Sunday, April 14, 2019

Religious liberty and the curious case of Israel Folau

I write a column for Zadok, an Australian print publication, every quarter. It is a print based publication which they let me share on my blog, to resource more widely and generally. After recent events, my column for Winter 2018, seems strangely relevant.

Religious liberty and the curious case of Israel Folau
Steve Taylor

John Bunyan, Sarah* a Biblical studies scholar and Israel Folau meet in an English pub. Folau is carrying a folder. Marked secret, it contains back line moves for the upcoming rugby international at Twickenham. Bunyan is carrying an early draft of Pilgrim’s Progress, what will become one of the most significant works of religious English literature. Sarah is carrying a well-thumbed Greek New Testament and an article by Tuiloma Lina Samu, entitled ‘Dear Israel Folau – your unchristian comments hurt young, vulnerable Pasifika’.

Over a drink, lemonade for all, they share news.

John Bunyan shares his fate. He is about to be imprisoned for his religious beliefs, for preaching without permission from the established church.

Folau nods at the suggestion of religious persecution. He is also in trouble for expressing belief. It began with a post on social media a few days earlier about gay people being hell-bound unless they repent. Folau has an employer. That employer has corporate sponsors and they have called for inclusion. How does diversity and tolerance mesh with right to speak?

Does the Bible have an answer? Folau wonders.

Sarah opens her Bible and begins to share her research, which is analysing religious liberty in Biblical times. She points to Abraham, who recognises the divine names (El Elyon) used by indigenous people (Gen 14:18-20) and builds altars among already existing sacred trees (Gen 12:6-7; 13:18). Abrahams’ faith could live and yet recognise the liberty of other already existing beliefs. Then there is the book of Esther, in which God is never mentioned and yet faith is maintained by courageous individuals, including Esther, willing to marry a non-believer. So Christianity grows from people of faith living in diverse worlds.

The story of Esther and the mention of Haman’s gallows cast a shadow over Bunyan. Bunyan begins to name the friends he has lost, burnt at the stake. Their stories are told in the only book Bunyan will take with him to prison, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. As a dissenter, Bunyan knows he will be denied a church burial. It is a future shame his family will bear, for when Bunyan, along with other well-known dissenting authors, like Daniel Defoe and William Blake, is buried outside the City of London, he is forever excluded from the embrace of the established church and civil society.

Folau shakes his head in disbelief. How does his social media experience compare with Bunyan’s eventual twelve years of imprisonment? Folau confesses he hasn’t read Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. ‘But’, he grins, ‘I have heard Blake’s Jerusalem, ringing around Twickenham’ – a song silenced when Australia beat England at Twickenham in the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Bunyan, a rugby fanatic, feels the pain of what would be a 33-13 loss.

Sarah has a biblical question for Folau. In 1 Corinthians 6, a range of sins is mentioned. Why post about one sin, that of being gay, and not about theft or greed? What does Folau think of conservative New Testament scholars, like Gordon Fee and Ben Witherington, who stress that Paul is talking about behaviour, not orientation? And why focus on sin, when the verses that follow are about grace? 1 Corinthians 6 is a text marinated in grace and the joy of relationships restored. How can the grace of 1 Corinthians be communicated on social media? Sarah wonders.

Bunyan also has a question for Folau. He quotes Colossians 4:5: ‘Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders’. The letters of Paul and the New Testament are about the ‘constraints of context’ and the ‘amazing feat of ingenuity, improvisation, survival and creative living’ (Gorringe and Rowland). The early Church lived faith in situations in which their faith was a minority report and their beliefs were practised in everyday life rather than through seeking to change public law.

Folau picks up the newspaper and points out the headline: ‘Dear Israel Folau – your unchristian comments hurt young, vulnerable Pasifika’. He is aware of the high rates of suicide among Pacific Island youth, often linked to struggles over sexuality. Yet he still wants to be authentic, to share his faith.

Bunyan nods. Those are the very reasons he wrote Pilgrims Progress. To communicate his faith, he created a story. He jumped into an imaginary future, in which dissent does matter. It remains a vital Christian practice and an essential part of the flourishing of free societies. But the practice in Pilgrim’s Progress is focused internally, on the way that Pilgrim walked his journey. ‘Change yourself, and let your actions change the world’, Bunyan advises.

‘Closing time’, comes the call from behind the counter.

Last rounds make for last words. Sarah and John offer to pray for Folau: ‘God make your face shine upon your servant. Creator God, give words creative and wise toward all outsiders. Bless him and your church with the ingenuity to improvise in Australia today’.

‘And may England win’, Bunyan giggles.

* While there are many fine female Biblical studies postgraduate students who have studied at London Bible College, Sarah is a fictional figure. As is this encounter.

The following items have been a resource:
Ben Witherington, Conflict and Community in Corinth: Socio-rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians, 1995, 166.

Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1987, 244.

Tim Gorringe and Christopher Rowland, ‘Practical Theology and the Common Good – Why the Bible is Essential,’ Practical Theology 9:2, 101-114.

Curtis Freeman, Undomesticated Dissent: Democracy and the Public Virtue of Religious Nonconformity, 2017.

Posted by steve at 09:26 PM


  1. Hi Steve thank you for this post very helpful……the issue is being presented as one of free speech by the media….thank you for your analysis, Jenny Brisbane

    Comment by Jenny Brisbane — April 28, 2019 @ 10:04 pm


    A British woman whose postcard made its way to then- hostage Terry Waite in Lebanon says she had hoped it would inspire him to see some good might come from his ordeal.

    Joy Brodier sent the card to Waite in care of Hezbollah, Party of God, in Beirut. Hezbollah is a pro-Iranian Muslim fundamentalist group linked to the hostage-takers in Lebanon.Tuesday, a day after his release, Waite recalled what it meant to receive Brodier’s card that showed a painting of imprisoned 17th-century author John Bunyan by a stained glass window.

    ‘I was kept in total and complete isolation for four years,’ said Waite, who was kept in chains for most of his captivity. ‘I saw no one and spoke with no one apart from cursory word with my guard when they brought me food.’

    When he received the card,Waite said at first he thought how lucky Bunyan was to have a window, a pen and a desk while he had none of those things. But when he turned it over, he read the words of a stranger promising to remember and pray for him.

    ‘Never despise those simple actions,’ Waite said of letter-writing campaigns to political prisoners. ‘Something in some way will get through to the people you are concerned about, as it got through to me.’

    Brodier said Wednesday, ‘I sent that card because I though John Bunyan was in prison and he suffered a lot, but yet out of his imprisonment came the book ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ that’s been an inspiration to millions of people through the 500 years or so since.

    Comment by Jenny Brisbane — April 28, 2019 @ 10:14 pm

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