Again, this week, we have experienced the continual burning of forests across Eastern Australia. For a few days this week, Sydney has been covered in smoke – as has much of the state. Nearly 500 homes in NSW have been destroyed to date, along with many other buildings on properties engulfed in fire. There have been lives lost and a great deal of suffering and pain. Many, many people have worked tirelessly to fight fires (far too many deliberately or accidentally lit by humans), care for homeless and those evacuated, consoling the bereaved and struggling, providing food and resources… This deep crisis has brought out the strength and compassion, courage and co-operation to fight against the powerful forces of fires burning out of control.
Into this painful crisis where exemplary traits of humanity have surfaced, another voice has used this as a platform to ‘warn’ Australian society of ‘a coming wrath.’ Israel Folau has posted a sermon he preached at his father’s ‘church’ (‘The Truth of Jesus Christ Church’) in North-Western Sydney. In that sermon, Folau says (amongst other things):
“Look how rapid, these bushfires, these droughts, all these things have come, in a short period of time. You think it’s a coincidence or not? God is speaking to you guys, Australia, you need to repent.
“What you see right now in the world is only a little taste of God’s judgment that’s coming, it’s not even a big thing.”
Folau said the natural disasters were “no coincidence” and the solution was for people to “turn from their wicked ways”.
Of course, Israel Folau has crossed many lines of decency and integrity over the last several months but has now pushed things too far. To suggest that the broad suffering of so many people and communities through this current crisis is some kind of judgement upon them for government and other decisions is not only absurd but terribly abusive and insensitive. At a time when the very best in human response (including that of faith-based people and organisations) is compassion, mercy, and care, Folau brings only judgement and rebuke – and he does it in the name of God, whom he claims to worship.
This Sunday is known throughout the Christian Church as ‘Reign of Christ Sunday’ and is the last Sunday in the church’s year – next week being the 1st Sunday in Advent. On this last Sunday of the year we are encouraged to ponder the nature of God’s Reign and what this represents, what it looks like and how it challenges us to deeper compassion, justice and grace.
In a world where there are powerful leaders who dictate, dominate, use power and might, violence and force to exert their will, we are invited to consider a different way in the world. The testosterone-fuelled megalomaniacs that often dominate the world-scene, leaving pain and suffering in their wake, are too-often countered in the religious sphere by ‘all-powerful’ and violent gods who vanquish their foes and trample them into the dust. Far to often, religious fervour is fuelled by such literalised and unbridled images of power and violence that overcome the ‘enemies’ of the divinity worshipped. Suicide bombers and other martyrs, along with militaristic forces engage in crusades against those who are perceived to be opposed to their religious views, belief systems and therefore their god. Sadly, religious history is full of such crusaders and the ‘armies of gods’ who seek to impose their views and beliefs – and their god’s judgements – upon a world often ignorant and unengaged with their particular religiosity.
Amongst the plethora of responses to the bushfire crisis are people of faith and no faith – so many groups of people from across the religious landscape and those who are not aligned with any faith have responded with compassion and love. This brings out the deepest and truest elements of being human and the very best and truest elements of religious life, whatever form that takes in people’s lives.
For Christians, of which Israel Folau and his family count themselves, we are challenged to hear the stories of Jesus and consider where and how he would be engaged in the lives of people through the crisis and tragedy of life. How would Jesus respond to the multitude of suffering experienced across this land in bushfire, poverty, marginalisation and exclusion, violence and abuse, the destruction of culture, illness of body, mind and spirit, relationship conflicts, addictions and the many other experiences people face?
In the strange passage read in churches this week from the life of Jesus (Luke 23:33-43), we encounter him hanging on a cross between two criminals. He is scoffed, rejected and scorned. One of the criminals challenges him with cynical derision, whilst the other recognises that there is something different in this one and seeks mercy. Jesus’ own words are not condemnation nor violence but forgiveness and seeking God’s grace upon his enemies and those who have nailed him to the cross, laughed at him and rejected him. Above his head is a sign: ‘This is the King of the Jews.’
What sort of king is this who accepts a way of sacrifice and giving of himself for the sake of others, who chooses a way of love and mercy over the violence, domination and force that his enemies exhibit? What sort of king embraces vulnerable humility, a path of servanthood and shares life and meals with the marginalised, lowly, outcasts and rejected? What sort of king chooses a path of wisdom and grace over certainty, power and control, who encourages people to live in freedom from materialism, addiction, worry and the competitive forces that work against community and relationship? What sort of king chooses the path of suffering and death in order to show a world how life can be embraced through resurrection into new life and new being? What sort of king weeps for those who are lost and burdened by the forces and seduction of power, whose heart is deeply moved by struggle and suffering and who reaches out in vulnerable love to embrace all into God’s soft and gentle heart where we find peace, hope and life?
This is certainly not the God or king that Israel Folau proclaims. I can only hope and pray that Israel and his family can grow through this bitter, judgemental and violent experience and notion of God and find the compassionate, gracious and merciful God at the heart of Christian faith and all things. This God proclaims a Reign that is all-embracing and inclusive. It comes to us in many tones and colours through the multitudinous experience of humanity. It is revealed in vulnerable life, the beauty of the world around us, the sacred moments of life where barriers and competitive notions fade and we ‘belong’ to one another and the cosmos, embraced in the Divine Heart. This is a beautiful Reign, and all are welcomed into its gracious place of love, justice, peace and joy!