Breakdown in the Ruck: 4 pushbacks to the Folau/Vunipola ‘controversy’

Carl Laferton | April 16th 2019

This is about rugby, but it’s not really about rugby. So if you’re a Christian who doesn’t like rugby, please don’t switch off.

It’s been quite the storm in the rugby world this past week. First, Australia’s best player, Israel Folau, was told he would be sacked for putting a picture on his Instagram page warning that adulterers, liars, idolators, and, yes, homosexuals need to repent or they are headed for hell. (The more eagle-eyed will spot that Folau was basically precis-ing 1 Corinthians 5 v 9-10).

Then one of England’s best players, the Saracens Number 8 Billy Vunipola, defended Folau’s comments, stating his belief that man was made for woman, to procreate. He has been sacked from his role analysing games for Channel 4, he has been publicly criticized and warned by both club and country, he was booed by fans at the weekend, and some have called for him not to be allowed to play rugby for England again.

Here are four brief points I’d love to make to various rugby authorities/coaches/commentators/reporters…

1. Disagreeing with someone’s behaviour does not mean you hate them

As Billy Vunipola pointed out in his post (in the first part, the bit that everyone’s ignoring), he doesn’t hate anyone. Rugby authorities and clubs keep stating that they want rugby to be welcoming to all—but no Christian player would disagree. Every time someone in the media expresses confusion that Vunipola is such a friendly, kind, popular player and yet believes what he does, they show the crucial truth they’re missing: that you can disagree with how someone lives without hating them.

Ironically, the basic premise that to disagree is to hate works both ways: plenty of people on social media have been calling Folau and Vunipola all kinds of things. As yet, none of them are facing losing their analyst jobs on TV, or their contracts at rugby clubs.

We need to state clearly, and keep stating clearly, that it is possible to love people without agreeing with them: and then we need to show that in the way we live.

2. This is a conflict between two ways of seeing your identity

Folau’s views are upsetting to anyone who bases their identity as primarily or significantly about sexual orientation and activity (which are not the same thing), and then builds out from there. In refusing to recant, despite facing losing his career, Folau is basing his identity on his belief about God, and building out from there.

The unchallenged (and increasingly unchallengeable) assumption in western society is that your sexual identity is a given, that you must act on it in order to be fulfilled, and that any opposition to that is hateful and bigoted. What therefore goes unnoticed is that in defending this position, its adherents have spent the weekend describing every Christian rugby player’s core way of seeing themselves as ignorant, bigoted, hate-filled, backward, outdated, etc. No one seems to have noticed that this is one view of identity telling another view of identity that it is wrong; and not just wrong but offensive.

3. ‘Causing offence’ is not a very good way of defining the limits of free speech

Everyone agrees that freedom of speech is not absolute. The settled position used to be that its limit was found at the point where speech incited violence. But no one is accusing Folau or Vunipola of that. What they have done is cause offence and upset people. Without the ability to cause offence, we lose the ability to have any kind of rational debate. Not only that, but we have to decide whose offence trumps whose. Why should the offence taken at their comments trump the offence taken at the comments of those who are offended with them?

4. What if they’re right?

Has anyone even paused to consider that if there’s a God, then he may have something to say about how to live in this world, and how to reach eternal, fulfilling, perfect life? Has anyone paused to consider that God may not always agree with the current cultural assumptions? Has anyone paused to wonder whether Folau and Vunipola might have grounds for what they’re saying? No: because they’ve contradicted one of the central, unchallengeable beliefs of modern Western culture, so by definition they cannot be correct. Who’s narrow-minded now?

Oh, and here’s a brief point for Christians:

Let’s be courageous in what we post, and be careful in how we post.

If my social media feed is completely culturally acceptable, am I really representing Christ on it? Let’s be courageous in what we post. But equally, is what I post as wise as it could be? Personally, I’d wonder whether Folau could have said the same truth, just as clearly, in a way that came across more calmly and more positively. God is more about calling sinners to heaven than he is about condemning them to hell.

But still, it’s probably better for us to wonder whether we’ve been courageous but not careful, than for us to conclude towards the end of our lives that we were so busy being careful that we never got round to being courageous. On Judgment Day, is God going to have a problem with Folau risking his career to speak truth, or us keeping our heads down, carefully never risking anything?

If you want to read more (and, frankly, more insightful and more eloquent writing) on this, Steve McAlpine has two very helpful, and not a little challenging, blogs:

Sexular Colonialism

Lying Community Outraged By Folau’s Latest Tweet

Carl Laferton

Carl Laferton is EVP Publishing/Editorial Director at TGBC. He is the bestselling author of the kids' books The Garden, the Curtain and the Cross and The God Contest, and also serves as series editor of the God's Word For You series. Before joining TGBC, he worked as a journalist, a teacher, and pastored a congregation in Hull. Carl is married to Lizzie and they have two children, Benjamin and Abigail. He studied history at Oxford University.

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