Who would have thought, in Australia in 2019, that, thanks to the insistent Tweets of a rugby player, hell would gain such attention? Hellish is certainly the result for those of us in the rainbow community. Particularly since the recent Federal election, we have been subjected to a deliberate right-wing campaign of aggression and hate, with fresh destructive impacts on our mental health and well being. This is a powerful expression of the vicious distortions of so much of today's media, and the apparent eagerness of some 'religious' groups to promote, or be used by, repulsive reaction in the name of religion. It is also a vivid reminder, both of how theological concepts can have real life consequences, including in the political sphere, and also of the need for a religious, as well as much broader, response by LGBTIQA+ people of faith. For religious-inflicted pain is indeed rife and horrendous among LGBTIQA+ people. Anger at religion as a whole is therefore, as a huge understatement, more than understandable. More moderate 'straight' religious people urgently need to recognise this and join the rainbow community as much more effective allies, with a commitment to genuine listening, deep repentance for religious-based shaming and violence, and powerful commitments to assisting in change. Yet, as it uses religion, we are also unlikely to defeat the hideous distortion that is right-wing 'religious freedom' without better theological scrutiny and the use of religious resources by LGBTIQA+ people of faith, affirmed by other parts of the rainbow community. In this, one key feature is indeed to reclaim the very idea of hell as a theological impulse towards justice for the oppressed, connected with the vision of 'a new heaven and earth' of peace and love, not as punishment of 'the other' by the rich and powerful. For God, if that world is to have reality at all, needs proclaiming as the ultimate source of transforming love in generous diversity, not as a mean tyrant picking on the marginalised. If hell is to have any real meaning, other than as a description of actual lived pain today, then it must be as a reminder that, in some ultimate sense (to use Billy Bragg's words):
'there will be a reckoning for the peddlers of hate... and a reckoning too for the politicians who left us to this fate'...
human rights as collaboration together not competition
In speaking about his song 'There Will Be A Reckoning', the Bard of Barking puts it this way about those who are typically behind the current hellish drive to consolidate religious discrimination:
These people never go away and each generation has to find a way to fight against the racists, the sexists, the homophobes, those who will divide us. We fight by working together and remembering that it’s our culture that allows us to work together, cross-borders, cross-genders, cross-politics.
For Israel Folau's infamous Twitter attack on 'homosexuals' is a terrible distraction from what really matters, if we focus only on him, his words and concerns. This conceals so much else, both in terms of other substantial issues of lack of human respect and injustice (including our society's domestic, and other, violence still highlighted by aspects of macho male rugby culture) and the potential for other ways of building respect and freedom for all. It is indeed by working together that we may dispel the hideous myth of right wing 'religious freedom' and establish greater freedom for all. Human rights are about collaboration not competition. It is a sad indictment of contemporary politics, that, despite the efforts of the two main party leaders at the recent Federal election to douse down false 'religious freedom' as an issue, it has raised its ugly head again in such a fashion.
responding properly pastorally - a tale of two bishops
One of the saddest aspects of the current unnecessary 'debate' is certainly the seeming inability of some influential Christian leaders to recognise the distress of others. In his recent statement on 'freedom of faith and Israel Folau' for example, Anglican Archbishop of Sydney thus fails even to mention the offence caused to rainbow people, including to some members of his own flock. Despite polls showing that, as in the marriage equality debate, the majority of Christians are not opposed to affirmation of LGBTIQA+ people, he still insists that 'the clear support of ordinary Christians has been ignored, marginalised and silenced'. Thereby he magnifies out of all proportion any genuine concerns about the details of Israel Floau's contractual dispute and reinforces the huge disdain shown to Christian and other LGBTIQA+ people which only fuels further controversy. In contrast, it is gratifying to hear a genuinely balanced pastoral response from the Anglican Bishop of Grafton - see report here.. Recognising the attraction of Israel Folau as 'a tremendously popular young rugby player', and his right to be 'free to hold particular religious views, he nonetheless rightly affirms that:
'free speech is not hate speech and should not be used to vilify others. Threatening people in this way cannot be disguised as protected religious activity. If it was, then things like ethnic cleansing and slavery could be justified on religious grounds as having divine approval.'
The Bishop of Grafton thus highlights how religious concepts can be used either to build people up or to cast them down: that is, to assist human beings to live closer to heaven, or to to damn them into hell, including a living hell in this life. Words and their use, as any Christian who follows the Word of God in Jesus Christ should know, do have consequences. So that, without necessarily maligning Israel Folau's relationship with Christ, it is more than appropriate for other Christians to follow the the bishop in calling upon him, and crucially, 'other high profile role models':
carefully to use the platform they have to send a positive message about their faith, promote social inclusion and community well-being.
Hell as a reckoning of justice, not judgement on human difference
Unfortunately it is depressing that some Christians should once more be presenting their faith in negative terms, distorting isolated scripture verses out of context, and alienating others. For hell not only has a much more marginal place in the Bible than this, but also a long and varied cultural and hermeneutical history. Indeed, in English language versions of the the Christian 'New Testament', it is a word used to translate three quite distinct words with their own particular historical contexts,. Where it is to be found in parts of scripture, such uses of 'hell' are also not centred on issues of sexuality but on justice. Thus, in Jesus' own recorded teaching, it is found, for example, in Jesus' parable of the rich man and Lazarus, and in the story of God's reckoning of justice in Matthew chapter 25, where those who are found lacking are so because of their lack of generosity and care for those in need. Sexuality simply does not get a look in! It is very likely, as with other relevant passages in Matthew's Gospel, that Jesus' reckoning of justice has also been framed here with the first fruits of the development of later colourful imagery of hell. Yet the message is clear: God is not to be found in exclusion and hard-heartedness but in love and justice for all, particularly the outcast. It is those who fail to live like this who fall into judgement, not those they judge and exclude:
For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me. ... whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me. (NIV)
In which sense, as a religious idea in a better understood Christian form, hell is more an ally to LGBTIQA+ than our enemy. For, significantly, the concept of hell emerged out of times of great opposition and persecution by the powerful. It is thus essentially a divine protest against injustice and assurance that, even if death befalls, there will be a reckoning and ultimate redemption by love. It is hence hardly a charter for rich and comfortable religious people to maintain their privilege and sense of moral superiority. Rather it is an inspiration to genuine social, economic, cultural, political, moral and spiritual freedom for all, including LGBTIQA+ people today. That, not the tweeting of an over-hyped ruby player, is news we need to hear.
Jo Inkpin is an Anglican priest serving as Minister of Pitt St Uniting Church in Sydney, a trans woman, theologian & justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice & sustainable creation.