July 26, 2022

Manly in Babylon

It is a false dichotomy to declare that the seven Manly players who are refusing to wear the Pride jersey this week for their National Rugby League match (thereby scrubbing them from playing), are being hypocritical because they have had no problems wearing betting and alcohol logos on the same jersey.

Yet I have seen such claims made. It’s not enough that all seven men are going to be under tremendous pressure over the remainder of the season (this Thursday’s match is a do-or-die game for their club in terms of whether they get to the finals). Now they have to contend with the suspicion that they are being hypocritical. Yet there they are, seven young men of Pacific Islander background, refusing to wear the jersey that declares solidarity with, or more to the point which actually calls for us to take pride in, sexual practices that their faith won’t allow them to celebrate.

I think Nathan Campbell’s article (he’s a Manly tragic) had some wise insights, but it did sail a little close to putting these seven men into the situation where, unless they are hyper-squeaky clean on absolutely everything else, they have no right to refuse to wear the Pride jersey. That puts a level of pressure on them that I don’t think is warranted.

And I disagree with Nathan that somehow to wear the Pride jersey would be a sign of solidarity with others for the sake of winning them to the gospel. Here’s the problem with that: the Pride jersey is promoting a gospel already. Slipping it over your head is not conceding that “Yes, alcohol can wreck lives and yes, betting can cause financial ruin and family damage”, it’s saying ‘I believe in this. In fact I’m proud of it”.

You see the Pride story is a good news story itself. It’s an alternate gospel. You can almost hear the tune:

Amazing Pride, how sweet the sound ….Once I was lost, but now am found, t’was blind and unenlightened to modernity , but now I see.

The days are long gone, I think, in which we can bend such images to our own will or our own purposes. Pride is exactly what it says, can we not at least take the Pride movement at its own word? it does not want tolerance, it wants celebration.

You see, in our Sexular Age there has to not only be tolerance of homosexuality, but outright celebration of it. Celebrating homosexuality is a way of saying that we have put the old myths of the past behind us – old myths that less enlightened people, people such as traditional Islanders – still cling to. And hey, even those old myths were promulgated by white colonial missionaries. Those poor Islander boys are clearly doubly blind.

I do wonder how some Christians might respond to Daniel and his friends in Babylon who refused to eat of the king’s food and so defile themselves, yet were not, it seems, too troubled about learning the magic arts of Babylon that included all sorts of pagan beliefs and the worship of the heavenly bodies. Perhaps they might say, “Come on, if you’re going to do the one but not the other, you’re being a tad hypocritical, don’t you think?”

And perhaps too, those who are tut-tutting this apparent hypocrisy, and who are Manly fans themselves, should take a hit for the, er, team. After all, the reason you can bring your whole family to the game each week, rather than just yourself, is that the alcohol and gambling money subsidises your ticket. It subsidises the team jersey you buy your son at the club shop, the meat pie you eat at half time, and the subscription you pay to watch it all online.

When you sign up to live life in the modern western world, where lottery money goes into government coffers and pays for hospitals, you sign up to that tension. What’s the alternative? Become Amish?

Let’s unpack the issue a little. It is astonishing that the club did not think to even to consult the players about this matter, at a time when the sport, along with other national sports, has had to carefully navigate its way through the whole matter of religious belief in a secular setting, particularly among ethnic communities. Here’s what it shows – a total lack of respect for actual diversity.

Well it’s astonishing, but perhaps not surprising. For in the secular, individualist progressive setting that we all inhabit, your sexual preferences are dyed in the wool identity markers that define you. Religion? It’s just a plug-and-play option that you can take or leave, and that is yours as an individual to decide.

Does the club – does any club that has players from other more religiously observant parts of the world – not realise that the majority world doesn’t think like the West? Do the clubs not realise that religion, and its observance within a communal setting in which it is highly integrated, is a given among huge swathes of the globe’s population?

Well I guess if the main focus of your life are the beachside suburbs of Sydney (not known for its huge ethnic diversity or deep religious observance), then perhaps you don’t realise that stuff.

Ian Roberts is the first – and still only – openly gay Rugby League player in Australia. He’s been retired a while and he’s two years older than I. I remember his coming out back in 1995 (for some of my readers that would be ancient history). It was a gutsy move no doubt in those days. But it was also a celebrated move. There were no challenges to him, and certainly no concentrated social media campaign against him such as these seven men will endure. His coming out was met with huge dollops of love and acceptance. Roberts is pretty vocal about this sort of thing, so of course he had something to say about it:

It’s sad and uncomfortable. As an older gay man, this isn’t unfamiliar. I did wonder whether there would be any religious push back. That’s why I think the NRL have never had a Pride round. I can promise you every young kid on the northern beaches who is dealing with their sexuality would have heard about this.

And I get some of that angst from him, I really do. But I mean, really Ian? You did wonder if there would be any pushback? I mean, what planet are you living on? Or perhaps more to the point, what well-heeled, enlightened, mostly white Western part of the planet are you living on?

Why would he not have assumed there would be religious pushback? Why would he not think that every young kid on the islands where those seven players’ families come from would be watching what is going on too? Why would he not have a crack at Manly for being so blinded to the fact that it would have been a good idea to let these young men know at least one week in advance of the match, not three days out when a trio of their team-mates trooped out in the rainbow colours to media fanfare?

Here’s why. Cos the northern beaches of Sydney are, in the eyes of those who live on the northern beaches of Sydney, the enlightened part of the world, populated by those who just know better. The Pacific Islands? That’s where the northern beaches families go for their package holidays where they can lie on their beaches, prop up their ailing economies by buying their merch, and patronise their local cultures by saying how cute it all is – how diverse! If I’m looking for true diversity in the world, I ain’t looking to the northern beaches of Sydney.

And for what it’s worth, when Muslim AFLW player, Haneen Zreika, refused to play the Pride round, there was plenty of heated discussion. But, as usual, there was plenty of patronising too. After all, on the totem pole of intersectionality, it’s just a bit too risky to take a full bite out of a Muslim player who is ethnically Lebanese. Perish the thought if the seven Christians from Manly had been white Westerners.

For Roberts and for the NRL, here’s the uncomfortable truth: You don’t get to determine what diversity looks like, what parts of it should be celebrated and what parts should be side-lined. For in those seven young men, whose powerful bone crushing talents you are more than happy to have at your disposal, there is a diversity that you need to look past, have to look past.

The deep, deep irony of our proudly diverse modern Western culture is that its diversity only goes skin deep. We love those ethnic groups for their amazing food and beautiful dances, but if they think for a minute that we will celebrate communal thinking over individualism, or traditional religious sexual practices over “you do you and you do whoever”, then they’re going to come up short of the try line.

And here’s the other thing: despite the fact they’re wearing jumpers that have alcohol and betting on them, there’s every chance that they’re not the ones from the club getting hammered in the off-season and blowing all their eye-watering levels of cash at the poker table. They’re not the ones bringing shame to the NRL clubs over sex and drug scandals.

Here’s what those seven lads know: Unlike that nasty alcohol and betting, The Pride jumper won’t be paying the bills. But it will exact a huge cost; the cost of their conscience. They are not proclaiming their allegiance to alcohol and betting by signing up for Manly and wearing the jersey. After all, who knows, perhaps the club will be sponsored by Virgin Airlines next year and the Virgin symbol – huge irony there for NRL – will be ironed onto every jersey.

But, rest assured, there will be a Pride round next year, and the year after that, and the year after that. The intention of a yearly Pride round is to bring everyone around, to grind down the last bits of resistance. And every year those lads will have to refuse to bow down to the unifying image that the cultural King Nebuchadnezzars place in front of them, while everyone else falls prostrate as the horn, lyre, zither and every kind of musical instrument strikes up.

Let the games begin.

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