• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ
Former rugby star Israel Folau is a devout Christian whose latest sermon has caused uproar. Photo/Getty

‘I once shared Israel Folau’s views’

Sacked Wallabies star Israel Folau is in hot water again after saying the deadly Australian bushfires were God’s punishment for legalising abortion and same-sex marriage. Aaron Hendry reflects on his Christian identity and what that means for him now.

There was a time when I held very similar views about God and faith to Israel Folau.

I didn't think of myself as homophobic and I would never have expressed my faith in the way Folau expresses his, nor would I have tried to connect natural disasters to sins. I would have found that incredibly distasteful and in direct contrast to the character of the God I know, a view I still hold today.

But I was a Christian growing up in a fairly conservative tradition so I had been taught sexuality was black and white. It wasn't that we hated LGBTQ people – a common misconception – it was that we were taught if people were in a relationship with someone of the same sex, they were putting their souls at risk. Not because God wanted to send them to Hell – He didn't  – but because they were choosing to reject God, and all that came with Him.

And so, we were taught to speak the truth with love and to share the truth we believed to be self-evident within the Holy Scriptures – that God’s design was for a man and a woman, and any sexual expression outside of that norm was a sin and constituted a rejection of God’s grace. And although Folau’s approach would have been condemned even in the context I grew up in, the general message would still have been condoned.

Then I got to know a young gay man. Growing up, I had never really gotten to know anyone from the Rainbow community, at least not until this courageous young man entered my life. Even though he had been hurt by Christians in the past, for some reason he decided to tell me his story. He was real with me about how the church, and specifically how my faith, had hurt him. And as I listened to more people in the community, I started to realise that something deep in my theology was not working.

What had been meant in love had produced only pain.

Jesus said once that the tree shall be known by its fruit and after examining the tree, I realised that the fruit was not doing well.

Instead of feeling accepted and welcomed, I came to the realisation that regardless of how soft and loving we packaged it, we were sending our rainbow whanau a message of exclusion and hate.

Related articles: The human impact of Israel and Maria Folau’s anti-gay stance | Israel Folau has exposed the tricky politics of professional sport

 

As Christians, we believe God is a God of radical grace and overwhelming Love, and that Jesus is the very expression of that Love.

We also believe that Love is unconditional, that His acceptance comes with no strings attached. But for some reason, when it comes to the LGBTQ community, we suddenly put all these limits on God’s grace, sending the message that they must change themselves before they can be accepted.

After encountering how my faith had caused pain and heartache, I was forced to wrestle not only with how I held my faith but how I interpreted the Holy Scriptures. If you haven’t grown up within a religious tradition you may not realise how big of a deal this is. It may be hard for you to believe that we could live our lives guided by such an ancient book, but for us there is life in the Scriptures. We believe that through wrestling with this old, imperfect, collection of writings we call the Bible, that God speaks. And it was through this process that I came to realise much of what I had been taught was more tradition, than revelation.

While I could no longer say that the Bible was clear on the issue of gay marriage, I found it was abundantly clear on another point: that God’s Love truly was amazing. It was far more radical, inclusive, and gracious than I had ever thought, and that the Rainbow community was not just Loved, but fully, and radically included.

The journey I have just described did not happen overnight.

It was only possible due to the courage of several individuals who were willing to share their lives and their stories with me. Being confronted with these, I was able to find the courage I needed to reevaluate my traditional Christian convictions.

At the moment, Folau and those who have similar views on homosexuality are experiencing a significant amount of hate.

You may say that this is deserved. You may be right.

But the threats, ridicule, and general vitriol directed towards Folau at the moment will not change his view. Nor will it change the view of those who hold on to a traditional view of faith and sexuality.

If we truly want to bring about change and create a more just and inclusive world for our Rainbow whanau, then responding to hate with hate is not the way. We can’t shame these ideas into oblivion.

They must be engaged with, with love. This means meeting people where they are at, joining them as they wrestle with their faith and helping them to understand the harm and hurt which their belief system is causing.

It means Christians speaking with other Christians about how their faith has developed and challenging their loved ones to think deeper about what they believe and why. Jesus’ message was one of radical, self-giving, unconditional love. It was a message which at its very core tore down the divisions set up by those who would name us us, and them them.

Jesus taught us to see each other as human beings first and foremost. Not as liberals or conservatives, but as humans.

And it is this message of love – encountered as real people engaging with each other – which will eventually prevail over those who preach exclusion and hate.

If Folau’s views are to pass into obscurity, they will do so – not because they were shamed into silence –but because they were overcome by love.

Aaron Hendry blogs at When Lambs Are Silent and is Team Leader at Lifewise Youth Housing. 

Follow NOTED on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to our email newsletter for more insightful journalism and opinion.