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What we must learn from the Israel Folau controversy

Israel Folau. Photo/Getty Images

Israel Folau has done us the unintended favour of showing how hard and counterproductive it would be to try to outlaw all comments that offend or even hurt people.

After weeks of “will they or won’t they”, the Israel Folau controversy ended with his contract being torn up, Rugby Australia losing a star player and the Bible continuing, as it always will, to provide a long list of actions that might prevent a person from entering heaven.

How an Instagram post, which deserved to be ignored, became quite such a scrum is something we should all reflect upon, not least because the same situation may arise again, perhaps with another religious document in the frame.

Had an Old Testament prophet appeared and said that drunks, homosexuals, thieves, atheists and others would not inherit the kingdom of God, it might have warranted the attention this story received. But Folau’s paraphrasing something that he read in the Bible should have no significance whatsoever to drunks, homosexuals, thieves, atheists and the rest.

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We live in a strange time: people are eager to call out others for real or imagined slights and slurs when, if exhortations from the Bible have any power at all, turning the other cheek would be the better course of action.

Many believe Rugby Australia overreached. Had it quickly said, “Folau’s views are obviously not those of Rugby Australia, but rather a player sharing his religious beliefs on his own social-media account,” and used the spotlight to emphasise the ways we can all act to ensure gay people feel welcome and celebrated as players, fans, sponsors and fellow citizens, this whole thing might have quickly gone away and the Wallabies’ Rugby World Cup chances might be better than they are today.

However, this incident has done us the unintended favour of illustrating how hard and how counterproductive it would be to try to outlaw all comments that offend or even hurt people.

Folau’s denunciation of gay people, among other “sinners”, probably wouldn’t fit even a tightened definition of hate speech, as he did not personally wish anyone dead. On the contrary, he was arguably trying to win all sinners eternal life, though no one would blame any of us for not dropping him a note of thanks for his concern.

What Folau clearly did not foresee was that he’d be subject to so much powerful mockery, as fellow Bible readers pointed out that the Good Book also prescribes death or smiting for scruffy hair, ripping one’s clothes, cursing and by some interpretations, even wearing clothes of different fabrics.

Folau’s offence was less hatred than arrogance, and a distinctly unchristian lack of empathy. He held his personal views more worthy of consideration than, for example, the feelings of many young rugby fans who may be grappling with their sexuality. 

Guilt or shame is a known precursor to self-harm among some young people, yet Folau seems stonily indifferent to this. And he grossly mischaracterises his sacking as impinging on his religious freedom. As a private citizen, he can say and post what he likes and face the consequences on his own terms, within the law. But as a highly paid sports star, he bears responsibilities in exchange for his status, including that of showing respect for the sport’s supporters.

Some fairly argue we should resist the temptation to hold sports stars or other celebrities up as role models. Doubtless, some resent the burden. But Folau is not the first sportsperson to have to balance personal beliefs with public life. Michael Jones and Sonny Bill Williams are among the many devout players who wear their faith with pride and live by it, choosing to set an example without feeling the need to instruct or reproach others.

Even in the “I know best” maelstrom of politics, it is rare for the many strictly observant MPs of faith to proselytise. Our Prime Minister and Opposition Leader both had strongly religious upbringings. As with Australia’s newly elected leader Scott Morrison, a Pentecostal, they have left their religiosity out of political discourse, save for conscience issues. Their faith may be as special to them as Folau’s is to him, but status and faith give no one special licence to stand in judgment of others with no thought of the consequences.

To refrain from hurting others, particularly the vulnerable, is not a matter of compromising one’s religious principles. Indeed, it is the very opposite.

This editorial was first published in the June 1, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.