Honouring Israel Folau

This blog is, mostly, about things to do with economics and public policy.   The stepping-off point was my background in monetary policy, financial markets, and financial regulatory issues over the course of a long career at the Reserve Bank, together with something I had come to care rather more about, the decades-long underperformance of the New Zealand economy and the associated policy failures.  I range more widely these days, but always try to anchor (dragging as the anchor may be) more or less close to policy and associated analytical issues,  with a heavy weight on New Zealand issues and perspectives.

The blog is also, these days, the forum through which the most people encounter me.   And thus it represents something of who I am.  When I set up the blog, I took the opportunity to note quietly (on the About Michael Reddell page) that my first loyalty was to God, as revealed in Jesus Christ, and linked to another low-key, intermittently updated, blog I run in which I sometimes offer thoughts on matters ecclesiastical, the occasional interface with policy, the inspiration I take from great hymns and poems etc.  I didn’t, and don’t, want to make a great fuss about it, and the statement was in part a check on myself: the standard I try to live by in conducting the blog is a Christian one –  how I interact with people, when I do (and don’t) write and so on.  Better to make those standards explicit, and open myself to accountability if (when) I fall short.

I don’t suppose my faith ever had any impact on what OCR I recommended, or much impact on what I thought the inflation target should be (although the Bible is strong on honest weights and measures).   I don’t suppose those holding the dominant alternative faith (some sort of secular Enlightenment worldview) thought their beliefs made much difference to their views on such technical matters either.   But all of us, in the way we interact with others, the choices we make, the things we say no to, are influenced and shaped by our presupposition, beliefs, and cultures, theistic or otherwise.    There were libertarians and libertines in the course of my working life.  And there were serious and orthodox Christians.

So why this post?  It is about Israel Folau and what his treatment this week –  partly at the hands of the ARU, but more so that by media, politicians etc –  says about the room for orthodox Christian belief in public in modern day New Zealand and Australia (the situation seems similar in the UK and Canada, if more mixed in the United States).

There are things where I disagree with what I know of Israel Folau’s reported views.  There was a story out of Australia yesterday about some remarks he’d made recently in a sermon.

Celebrating Christmas and Easter is wrong, Israel Folau told parishioners at his church last month.

So too is wetting babies’ heads during Christenings.

For some time, the Wallabies superstar has been preaching during Sunday worship.

Folau, once purely a devout follower, has in the past 18 months developed into a church leader with strong opinions on Christianity.

He repeatedly attacks the Catholic Church and Christians who do not devoutly read the bible.

Giving the most comprehensive insight into Folau’s mindset and beliefs, a video obtained by The Daily Telegraph shows one of the world’s most famous rugby players attacking the “man-made” traditions of the two holiest periods in the Christian calendar.

“Christmas and Easter, that’s man-made,” Folau tells worshippers.

I don’t happen to share his interpretation on most of those points (the Bible, however, remains central to Christian faith, and should be read by those who follow Christ).  But I understand the case he is making.  There are whole Christian denominations that don’t approve of, or practice, infant baptism (“wetting babies’ heads during Christenings”) –  it was the tradition within which I was raised. In our part of the world, the denominations still holding their own (or growing) tend to be those which eschew infant baptism.

What of Christmas and Easter?   There is a perfectly respectable argument, grounded in Scripture, for the case Folau is making –  if I never quite shared it, I was once quite sympathetic towards it.   The celebration of Christmas and Easter (and Pentecost, the third great Christian festival) was banned during the Commonwealth period in 17th century England, and banned or simply not practised in a number of the US colonies long after that. Even today, there are plenty of Protestant churches –  perhaps especially in the US –  that would not have special Good Friday or Christmas services.   I recall once commenting to my mother about how our Baptist churches seemed not to do Good Friday well, and she responded by pointing out that when she was young her –  large established – Christchurch Baptist church didn’t have Good Friday services at all.

Folau’s views on these issues might seem odd to some (many).  But there is a long history of serious people with similar views.  People who take the Bible seriously, as their authority in faith and conduct.

But, of course, that story was really only a bit of colour to the Folau story, perhaps designed to feed some sense of Folau as a nutter.  No one would care –  Prime Ministers on two sides of the Tasman wouldn’t be commenting –  if a prominent rugby player had simply been heard declaring that he didn’t think Easter should be celebrated.  Probably neither do most atheists, and all Muslims.  As it happens, Good Friday isn’t even a public holiday in the (somewhat more Christian) United States.   Even within the Christian tradition, most –  I don’t know about Folau –  would treat most of this subset of issues as second order in nature.

No, what really bothered those who have been up in arms this week (and it carries through to editorials this morning in both our main newspapers) is that a top rugby player takes the essentials of his Christian faith seriously, and isn’t afraid of stating those beliefs –  not, it seems, in the middle of game of rugby, or even in team practices (where people couldn’t avoid him), but in church and on social media.

Those essentials?   Two, on my reading.  The first, the reality of sin, which puts on uncrossable barrier between God and man (see the story of the expulsion of the Garden of Eden for how the Jews captured this belief).  And yet God doesn’t give up on us.  Christians proclaim –  and (most) will celebrate specially next Sunday – that in the death and resurrection of Jesus God took the initiative and opened up the way to reconciliation.  Those who would avail themselves of this offer –  or call –  do so in repentance and humility, resolving to turn aside from their sin and, with the aid of God’s Holy Spirit, to seek to put on holiness.  Intent matters in this story, for in this life none of us succeed in putting off sin completely (indeed, Martin Luther once argued that the most holy people remained most conscious of how far short of God’s standard they still fell).

And the second, is what evangelical Christians term the Great Commission – the last words of Jesus on earth, at least as recorded in the gospel of Matthew.   Go, preach the gospel to all nations, make disciples, and teach them to obey. (“Obey” isn’t a popular word in our society.) From a Christian perspective, it is a glorious truth –  good news of salvation open to all human beings, a salvation that has implications for how we should live –  and a serious responsibility.

The responsibility stems, in part, from a belief –  firmly grounded in the Bible (even if it isn’t necessarily the only possible interpretation) – that continued rejection of the free offer of salvation, available to all who repent and will to turn from their sins, is eternal separation from God, often characterised (by orthodox creeds and believers) as Hell.  No serious believer could (or should) wish that fate on anyone –  not Brenton Tarrant, Adolf Hitler, Xi Jinping, nor our neighbours and friends.

Here, I’m not asking you to believe the Christian message –  the gospel, or good news – but simply trying to describe the world view of an orthodox Christian.  I don’t speak for Israel Folau, but they are my own views, and (from what I’ve read and heard) seem to be something like his.    He was an adult convert to Christianity –  raised Mormon apparently –  and I rejoice in his apparent zeal for the faith, and in his witness.

This was the Instagram post that has excited the mob this week

folau 2.png

That is the essence of the gospel –  sin abounds, and all of us fall short, and yet…..to all who repent, who turn away from sin, there is the offer of Christ’s sacrificial love and restoration.  He even puts a Scripture text alongside the simplified graphic.

It isn’t as if the text stands in isolation from the rest of the Bible.

Here, at a very general level, is St Paul in the books of Romans

23 For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Here, Paul writing (inspired by God, so the church has traditionally taught) to the church in Corinth

Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men[a] 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

Or from the book of Revelation

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children. But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”

I could go on.  These aren’t exhaustive lists: any unrepented sin that separates human from God.   It is New Testament teaching and Old –  read in Exodus or Deuteronomy how fearfully the people of Israel are recorded as receiving what we now know as the Ten Commandment.  It has been the consistent teaching of the church for the best part of 2000 years, and in the Jewish teaching and tradition before that.

(As a reminder, Christianity has been the religion that predominated in the West –  and western offshoot societies (including modern New Zealand) – for 1500+ years.  That doesn’t make it true, of course, but it played a key formative role in the societies that formed us.)

Of course, no one in the public domain was much bothered about Folau highlighting that adultery, theft, and lies fall short of God’s standard.   Even in today’s society –  degenerate as it is in many respects –  most people aren’t going to defend those sorts of acts (or tar anyone who suggests that such behaviour isn’t acceptable).   All the fuss was about Folau’s report of the biblical – and longstanding Christian and Jewish (and Muslim for that matter) –  view on homosexual practice. It is sinful –  wrong.  Note that in Folau’s list, homosexual practice isn’t singled out –  it comes between drunkenness and adultery, together with lies, sex outside marriage, theft and idolatry.   The Bible takes a dim view of homosexual acts and of sexual sin more generally –  reflecting, no doubt, the fundamental importance of sex in any society, and perhaps especially one teaching that men and women are made, in the image of God, to complement each other – but you will read the New Testament in vain for any sense of it as uniquely wrong.  The sins I struggle with matter just as much in God’s sight –  or at least so the church has traditionally taught.

I’m well aware that there are plenty of liberal Christians who will claim that all this is irrelevant –  that they know better than Moses, Jesus, St Paul, or the church through 2000 years.  I know many of their arguments around translations, social context, and so on and so forth.  Many are in a hurry to keep up with the spirit of the age, whichever chaotic direction that spirit leads

But those points are irrelevant here.  It isn’t for the baying masses, the leader writers of newspapers, Prime Ministers, or heads of rugby bodies, to define Christian faith and teaching.   As Folau presumably believes, (and I certainly do) these are revealed truths and teachings, the same yesterday, today, and forever.  It is the truth we seek to live by (however inadequately).  It was, I’m pretty sure, the sort of truth held by Billy Graham when he attracted tens of thousands to his New Zealand rallies only a few decades ago.

If –  as most New Zealanders and a large proportion of Australians now claim to –  you don’t believe in the existence of God, let alone of eternal separation from God or Hell, it is hard to know why what Folau is saying should bother you.   You surely believe he is simply deluded and wrong, as he will discover (or rather not) when he dies.

That probably is the view of a fair number of people in New Zealand and Australia today.  But it isn’t the view of those holding the commanding heights –  MPs, leader writers, columnists, business leaders and so on –  who have demanded that it be stopped.  They simply cannot abide the thought that someone of any prominence should openly affirm that sin is sin, and that homosexual acts are among the things labelled as sin.

Here I’m not mainly interested in the Australian Rugby Union. I have a modicum of sympathy for their position, even if (as I noted in an earlier post elsewhere on these issues) the problem was partly one of their own making.   Rugby could just be rugby, but that’s not enough for today bosses.

My interest is more in what it says about our society – New Zealand and, it appears, Australia –  that no prominent person is free to express centuries-old Christian belief (views backed, rightly or wrongly, by the law of the land until only a few decades ago) when it trespasses on the taboos and sacred cows (“homosexuality good”) of today’s “liberal” elite.  And if no prominent person can –  and it is interesting to note that not a single church leader has been willing to stand up openly for Folau, and the Scriptures –  how will those less prominent be positioned.   Folau may lose a multi-million dollar contract, but he’ll already have earned much more than many ordinary working people make in their life.   But what of the ordinary employee of a bank or of one of those right-on government agencies.  It might not even be a personal social media account, or a speaking engagement at the local church.  It might be nothing more than a reluctance to participate in celebrations of what (in their belief, in the tradition of thousands of years) sinful acts.   The issue here isn’t someone proselytising across the counter of the bank, any more than Folau’s “offence” involved activity in the middle of a game, but a totalitarian disregard for any view –  no matter of how longstanding –  that doesn’t fall into line with today’s orthodoxy.

I don’t envisage writing any more than usual here about aspects of Christian faith –  perhaps the odd Christmas and Easter post, and the occasional somewhat relevant allusion – but these are my beliefs: theft, idolatry, lies, adultery, dishonouring one’s parents, covetousness, homosexual acts, dispossessing the poor are all (among the) sinful acts.   The just wages of sin is death, and yet the free gift offered in Christ, conditional only on penitence and a resolve to amend one’s way, is salvation.  I won’t celebrate what God has called sin (or simply keep quiet).     The message of the gospel is supposed to be uncomfortable, but akin to the surgeon’s knife that offers a path to something much better.

If all that makes you uncomfortable reading what I have to say about the OCR, bank capital, immigration, productivity, the PRC or whatever, so be it.  You can choose to stop doing so. That is a choice that only you can make, consistent with your own beliefs.  For me, I will try to prioritise Jesus, focused on the long (and faltering) obedience in the same direction that he called his disciples to.

There is a line around the Folau case of the sort “why couldn’t he just keep quiet, and save his views for home and church”.  That isn’t what disciples of Christ are called to.

(Nor, probably, should it characterise a free society. Having said that, I’m sceptical of process liberalism, and doubt that any society can really tolerate too much diversity for long.)

I do end up wondering how long a very senior unelected public figure, serving in a field close to the Prime Minister’s own portfolio, can last when that person serves as President of an organisation  –  a mission organisation I donate too, and used to be involved with – whose statement of belief includes this

God, in revealing himself, inspired the Holy Scriptures so that they are entirely trustworthy and have supreme authority in matters of doctrine, faith and conduct.

and next

We all were made for fellowship with God, but disobeyed him. So we all have become sinners, guilty in God’s sight, under his wrath, and alienated from him.

and goes on

  • Jesus Christ took the sin of the world on himself when he died on the cross as our representative and substitute. This is how God showed his love for us and provided the only way for us to be forgiven and reconciled to him.

  • Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead by God.

  • The Holy Spirit brings us to trust Christ and repent of our sins, lives in us, and develops our new life in Christ in the fellowship of the Church.

That would seem to be very close to what Israel Folau has been saying to anyone who chose to read his social media posts (or the now countless repeats in media here and abroad).  And called out for doing so by the Prime Minister.

I honour Israel Folau’s courage, and am inspired by his example.   Perhaps our government will go the path of attempting to make such words “hate speech” (as, whatever the intent, seems to been happening in the UK), or perhaps not, but it is speech –  from the Bible –  Christians are called to proclaim and to bear witness to.

Finally, words of Jesus

33 but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.

It is almost always easier just to go along, to accommodate, to fit in, to keep quiet –  even in an erstwhile “private life” – (and that would be the advice of many to Folau –  including perhaps many who want to see him play rugby, something I have little or no interest in) but that isn’t the call of Jesus to those who chose to follow him.

It was an unusual post.  Then again, tomorrow begins what (most) Christians mark as Holy Week.  I’ll be back to monetary policy –  some older history of our institutions –  on Monday.

Entry level house prices in US cities

A few days ago an email turned up from the US think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, touting a new set of data.

Housing markets are inherently local, making them notoriously difficult to analyze due to the lack of reliable data at the local level. A new dataset from the AEI Housing Center, the first in a series of quarterly reports, aims to fill this void by analyzing housing market data for the 60 largest US metropolitan areas, as well as for the nation as a whole. The current dataset looks at housing data from 2018:Q4.

And so I clicked the link.  This was the summary national data

US national housing

US$197000 for an “average entry-level sale price” caught my eye (that is about NZ$292000 at the current market exchange rate, and of course Americans are –  on average – earning more than New Zealanders).  And of course that is a nationwide number, including the fruit of such dreadful housing markets as those in and around San Francisco.

So I started checking out some of the data for some of the cities (metropolitan statistical areas).

Here were the most expensive ones (in USD terms)

San Jose 511000
San Francisco 485000
Los Angeles 427000
San Diego 419000

At current market exchange rates, I guess those might be roughly comparable to prices in Auckland and Wellington.

But here is a chart of a group of cities (non-exhaustive) I found with prices of $NZ300000 or under.

US housing 2

Remember that these aren’t tiny places.  The whole dataset is for the 60 largest metropolitan areas.   Some of these places are smaller than Auckland, but I couldn’t see any smaller than about a million people.   A couple of the places on the chart are among the largest ten US cities.

Now perhaps, like me, you think New Zealand’s exchange rate is materially overvalued.   But even if you thought that a long-term structural fair value exchange rate was more like 0.5 (as distinct from the current market rate of .67) the median of the cities in the chart would still have average entry-level homes (new and existing) selling for not much over NZ$300000.

How do the AEI researchers derive their numbers?

The study tracks housing activity both for the entire market and for entry-level and move-up buyer segments. We only focus on institutionally financed sales (meaning we exclude cash sales or sales with seller financing.) We define entry-level as all sales below the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) 80th percentile price in a metro and quarter. The rational for a dynamic price cut-off at the metro level is that the share of entry-level buyers varies across the country. According to FHA’s Production Report, around 80% of FHA’s purchase loans go to first-time buyers, who mostly compete with other first-time buyers from other agencies for entry-level housing. The 80th percentile price cut-off, therefore, captures this market segment reasonably well. This is confirmed by the data. Across the nation, the entry-level segment consists largely of first-time buyers, while the move-up segment consists mostly of repeat buyers.

That looks plausible.  Perhaps people who know the data better will be able to pick holes in what they’ve done but –  especially given the pervasive role of federal agencies in the US housing finance market – the numbers are unlikely to be off by enough to materially affect the contrast between the government-induced scandal that is the New Zealand housing market.