This might be an unpopular opinion, but I am somewhat frustrated that I feel the need to defend Israel Folau this week. If I’m being honest, I think that, as an evangelist, Folau makes a pretty good rugby player.
Don’t get me wrong, I am definitely in favour of sports stars and other celebrities using their status to evangelise, but I’m not sure that proclaiming “hell” before proclaiming Christ is a particularly effective means of doing so.
For those who missed this week’s controversy, Folau returned to Instagram after a long hiatus to post a meme that read: “Warning: Drunks, Homosexuals, Adulterers, Liars, Fornicators, Thieves, Atheists, Idolaters. Hell awaits you. Repent! Only Jesus saves.”
The post immediately landed him in trouble with Rugby Australia because, after a similar incident in April 2018, where Folau posted that God’s plan for gay people was “hell” unless they repented, a clause was reportedly inserted into Folau’s contract which prohibits him from posting discriminatory, divisive or controversial comments on social media.
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Folau’s acceptance of this clause will likely allow Rugby Australia to terminate his contract and in doing so, save the lucrative sponsorship deal the game holds with Qantas (whose CEO has no qualms about using the airline’s buying power to silence and even punish those who fall foul of rainbow ideology.)
In a joint statement, Rugby Australia and NSW Rugby Union indicated their intention to terminate his contract, saying that while Folau was entitled to his religious beliefs, “the way in which he has expressed these beliefs is inconsistent with the values of the sport.”
The statement went on to say that “no vilification based on race, gender, religion or sexuality is acceptable and no language that isolates, divides or insults people based on any of those factors can be tolerated.”
Here’s the problem. Folau’s Instagram post is loosely based on 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, where St Paul writes: “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God.”
In condemning Folau as they did, Rugby Australia, NSW Rugby Union and the countless commentators who piled on calling for Folau’s sacking have said that quoting a sacred text that more than half of the country still professes to believe in (even if they don’t express it or even live by it) is contrary to modern-day values.
And it’s not just Rugby Australia. Its counterpart in the UK is also stepping into the fight, threatening disciplinary action against one of its players who had the temerity to defend Folau.
Saracens player Billy Vunipola posted on his Instagram in support of Folau. He wrote, in part: “I don’t HATE anyone neither do I think I’m perfect … what he’s saying isn’t that he doesn’t like or love those people. He’s saying how we live our lives needs to be closer to how God intended them to be. Man was made for woman to procreate that was the goal no? I’m not perfect I’m at least everything on that list at least at one point in my life. It hurts to know that. But that’s why I believe there’s a God. To guide and protect us and forgive us …”
Vunipola has already been dropped as a contributor to Channel 4’s football coverage because his views were “incompatible” with the broadcaster’s values, and both the UK’s Rugby Football Union and Vunipola’s club will summon him to discuss potential disciplinary matters.
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In short, these clubs are now saying that uttering Christian belief is now unacceptable. That’s why we need to back Folau and Vunipola, and I absolutely will.
But this isn’t only about them.
Whatever happens with Folau’s contract, he will be fine. He has earned significant amounts of money during his NRL and Union careers, and if he wanted to continue playing, could easily move overseas and do so for even more money than he is earning here.
This fight is more about the Average Joe who suffers a similar fate to Folau: being threatened with disciplinary action in the workplace, losing a job or a chance at one for daring to assert a Christian belief, either on the job or on social media.
Average Joe doesn’t have the same resources as Folau does and won’t be able to spend them to fight to defend himself. If we don’t stand with Folau, then Average Joe doesn’t stand a chance.