Israel Folau and the anti-gay lobby kicking against the breeze

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Sacked rugby player Israel Folau (Screenshot via YouTube)

Israel Folau’s sacking from Rugby Australia comes as religious communities worldwide are profoundly rethinking same-sex unions. His story is a depressing sub-plot in a larger – and much more hopeful – saga.

Folau was terminated after the record-scoring international footballer violated his contract, by making public comments hateful to gay people and others. These include that “hell awaits” homosexuals.

To some observers, Folau’s sacking is straight religious persecution: he should be free to express his beliefs. To others, this is a sad case of a talented athlete influenced by persuasive spiritual forces not acting in the interests of Folau, or his football code, or the Christian Church, or the wider community.

The latter seems to be the reality. The game has moved on. The anti-gay lobby is no longer scoring. Their defence is increasingly exposed. Their offence is ... well, offensive.

The sciences of biology, anthropology, zoology and human psychology all confirm that same-sex orientation is fixed, natural, healthy, occurs throughout nature, is confined to a discrete percentage of the population and poses no threat to anyone. Simultaneously, the religious disciplines of biblical scholarship, linguistics, theology, church history and pastoral studies are guiding a parallel reformation within the religious communities.

Who cares?

Well, each year, more countries debate same-sex marriage and more legislate to allow it. In these debates, spiritual arguments often dominate.

Okay, religious opinion is marginal in Europe, Australia and North America. But it is significant in those parts of Latin America, Africa and Asia where the authority of the Pope or the Archbishop of Canterbury or Franklin Graham remains substantial.

Religious beliefs are influential in many of the 72 countries where laws still punish homosexual activity. These include Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Papua New Guinea, where more than half the population profess Christianity. (Incidentally, this is down from 74 last year.)

The meaning of "arsenokoitai"

One lively debate today is the actual meaning of the Ancient Greek word "arsenokoitai" (ἀρσενοκοῖται), which appears twice in the New Testament referring to sexual behaviour. It has been directly translated into some English versions of the Bible as "homosexuality". But only since 1946. Thereafter, those two verses have become authoritative for many believers — including Israel Folau, the Sydney Anglicans and the Australian Christian Lobby.

But what if that word doesn’t mean "homosexuality"? What if it really means "child sex abuse"?

Here is an extract from a recent interview with American researcher Ed Oxford:

Before figuring out why they decided to use that word in the RSV [Revised Standard Version, 1946] translation I wanted to see how other cultures and translations treated the same verses when they were translated during the Reformation 500 years ago. So I started collecting old Bibles in French, German, Irish, Gaelic, Czechoslovakian, Polish… you name it. Now I’ve got most European major languages that I’ve collected over time. 


Anyway, I asked a German friend if he could help me with some passages in one of my German Bibles from the 1800s. So we went to 'Leviticus' 18:22 and he’s translating it for me word for word. In the English where it says,'Man shall not lie with man, for it is an abomination', the German version says, 'Man shall not lie with young boys as he does with a woman, for it is an abomination.'


I said, “What?! Are you sure?” He said, “Yes!” Then we went to 'Leviticus' 20:13 — same thing, 'Young boys.' So we went to '1 Corinthians' to see how they translated "arsenokoitai" and instead of "homosexuals" it said, 'Boy molesters will not inherit the kingdom of God'.


I then grabbed my facsimile copy of Martin Luther’s original German translation from 1534. My friend is reading through it for me and he says, “Ed, this says the same thing!” They use the word "knabenschander". Knaben is boy, schander is molester. This word “boy molesters” for the most part carried through the next several centuries of German Bible translations.

More of interest follows, particularly relating to the English translation process in 1946. Clearly, this matters. If the Church has condemned homosexuals all these years when it should have condemned child rapists then that is a serious failure.

Support for gay unions update

Learnings from the original texts are not the only reason religious communities are shifting on this issue. It may not even be the main issue. But whatever the impetus, the move is on.

Churches which now accept same-sex marriage include the United and Anglican Churches of Canada, the Episcopal Church in the USA, the Uniting Church in Australia, the Anglican Church in New Zealand, the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, the Episcopal Anglican Church of Brazil, the Church of England, the Church of Denmark, The Church of Iceland, The Church of Sweden, the Scottish Episcopal Church and most Lutheran, United and Reformed Protestant churches in the UK, Germany, Belgium, France, Switzerland and Italy.

Liberal Jewish communities celebrate same-sex unions in many places, as do some Buddhist and Hindu communities. Dialogue is continuing within Islam.

Latest from Pope Francis

Earlier this year, Jorge Mario Bergoglio made the strongest affirmations yet from a Roman Catholic Pontiff, that same-sex orientation is normal and not a serious moral failing.

Speaking to a Spanish journalist, the Argentinean Jesuit said: “Tendencies are not sin. If you have a tendency to anger, it’s not a sin. Now, if you are angry and hurt people, the sin is there. Sin is acting, of thought, word and deed, with freedom.”

Okay, this falls short of accepting same-sex unions as equal to straight marriage. But it is the most progressive pronouncement from a Pontiff so far.

Shifting influence

As an intriguing footnote, the theological world appears to be moving away from the established halls of academia as centres of learning and teaching, towards independent writers. Many private researchers are now publishing openly their findings – for free – and inviting participation from readers.

Writers and activists in this area include Cathy Baldock, Kittredge Cherry, Keith Giles, Justin Hershey, Robert Cottrell, James Morrison Dupree, Jim Brownson, David Gushee, Anthony Venn Brown and the folks at Hope Remains.

These seem to be the thought leaders in a reformation driven from the people up rather than from the theologians down. They are kicking goals.

An experienced, passionate, high scoring rugby centreman joining the team would be great.

You can follow Alan Austin on Twitter @AlanAustin001.

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