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Sonny Bill Williams and Tape-Gate

Sonny Bill Williams

Famous Kiwi Rugby player, Sonny Bill Williams, has daily been in the news and opinion pieces because, as a convert to Islam, he taped over the bank sponsor’s logo on his rugby jersey. NZ Rugby has had a conscientious objection clause in its contract for 10 years, and, as the controversy developed, they and BNZ said they had no issue with SBW wearing a jersey that didn’t promote banks or alcohol.

Our Prime Minister’s comments illustrate many of the general public’s reactions. Prime Minister Bill English said, “It is hard to understand that one guy has to behave differently than the rest. I don’t understand all these professional contracts, but if you’re in the team, you’re in the team. You wear the team jersey.” This from a Roman Catholic Prime Minister who, more than many others, should understand acting according to faith-inspired conscience, and himself voted against the Civil Union Bill in 2004 as well as Marriage Equality in 2013 and says he makes his decisions based on his faith. Thats leaving aside what’s not to understand in the professional contract?

At heart, this story is primarily a lack of understanding of Islam by people in our country (with 1.6 billion adherents, it forms 22% of the planet). This tale shows a lack of understanding of world religions generally. It even may highlight a lack of understanding of Western/Christian history and teaching.

Understanding world religions, and the place that religion plays in the lives of the majority of humanity, should be integral to any well-educated, well-formed adult. In New Zealand, such education is forbidden in State primary education. Many people think it is forbidden in our secondary education also. It is not. There are NCEA Achievement Standards available in Religious Studies, and I would argue that philosophical understanding, agility with different ethical theories, and knowledge of the major world religions should be not just allowed but normal in our education system. Islam’s attitude to banking and alcohol should not be something that surprises people. We need to value conscience. And we need to encourage rather than discourage growth and change, and that includes changing one’s mind.

Christianity, in fact, also has a long history of opposition to giving and receiving interest, and Islam is simply continuing this biblical position which was abandoned by the majority of Christianity. Not understanding this part of our Western history means not understanding a fundamental driver of Anti-Semitism which ultimately led to the Holocaust. The Lateran Council of 1515 (intelligent Roman Catholics pay attention) teaches: “This is the proper interpretation of usury when gain is sought to be acquired from the use of a thing, not in itself fruitful (such as a flock or a field) without labour, expense or risk on the part of the lender.” In Rerum Novarum (1891), Pope Leo XIII’s denounced “voracious usury … an evil condemned frequently by the Church but nevertheless still practised in deceptive ways by avaricious men”. Little by little, Roman Catholicism followed Protestant flexibility with biblical teaching in an increasingly capitalist culture. But deeper thinking around issues from the Third World Dept to the so-called “credit crunch” of 2009 should be open to the biblical and Islamic critique of lending at interest.

Finally, this story is a clash of religions. A fair definition of “world religions” is the eurocentric search for what, in another country or continent, played the role that Christianity did in Europe. Rugby plays that role in New Zealand. It is notable that most of the online reporting and debating around this story takes place under the banner, “Rugby heaven”. Kiwi religion is syncretistic, combining the local cult of Rugby with the international religion of money.

But wait! There’s more! It has now been reported that “Sonny Bill Williams will replace a bank’s logo on his Blues jersey with an advertisement for Plunket for the rest of the Super Rugby season… The child support agency is also a core backer of the rugby side.” Many of my friends find the thought that the charity that holds appeals for financial support for babies and families is now suddenly appearing as a sponsor of a Rugby team! When you donate to Plunket, they ask, what percentage goes to the Blues?!

Clearly, this particular (religious) soap opera hasn’t played out this particular story line yet.

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18 Responses to Sonny Bill Williams and Tape-Gate

  1. And as I commented on fb, Bosco Not only have i always believed Plunket to be a charity, ipso facto not logically, a supporter of a rugby franchise – let alone the Blues! – but some digging revealed that the BNZ is a principal backer of Plunket!

    • Thanks, Barbara. The BNZ may very well be a principal backer of Plunket, but it does not follow that “The child support agency is also a core backer of the rugby side”. Blessings.

  2. Ironically, so much of the NZ commentary was angry at SBW because he was making himself as “bigger than the game.” As if a sports game is more important than a human being with a conscience. By all accounts SBW is an exemplary team player and professional sportsman. This illustrates NZ’s idolatry of the sport of rugby perfectly.

  3. Yes, Bosco, the story line is not fully played out yet!

    Questions I would be putting to SBW if I were an investigative journalist include:

    (1) Does he nevertheless continue to receive wages for playing rugby that are sourced from interest-charging banks/financial institutions?

    (2) To what extent is he supportive of Sharia-based law and its implementation in societies around the world: partial or full? (Background: full imposition tends to relegate women to second-class status in society, gays may be imprisoned (see currently Chechnya) or even executed, and theocracy rules rather than democracy (noting this week where Turkey is heading).

    (3) Could he offer an explanation of Sharia-based banking to those of us NZers ignorant of how it works, including the way in which it charges fees for loans which pretty much equate to the same amount of return as interest?

    • Thanks, Peter. We Christians could also be challenged with such questions: I (and I imagine you) try and invest ethically, but I cannot assure you that none of the income I receive has ever been part of an activity that I would regard as unethical, nor that my money I put (say) on the bank will not be used by others unethically.

      SBW has acknowledged that he is growing in his understanding of his faith. Bill English has also said he would vote differently (the Papacy has also changed in this time). I support people not having every answer, and changing one’s position.

      You clearly are very well informed on Islam. You will also know that, in NZ, you are a rare exception. Central to my post is the contention that Kiwis having some information about Islam and other world religions be introduced into our education system. The post-modern philosophical underpinning of our education system, of course, militates against such a content-prescribed approach.

      Easter Season Blessings.

      • I respect SBW (and everyone’s) right to change their mind as their knowledge grows. So no issue with SBW taking this step now rather than the day after his conversion.

        And, agreed, we all could do with greater understanding of faith, religion, plurality thereof.

    • It baffles me why Sharia law is what conservatives always hide behind with regard to Islam. First in Europe & North America and now I see in New Zealand.

      Don’t Jews have similar religious courts?

      • David, would you mind making yourself more clear for me? I don’t understand what you mean by conservatives hiding behind Sharia law.

        And by Jews, whomever do you mean?

        • I live legally in the US now, not my native Mexico and every time Islam is the subject, conservatives pop out with Sharia law objections for why Muslims can’t be trusted and why it’s a bad idea to let too many of them immigrate and gain citizenship because their aim is to take over the electorate and make Sharia law the law of the land, with it’s awful decisions about executing folks and chopping of limbs and such.

          And yet, millions of Muslims live in nations where Sharia law plays no role in daily life and millions more where Sharia law is only recognized with regard to family relationships and issues.

        • As to Jews, I refer you to research Halakha (הֲלָכָה‎). Sometimes referred to as Jewish Law, but better translated, “how to behave.”

          • Thanks, David. I ask both questions as the issues are both large and complicated.

            Sharia law, in particular, is of interest today, but I doubt many people understand what it is in its various forms.

            For my part, I understand the need for so-called religious courts, but they should never replace access to criminal or civil courts here in the United States. (Which isn`t to say that religious life is to be governed by these courts.)

            I know of religious courts among the Orthodox Jews here in the States, a rather small group no longer very reflective of the Jewish faith as a whole here in America, but their purview is not unlike courts of arbitration and both parties must agree to the court`s role. (I don`t think the decisions are binding for that matter.)

            As for conservatives` arguments against increased Muslim immigration, I can`t really comment. I just don`t run into these kinds of people in my everyday life.

            My experience actually runs more to liberal activists fighting against any religious influence in the way we govern here in America, but that, too, is a very broad generalization.

  4. Ahh yes. Was discussing this with a Yr 10 class in RSE just prior to hols as part of a ‘World Religions’ unit. Sadly, one conversation turned on the point that several students couldn’t believe SBW’s religion meant he wasn’t supposed to drink alcohol! That someone playing rugby wouldn’t imbibe caused much consternation!

  5. Religion aside, the idea that one`s uniform might contain advertising is so foreign to my ideals regarding sport. Then again we could push things further and feature special Easter adverts on vestments. And who might secure the sponsorship of an altar? Exclusive naming rights to this narthex given to the good folks who bring you Vegemite!

    I know now–finally–that I cannot change the world to appeal to my conceptions of what’s right, but I’ve gone off on professional sport and don’t even watch it on TV anymore.

    • I thought that it started with youth sports. Don, Joe & Sons Plumbing agrees to buy the Pee-Wee baseball team uniforms if the team agrees to have the company logo on the back. I’m not sure how it joined pro-sports, other than companies thought it was a way to keep their brand in front of the public.

      But it goes way beyond sports: education – endowed chairs and donated buildings, including seminaries & chapels; research – clinics & hospitals, plus major feature in same, etc.

  6. While we’re on logos, it’s high time the Crusaders remove the ‘Cat’ sponsorship label from their jerseys. Everyone who watches the news and sees the photos of Israeli army bulldozers and diggers demolishing homes and property in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, sees Caterpillar machinery doing the army’s dirty work. The Crusaders’ global image is surely tarnished by association to a sponsor which profits from an illegal and unjust occupation of one nation by another.

    • That’s a bit far fetched, I think. Caterpillar is sold world wide and has many uses. It can’t be blamed or stigmatized for what Israel chooses to do with some of their equipment. And I doubt that few people do so.

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About This Site Welcome to this ecumenical website of resources and reflections on liturgy, spirituality, and worship for individuals and communities. It is run by Rev. Bosco Peters.

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