PAUL COLLINS. Give me a break!

Please, please, give me a break from Israel Folau! We’ve all heard more than enough about who’s going to hell. He can believe whatever he wants and he can blow his bags ad nauseam to his Pentecostal mates. But we don’t have to take it seriously. He’s a rugby footballer, for goodness sake, not a biblical scholar! His literalist and fundamentalist views are simply wrong; they’re not what the bible says and they don’t represent the views of the vast majority of Christians.

I’m happy to confess I’m one of Folau’s targets. I’m an “idolater” happily on the way to hell. Idolaters include Catholics, Anglicans, Orthodox, other Christians and all the unwashed who haven’t been “born-again.” But the main focus of his talk/sermon last week at a Pentecostal gathering in Sydney’s Kenthurst was on the way “homosexuality is in disguise to try and take-over…this world.” He says that “kids…16-years-old-or-younger…are able…to change their gender.” And it’s not only “non-Christians” who are the problem, because “a lot of the churches today allow these things to happen.” Those born-again are the last “true believers in Christ.”

The only problem with all this is that the biblical basis for Folau’s claims is extraordinarily tenuous. In fact, the biblical texts touted as condemning homosexuality don’t support later interpretations foisted onto them by people with agendas. In fact, the word “homosexual” doesn’t occur anywhere in the extant Hebrew, Greek, Syriac or Aramaic versions of the bible.

The classic text cited as condemning homosexuality is the Sodom story in Genesis 19. The essence of the text is the men of Sodom want to “know” the two visitors to Lot’s house. The most credible interpretation of the word “know” in the text is not sexual, but that the city elders want to know who the two visitors are to whom Lot has offered hospitality, especially given that Lot himself was a foreigner. Despite popular opinion, the word “know” very rarely has a sexual connotation in the bible. It is only much later, post-biblical interpretations that inject a homosexual connotation into the Sodom story. This is really a story about hospitality and who stays inside the city walls overnight.

Folau might claim that he has support in the Leviticus verse, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” (18:22). But the word “abomination” here is actually a reference to ritual uncleanness, like eating pork or having intercourse during menstruation. This is all about the Jews distinguishing themselves from their pagan neighbours when they first settled in Canaan (roughly equivalent to present-day Israel and parts of Lebanon) in the mid-eleventh century BC. This text is about ceremonial uncleanness, rather than hostility to homosexuality.

In fact the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) provide some extremely positive images of friendship between people of the same gender: examples are Jonathan who loved David “as his own soul” (I Samuel 18:3) and Ruth who pledged her life to Naomi saying, “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge” (Ruth 1:16-17). These passages inspired the cult of Christian friendship, particularly in the Middle Ages.

There are three passages in Saint Paul which Folau might summon to support his view. The first text from I Corinthians says that “sodomites” will not “inherit the kingdom of God” (6:9) and there is a similar reference in I Timothy (1:10). The Greek word here translated as “sodomite” is μαλακός, which means “soft”, “weak-willed”, or “gentle”. It was only in the twentieth century that μαλακός came to be translated as the unfortunate word “sodomite” by reading a modern issue back into the Pauline texts.

From the Folau perspective perhaps the most telling passage is Romans 1:26-27 where Paul talks about women and men “giving up natural intercourse…[and being] consumed with passion for one another.” Some scholars argue Paul is referring here to temple prostitution. Other scholars say that he is talking about the non-Jewish gentiles and that the whole second section of chapter one is a quotation from a reused Jewish boilerplate attacking the rotten behaviour of the gentiles.

The whole text is written in the third person: they do this, they do that, so that verses 1:26-27 might not be Paul speaking personally at all, but simply quoting what contemporary Jews were saying about the supposed depravity of their neighbours. This is re-enforced by the opening verse of chapter two: “Therefore you [Jews] have no excuse whoever you are when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another, you condemn yourself” (2:1).

The whole problem here is reading modern controversies into ancient texts. This is especially problematic when the individual interpreting the text has no knowledge of the text’s original context, nor its meaning in the original language. Its very doubtful if Folau’s views on gay relations are actually biblical, which makes it very questionable why outfits like the Australian Christian Lobby are supporting him.

The thing that is particularly annoying about the Folau case and the support he’s received from an unrepresentative minority is the way in which all Christians are assumed to support his views. Casting the Folau affair as a freedom of religion issue is also problematic. I’m all for vigorous freedom of speech, but in a pluralist society this has to be negotiated with the rights of others.

As I showed in my research paper “God and Caesar in Australia” (Australian Book Review, March 2018), the Catholic church is the largest non-government employer in Australia with about 230,000 people working in its schools, hospitals, aged care and social services. The majority of staff are not Catholic, but are invited to share in mission, a generic word meaning participating in and supporting the ethos and service-aim of the organization. That generally works. What doesn’t work is when the church as employer attempts to investigate people’s personal lives and beliefs and make conformity to church teaching a condition of employment.

What Folau and his ilk do is turn this workable arrangement into ideological battle between the churches and LGBT Australians. As I said, give us a break!

Paul Collins has written four books on church/state/culture issues in Australia.

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Paul Collins is an historian, broadcaster and writer. A Catholic priest for thirty-three years, he resigned from the active ministry in 2001 following a dispute with the Vatican over his book Papal Power (1997). He is the author of fifteen books. The most recent is Absolute Power. How the pope became the most influential man in the world (Public Affairs, 2018). A former head of the religion and ethics department in the ABC, he is well known as a commentator on Catholicism and the papacy and also has a strong interest in ethics, environmental and population issues.

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