Lessons from Israel Folau

Archbishop Freier on what we can take away from the Israel Folau tweet affair

PHOTO: anglicanprimate.org.au

By Philip Freier

May 31 2019Israel Folau’s tweet that gays face hell unless they repent, and his subsequent sacking by Rugby Australia, raises an extraordinarily complex set of challenges, from how onerous employment contracts can legitimately be on people’s private lives to how far they may share their beliefs.

First, the most obvious and painful question: do gay people face God’s judgment? Certainly they do – but it is not because they are gay, it is because they are human beings. The Christian understanding has been clear from the beginning: every single person faces God’s judgment but through his mercy there is a lifeboat, and that is faith in Jesus Christ.

Young homosexuals could certainly be harmed by such a direct tweet paraphrasing a Bible verse taken out of context (it’s aimed at Christians), and that is a genuine concern. Another genuine concern is that young Christians are learning from the backlash that they sometimes have to suppress their faith, which could also be harmful. There are no winners in such a debate.

Surveys show strong support in Australia for religious people to be able to hold and teach their faith, and also for non-religious people to express their beliefs, and surely this is a foundational position for a flourishing pluralistic society like ours.

Many secularists believe that faith is fine provided it is private, but that is unreasonable. People’s core beliefs influence their thoughts and actions in all the arenas of their lives – that cannot be avoided, and we should not try.

But people can live out their faith in public without giving gratuitous offence, and in particular without trying to express it in 140 characters. If I were advising Folau, I would tell him he can live a full life of faith consistent with his beliefs without ever posting on Instagram or Twitter.

Perhaps the most important lesson for Christians is that social media is the very worst way to try to argue their beliefs. Folau is not the only person to learn this the hard way. More than 30 candidates in the May 18 federal election had to withdraw or were disendorsed because of unwise posts on social media, some from many years before.

The perils of trying to convey the deeply nuanced character of religious discourse on social media are real. Social media by its nature is reductionist, reaching the lowest common denominator, so it is simply not possible to reduce the Christian faith to words or photographs on Facebook or Twitter. The nuances and complexities of religious traditions and practices defy a minimal presentation.

Equally important, Christian faith is essentially relational. It is lived out in relationships, within the Church and with the wider world, which involves listening as well as persuading. Neither of these aspects is found much on social media, which generally involves declaiming at maximum volume, and which emboldens anonymous culture warriors to jibe with impersonal and hurtful remarks.

If Christians are to venture on to social media they must emphasise the constructive, positive, edifying and helpful. The good news of God’s love in Christ is good news indeed, and must not be tainted by negativity or point-scoring. After all, Jesus challenged the use of wealth above almost every social evil, and our response to his teaching must be to look at it in its entirety, not just in terms of the culture wars of the day. Social media is as much a challenge to people of faith as it is to society in general, and critical self-reflection always speaks powerfully.

Another important issue the Folau case raises is what employment contracts can reasonably require of people in their private lives. We seem to be inclining unreasonably to corporate agendas, which require us not to offend our employers even in our private lives.

I don’t know the details of Rugby Australia’s contract with Israel Folau, but it would be unreasonable for them to own him body and spirit every second of the day and night. It will be both interesting and important to see how the Government faces the challenge of balancing rights and responsibilities in heavily contested areas such as freedom of religion and freedom from discrimination.

For Christians, the essential truth is, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it, that God is at our beginning (as Creator) and God is at our end (as Judge).

Our words and actions, our freedom of conscience and freedom of expression, are to be shaped by Jesus’ values. We do well to look to our own stewardship and God’s grace and grace to us in Christ.

This article was originally published as a blog post on the Primate's website at http://www.anglicanprimate.org.au/2019/05/30/lessons-from-israel-folau/