Twitter to suggest that this mum, my friend, is a fake.

A day later Iles shared the Folau’s statement, again on Facebook.

“We are extremely disappointed the Sydney Morning Herald’s Kate McClymont did not seek comment from Israel, his family or his church, for her story focussed on Israel’s church and its doctrine.

The story carried a number of factual inaccuracies which could have been avoided had Ms McClymont simply followed standard journalism practice and approached us for comment.

The story appears to be based predominantly on quotes from a single anonymous source who has been acting in concert with Rugby Australia. Any suggestion that Israel would stand in judgment of another person is incorrect.”

This is an interesting ‘clarification’ that elucidates nothing; there is no identifying of what claim is inaccurate, and given that my friend tells me the claims in the story were predominantly copied and pasted from messages sent to her by Folau’s church, and the story claims to be representing the views of the church, these seem pretty watertight; and consistent with what was said to my friend in her visit to the church.

So here’s the smoking gun.

The ACL’s tagline is “truth made public”.

The truth is that this mum, my friend, brought the content of the story; the beliefs of Folau’s church, to Martyn Iles attention, directly, over the phone, in the first week in July. She did this because she was concerned about the doctrines Folau holds, having seen his influence in the Rugby community. She was concerned that Folau’s beliefs fell outside the bounds of orthodox Christianity, and that the ACL needed to know the truth (and communicate it). She withheld her name in that conversation because she wants to protect her son from repercussions or reprisals, but she was connected to Martyn by mutual friends who knew her identity. For him to turn on her the way he has, for political gain, is diabolical.

The truth is that Martyn knows she is not “a single anonymous source who has been acting in concert with Rugby Australia” who “has an axe to grind against Israel’s family,” but a Christian mum concerned about the Gospel. The connection she has to Rugby Australia is as the mother of a player contracted to Rugby Australia. Very few people are discrediting Alan Jones and his arguments on this situation because he ‘has an axe to grind’ against Rugby Australia because he missed a board position, or the ACL for supporting Folau because they have an ‘axe to grind’ with Qantas and the cause of religious freedom.

There are lots of motives at play for every actor in this situation, and lots of opportunities to play the man or woman. The accusation that she “has been trying to make trouble for a while now” is strange and non-specific; how long? She has been trying to ensure the ACL (and Iles in particular) possessed the truth about the Folaus and their beliefs; and that is only trouble making if the truth is a threat to some political agenda the ACL holds dear. She tried to make contact with him over a month ago to do this, and then spoke to him a week after that, that doesn’t sound like trouble making to me? It sounds like truth telling.

Either what the stories reveal about the beliefs of the Folau’s church is true, or it isn’t. I know, from the evidence available publicly, and revealed to me privately by my friend, that the claims are true.

The truth is that Folau’s beliefs, or the beliefs of his church, are also well documented and directly sourced from his tweets, and the sermons posted on Facebook; beliefs that put him (and them) outside the bounds of the church.

The truth is you can fight to defend Israel Folau’s religious freedom without calling Israel a Christian; and the ACL should have been more careful to do this from the beginning, and they had the opportunity to correct the record very early, when my friend raised her evidence with them — and they didn’t. And now they are doubling down and attacking her in order to defend their cash cow; their golden calf. That’s what idol will do to you, they’ll turn you from the truth, and turn you against those faithful messengers who speak it.

The truth is that Christians should’ve been more carefully nuanced with Israel’s instagram post right from the beginning; its fatal flaws were deep and wide. He sourced it from a hate group. It distorts, rather than quoting, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. It is unhelpfully unclear about what that passage says about homosexual — using a word understood as describing orientation, or attraction, rather than action. Israel’s understanding of ‘repentance’ is built on a false picture of God and a false Gospel. There was nothing Christian about his meme.

It was religious; Israel is a religious person; his religious freedoms should be protected and he shouldn’t have been sacked for holding or expressing religious beliefs. But Israel is not a Christian, and to co-opt him into a Christian war against the culture is only going to end badly.

That’s the truth.

The truth is that Martyn Iles will probably double down on this until the cash cow comes home to roost, but the evidence behind these claims is out there, and truth loves becoming public.

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When true Israel speaks before the courts it costs him everything (why speech is costly, not free)

True Israel came before the court committed to speaking truth with love.

True Israel boldly spoke truth to power; an exclusive truth that had significant political ramifications — it was a profound challenge to the status quo. It threatened to topple the high and mighty and elevate the humble and excluded. It was speech, and a trial, that would eventually change the character of an empire, and even the world. It felt like true Israel was on trial — but really, the whole world was.

The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.”

“You have said so,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy.” — Matthew 26:63-65

True Israel, when he’s before Rome, doesn’t even speak — he lets his opponents — the government — condemn themselves with costly words and actions. They crucify God’s king, on the weight of this testimony.

Meanwhile Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

“You have said so,” Jesus replied.

When he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he gave no answer. Then Pilate asked him, “Don’t you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?” But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge—to the great amazement of the governor. — Matthew 27:11-14

This speech cost true Israel everything.

It cost true Israel his life.

There was no GoFundMe page; no reneging on a promise to walk away from his rights in order to not destroy relationships.

True Israel was a model of ethical, loving, truth-speaking — courageous truth speaking performed on the basis that speech matters; that it does things — that it gives life, or kills; that it creates or destroys. True Israel spoke knowing that in the history of the world depends and came through speech connected to the imagination, life, and witness of the speaker. That the God who created the world by speaking sustains all things by his powerful word, and that the ‘true Israel’ was God’s word incarnate; made flesh in order to speak God’s word to a world that rejected him (and it).

True Israel was executed, crucified, because the government of his day did not believe in free speech, and neither did Fake Israel.

False Israel was standing by during this execution, accusing true Israel of false speech; not willing to pay the cost to be different but cosying up to the beastly regime like a harlot on the back of the beast (again, see Revelation), conspiring. False Israel wanted to be free to make ‘religious speech’ without the beast biting, but was willing to forfeit its soul, and the ‘ethos’ that should’ve matched that speech, in order to protect this right to say their own things in their own country without consequences. Fake Israel paid the price, because they went down the path of ‘gaining the whole world’ of free speech, but giving up their soul.

For Christians, those grafted in to “true Israel” as heirs of God’s promise who are united ‘in’ God’s word and called to continue speaking God’s word in the world; pointing people to true Israel, speech matters. Speech is important. Speech is costly.

When the empire shifted; when Christians occupied positions of worldly power, we knew the importance of speech. We knew that speaking words mattered, whether in prayer, or the making of covenants or promises, or simply committing ourselves to certain visions of the future life and society we wanted to create through our lives; and we knew, especially in the Reformed tradition, that speech compelled by powerful authorities — whether church, or state — is a bad thing, so wherever possible speech should be ‘free’. But Christians have also always grappled with situations in the world where we have not been in positions of influence, or control; where speech has not been free.

And perhaps Australia is increasingly that sort of context, and perhaps that’s, in part, because we’ve actually sought to limit the free expression, or speech, of others in our own self interest or according to our agendas — whether people speaking up to make accusations about abuse at the hands of church leaders with power, whenever we speak against a platform being given to people we disagree with (like the creators of My Little Pony), or when we Christians banded together to stop others calling their relationships ‘marriage’…

We Christians in Australia need to come to terms with the reality that despite the Prime Minister being a Christian… and despite the Lord’s Prayer being prayed in parliament… and despite our white establishment infrastructure still being nominally and historically “Christian” (from the monarch down)… real power in our nation isn’t ‘political’ but ‘cultural’ and ‘economic’ or ‘corporate’. This means that when our speech challenges beastly power, it will come at a cost not just politically, but also culturally, or economically.

Oh, that we would embrace costly speech.

Oh, that we would recognise that martyrdom isn’t martyrdom if it doesn’t cost us; that sacrifice isn’t sacrifice if we give up nothing.

Oh, that we would stop trying to wield political power on cultural and economic institutions in order to pay less cost.

Oh, that we would not see ourselves as combatants in a culture war, but as peacemakers who are called by our king, true Israel, to turn the other cheek, or take up our cross and follow Jesus.

Oh, that we would find ways to count the cost together, and carry one another’s burdens, that don’t inflict the cost on others.

Oh, that those who feel called to preach the Gospel wouldn’t be suckered in to wearing luxury sneakers, or pursuing a public platform in order to wield power and influence.

Oh, that we wouldn’t have photo opportunities with ‘Proud Boys’ who spread hate, but that we would be seen with those nobody else wants to point a camera at.

Oh, that we would repent, genuinely, for the failures of the institutional church, whether its with the abuse scandal, in our dealings with first nations people, in the way we’ve caused genuine hurt and harm as we’ve sought to turn our ethical position — modelled for us in Christ, given to us by the Spirit, into law, or where we’ve sought to wield economic or cultural power in beastly ways that have destroyed others.

Oh, that we would distance ourselves from Rome, rather than playing the harlot. Or live as exiles who are a ‘faithful presence’ like Daniel in Babylon, or Joseph in Egypt, rather than Herod and the Pharisees in first century Rome. That we would be ‘true Israel’ not ‘fake Israel’.

Oh, that we would speak more costly words against more than simply the way our culture has fixated itself on sexual identity and liberation from the power of Christian morality imposed by law or culture, without the Spirit.

Oh, that we could recognise where our speech is condemned for being hateful against where it is condemned for being faithful.

To speak, as Christians, should be costly. To say the words “Jesus is Lord” should be costly — because it commits us to taking up our cross in the world that crucified our Lord. It commits us to a community who’ll help carry that cost with us, certainly, but I’m not sure we’re meant to seek compensation from the world for the cost of discipleship.

Those who’ve taken up the call to vocational ministry, to be freed from the affairs of the world and supported by a community of believers, or by “tent-making” recognise that true speech has a cost; when Paul talks about this in his letter to the Corinthian church, he makes it clear that his speech has a cost, but that he doesn’t want them to pay it, so he works to support himself (1 Corinthians 9). For Paul the way a Gospel preacher, or speaker, goes about speaking the Gospel — their ethos — is to be shaped by their message (note the way his ‘giving up of rights’ becoming a slave for Christ in 1 Corinthians 9, mirrors the pattern of the incarnation of Jesus in Philippians 2). Gospel preachers have long avoided government grants for their speech — for the principled reason that the separation of church and state cuts both ways; the Gospel can not be co-opted to or coterminous with worldly power, no matter how righteous that power (this is, of course, for consistency’s sake should apply to government funding for school chaplains, and is why churches should fund chaplains if we believe in the program).

Perhaps we need to lean less on the sense that speech is best ‘free’ — though never free of consequences in terms of relationships, or what it commits us to in terms of an ethical life, where our ‘logos’ (words) are meant to align with our life and character (ethos). Perhaps we need to relearn that speech should be costly. And perhaps another Israel is teaching us this.

Perhaps this Israel should ponder what happens to faithful Christians, like our king, when they go up against worldly power.

Perhaps this Israel should, if he is going to be a preacher, pay the cost of no longer being an elite athlete; the cost of submitting to the discipline of study and financial cost of this career change.

Perhaps this Israel should ‘turn the other cheek,’ give Rugby Australia his cloak — or his jersey — and ask his brothers and sisters to invest in an education, rather than a court case to ‘test’ the law and wield the sword against his enemies at Rugby Australia. Perhaps he might be an example to us about what it looks like to be a non-anxious presence in an anxious world.

Perhaps this Israel should ponder whether he is being persecuted for his faithful discharge of his calling to preach the Gospel, or for sharing an awful bit of hate propaganda and disguising it as the Gospel.

Perhaps this Israel should ask if his ‘preaching’ was more at home with the Pharisees, who sought to impose law without the Spirit, or Jesus, who, despite talking lots about sin and judgment (whether against fake Israel, or the beastly powers of the world), offered the hope of an eternal kingdom and birth from above and living water that truly satisfies, and saw condemnation not being for ‘particular’ sins like homosexual sex. Particular sins, in, say, the Sermon on the Mount, seem to be an expression, in word or desire, of our wilful, rebellious, inability to imitate God, and be perfect and holy. We’re condemned for the whole package — but primarily for rejecting God and his word, and so putting his word-made-flesh, True Israel, to death. We’re saved not by turning from sin — we can turn from all sorts of sin all the time; we’re saved by turning to Jesus and having our desires and words and actions transformed.

And perhaps those are actually ideas for all of us Christians to grapple with; perhaps Israel is the ‘everyman’ — perhaps in him, and his example, we might ponder whether we’re standing with True Israel, Jesus, or the fake Israel. And perhaps one of the distinctions is whether we primarily see our speech as costly, or as free.

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How the future of religion in Australia might require a truly multi-ethnic, post-western, community (and how we might get that from migration and why that makes the Australian Christian Lobby’s how to vote card even worse than you thought)

Here are eleven things that are interesting and more connected than you might think that have happened in the last few months.

  1. A radicalised white man from Australia, with European heritage, walked into a mosque in Christchurch during prayer time and shot 51 people dead (the death toll rose 6 days ago).
  2. The Prime Minister of New Zealand, an atheist (who grew up Mormon) in an expression of solidarity with the Muslim community wore a hijab and called for a united vision of what it means to be human and thus, a citizen of New Zealand, built around unity and compassion.
  3. Polynesian Rugby Union player Israel Folau instagrammed a meme that says “Hell awaits homosexuals (and several other categories of sinner lifted from the New Testament). Several Polynesian Rugby Union players find themselves embroiled in the controversy for liking Folau’s Instagram post. “Tongan Thor” a fellow Wallaby, makes a statement that the ARU might as well sack all Polynesian players who share Folau’s views.
  4. The Australian Rugby Union, in partnership with major sponsor, Qantas, who embody a certain sort of corporate social activism (the sort where you throw your weight around on social issues locally, to turn a dollar, but also partner with nationalised airlines from around the world from regimes that kill homosexuals, also to turn a dollar), threatened to sack Folau, and are now most of the way through their internal proceedings to achieve that outcome. They say the tweet goes against their inclusion policy (which includes sexuality, ethnic background, and religion), and that he should thus be excluded. The NRL and its managing figures pre-emptively expressed the view that Folau would also not be re-welcomed, or included, should he cross codes again. A few people make the observation that religion and ethnicity are deeply intertwined in the Polynesian experience and identity (including me, Stephen McAlpine, and a gay polynesian journalist), some of us asking questions about the legitimacy of corporate, white, upper class people ruling on the validity of opinions expressed from an identity outside their experience, in the name of “inclusion.” Anthony Mundine condemns the treatment of Folau as racist.
  5. Journalists reporting on the Folau story consistently ‘mediate’ it to the wider populace reinforcing the narrative of the harm Folau’s posts do to the gay community, but making fundamental errors about Folau’s religious commitment, some including photos of Folau in front of a Mormon temple as though that is still his religion, others unable to reconcile his actions in support of gay inclusion on the football field with his theological beliefs, others calling protestant church services ‘mass’, all while arguing that this is a critical moment in the conversation about religious freedom in the post-Christian west, specifically in Australia.
  6. Bombings in Sri Lanka target worshippers in church for Easter services, those condemning the attacks, from the ‘post-religious’ west (specifically from America) call the victims gathered in church ‘Easter Worshippers’ rather than Christians, leading to several conspiracy theories about sinister motives.
  7. New Zealand Prime Minister, and former Mormon, Jacinda Ardern, condemned Folau, another former Mormon, who is married to a New Zealand representative netball player.
  8. Former Wallabies coach, turned media personality, Alan Jones, and a bunch of other media commentators, have made this case a religious freedom and freedom of speech case.
  9. Former Wallabies player (under Jones), turned media personality and proud/belligerent atheist, Peter Fitzsimmons has been prosecuting the case against Folau on the basis that his tweets “vilify” the gay community and that the spectre of hell and judgment from religious players (in the junior ranks) contribute to the suicide rate amongst gay teenagers. He writes an article scoffing at religious freedom arguments, and projecting his particular views about the substance and meaning of Folau’s religious beliefs (specifically his position on Hell) into the situation; other journalists and media opinion shapers (not always journalists) express bewilderment that Folau would say such obviously hurtful things.
  10. Former Wallabies captain, Nick Farr Jones, also a Christian, meets with Israel Folau to encourage him to apologise, and comes away supporting Folau’s character and intent. Suggesting he is not homophobic and has been misunderstood by the public at large, and by the administrators at the ARU.
  11. The Australian Christian Lobby produce an election checklist for the upcoming Federal Election in Australia that essentially endorses the Australian Conservatives and One Nation on the basis of a five issue platform, and justify the elevation of One Nation on the basis of the access they give to Christian voices into the political process.

Before I try to weave a thread or two between these events, it’s clear that life in the modern west is still complicated, and despite aggressive secularisation theories, religion is still part of the fabric of life — public life even — in the west. It’s clear that modern life is super complex, and the intersection and overlap between different systems of religious belief and the modern western world is a pretty difficult thing to get your head around. It’s also clear that the western, post-Christian, world simply does not understand the nature of the religious belief it finds itself removed from. The reason people (like Jacinda Ardern, or Peter Fitzsimmons — though I’m less sure of his background) move from some sort of religious conviction or upbringing, to non-religious convictions, does not always seem to include a robust understanding of what is left behind not just from particular religious belief or expression, but from the view of the world that comes with the belief of God or gods. The modern, secular, post-religious, west — and by that I mean the section of the world deeply influenced by the European experience — including Canada, the United States, and Australia (and who knows if European includes England anymore, but for now they’re in that label) — no longer has the categories embedded in our “social imaginary” (as Charles Taylor calls it) or shared architecture for understanding religious beliefs and conversations. By this I mean that conversations that happen amongst people who do not share basic foundational views of the world (religious or non-religious) no longer have the shared scaffolding embedded in those conversations as the framework we use to give words meaning and significance. When a religious footballer tweets about hell, and its significance, a post-religious or non-religious journalist, opinion columnist, or ‘mediator of the public square’ is not equipped to substantially understand what is meant; but neither is a member of the gay community (or any other community targeted by such a post). This is as true of Alan Jones and his making this issue about “freedom of speech” as it is Peter Fitzsimmons and his making the issue about vilification of vulnerable people in gay community.

There’s a fascinating sub-thread around the different way the post-Christian world understands ‘our’ western religious heritage, Christianity (or assume we do), such that it gets misrepresented and treated as a ‘thin’ conviction where you just tick a box in the census and get on with life, and you might be an ‘Easter worshipper’ and how our mediating institutions (the media and politicians, especially post-religious politicians) engage with the non-western, Muslim, experience (fascinating too, that Anthony Mundine, an indigenous Aussie convert to Islam, defies the easy categorisation our media is comfortable with, so that his comments about race can be more readily dismissed as conspiracy). I’ve noted elsewhere that it was interesting seeing how this idea that religion is like a bit of clothing, bling, or flair, that you add to your expression, or performance, of your self, might play out with politicians wearing religious garb in ‘solidarity’ — while, actually, the deep and thick religious convictions of Muslims is actually more directly related to the experience of the deep and thick religious convictions of Christians. A ‘religious’ view of the world — one where the world is not a ‘closed system’ of material reality, but where there’s a spiritual reality or an ‘enchanted’ overlay on our everyday lives — is one we share in common, and one still commonly shared outside the western world; it’s the majority view of the world presently, and historically, and so the onus should actually lie on those in the west who want to exclude religious convictions about spiritual matters from public conversations because of their material effects, but somehow, at least in the west, this has flipped around so that religious people have to justify our place at the table in public conversations, and then the inclusion of ‘spiritual’ or ‘non-secular’ views in the conversation. This is a game we’ve now played for so long as Christians in the secular west that we’ve mostly forgotten alternatives and our titular ‘Christian Lobby’ have so thoroughly adopted the rules of the game that they create ‘political tools’ during election season that are meant to pry open the doors to the table not to make religious arguments about a wide range of policies, but to preserve our space in the world.

How we understand the cause of ‘secularisation’ in the western world, or why we’re ‘post Christian’ (or post-religious) will shape how we understand what is happening in every one of those threads. There are two thinkers I think give us pretty good grounds for understanding the landscape here. Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, whose A Secular Age I’ve often quoted here, and C.S Lewis. Lewis’ academic magnum opus was a book called The Discarded Image, it’s an account of how the religious backcloth of the medieval world — where all art and stories and life itself were ‘shot through’ with supernatural significance — has been abandoned in favour of a more mechanical, finite, view of reality. In his first lecture at Cambridge University, Lewis accounted for the decline of religious belief in the modern west as, in part, a turn to a more mechanical experience of life. I’ll quote him at length, because I think it’s great.

I have already argued that this change surpasses that which Europe underwent at its conversion. It is hard to have patience with those Jeremiahs, in Press or pulpit, who warn us that we are “relapsing into Paganism”. It might be rather fun if we were. It would be pleasant to see some future Prime Minister trying to kill a large and lively milk-white bull in Westminster Hall. But we shan’t. What lurks behind such idle prophecies, if they are anything but careless language, is the false idea that the historical process allows mere reversal; that Europe can come out of Christianity “by the same door as in she went” and find herself back where she was. It is not what happens. A post-Christian man is not a Pagan; you might as well think that a married woman recovers her virginity by divorce. The post-Christian is cut off from the Christian past and therefore doubly from the Pagan past.

Lastly, I play my trump card. Between Jane Austen and us, but not between her and Shakespeare, Chaucer, Alfred, Virgil, Homer, or the Pharaohs, comes the birth of the machines. This lifts us at once into a region of change far above all that we have hitherto considered. For this is parallel to the great changes by which we divide epochs of pre-history. This is on a level with the change from stone to bronze, or from a pastoral to an agricultural economy. It alters Man’s place in nature. The theme has been celebrated till we are all sick of it, so I will here say nothing about its economic and social consequences, immeasurable though they are. What concerns us more is its psychological effect. How has it come about that we use the highly emotive word “stagnation”, with all its malodorous and malarial overtones, for what other ages would have called “permanence”? Why does the word “primitive” at once suggest to us clumsiness, inefficiency, barbarity? When our ancestors talked of the primitive church or the primitive purity of our constitution they meant nothing of that sort.”
“But I submit that what has imposed this climate of opinion so firmly on the human mind is a new archetypal image. It is the image of old machines being superseded by new and better ones. For in the world of machines the new most often really is better and the primitive really is the clumsy. For in the world of machines the new most often really is better and the primitive really is the clumsy. And this image, potent in all our minds, reigns almost without rival in the minds of the uneducated. For to them, after their marriage and the births of their children, the very milestones of life are technical advances. From the old push-bike to the motor-bike and thence to the little car; from gramophone to radio and from radio to television; from the range to the stove; these are the very stages of their pilgrimage. But whether from this cause or from some other, assuredly that approach to life which has left these footprints on our language is the thing that separates us most sharply from our ancestors and whose absence would strike us as most alien if we could return to their world. Conversely, our assumption that everything is provisional and soon to be superseded, that the attainment of goods we have never yet had, rather than the defence and conservation of those we have already, is the cardinal business of life, would most shock and bewilder them if they could visit ours.”

This maps neatly, with a few interesting insights, onto Taylor’s secularisation theory. In a short, Taylor describes the move towards secularisation as we experience it in the west as not just being about the rise of science, or modernity, but also the subtraction of a sense of a God who provides a cosmic ordering; we’ve turned from an ‘enchanted’ or religious view of reality — a backdrop where talking about angels and hell makes sense, and operates with certain shared understandings about reality, to a disenchanted world, where belief is contested but the default is a closed version of what he calls the ‘immanent frame’ — a view of the world that excludes God or gods from the picture, and so makes conversations about hell purely about how we treat one another here and now (and so the conversation in the secular media is, understandably, just about the impact of Folau’s words and his ‘villification’ of a vulnerable community; we don’t have to parse out what belief that a certain sort of behaviour leads to Hell if we don’t believe in Hell). Taylor also says it isn’t just ‘science’ that has done away with religion, and that, in part, the impulse comes from our visions of ‘fullness’ or the good life shifting away from God or from being characters in an ‘enchanted cosmos’… part of the deconversion stories of Ardern, and the aggressive atheism of Fitzsimmons, isn’t just ‘science disproves God’ but ‘the full human life doesn’t lie with an ancient conception of God.’

If Lewis and Taylor are right the West operates with this belief about progress, that it involves leaving Christianity behind, that it’s driven by a machine like, or ‘disenchanted’ view of reality, but this is supported by technological advances and the way they fuel a ‘progress’ narrative that celebrates the new and denigrates the old.

Cory Bernadi from the Australian Conservatives, the party most heartily endorsed by the ACL, has been beating the anti-immigration drum for a while, and while it’s not specifically targeted racially in the words in this particular article, check out the images that support those words.

“The Conservative Party has long called for a halving of Australia’s immigration rate along with a radical reform of all of the visa, immigration and welfare rorts that allow hundreds of thousands more people into the country every year, initially on visas for education and employment.”

There’s also a strange sort of dog-whistling thing going on in Bernadi’s ‘condemnation’ of Fraser Anning’s maiden speech. At this link there are significant chunks of search-engine recognisable quotes from Anning’s speech followed by a non-search engine recognisable video file where Bernadi specifically rejects the White Australia policy. But who can forget Pauline Hanson’s famous 2017 remarks about Islam. Here’s a reminder:

“Let me put it in this analogy – we have a disease, we vaccinate ourselves against it, Islam is a disease; we need to vaccinate ourselves against that.” — Pauline Hanson, One Nation

And remember. These are the parties the Australian Christian Lobby are suggesting we vote for to uphold freedom of speech and to make sure we Christians don’t further lose political influence or a place in society, or even so that our beliefs and convictions about the world are both free to be expressed and more likely to be understood. Make of that what you will, except, recognise that the way we white western people might come at these remarks, in a climate where a white, western person spouting a sort of European ideology, shot people he differed from dead in a place of prayer (and more recently, a member of a Reformed church in the United States opened fire in a synagogue). We’ve got to realise that the ‘disenchanting’ of language includes the de-spiritualising of the significance of words like ‘hell’; it flattens reality so that all battles for truth and supremacy are fought in real time and real space, not just left in the hands of something more cosmic (which isn’t to say that an enchanted view of the world doesn’t produce ‘holy war’ — see the Crusades — but that unholy war is equally terrible and a path to piece might be recognising the potential to sit at a common ‘civic’ table while maintaining our own religious ones in our more sacred spaces).

Here’s my controversial thesis — despite the western world having Christian heritage, such that many of the things we know and love in the west are directly the result of Christianity being practised as a thick religious conviction against a shared consensus that there’s a spiritual dimension to reality, part of dismissing that reality as we turned to a harder secularism in the west means no longer understanding the convictions that drive religious people; no longer recognising the links between belief and action, and severing ourselves, as a society, from the roots that have produced and sustained life. Those roots are pre-western, not western. Those roots are from first century Jerusalem (having come from the ‘BC’ era in a particular part of the non-western world. The way we Christians see the world has much more in common with our Muslim neighbours than our post-Christian, hard-secular neighbours who are now trying to set the rules by which we all live together — including people who live together in religious disagreement. If we want Christianity to truly have a place at the table in the public square we don’t need a whiter, more European, Australia — we need a more multicultural, non-western, religious, table. We need the ‘Asian century’; we need ‘more migration’ from outside of secular Europe, and we need to keep confronting the reality that we aren’t citizens of a western country that gets everything right in pursuit of liberation and progress — fuelled by the infallible churches of capitalism and liberal democracy and the ex cathedra announcements of their popes and mediators (a priestly media), otherwise the deck is stacked, and will become increasingly stacked, against an enchanted view of the world, where one can talk about hell or judgment or spirituality without only being heard on the basis those words might have on other people in the ‘here and now’. The advice to vote for parties who are specifically arrayed against that vision of our nation won’t improve Christianity’s foothold in the west, but destroy it. Bring on non-western immigration — Christian, or otherwise — that’s our best chance at re-enchanting Australia’s vision of the world, and bringing a legitimate pluralism to our public conversations; we won’t get it while post-Christian ‘liberated’ progressive thinkers from the white establishment are setting the rules (or lobbying for them to change). Churches, then, have to get serious about training and platforming non-white, European, leaders who think in non-white, European ways about the world, and how to engage with the political process and public life.

There’s no going back to a purely European, western, ‘Christendom’ (and nor should we want that, probably). There’s very little chance of re-enchanting the western world from within; what it might take is the western world hearing voices from “without” — or bringing those voices and views in and hearing, clearly, about the convictions that drive and shape the majority world towards a different vision of progress. We might colonise other countries with democracy and capitalism, and modernity, but if it comes with the necessity of ‘disenchantment’ — of seeing this world as all there is — then I’m not sure how successful that will be, but we’ll also, essentially, be reprising the role of Satan in the garden, telling people who experience life in a world where God or gods exist as divine beings that they, and they alone, are divine — and all they should be concerned about is what can be grasped here and now.

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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?”

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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.

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Yo, Christian, our world doesn’t understand religion, it’s time to make sure you do

Jacinda Ardern is, from what I can tell, a lovely lady and an inspirational Prime Minister. You can tell a lot about a leader by how they respond in the crucible of a crisis; and Ardern responded to the recent Christchurch shooting with grace, poise, and a tonne of empathy. She won praise for her speeches, for her leadership in bringing people together across religious and ethnic divides, and for her humble empathy, especially when she wore the Hijab; an outward sign of solidarity with her religious neighbours. A religious symbol that she wore, not because she decided to subscribe temporarily to Islamic doctrine, but as a symbol of another sort of religion; unity and solidarity. In Ardern’s speech at the memorial service she said the answer to the problem of terrorism lies in finding our shared humanity, and that the events in Christchurch now form part of our shared experience, and that this comes with a new responsibility.

“A responsibility to be the place that we wish to be. A place that is diverse, that is welcoming, that is kind and compassionate. Those values represent the very best of us.”

She finished her speech quoting the national anthem; a call for unity across creed and race, and a call not just to our humanity but a prayer for divine intervention.

Men of every creed and race,
Gather here before Thy face,
Asking Thee to bless this place
God defend our free land

From dissension, envy, hate
And corruption, guard our state
Make our country good and great
God defend New Zealand

The attack on a mosque, a place of prayer, was for many in our modern age a racist attack (and though I haven’t read the shooter’s manifesto, race was certainly a part of it). But there’s something more insidious about such an attack for those who have beliefs about the nature of religious belief; that exploring religious questions is part of what the podcast The Eucatastrophe described in an episode that discussed Christchurch as the fundamentally human ‘religious quest.’ For those of us with religious convictions the attack on a place of prayer is not just a hate crime, it’s a different sort of sacrilege; an attack on something so profoundly located at the core of our experience of being human that we should have a deep empathy, even across religious or doctrinal divides; not simply because we believe our muslim neighbours are made in the image of God, but because they were killed while pursuing something so intimately connected to the fabric of reality; an experience we, as religious people, can relate to with a different lens. Our ‘solidarity’ with our muslim neighbours at this point should be of a different depth to the solidarity expressed by our secular neighbours, not because they care ‘less’ about the humans involved, but because they care less about the religious experience and religion as it defines our personhood. Though our ‘secular age’ might see religious belief, or any belief in the supernatural as contested or superfluous for understanding life in the material world; religious people see more to this world than just the material, more robust motivations for and solutions to ‘terrorism’ than just ‘our humanity’ (though most religious belief gives humanity a certain sort of sacredness), and more to the hijab than simply a marker of cultural practice that can be appropriated to whatever narrative we see fit (though, it’s true, that there were people in the Muslim community who appreciated the expression of solidarity).

Ardern’s use of the headscarf, and the praise she received for it, reveals something about how the modern world understands religious belief. Religious belief is just one commitment amongst many; one consumer choice, that we use to construct and perform our identity; one path to our ‘authentic self’. Again, The Eucatastrophe digs into this brilliantly, but they, like the book Disruptive Witness, are digging in to Charles Taylor’s work not just in A Secular Age but in Sources of the Self. When something ‘transcendent’ or divine is removed from our common ‘social imaginary’ — the backdrop of beliefs and ‘things’ that give our life meaning and help us understand who we are — we’re left constructing meaning for ourselves. We can don religious garb without it meaning anything deep, because religion is no longer a fundamental driving part of our personhood — God and the ‘givenness’ of our life no longer constitutes who we are; religion is a market choice. That it is viewed this way explains, in part, why religion always loses out to sexuality in clashes of identity. Our modern world is not equipped to see religion as inherent to a person’s personhood in the same way we understand sexual preference. You don’t don your sexual attraction like a hijab; we can’t, following a shooting at a gay bar, adopt those things that constitute a ‘gay identity’ the way we can use the words and symbols of religion after a shooting in a house of prayer.

It’s interesting, with Islam, that it’s so often understood in public dialogue in ethnic or ‘race’ terms; a reality that became starker as Sonny Bill Williams, a muslim, publicly participated in the mourning process around the events in Christchurch. Here’s a man who obviously believes things deeply, but who also, when he isn’t on the football field, is comfortable wearing the symbolic markers of his faith.

It’s also interesting, with Islam, that because it’s understood in ethnic or race terms, so little is said about Islamic doctrine on social issues; one can, it seems, don the Hijab in the western world without asking what that symbol means in other parts of the world; one can express solidarity with muslims without sharing any belief in the substantial elements of religious belief (that prayer isn’t just to an empty room, but is part of a search for the divine); and one can do that only so long as one never has to come into contact with not just the question of the reality of a transcendent God, but the particularity of the sort of creeds brought together under the human banner ‘New Zealand’… While I believe in a fundamentally different God to my Islamic neighbours, I believe in the one revealed in the divine person of Jesus, and so my doctrinal commitments are utterly different to other religious commitments, there is a ‘shared quest’ that I recognise in this community, and a shared framework of sorts, that stands at odds with the modern secular account of reality. I can stand with my muslim neighbours the same way the Apostle Paul stood with the religious philosophers in Athens, recognising this religious quest, while making a claim about the exclusivity of the truth found in Jesus, see how he balances this ‘religious quest’ with this claim of truth, while engaged in dialogue with other ‘very religious’ people:

The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” — Acts 17:24-31

Paul speaks in categories almost universally shared by religious people; an assumption that there is a transcendent reality out there, and that the human religious impulse is not simply an act of identity construction, but the pursuit of something real and true. Something that will, ultimately, define who we are and shape the way we live. Not just a ‘tack on’ or a fashion accessory, but something fundamental to how we understand our personhood. Our muslim neighbours understand this in a way that our ‘secular’ neighbours do not.

It’d be curious to see how Sonny Bill would respond on Twitter if someone asked him what God’s plan for gay people is. And curious to see how long people comfortably don the Hijab when confronted with genuine religious conviction. Which is an interesting hypothetical because of what is happening at the moment with Israel Folau. Another footballer. Another religious believer for whom religion is substantial not just symbolic; for whom religion is public, because it is part of his understanding of his personhood, not just private, and not just a consumer choice that he’s made to look good on Instagram.

Israel first kicked off controversy because he was asked just that question, and he responded according to his beliefs (note, again, he responded in a way that I wouldn’t). He ‘doubled down’ on that after much discussion, and apparently a new contract with a social media clause, and now he has been fired because he’s in breach of his contract; because his comments (an articulation of his religious convictions) are in breach of Rugby Australia’s inclusiveness policy (and, apparently also the NRL’s own ‘inclusivity’ principles, that will allow a bloke convicted of a violent rampage in New York, and accused of domestic violence, to be registered to play despite public outcry). This is the same Rugby Australia who are sponsored by QANTAS, whose CEO is a well known activist for inclusion and rights of the LGBT+ community (as he should be). QANTAS put pressure on Rugby Australia last time Folau spoke up, and were vocal again this time, but this is the same QANTAS who partner with nationalised airlines from Islamic nations where homosexuality is a capital offence; it seems their real religion might actually be the more conventional god of ‘mammon’ (money), with ‘inclusivity’ a convenient piece of religious garb to don when it will make more dollars.

Rugby Australia’s inclusivity policy includes religion as something they’ll include… here’s part of the statement they made in announcing they were going to no longer include Folau in the Rugby family:

“Rugby is a sport that continuously works to unite people. We want everyone to feel safe and welcome in our game and no vilification based on race, gender, religion or sexuality is acceptable and no language that isolates, divides or insults people based on any of those factors can be tolerated.”

It’s clear from the Folau case that it’s not a definition of religion that would be shared by religious people with the sort of conviction about reality expressed by Paul in Athens; it’s the approach to religion that sees religious garb as a bit of bling added to make an ‘authentic’ you, but a ‘you’ with a pre-commitment to a different religious framework — the one where ‘humanity’ is our solution, and where ‘diversity’ and ‘tolerance’ mean sameness (or a conviction to those things as ultimate ‘goods’ not as ‘means’ by which we live together through thick disagreement. If Folau’s religious commitments were more like Ardern’s hijab — something he’d hold loosely so that he could reach out to the Islander community, or the Christian market, and there was a dollar, or a fan or two, in it, then Rugby Australia might not come down so hard. But the reality is, Rugby has its own religious commitment to uphold, and Folau is now a heretic. One could ask if some of the commentary around Folau comes pretty close to intolerance and vilification of Folau based on his religious beliefs; but to do that, you’d have to convince the people you were asking that they’ve misunderstood religion.

But to come full circle, Ardern, who led her nation through a time of mourning; who modelled empathy and compassion to the religious other, showed that while she might be happy to grab a Hijab, so long as it doesn’t mean anything substantial (or so long as she can re-appropriate it to mean what she wants it to mean), isn’t really a fan of actual religious conviction. She, too, was asked about Folau’s views:

“Obviously at a personal level I clearly don’t agree with what he said, and … very mindful of the fact that he is for many a role model. He’s a person in a position of influence and I think that with that comes responsibility. I’m particularly mindful of young people who are members of our rainbow community, there is a lot of vulnerability there. As I say, I totally disagree with what he’s said and the way he’s using his platform.”

She could’ve said something like: “our unity as humans comes from our capacity to hold different creeds, and profound disagreement — even about each other — and still be united as people. I support Israel’s right to hold these religious views, even as I disagree with him. I love watching him play football — even if it’s for the Wallabies — but I believe these views are harmful to our rainbow community, and here’s my alternative vision for our society…”  But she didn’t. Because that’s not how religion operates in our society, it’s meant to be kept to privacy of the prayer house — until people who hate religious convictions (or people who hold competing religious convictions) attack religious people, then we’ll “come together.” We can’t ask for unity amongst people of different religious convictions in the public enterprise on one hand, and then exclude those we disagree with on the other…

It’s well within Ardern’s rights to disagree with Folau; I disagree with Folau, but there’s not a whole lot of ‘solidarity’ from the secular world for religious people when it comes to actual religious beliefs, or substance, and our right to operate in life in a way that doesn’t just see ‘religion’ as a thing we tack on to this new, secular, view of humanity but as the thing that most profoundly defines who we are.

And so, the question for those of us who claim religious beliefs is increasingly going to be — is this how religion operates in your life? And if it isn’t, could it be that your ‘religion’ is, to you, a ‘consumption decision’ that is about performing some identity, signalling something, just as Ardern’s hijab was for her. And if so, what’s the point? Especially if Paul’s words in Athens are right, that our ‘religious quest’ comes from a creator God, a God who wants to be the foundation of our life, but who’ll also judge us for false religion — for building our lives around ‘idols’ or ‘gods’ other than him; for taking our ‘religious quest’ and using that impulse to pursue ‘human’ solutions like “diversity,” “welcome,” and “inclusion” — good things though they are — at the expense of pursuing truth, love, and the God who made the universe.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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

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Those Mormon ads, and how to kill a high profile media campaign…

I just saw the first Mormon ad to feature high profile league player, and grand final winner with the mighty Manly Warringah Sea Eagles, Will Hopoate. Sharp. They’re a great ad for Manly. And, like all the ads in this campaign, are visually appealing and tightly produced.

There was a higher profile League star than Hopoate – Dizzy Izzy Folau. Israel has been out of the spotlight in the last year because he made a big money switch to AFL. To a team that doesn’t exist yet.

Luckily the Mormons didn’t feature Israel in their ads. Because he recently turned his back on the cult, publicly, during this campaign.

And here’s what he had to say… and that, friends, is how to harpoon a campaign.

“I had a personal experience with the holy spirit touching my heart,” Folau told AAP.

“I’ve never felt that before while I was involved in the Mormon church – until I came to the AOG church and accepted Christ.

“It’s been an amazing experience for me personally and I know a lot of people on the outside have been saying stuff about why we left.

“And some people (are) assuming that we left because of money, and all that sort of stuff.

“I know for myself that it wasn’t.

“But I guess at the moment, the people on the outside don’t really know the main reason why we left.”

The 22-year-old instigated the change himself after researching the history of Mormonism, and said the move was easy to make.

Folau’s friends have been understanding and supportive for the most part, but he admits it has been hard on a few of them.

God will play a large role in Folau’s life as he attempts to secure a berth in the Giants’ side for their season opener against Sydney.