“I used to share Israel Folau’s view… here’s what changed.” / A.J Hendry

This piece was originally published in late 2019 in another publication. At that time Israel Folau was in the headlines for comments he had made in relation to the rainbow community and his faith. Some of the theme’s within this article are to do with how to engage with those who we disagree with, and how to journey with people through this disagreement. Due to the time we find ourselves in, with hard conversations around Covid, vaccination’s and even the bill to ban conversion practices, it seemed that it might hold some relevance for us today. We hope you find it helpful.

There was a time when I held very similar views about God and faith to Israel Folau.

I didn’t think of myself as homophobic, and I would never have expressed my faith in the way Israel expresses his, nor would I have tried to connect natural disasters with the sin of individuals. I would have found that incredibly distasteful, and in direct contrast to the character of the God I knew, a view I still hold today.

But I was a Christian growing up in a fairly conservative tradition, and thus I had been taught that this issue of sexuality was black and white. It wasn’t that we hated LGBTQ people – that’s a common misconception – it was that we had been taught that Gay people – if they chose to be in a relationship with someone of the same-sex – were putting their souls at risk. Not because God wanted to send them to Hell – He didn’t – but because they were choosing to reject God, and all that came with Him.

And so, we were taught to speak the truth in love, and to love was to share the truth we believed to be self-evident within the Scriptures – that God’s design was for a man and a woman, and any sexual expression outside of that norm was a sin and constituted a rejection of God’s grace. And so, though Israel’s approach would have been condemned even in the context I grew up in, the general message would have been condoned.

And then, I got to know a young man who was gay. Growing up I had never really gotten to know anyone from the Rainbow community, at least not until this courageous young man entered my life. And even though he had been hurt by Christians in the past, for some reason he decided he would tell me his story. So, he did. He was real with me about how the church, and specifically how my faith, had hurt him. And I started to realize that something deep in my theology was not working.

Christian theology should bring life. Not sow seeds of death.

And as I began a journey of getting to know people within the Rainbow community, as I began to hear their stories, and listen to their pain, I realized that this theology I held had done just that.

What had been meant in love, had produced only pain.

Jesus said once that the tree shall be known by its fruit, and after examining the tree, I realized that the fruit was not doing well.

Instead of feeling accepted and welcomed into our community, I came to the realization that it was our very theology (regardless of how soft and loving we packaged it) which was sending our rainbow whānau a message of exclusion and hate.

As Christians we believe God is a God of radical grace and overwhelming love.

And that Jesus, is the very expression of that love. We also believe that God’s love is unconditional, that Her acceptance comes with no strings attached. Yet, for some reason, when it comes to the LGBTQ community, we suddenly put all these limits on God’s grace, sending the Rainbow community the message that they must change themselves before they can be accepted and loved within in our midst.

This is not the message of Jesus.

Yet, this was the message my theology was sending.

And so, after encountering story after story of how my faith had caused pain and heartache to my Rainbow whānau, I was forced to wrestle not only with how I held my faith, but also how I interpreted Scripture. If you haven’t grown up within a religious tradition you may not realize how big of a deal this is. It may be hard for you to believe that we could live our lives guided by such an ancient book. Yet, for us there is life in the Holy Scriptures. We believe that through wrestling with this old, imperfect, collection of writings we call the Bible, that God speaks. And it was through this process of wrestling that I came to realize that much of what I had been taught was more tradition, than revelation.

 And though at the end of it I could no longer say that the Bible was clear on the issue of Gay marriage, I found that it was abundantly clear on another point.

That God’s Love truly was amazing.

I came to realize that Her Love was far more radical, far more inclusive, far more gracious than I had ever even thought to imagine.

And that the Rainbow community was not just Loved, but fully, and radically included.

The journey I have just described did not happen overnight.

It took time.

And it took work.

And it was a journey which was only possible due to the courage of several individuals who were willing to share their lives – and their stories – with me.  For it was only through being confronted with their stories – in love – that I was able to find the courage I needed to reevaluate my traditional Christian convictions.

At the moment Israel Folau – and those who hold similar views to him – are experiencing a significant amount of hate.

You may say that this is deserved.

You may be right.

Yet, the threats, ridicule, and general vitriol directed towards Israel Folau at the moment will not change his view. Nor will it change the view of those who hold to a traditional view of faith and sexuality.

If we truly want to bring about change and create a more just and inclusive world for our Rainbow whānau, then responding to hate with hate is not the way.

We cannot shame these ideas into oblivion.

Before, Israel Folau’s views can fade away, they must be engaged with in love.

This means meeting people where they are at, joining them as they wrestle with their faith, and helping them to understand the harm and hurt which their belief system is causing.

It means Christian’s speaking with other Christians about how their faith has developed, and challenging their loved ones to think deeper about what they believe and why.

And it means caring enough to move past the memes and the click bait headlines, and truly engaging in kōrero with real people rather than media made monsters.

Jesus’ message was one of radical, self-giving, unconditional love. It was a message which at it’s very core tore down the divisions set up by those who would name us us, and them them.

Jesus taught us to see each other as human beings first and foremost. Not as political beings, nor as leftists, or conservatives, but as humans.

And it is this message of love – encountered as real people, engage with real people – which will eventually prevail over those who preach a message of exclusion and hate.

If Israel Folau’s views are to pass into obscurity, they will do so – not because they were shamed into silence – but because they were overcome by love.

A.J. Hendry is a Laidlaw College graduate, and now a Youth Development Worker and housing advocate, working in the Youth Housing and Homelessness space. He leads a service supporting rangatahi experiencing homelessness and is also an advocate working collectively to end youth homelessness in Aotearoa. He is also the curator and creator of When Lambs Are Silent.

Though we try to keep up with all our comment’s and feedback, we do sometimes struggle to monitor all platforms. If you do want to engage in the conversation join us on facebook and find the relevant post or connect directly with A.J on his facebook page here, twitter here, or Instagram here.

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