A few weeks ago, Australia’s number one rugby star, Israel Folau, responded to a question on God’s plan for gay people by saying, in effect, that “they will go to hell, unless they repent of their sins”.
It’s now nearly three weeks since Israel made those comments, and the reactions, both in support and in condemnation, have been slowly growing from a grass fire to a raging bush fire. It hasn’t helped that his wife, New Zealand netball star, Maria Tutaia Folau, has come out in support of her husband.
I am a minister of religion, ordained at the Uniting Church in Australia, but now serving as a parish minister in Papakura, Auckland, in the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand.
When I first saw Israel’s comments, I cringed. I wished he had never made them. First, because they could have consequences for gay people. Second, because they don’t represent the core values of the Christian faith and the primary message of Jesus. And third, because Israel’s comments may not reflect who he really is.
I certainly share the sentiments of that famous quote (wrongly) attributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
But the right to say what we want comes with responsibilities. Freedom is not without limits.
In this case, Israel is irresponsible for not taking the time to consider the likely adverse effects of his comments on vulnerable people — and it appears he hasn’t taken the time to reflect on his status in wider society, and how his words and actions would impact on his fans.
Israel and Maria Folau are probably the biggest stars in their respective sports — rugby in Australia and netball in New Zealand. As such, they’re role models for aspiring young rugby and netball players, especially in the Pacific Islands community. Their fans look up to them, whether they like it or not. It’s a responsibility they have tacitly accepted by playing their sports at the highest level.
On the other hand, gay people are perhaps the most maligned people in our society. And while some have developed confidence and strength in themselves and their sexuality, I suspect the majority are fragile and vulnerable. Condemnations of their beings by their role models could have lethal consequences for some, especially the youngsters.
This is something that the Folaus might not have known. If they knew, but didn’t care, that would be very sad and very un-Christian.
I feel sorry for them, but they can’t hide behind the veil of being misconstrued. Writers and speakers must take responsibility for how their words might be construed. They should also know that they have no control on how people might interpret their words.
Nor can they hide behind the fact that Israel was only quoting from the Bible. Once we appropriate words by others, those words become ours. Both Israel and Maria have shown immaturity in their reckless use — or abuse — of the Bible.
They also can’t hide behind the curtain of faith.
I know the church used “fire and brimstone” tactics to scare people into conversion and to control people.
I know there are still a lot of pastors using these tactics, especially those that have never set foot inside a theological college.
I also know the majority of Pacific people and churches share this understanding of Christianity.
But I know this is not the way Jesus expressed his faith and understanding of God.
The core values of the Christian faith are clearly articulated by Jesus, who, when asked what were the most important commandments, broke it down to just two: to love God, first and foremost, and to love your neighbour. This is the crux of the law given to Moses.
It expresses Jesus’ understanding of God as like a mother who loves the child born of her own womb. That’s the meaning of the Hebrew word for love that Jesus used. The highest expression of this love is to give one’s life so others may have life. This is what Christianity is about: to love and not to judge.
The Christianity of judgment and condemnation is very much the creation of the apostle Paul. It reflects his background as a Pharisee.
Paul, who wrote the 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 verse that Israel quoted, struggled throughout his ministry to reconcile the Pharisaic principles of being God’s moral police, and the exclusion of those who didn’t make the moral cut, with Jesus’ inclusive and unconditional love for the sinner.
People love Paul's theology, because it makes them feel good. But they don’t realise that by passing judgment on others, they’re also condemning themselves — for we all have sinned.
Christians are not God’s moral police, because Christianity is not about living a moral life. Christianity is about living a divine life — living life as if we are Jesus the Christ of God. This life offers life to others. It’s a life of love in words and deeds. It’s a life lived for others.
By not offering love to the vulnerable and the “little ones” that Jesus loved, the Folaus have condemned themselves.
The truly sad thing is that the condemnation that the Folaus are now copping may not reflect who they are. We’ve heard comments from people who know them, people like Michael Jones and others, who say they’re nice people — and I’ve no reason to doubt that.
I know it’s hard to live in the bubble, but this is why public figures need to be careful with what they do and say, especially given the world of high-tech communication in which we now live.
I hope that people will forgive the Folaus, but I also hope the Folaus will recognise the flaws of their position and the harm they might have caused — and apologise to those they’ve victimised.
I also hope that they and others have learned useful lessons. Take time to think through your actions and words, and leave biblical interpretation to those trained for the task.
The issue of homosexuals in the Bible is complex, and is highly misconstrued and misunderstood. But Jesus is the point of reference if you need some insights. Offer love, not judgment and condemnation — that’s the key value of the Christian faith.
Be Christ to those you meet in your journey of life.
Rev Apelu Tielu took over the Papakura Pacific Islanders’ Presbyterian Church four years ago. He was born in Samoa, and was an economist before training as a minister in Australia. He has a degree in education with a major in mathematics, honours degrees in applied genetics and theology, and postgraduate degrees in economics.