The worldwide body of Christ is finally getting its act together to respond to the global pandemic of HIV and AIDS. In ravaged Africa, the church has had no other choice; its congregations are being decimated. Churches in the West are coming to understand that the commandment “Love thy neighbor” did not specify geographical boundaries, and they are increasing outreach programs and partnerships for AIDS ministries.
Christian theologians, on the other hand, have some catching up to do. HIV and AIDS manifest in physical, personal, social, and spiritual catastrophes. The disease’s complexities deserve a nuanced theological response.
That one has not yet fully been developed in part explains the mixed success of the essays found in Reflecting Theologically on AIDS: A Global Challenge , edited by Robin Gill of the University of Kent. In December 2003, Gill attended a workshop of Christian theologians sponsored by UNAIDS (the Joint United Nations Program on HIV and AIDS) in Windhoek, Namibia. This workshop fired Gill’s conviction that there needs to be a wider and deeper theological reflection about the challenge of AIDS, so he set about collecting presentations from the workshop along with other essays previously published (though none widely), a mixture of Catholic, Protestant, evangelical, and feminist perspectives.
Gill himself writes a chapter on the parallels between Jesus and the lepers and people living with AIDS today. As he says, this particular angle has been explored extensively. I thought the comparison had almost become a cliché until I attended a Sunday service in October at Cathedral of the Holy Cross, the Anglican cathedral in Lusaka, Zambia. The gospel reading came from Luke 17, in which Jesus meets the 10 lepers. At the beginning of his homily, the vicar said, “God showed mercy to the lepers. Now we must show mercy to those suffering from AIDS in our midst.” It ceases to be a cliché when those suffering are sitting beside you in the pew. Gill’s exploration is a nice summation.
More confusing is his inclusion of a 17-year-old article, “The Church, Homosexuality, and AIDS,” by Gareth Moore. In his introduction, Gill claims that its theology is still relevant today. I did not find that to be true. Some portions were particularly far off the mark, such as this simplistic conclusion: “If the Church … can persuade the unmarried to remain genitally inactive and the married to confine their genital activity to their marriage partner, it will be protecting them from HIV infection and from possible death from AIDS.” Proclaiming marriage as one solution to HIV infection in a chapter on homosexuality would have provoked skepticism when it was written. Today, with so much debate on the rights of gays and lesbians to even contemplate marriage, it seems a ludicrous suggestion.
ROBERT VITTILO’S chapter, “The Human and Pastoral Challenges of HIV and AIDS,” is both illuminating and frustrating. A section on stigmatization compiles compelling statements from Pope John Paul II and the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference that counter the offensive idea—one not yet fully abandoned—that AIDS is punishment from God for sins committed by those who acquire it. Vittilo also examines power inequities that make women and girls more vulnerable to exposure to HIV. Again, he holds up statements exhorting the need to respect and expand the rights and roles of women, yet he never challenges his own institution, the Roman Catholic Church, for its inability to lead by example.
Fortunately, this omission is balanced somewhat by Margaret Farley’s piece, “The Yale Divinity School Women’s Initiative on AIDS.” In this outline to Yale’s program, Farley tackles head-on the question of the church’s role in this area: “The problems that follow from gender bias are problems not foreign to religious traditions. ... But if faith traditions do not address the gender bias that remains deep in their own teachings and practices, changes for women may come too late to protect them from AIDS.”
One of the strongest essays in the book, by South African theologian Denise Ackermann, explores AIDS and theological education, and much of what she writes is relevant to any consideration of this subject. Ackermann proposes the role that narrative can play in disseminating knowledge. “The need to counter stigma and deal with HIV and AIDS in a theologically responsible manner begins with lived experience,” she writes. “When our stories intersect with the meta-narrative of our faith—the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—despair can give way to hope.” Ackermann also makes a barbed aside to those who seek to discuss these matters spiritually without exploring the bodily connotations that arise: “It is strange that Christians, whose faith is grounded in Incarnate Love, are so reluctant to grapple with what it means to have bodies.”
There’s no question that the issues surrounding AIDS—sexuality, prolonged suffering, extreme inequalities of wealth and access to care—make for tricky theology. But withdrawal from these subjects, or the people they affect, is not an option. Jesus reached out to those suffering and seeking to be healed; as Christians, so must we. Overall, this book makes for a solid beginning to know where to start, and why.
Kimberly Burge is senior writer and editor at Bread for the World in Washington, D.C.