A perspective so far not considered in the Israel Folau controversy are the circumstances through which hundreds of thousands of Pacific Islanders, and those of Pacific Island descent, arrive at a point where their religious views would likely be characterised by the Australian majority that approved gay marriage, as ‘bigoted’.
Firstly, let us recall the views that Israel Folau expressed.
It was that Hell awaits ‘drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolators’ unless they repent and turn to Jesus Christ.
Folau is a member of the Truth of Jesus Christ Church which is a small ‘born again’ Christian sect. His father is a pastor in the church. The family have always been devout, and after one lapse away from his religion, Folau turned back to it with a passionate commitment.
Unsurprisingly, Folau’s views were echoed by his Queensland Reds and Wallaby team mate, Tamela Tupou, who said: ‘Seriously, you might as well sack me and all the other Pacific Island rugby players around the world because we have the same Christian beliefs’.
I would say that Tupou is more right than wrong. Recently an Australian tourist reported that on a 35 kilometre bike ride around Rarotonga, the capital of the Cook Islands, he found 23 separate factions of various Pentecostal, evangelical and Protestant sects before he lost count.
That comment would apply pretty much to most Pacific Island nations. The Pacific has been the target of a conversion campaign that started in the nineteenth century and continues to this day.
Anthropologist, Robert C. Kiste, writing in 1985, summarised the motivation for this conversion campaign: ‘As the [Pacific] islanders were living without knowledge of Christ and the God of the Hebrews, they were living in a state of pathetic sin. For the missionary view, the islanders were enveloped in an age of darkness. They had to be converted and Westernized.’
Islanders were persuaded to abandon their own religions and convert. Lacking literacy, with no formal education, they were vulnerable.
The New Zealand Mori put up a fight but they were overwhelmed by the superior weaponry of the British, the divide and rule tactics of the colonisers, and the religions on the conversion trail. But, at the same time, Polynesians did manage to retain many religious and non-religious aspects of their cultures.
This is the context from which Israel Folau came to his views. Like so many of his colleagues, I suggest, he was indoctrinated when a child. His father is a pastor in his church. The family’s history is one of devotion.
He was born in Australia of Tongan descent.
The population of Tonga is only about 100,000 scattered over many islands.
The census of 2011 found that 90 per cent of the population were affiliated with a Christian church or sect, roughly a third were Methodist, a third Catholic, and a third Mormon.
The Methodist Church is the established church. The royal family are prominent members. Political life is dominated by the Samoan King, 33 ‘nobles’, and a few prominent commoners.
Homosexuality is illegal, punishable by ten years jail, but rarely enforced, as there is ongoing toleration, except from Christian missionaries in churches like the one Folau attends, of the ‘fakaleiti’.
This is a third gender which functions for families that happen to have no female children, or a significant gender imbalance. ‘Fakaleiti’ means ‘like a lady’. The other term used for this alternative gender is ‘leiti’.
Children who are perceived to be ‘effeminate’, and possibly other very young male children, are encouraged to become fakaleiti.
These children, aged between three and five, are encouraged to behave as girls, learning to fulfil traditional female duties in the home: weaving, cooking, cleaning, child care and so on.
Many large framed fakaleiti Tongan men, who were recruited as children, now dress in mini-skirts and make-up, and go to bars and clubs where they mix. They are not all homosexual, but because they are so feminine in appearance and behaviour, they are assumed to be homosexual.
They have an annual indoors Pageant, well attended, where they celebrate their sexuality. It has been running for 25 years.
It is therefore very ironic that while Israel Folau cites text that says Hell is the destination for homosexuals, the home of his Pacific Island heritage, Tonga, has become increasingly accommodating of fakaleiti and homosexuality. This includes many churches where fakaleiti are members.
On 5 March 2019 Amnesty International reported that while many ‘leitis’ ‘continue to be thrown out of their homes due to homophobia and transphobia, and end up at a safe house set up by the Tongan Leitis Association, there is increasing social acceptance.’
Amnesty reported that some Pacific nations have repealed out-dated laws making homosexuality a crime. These include Fiji, Vanuatu, Nauru and Palau. The Cook Islands government is legislating now and Amnesty concludes that ‘Tonga may well be the next to repeal legal provisions that violate the human rights of LGBTI people’.
Facing the widespread criticism of his views, Israel Folau has doubled down, reasserting his position. This is a classic example of a human phenomenon anthropologist Mary Douglas once described that people tend to embrace what is oppressing them when they can’t see a way out.
Under pressure, Folau wept while giving a sermon at his church. You have to have some sympathy for him. He is one of the hundreds of thousands of targets of an indoctrination program that started two hundred years ago.
Appeals to his free speech to assert his religious views, about homosexuality, that are now becoming increasingly irrelevant in the Pacific, may not save him from the possible financial debacle that his religion has brought him to.
The full legal arguments are not yet on the table. If they are reduced to whether religious free speech can override secular agreement that may put law itself on the line. If the answer is ‘yes’, then agreements like the one Folau signed agreeing to curb his religious speech are worthless, and secular law itself could be compromised. Seen this way, it is a separation of church and state issue.
At the same time, in a free speech society, were there no contract involved, should Folau be free to parrot the ultra-conservative, centuries’ old, homophobic views of the Christianity that has brought him to this point?
Yes, but the Biblical quote that Folau used was promising violent retribution, albeit indirectly, for gays, atheists and others in the future when they arrive in Hell for torture till eternity. I suggest that appears to cross the free speech line where anything can be said, so long as it does not encourage or approve of violence.
Second, it has been said in his defence that Folau was merely citing the words of the Bible, as if that lets him of the hook. Surely that is disingenuous. None of the many other Christian Pacific Island rugby players have felt motivated to say what Folau has said twice and against an arrangement not to do so.
In conclusion, I leave the last word to a Samoan activist who, unlike Folau has thought his way out of his indoctrination:
‘The Polynesian atheist or free thinker is, I suggest, a much braver individual. He or she is a thick-skinned warrior to stand defiantly against the docile citizenry who will never accept the fact that they have been conquered by the white man.
They conform to the trappings and symbols of religious assimilation by wearing the ‘whites’ every Sunday as an act of racial contrition to a White Preacher Man’s own contrived rules.
The Samoan goes meekly to his or her church in the middle of the village and is deeply humbled by the Beatitudes, and acknowledges that they are truly conquered.’