Northern Advocate Column

Believing in a literal hell fuels hate speech fire

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24 April 2018

What does it take to believe in a literal hell, as Israel Folau seems to? The fiery kind where souls are tormented, and presumably there’s a reigning lord of evil, otherwise known as the devil. I mean, for me, it makes as much sense as believing that Santa Claus has a toy factory at the North Pole. 

Nevertheless, it’s the “they will go to hell for their sins” part of Folau’s Instagram post that worried me more than the bigotry against gay people. Falou can make a case for homosexuality being immoral, that it undermines the “sanctity” of the male-female bond. I’d be fine with that. I wouldn’t agree with him, but I’d concede that Folau has the right to live by his chosen morality. Being able to express those ideas is the free speech we defend. Just as those who disagree with him have the right to say so.   

The problem with the concept of hell, as endorsed by Folau, is that it raises the prospect of punishment. And given that hell is presumably not a fun place to be, there’s to be pain inflicted. Does Folau truly believe in a fiery hell where gay people experience pain for eternity? And is this what his church is preaching? Is it what priests – and whatever the hell Brian Tamaki is – are saying from the pulpit in this country? If it is what they’re saying, then it needs to be condemned, not justified, or explained away as being part of the culture of Pasifika people and somehow acceptable in the 21st century. These are backward ideas, dangerous ones, that need to be called out, not excused by cultural relativism. 

We need to distinguish between a different moral perspective on sexuality (okay) from the expression of a will to punish or hurt, physically or psychologically, people whose sexuality is different from our own (not okay). Our society has to maintain its vigilance against ideas which can lead to real-world acts of discrimination, and potentially violence. There’s enough evidence in the 20th century and around the world today of what can occur when vindictive hate is unleashed. 

New Zealand’s laws against hate speech, as contained in the Human Rights Act, targets racist ideologies, but makes no reference to sexual orientation. Inciting hatred of people due to their race, ethnicity or country of origin is illegal, but not their sexuality. Whatever the difficulties in defining hate speech or prosecuting someone in the courts, that’s a major inconsistency in the law. What message does it give to people whose sexuality is outside the heterosexual norm? They would be right to feel aggrieved.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s response on The AM Show, where she refused to call Folau’s comments hate speech, or concede that our human rights laws needed changing, was weak and disappointing. Let’s hope her soft stance on this issue wasn’t motivated by an unwillingness to upset Labour voters who believe in a God that wants to punish people for their sexual difference. That kind of opportunism isn’t going to advance human rights and social justice. 

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