Do those who condemn homosexual persons, ultimately, betray Jesus?

The controversy surrounding Israel Folau’s Instagram posts has tended to focus on questions of free speech, religious freedom and employers’ rights. But I want to ask a deeper question: is Folau’s position consistent with the teachings and example of Christianity’s founder, Jesus of Nazareth?

In thinking about how one might answer this question, I make the following assumptions:

  • that, as the incarnation of the divine, Jesus was incapable of error;
  • that Jesus’s life and teachings are the ultimate source of authority for Christians;
  • that the words and deeds of Jesus, as recorded in the four canonical Gospels, take precedence over those of any other theologian or interpreter (including Paul the Apostle); and
  • that the New Testament has priority over the Old Testament ― to the extent that there is any disagreement.

So, what is the essence of Jesus’s life and teaching as revealed in the Gospels? Traditionally, the focus has been on Jesus’s offer of unconditional love and the associated blessing of healing ― both physical and spiritual (the latter through forgiveness of sins).

Jesus does not present himself as breaking with Judaism. He says explicitly that he has not come to overturn the Mosaic Law of his Jewish forebears, but to bring it to its fulfilment, to reveal its essence. On two occasions ― during the Sermon on the Mount and at the Last Supper ― Jesus speaks directly of the core principles on which the Torah is founded. On the earlier occasion, Jesus explicitly states that all of the law is expressed in the two “greatest” commandments: to love God with all one’s heart; to love one’s neighbour as oneself.

However, in the Gospel of John, Jesus goes one step further. John writes that, at the Last Supper, Jesus presents to his immediate disciples a final encapsulation of all his teaching. Affirming his direct connection with the Father, telling them that he is to ascend to heaven but will send a guide in the form of the Holy Spirit, Jesus issues his disciples with a new commandment. This is what John (13:33-35) reports Jesus to have said:

Whither I go, ye cannot come; so now I say to you. A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.

Unlike the great commandment, with its appeal to the self-love of each person, the new standard for agape (the non-erotic love one bears for another) is to be Jesus’s love for his disciples ― his friends ― and, presumably, for humanity at large.

If the claims of Christians are to be accepted, then Jesus’s new commandment is not a mere act of prophecy, no matter how inspired. It is not an interpretation of a revelatory experience. If you accept the Gospel of John (as I think Christians do), then Jesus has uttered a direct commandment from God; inscribed not on stone but in the hearts and minds of those present. Jesus’s new law is to “love one another as I have loved you.” How then does Jesus love others?

First, each of the Gospels present Jesus as loving unconditionally. Not once does he set a threshold to be crossed before he bestows his love. He heals people without requiring them to become his disciples. He forgives without first requiring a renunciation of sin. He may counsel a better life, but does not make that a precondition of his love. Indeed, he specifically cautions “the righteous” to avoid judging others ― to refrain from casting the first stone.

This is not to say that Jesus is indifferent to sin. In common with the Jewish tradition, Jesus recognises sin as a form of ‘moral servitude’, a loss of freedom. However, there is nothing in the Nazarene’s ministry that condemns homosexuals to eternal damnation ― nor anyone else. Jesus even prays for the forgiveness of those who have ordered and undertaken his torture at Calvary.

Most importantly, Jesus does not merely tolerate those whom others hold in contempt ― he cosies up to them. He touches them. He shares meals with them. He defies the rituals and customs of ‘purity’, even those prescribed in the Old Testament. In doing so, Jesus offends the prevailing piety and invites the censure of those who withdraw from all that is deemed to be ‘unclean’.

How, then, does Christianity in our time become a religion so quick to judge and condemn, and so reluctant to love others without qualification? How do Christians, like Israel Folau, come to invoke contempt for others, to believe it acceptable to cast the first stone ― from the safe distance of a social media account? Would not a Christian follow Jesus’s example and offer hospitality to those who others treat with disgust ― share a meal, feel their humanity, offer companionship, without any strings attached?

Why, in other words, are many Christians ignoring Jesus? Perhaps interpreters and theologians, like the Apostle Paul, were more eloquent. Perhaps preachers have come to enjoy a measure of success by playing to the underlying prejudices of their audience. Perhaps human beings find it too hard to embrace Jesus’s message of radical love and forgiveness. As Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor explains ― somewhat apologetically ― in The Brothers Karamazov, if Jesus was to walk the earth today, he would have to be destroyed all over again. The world ― including his church – finds Jesus just too difficult to cope with.

Or, perhaps the truth is something darker. Has a deep and ingrained sense of disgust ― about sex in general, and homosexuality in particular ― bound some Christians in chains even stronger than sin?

While I understand that there is no monolithic “Christian” point of view about homosexuality, I am genuinely confused by the notion that any Christian can see matters as Israel Folau does. This is not to doubt the sincerity of Folau and his Christian supporters. But sincerity does not excuse fundamental error.

Surely modern Christians can grasp that a person’s sexual orientation is not something simply chosen. We are born “hard wired” with our preferences. To say that a homosexual person is destined for hell is to claim that each such person is born an abomination in the sight of God. That is an obscene suggestion ― not only in the eyes of a secular society, but, if the Gospels are to be believed, in the eyes of the founder of Christianity itself. Not once does Jesus indicate contempt for any person.

So, again I ask, how is it that a church founded on the commitment to unconditional love has become home to the demons of righteous indignation? In whose name has that been done? Don’t tell me it is Jesus. If unconditional love, free from any condemnation, is offered to the man who nails you to a cross, then how can it be withheld from someone whose only sin is to have not been born a heterosexual?

In the same spirit, perhaps it’s time to call a truce in the proxy war over free speech and religious freedom. It’s time for his detractors to practice what Jesus preached and reach out to Israel Folau; to extend to him friendship and understanding; to share a meal with him and offer him unconditional forgiveness ― for he knows not what he does.

This article was originally published by ABC , republished with permission.