Let Folau Play, You Can't Condemn Him For Preaching The Words Of Your White Ancestors
Growing up as a mixed-race Tongan-Australian woman from Mt Druitt meant I grew up with the King James version of The Holy Bible.
It was the Bible that was passed down from the hands of English missionaries to the hands of my ancestors in order to bring them to God. My grandmother, who was born in Tonga, collected images of Jesus, the son of God, despite it being a sin to hold idols as part of the ten commandments.
In her framed portraits, our saviour was always fair-skinned, blond-headed and blue-eyed. One day Nana explained to me, as she tied her afro into a wavy bun, "Before the English came to us, we were in darkness. They bring us the light to make us God’s people too."
This is a sentiment that Tongans, like my Nana and Israel Folau, carry in their everyday lives. Of course, Folau bears personal responsibility for his own actions, but consider how generations and generations of Tongans were taught about God through the King James Bible by white missionaries. Because of this, a shift began to form in the understanding of our own ancient culture. Armed with what appeared to be the words of the ‘true’ God, Tongans began to see themselves as a savage race who worshipped the false, inferior and pagan gods of our ancestors.
We also began to persecute the members of multiple gender identities and same-sex relationships, which were an ordinary part of Tongan culture prior to the introduction of Christianity. Then in 1839, King Tupou The First, raised a fistful of Tongan soil, the only soil never to be colonised in the South Pacific, and said, ‘Koe ‘Otua mo Tonga ko hoku tofi’a’, which means, ‘From God and Tonga I descend.’
Folau, who grew up Mormon and is now a Pentecostal Christian, adheres to Christian fundamentalism, which refers to Christians who interpret and read the Bible literally. Despite adhering to many different sects of Christianity, Tongans, including members of my own family, also interpret the Bible literally and do believe that drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicaters, thieves, atheists and idolaters will go to hell.
When Folau shared his infamous Instagram post earlier this year, which laid the groundwork for his dismissal from Rugby Australia, what was missing from the discussion was that the meme itself was created by other like-minded-Christians, not Folau himself. In addition to me and all my relatives, friends and colleagues from the LGBTIQ+ community, there are very few people who are not going to hell according to the meme that Folau shared, which only reiterates the values and beliefs within the King James Bible.
Today, Folau's bid to play for Tonga’s national rugby team in this year’s Oceania Cup looks to have been unsuccessful. And Australia keeps asking 'how can someone who was sacked for his homophobia and bigotry still want to play in a sport that no longer wants him?'
Although homophobia is a cross-cultural phenomenon, I believe some answer lies in what Ruby Hamad calls "the story of whiteness". As Hamad argues, the story behind Folau’s descent from Rugby Australia's graces is the story of how evangelical Christianity swept the Pacific Islands and informed the destruction of local religions, cultures and languages.
We must recognise the role that white interpretations of the Bible have played in creating global systemic systems of racism, homophobia and transphobia, and that there is a level of cognitive dissonance when men of colour are disciplined far more for expressing these views, even if, like homophobia, they have now become outdated.
As a mixed-race, bisexual, Tongan-Australian woman from Western Sydney, I believe Israel Folau should be allowed to continue to play rugby for whatever team that will have him. Folau has only ever repeated the language white English missionaries taught our ancestors, and yet it is primarily white Australians today who are vilifying Folau for preaching the beliefs of their ancestors.
As gay Samoan-Australian writer Patrick Thompson argues, “People’s willingness to focus on burning Israel Folau at the stake represents the dominance of western thinking. One that posits that an individual is made by free will alone and is not a product of their community and environment as well."
In Australia, many Tongan men like Folau work low-income jobs like security guarding or factory work. Research shows substantial levels of income inequality for Pacific-Australian people compared to the general population, despite Pacific Australians working the same hours. This is why it is important young Pacific men be honoured for their contribution to rugby league. Football has been one of the few spaces where the men from my community have been able to excel and shine.
Australia should be critical of Christianity’s role on the South Pacific and my people, just as much as it is critical of Israel Folau.