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 western, white, 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.