Lammy, Embery & Folau: free speech cases & what we learn from Evangelical reactions

I’ve been away on holiday this last week, so all the posts that have been coming out were scheduled before I left. I’ve had a lovely week paying no attention to the news or social media.

On my return, I came across three stories that hit the headlines and have a common theme. The biggest of the three – which seems to now be extending beyond one individual and embroiling more and more people – is the story surrounding Israel Folau. The second, slightly less high profile story that gained a fair degree of traction centred on the Trade Unionist, Blue Labour advocate and Brexiteer, Paul Embery. The third story concerns comments made by David Lammy MP in which he compared the ERG to Nazis.

In each of these cases, individuals have been told they should not be saying some of the things they have said. In some, but not all, of these cases the individuals have been told that they should face “consequences” for their words. In each case, the arguments have come from those who disagree with the view being expressed.

Let me deal with the easiest and most straightforward of these cases first, David Lammy’s comparison of the ERG to the Nazis. For what it’s worth, whilst I share the ERG view on Brexit (that is, I want to leave) I don’t really share many of their other views. Anybody with any sense (which, apparently, doesn’t include David Lammy) can see that whatever the faults of the ERG, they are not Nazis. They are equally not advocating the white supremacist politics of apartheid South Africa, to which Lammy has also compared them. The comments – to my mind – are stupid and unnecessarily provocative.

Nevertheless, if David Lammy wants to draw such comparisons, I don’t see why he shouldn’t be allowed to do so. People make exaggerated comparisons all the time – Hitler is frequently invoked as a comparative for all sorts of nonsense (as Godwin’s Law states) sometimes legitimately, often less so. But if David Lammy wants to compare the ERG to Nazis and fascists, it hardly seems to be evading the point to insist that such comparisons be banned and he be forced into making an apology for having made it.

Having said that, for somebody claiming to be concerned about the rise of the far right, Lammy would do well to recognise that UKIP were a spent force until he and his ilk began doing all they could to block the result of the EU referendum. UKIP are now climbing in the polls and other far right organisations, peddling their views on the back of a promise to enact the democratic will of the people, are also gaining support. Whilst he should remain free to draw whatever comparisons he wishes – no matter how evidently untrue – Lammy would do well to note his own role in granting the far right a foothold in UK politics with such comments.

The second story concerned Paul Embery and a tweet he sent in response to something Gary Lineker, and then Mike Harding, said on Twitter. You can read Embery’s own take on it here. Douglas Murray offers his view on it here.

In this instance, the issue wasn’t with a sentiment somebody meant to express so much as one inferred by others with which they took exception. Here, it was a fairly innocuous sentiment being expressed but into which others inferred antisemitic intent that neither the context nor the author suggests was there. I think Embery is right when he states:

It was Twitter at its pitchfork-wielding worst – a classic example of people going out of their way to be offended by something that wasn’t offensive. The people attacking me were looking to take a free kick over things they disagree with me over anyway, whether it’s Brexit, my Blue Labour politics or my stance on free movement.

Nobody with an axe to grind read ill intent into Embery’s tweet. Only those who disagreed with him on other issues inferred from two words that he was making an antisemitic comment. Sadly, the Fire Brigades Union issued a statement that included the following:

The FBU has a longstanding history of standing up to and challenging racism. These traditions are not reflected in the recent comments made by someone who is an official of the FBU, whether this was done knowingly or not.

We sincerely regret the use of this phrase by an FBU official, and have requested that the person in question ceases all activity on social media until our Executive Council is able to meet to discuss.

Two things about this are unfortunate. First, although the language employed was evidently used without knowledge of any antisemitic comments once used by Stalin, the FBU are suggesting that lack of intent is irrelevant in determining whether somebody was being racist. So, it matters not whether you intended unpleasant racial slurs, your intent is irrelevant in determining whether you are racist, as determined by those who can apparently see clearly into the soul.

Second, despite the context and the comment not directed toward any Jewish person making clear the comments were not intended to be antisemitic, Embery is told to cease his social media activities. So, leaving aside the question as to whether racial slurs (unpleasant as they are) should be prohibited, and leaving aside the question of whether (if they should be prohibited) there should be a level of intent proven before administering “consequences”, Embery is being told that he now cannot make public comment at all about anything. So those who disagree with his politics, who have inferred and stirred up offence that did not exist, have succeeded in having a man silenced from making public comment about anything at all.

The third story – which seems to be engulfing the world of rugby – concerns comments made by the Australia Fullback, Israel Folau. Folau posted the following meme on Instagram:

When asked, ‘what was gods [sic] plan for gay people?’ Folau replied, ‘HELL… Unless they repent of their sins and turn to God.’ Folau has since (unsurprisingly) copped a lot of flack online and is currently facing the loss of his contract with the Wallabies as well as with his club.

Since then, the England and Saracens player – Billy Vunipola – has also become embroiled. He first liked the post and was immediately dropped by Channel 4 as a pundit. He has since refused to ‘unlike’ the comment and has subsequently defended doing so with the following Instagram post:

Several other England players have also liked Vunipola’s post. His England team mate, Courtney Lawes, defended Vunipola by stating the following:

I don’t have a faith like yourself my brother so I don’t share the same views in this matter but I do believe you should be able to voice your own opinions and beliefs as you see fit.

To everyone getting worked up about these post I ask you if you don’t believe in the same things as them then what do these statements matter to you? Can we not disagree with someone without calling them a bigot or a homophobe or every other name under the sun?

And by the way If you’re going to say you’re accepting of everyone then be accepting of everyone, not just the people you agree with.

Several things seems worth saying. First, Folau posted a meme based on 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. So, unless we are now suggesting that quoting (or paraphrasing) the Bible is now prohibited, this is perhaps not the problem some have made out that it is.

Some Christians have decided he wasn’t speaking theologically accurately enough. After all, they aver, Paul doesn’t mention homosexuals. But at least one version does translate the word as ‘homosexuals.’ Even if we concede that is not necessarily the most helpful translation (and, evidently, most translators have come to the conclusion that it is not), the vast majority of versions do clearly describe homosexual behaviours. Whilst it may not be technically accurate to say ‘homosexuals’, the idea being conveyed in these verses to which he alludes (whatever you may think about them) very much does relate to those who engage in homosexual practices.

Second, and much more importantly, Folau was responding to a specific comment landing directly on the use of the word ‘homosexuals’. The question was asking what God’s plan is for homosexual people. The meme was suggesting that those who make an ongoing, unrepentant habit of the sinful activities listed (which is why ‘homosexuals’ isn’t the most helpful translation because in view are not those who identify as gay but specific activities) are bound for Hell. The point of the verses to which they allude is that anyone who continues in a state of unrepentance is bound for Hell. When Folau is asked specifically about gay people, his answer would hold if he was asked about anybody. Paul elsewhere says, ‘for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’ Unless any of us repent and turn to Christ, we face a lost eternity. We may have preferred some equivocation, some setting in context and a bit of softening fluff that we dress up as graciousness – that may have even been wise – but he was asked a specific question and gave a specific answer. One really has to take issue with the scripture, rather than Folau, because ‘unless they repent of their sins and turn to God’ is a pretty accurate summary of the situation for anybody, regardless of the group identified.

Third, it is interesting that the first move is to remove him from his position in his rugby team. Quite what his theological views on homosexuality have to do with how good a rugby player he is really seems moot here. The argument that he is a role model doesn’t really wash because neither he, nor any other player, have set themselves up as such. What is more, it is for parents to point to good role models not for those who find themselves in public positions to be automatically assumed as such. Just because children (and others) may look up to people does not make them a role model. The fact is, there are people in the public eye we might want folks to emulate and there are people we might not want them to copy. It is strange to assume that because somebody is good at sport or music or has some public position that they are necessarily a role model. It just isn’t so and stating it so as to remove people from the public eye – especially if their specific view has no bearing on the role they are doing – seems odd at best.

Fourth, it is particularly interesting to notice how progressives – who love to view themselves as defenders of the downtrodden – are now lining up against those they previously defended. It can’t escape anybody’s notice that an awful lot of pacific islander (and PI heritage) rugby players are all lining up to support Vunipola particularly. The Pacific Islands have a very strong, proud Christian heritage that is embedded in their culture (note the Fijian teams, for example, that come onto the field and don’t do a haka but sing a hymn). When the progressive desire to back foreign cultures rubs up against their desire to defend their particular sexual ethics, the response to Vunipola and Folau is indicative of that which will always win out. Notice the response to the Muslims in Birmingham over the No Outsiders programme – foreign cultures must be subservient to the progressive view that sexuality trumps all. See how even the suggestion of a debate on Question Time over whether it is appropriate to teach sexual ethics in schools was treated.

The progressives who rail loudest against colonialism find it all too easy to foist their superior sexual ethical views onto those who would hold to their own cultural distinctives. As Stephen McAlpine noted on his blog:

A friend working in the public service in our home state tells me that after a long intense PD day on how to promote sexual diversity in his workplace, he approached the organisers and said that many people within the Australian indigenous community would have a problem with this.  The response?  “Well they will just have to get on board.”

Get on board. The bulk of the indigenous community who hold to traditional values in terms of marriage, will have to get on board the whitefella’s agenda. Since when did that become anything but colonialism?

Fifth, it is interesting to note that Stonewall have been repeatedly quoted as rejecting what they deem homophobia dressed up as religious belief. This, they aver, is because it perpetuates the myth that religion and homosexual practice are incompatible. And, to be honest, I have no doubt that you can find people who will gladly offer you theological reasons for whatever you want to do. You name it, you can find someone who will theologically justify it for you. But religious people who are convinced by the truth of their scriptures are unlikely to ever be convinced that a contrary reading of their scriptures is entirely justifiable when it is being made by those who openly reject those very scriptures. Such arguments seem hollow and feel somewhat like an agenda being advanced rather than an honest reading of the text.

Most of the folks I know who once identified as Christian, but who now choose to prefer indulging their sin (whatever it happens to be), typically begin to justify their behaviour as compatible with scripture. When it becomes abundantly clear that such things cannot be justified according to the texts they cite, they are forced to choose between indulging their appetite or submitting to the scriptures to which they want to hold. It is for this reason that most of these people end up out of the church altogether and choose to identify as Atheists (or some sort of de facto Deist). It is not so much that they are forced out (though, I don’t doubt, in some unpleasant cases that happens) but more that they become acutely aware that they must choose between their sin or their saviour. Some prefer a saviour and choose to resist temptation, knowing that this constitutes part of taking up their cross that Jesus insists all who follow him him will have to do. Others prefer their sin and find it easier to reject Christ and his Word altogether than to take the theologically (and intellectually) impossible line that two mutually contradictory things are, in fact, compatible.

I wonder whether the Evangelical response in the West to these sorts of things speaks to how culturally bound we are. We may baulk at these sorts of comments, we may say ‘I’d not have said it like that!’ but the big question is this: is the essential point true or not? Does the Bible say, if you don’t repent of your sin, you will go to Hell? Is it true that, apart from repentance from sin and faith in Christ, you will not inherit the kingdom of God? If you baulk at those things, you need to ask yourself seriously why? It can’t be because they are unscriptural statements because Christ himself, and the apostles after him, were clear enough. Let’s be really honest, why is it that we baulk at it? Some of us are too embarrassed to admit that is what the Bible says.

Let me put it this way, why is it that the Evangelical church is predominantly placed in middle class contexts and yet – despite the largest proportion of churches in those communities – that is where we are seeing among the least fruit? Could it be that our reaction to the likes of Folau and Vunipola reveal something even starker about our view of the gospel and our fear of our neighbours? Might it possibly be that we are seeing fruit among the working classes (when we bother to go to them at all) and very little among the middle classes because we’re scared to talk about Hell and tell people the truth that unless they repent and turn to Christ that is where they are going?