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Folau gives faith a bad name

Australian rugby sensation, Israel Folau and those who support his outrageous comments on social media might think that his actions make him a martyr for Christianity. For Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya, his posts make him a bigot.

Right-wing Christianity probably has a new hero in Australian rugby star Israel Folau. 

Last week,  Folau posted on social media a catalogue of “sinners” who were going to hell unless they repented and followed Jesus.

Folau shared a post on Instagram stating “drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters” should “repent” and that “hell awaits you” because “only Jesus saves”.

This week he insisted that he would stand by his social media comments even if they threaten his future in rugby.

One suspects the post would have gone unnoticed if it read “homosexuals, drunks, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters” should “repent” and that “hell awaits you” because “only Jesus saves”. 

Rugby Australia has already announced their intention to terminate the contract of the 30-year-old “in the absence of compelling mitigating factors”.

But Folau appears unfazed by this. He told the Sydney Morning Herald: “It’s obviously a decision that’s in the process right now but I believe in a God that’s in control of all things”.

He has taken the action by rugby officialdom much like the early Christians took Rome’s decision to feed them to the lions.

He has become a martyr for his faith or, strictly speaking, for his interpretation of Christianity.

“Whatever His will is, whether that’s to continue playing or not, I’m more than happy to do what He wants me to do.

“First and foremost, I live for God now. Whatever He wants me to do, I believe His plans for me are better than whatever I can think. If that’s not to continue on playing, so be it.

“In saying that, obviously I love playing footy and if it goes down that path I’ll definitely miss it. But my faith in Jesus Christ is what comes first,” he told the Sydney newspaper.

There can be no doubt that Folau’s decision is courageous. For one thing, he stands to lose millions of dollars because of his decision and he will no longer play in the Rugby World Cup, where he was a shoo-in for the team.

Folau and those who support his brave stance are lying to themselves if they think that he is being persecuted for his religious beliefs.

It is clear that he is being punished for his homophobia and divisive language.

The statement released by Rugby Australia is unambiguous. “It was made clear to him that any social media posts or commentary that is in any way disrespectful to people because of their sexuality will result in disciplinary action.”

Folau is not the first sports star to have strong religious beliefs and to express them publicly.

South African cricket captain Hashim Amla is such a devout Muslim that he refuses to have the Castle Lager logo displayed on his kit because his faith prohibits the consumption of alcohol.

He has also taken the decision not to accept any personal profits earned from test matches or awards sponsored by Castle, as this is forbidden in Islam.

The coach of the English football club Liverpool, Jürgen Klopp is another famous believer. He is a committed Christian and has made several references to his faith when interviewed by the media.

In an interview with Frankfurter Rundschau, translated by Premier Christian Radio, Klopp said: “To be a believer, but not to want to talk about it — I do not know how it would work. If anyone asks me about my faith, I give information. Not because I have claim to be any sort of missionary. But when I look at me and my life — and I take time for that every day — then I feel I am in sensationally good hands.

“And I find it a pity if other people lack this sense of security – although they don’t know it, of course, because otherwise they would probably look for it.”

Tennis superstar sisters Serena and Venus Williams are also open about being devout Jehovah’s Witnesses.

If they were South African, they would not be taking part in next month’s elections. They have openly said that they take John 17: 14, where Jesus says: “they are not of this world, just as I am not of this world”, to mean that members of their faith community are to stay away from or at least remain neutral in political affairs.

Former Orlando Pirates and international South African player, Warren Lewis is known to have asked not to be included in matches played on the Jewish Sabbath.

This exhaustive list of athletes publicly committed to their faith would be incomplete if it did not include Muhammad Ali. He famously changed his name from Cassius Clay after he embraced Black Islam in the 1960s.

The point of listing other prominent sports stars and the ways they have chosen to express their faith and exercise their beliefs in the public arena shows what is really being challenged or punished in Folau’s case. And, it is neither his right to his beliefs nor his freedom to express these. If Folau and his supporters should think this, they’ve entirely missed the point.

Sports stars, like any other person, should always be allowed free expression of their faith. What they should never be allowed to do, is use their public platform to denigrate others. And worse, to justify their bigotry under the guise of ‘being true’ to their faith.

Folau does not appear to understand this, unfortunately. And for that reason, the world will likely be denied the opportunity to marvel at his God-given talent to play rugby.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.