Oz Blog News Commentary

Israel Folau, freedom and hate speech

June 9, 2019 - 12:57 -- Admin

The Israel Folau case worries me. Rugby Australia sacked Folau for his proselytising post that said:

WARNING Drunks, Homosexuals, Adulterers, Liars, Fornicators, Thieves, Atheists, Idolaters HELL AWAITS YOU Repent! Only Jesus Saves.

Despite Folau’s claim this is a quote from the Bible, the actual passage from Corinthians 6:9-10 makes no mention of hell. It says that these sinners will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. And nowhere does the passage contain the word WARNING, upper case or lower case.  Both WARNING and HELL AWAITS YOU are Folau additions.

I may be splitting hairs. On the other hand it may be a track that hair splitting lawyers will take.

Folau’s intention clearly was to quote the Bible to warn we sinners that we face eternal damnation for our sins. Only embracing Jesus Christ (and repenting our sins) can save us.

There is another passage from the Bible that comes to mind. In
the Gospel according to John, chapter 8, verse 7, Jesus says: ‘He that is
without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.

The context in which Jesus was said to have said this was
that the scribes and Pharisees brought a woman who had committed adultery
before Jesus. In accordance with the commandments, they wanted to stone her to
death.  They asked Jesus what his
thoughts were. 

His answer shows the problems with quoting the Bible. The whole document is riddled with contradictions which you can use to justify or condemn a position.  For example, as many have pointed out, the Bible seems to condemn tattoos.  Certainly, many fundamentalist Christians believe it is a sin to get a tattoo. Leviticus 19:28 says ‘Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourself.’

Folau has tattoos. That is his choice. As is his religion and any rationalisations he makes to reconcile the word and his actions. But Folau goes beyond exercising that choice when he wants to impose his views on the rest of society, or, in slightly different language, to convert the rest of us to a life in Jesus Christ.  

For example Jesus had nothing to say about homosexuality. The Bible appears to condemn same sex activity as sinful.  Leviticus 18:22 says, ‘[Men] shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination.’ Leviticus 20:13 says, ‘If there is a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a woman, both of them have committed a detestable act.’

Paul in Romans also warns against homosexual activity. He says at Romans 1:26-27 ‘For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error.’

The material explanation for this homophobia in ancient times was the need for the particular tribe to survive in difficult circumstances. The material explanation for current Christian homophobia (#notallChristians) is its loss of state power as capitalism developed and the working class fought for democracy. Capitalism also benefits from expanding markets. This has meant that the various Christian leaders in the 1800s began to emphasise the pie in the sky aspects of Christianity and denounce ‘harmful’ sins such as homosexuality to keep their congregations together. One way of doing this, as politicians in Australia know all too well, is to create a fake enemy and vilify them.

Religious freedom is a catchcry of reactionaries and conservatives. Let’s be clear. The power of the hierarchy of the Christian churches and their close association with Australian capital continues unabated. It is this power that demands enshrined religious rights to cement the hierarchies’ power and reinforce Christianity’s major role in allowing capitalism to dominate our thoughts and prayers.

I am all for the protection of the rights of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, gays and lesbians etc etc in a society that Christian power-brokers dominate. Those powerbrokers are not only the likes of convicted child abuser Cardinal George Pell, but the Scott Morrisons of the political class. For too long the cosy relationship between the Christian messages of submission and subservience, and indeed of hate, and Australian capitalism have dominated our society. Only a revolution can free us from that.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that many Christians feel under threat.  Telling them they aren’t under threat makes no difference. Indeed, other religious people, who do suffer religious intolerance, such as Muslims or Jews in Australia, are joining with Christians on this.

Given its pervasive role in Australian capitalism, enshrining Christian religious freedom is in my view, objectively unnecessary.  Nevertheless, just as we need some protection for freedom of speech, and the press, I support giving religious freedoms protection.  I do not however support giving the religion of the capitalist class free reign to impose its beliefs on the rest of us or to indulge in hate speech.

What Folau said may be hate speech. For a 14-year-old rugby fanatic and player struggling with their sexuality, Folau’s words could be hurtful. So, having a massive support system at school and in society for these people – protecting them from Christian hate speech in effect – is a must.

Safe schools anyone? Hang on. These are the very programs the ‘freedom loving’ right wing is shutting down.

The other problem I have in the Folau case is the power we give to employers to set the agenda of their employees even outside work. As a senior public servant for example I was careful not to express political views on social media until I retired. Why should I be so restricted? Should Folau?

The case of public servant Michaela Banerji and her appeal to the High Court after being sacked for anonymous political comments reverberates with me. Where is the free speech brigade in defending her rights as well as Folau’s? Why is the employer able to restrict free speech outside work hours?

Now Banerji is not Folau. She is not on a $4 million contract. She does not have people hanging off her every word. It may be appropriate in the case of high paid professionals to have their employer restrict their freedoms, if they want to enter into a contract of employment. It does not strike me as appropriate when that person is on say the median wage of about $65,000 a year.

The balance between religious freedom and hate speech can be a fine line. I want Folau to be able to repeat his Church’s assertions about the words of Jesus. I also want vulnerable people not to be offended, upset or suicidal as a consequence.

In Folau’s case I think there is both a practical and a legislative solution. Despite my misgivings about the power employers seem to be giving themselves in their employment contracts to control their employees outside of work, in Folau’s case he has made a commitment that if employed by the National Rugby League he would be subject to stringent supervision and control over his social posts. So, while he can preach his Christian homophobia to the like-minded, he won’t be able if he joins the NRL to proselytise his homophobic hate speech.

One issue is whether any potential team mates would work with Folau. Certainly, the NRL has a policy of rehabilitating those who have broken the law. They should extend that approach to Folau, and show him what it really means to love your neighbour as yourself. However, if the player’s association will not accept him, that is good enough for me. Time to play rugby in France, Israel.

Legally, there may be an opportunity to link freedom of religion and hate speech. Yes, if the government is intent of making political capital out of the issue, then let’s legislate for religious freedom. Couple that with strict criminal laws that make it a very very serious offence to spread hate speech.