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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”



In September 2003, I asked a question at the International Conference on AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections in Africa (ICASA) in Nairobi Kenya, “What is the link between the traditional Christian concept of stigmata and the challenge Christians now face of HIV stigma?” I have struggled with this question ever since.

Stigma is defined as ‘an attribute that is significantly discrediting’ (Goffmann 1963), and ‘an attribute used to set the affected person or groups apart from the normalized social order, and this separation implies a devaluation’ (Gilmore and Somerville 1994). Stigmatization refers to a process of devaluation, where certain attributes are foregrounded and regarded as discreditable or unworthy.

Stigma is central to the fight against the global HIV pandemic. Stigma continues to fuel the continuing spread of HIV and AIDS. The complexity of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is matched by the complexity of stigmatising social forces.


A theology of stigma is based in the context of a HIV epidemic that continues to wreak havoc uninvited in the lives of countless individuals and communities. Our context is described in the following comments.
‘It is now common knowledge that in HIV/AIDS, it is not the condition itself that hurts most (because many other diseases and conditions lead to serious suffering and death), but the stigma and the possibility of rejection and discrimination, misunderstanding and loss of trust that HIV positive people have to deal with’ (Byamugisha, G. 2001).

The most powerful contribution churches can make to combating HIV transmission is the eradication of stigma and discrimination (Patterson, 2002).

Theological language needs to be re-visited so that it is applicable and relevant to the HIV/AIDS context.   There is need for a language of compassion, dignity and love that is inclusive and not exclusive to those who are affected and infected with HIV/AIDS. There is a need to address human rights, gender inequality and social injustice in addressing stigma and discrimination. The linkages between these three concepts in the context of HIV/AIDS need to be clearly understood by religious leaders, as personal behavior that contributes to the spread of HIV/AIDS must be seen in the context of social dynamics (ICASA, 2003).

God is present with the vulnerable and, in a special way, with stigmatized people. We need to reclaim (and also to communicate to Christian believers) biblical images of God that are grounded not in punishment but in divine love, so that stigma can be reduced (UNAIDS, 2003). 

Communities of faith are challenged to deal appropriately and speedily with stigma as they play their part in responding to HIV and AIDS (Ackermann, 2004).


Origins of the word

Let us look at the origins of the word, stigma. Stigma is a mark branded; a mark of disgrace, (pl. stigmata) mark(s) corresponding to those on the body of the crucified Christ (Onions, C.T, 1966).

Stigma, a noun, is a mark of disgrace or shame. In 1596, it was used as a special mark burned on the skin of a slave or criminal.  Earlier, probably about 1400, in the Anglicised form stigma was borrowed from Latin stigma, from Greek stigma (genitive stigmatos) where it referred to a mark, spot, puncture, brand, especially one made by a pointed instrument. This was derived from a root word from stig- , root of stizein  to mark, tattoo. The figurative sense of a mark of disgrace or shame is first recorded in English before 1619. The plural form stigmata, in the sense of marks resembling the wounds on the crucified body of Christ, is recorded in English by 1632.


To stigmatise as a verb, as used in 1585, is to brand tattoo; and is borrowed from the Middle French stigmatiser (1532), and directly from medieval Latin stigmatizare, from Greek stigmatizein mark, brand, . The figurative sense of set a mark of disgrace on, reproach is first recorded in 1619 (Barnhart, 1988).

People began to use the word 'stigma' as a generic term for any kind of sign. In this way the plural of the word stigma, stigmata, which originally meant only 'signs', became almost unintentionally the most prevalent name for the wounds of Jesus when he was laid down from the cross.

The word 'stigma' itself (in the singular) began over time to have a negative connotation and 'signs' began to mean 'prejudices'.

A Theology of Stigma

A theology of stigma, as a response to the above challenges, is a contribution that seeks to reflect and iterate with the modern crisis of HIV and its associated stigma. It sees stigma as sign or mark. Yet Christians are people that bear a sign or a mark - the mark of God, in two primary ways. We are made in the image of God, and we are grounded in relationship with God and others by the sign of the cross. How do we relate and order these various categorisations of marks, signification or stigma?

A theology of stigma is placed as emerging from the context of the HIV epidemic. This bears a similarity to liberation theology. Each is a response to the challenges and the necessities of a social context.

The powerful use of signs is fundamental to relationships, communication and to attributing meaning.

There are three categories of stigmas or marks that exist in this world. Two are from the Creator; one is attributed by the created. All people bear the mark of the creator in whose image they are created. Christians also bear the mark of the crucified Christ.

The third category, the stigma of the world is seeking hegemony over the two primary divine markings. The stigma of the world is the attribution of marks to the individual that seek to supplant or diminish the two primary markings. All bear the first, Christians alone bear the second. The bearers of the second have the task to defend the dignity of the Creator and his fundamental attributions. To seek to diminish the first and second marks is to relegate the Creator to be less than Creator. The proclamation of the gospel calls people to identification with the first and then welcomes them to participate in the second. This proclamation affirms and foregrounds the two divine markings, and diminishes and insubstantiates any lesser markings or attributions.

A Space to Act

The space for Christians to act is the place of stigma. Stigma is not to be opposed or driven out. Stigma defines where we as Christians are to act (Hebrews 13:13). It is our place of manifestation of the will of God. We, as the body of Christ, bear the marks of that body in our lives. We are foolhardy if we wish to separate ourselves from the body of Christ by separating from its distinctive markings. We share in the suffering of Christ by bearing the consequences of those marks into the world we live. This is our life work. We are not to be apart from those marks. Those marks define our linkage to the Christ and also give us our place of work. As the body of Christ we are inscripted with these marks.

There is fundamentally the notion of primary inscription of people as made in the “image of God”, bearing the mark of the creator.  This primary attribution is to be the individual as marked as being made in the image of God. Jesus was not misled by lesser attributions such as tax collector, leper or Samaritan. He carried out his ministry in the locus of stigma. He carried out his ministry in the locus of attributions applied by others.

Jesus was at home in the locus of stigma. His task was to reaffirm the primary attribution of made in the image of God as hegemonic to lesser attributions from inscripting agencies such as political or religious groups. Our power is related to our ability to name or inscribe. We misuse that power when we seek to supplant the primary attribution of the creator with one of our own. The stigmatisation of those with HIV is fundamentally in conflict with the inscription placed upon them by their creator. There is a conflict between the primary attribution of the creator, and the lesser attributions from those who are the created. The created seek to usurp the position of the creator by seeking that their inscription will be hegemonic to the inscription of the creator.

There is also a notion of the marks of service and compassion inscripted on the body of Christ as represented in the person of Jesus, but also on the body of Christ as represented by the community of believers. The Suffering Servant bears those marks (Isaiah 53). We are to have the body of the suffering servant. Authentically that is also our body. That is our mission to identify with the crucified and risen Christ. We are also to work in the contested locus of attributions by the created.

All have a right to dignity as they bear the mark of the Creator. All have a right to health as they bear the mark of the Creator. All have a right to health and dignity as they bear the mark of the Creator.

Throughout history, Christians are recorded whether figuratively or literally with bearing these same marks on their bodies, the stigmata.

People are made primarily in the image of God. This is primary categorisation, the primary marking of all. A second line or third line attribution that supplants this primary marking is out of keeping with the life of Jesus. Jesus related to people based on the primary description of people made in the image of God. That is the primary inscription. Human rights affirm the individual worth and dignity of the person where the primary inscription is an inscription that requires respect of the dignity of the individual.

A theology of stigma links to the body of the crucified Jesus. His body bore the signs of his life, his station – the crown of thorns, his fear, his anguish, and his imminent death. We are called to follow Jesus and be like Jesus. Many Christians have learnt these items since childhood. Now in the time of AIDS we see our current world continuing as troubled, isolating and eager to stigmatise.

The mask of modernity that has promised eternal progress with greater and greater separation from pain and death lies discarded, the script has moved on and new themes and actors are needed. Modernity lies rusting like another train carriage that has passed its time, is rusted and ill suited to the present world, as we globalize and virtualise. Yet suffering remains too real. 

A theology of stigma sees our identification is with the marginalized, the stigmatized, those branded as unworthy. This is our communion with all people (Romans 3:23). This theology of stigma positions us as marked by the sign of Jesus – the blood, the water of baptism, the common meal, the oil of relief from suffering, the scars of service and engagement with a needy community.

The Christian as a follower of the Christ travels along a road of affirming the right and dignity of people who are being diminished by the stigmatisation of others. We need to reaffirm the primary marking of people as made in the image of God. And affirm that the community of Christians, individually and collectively seeks to bring about a renewal and maturation of this original marking. The projected and attributed markings of others are unworthy of those marked as of the image of God. Those marked with the stigma of the cross, like Jesus are placed to resurrect the person from other markings to that primary marking of being made in the image of God. All else is lacking authenticity relative to the primary assignment of made in the image of God. The right to health and dignity of the individual is based on this premise of each made essentially in the image of God.

A Lived Theology

Lets us now look more closely at those who bear the mark not only of the image of God, but also the mark of the cross. Essentially their place of marking is one of suffering and loss of hope, yet from this place there is resurrected hope. Hence the people of the mark of the cross are emblematic and embody the personal story of God’s grace to transform and resurrect one to the original assignation of made in the image of God. The Christian marked by the cross lives an engaged life in the world of people and marks. This person, who is marked with first order markings, and hence is less vulnerable to the markings of others, finds unlovely situations and unlovely people as the context of his or her day. This is authentic living where the community of the cross lives in community with lives marked by the cross. Within the eternal shadow of the outline of loss of hope, symbolised by the cross, we are paradoxically overwhelmed by its joyfulness and hopefulness, and enabled to engage with the falsely assigned and affirm the dignity of those falsely marked.

In the context of HIV, stigma marks much heartbreak. Yet stigma is in essence a wrongful attribution of mark based on third tier attributions that characterize and reflect a world that has forgotten its authentic marking. By affirming the authentic divine mark of the HIV infected, as made in the image of God, the world is called to account for its superfluous attributions.

Within our modern Christian individual and community, leaders and members, the seemingly powerful and the seemingly less powerful, authenticate the power of the cross to change by affirming the primary importance of God’s markings and not the stigmatising and isolating whims of others.

Within the context of this epidemic of proportions impossible to frame, the authentic place of Christian community is with those stigmatised so that we may reaffirm the authenticity of the primary markings of  the person made in the image of God, and the hoped for marking of a life marked by the sign of the cross. We are called to be in that place of alienation to assign and to affirm and to witness to the dignity of the individual as primarily made in the image of God. In doing this, the Church replicates the ministry of its founder. Its replicates the correct assignment of marks. It affirms the order of the Creator, as the Creator engages repetitively and creatively and iteratively with the world within the salvation discourse. The Creator continues his project of salvation and marking and remarking.

The stigmatisation of the world directed towards those with HIV echoes the transience of fear, and the immanence of physical death. The marking of the Christian affirms and acknowledges the eternity of hope and the transcendence of new life.  The stigma of HIV, both self stigma and externally attributed stigma, runs counter to the witnessed ministry of the Christ. Interestingly it bears striking parallels with the public discourses of the Pharisaic teachings, which Jesus directly and repeatedly challenged. Jesus associated with the stigmatised of his day, in a way that brought much criticism from his contemporaries. We cannot expect anything less.

This is our place of work, our task to affirm the markings of the Creator. To affirm and to act in good faith with these original markings and witness to the world the insubstantiality of projected markings of stigmatisation. As we live in accordance with our primary markings we also affirm the hegemony of these primary markings against the projected fear and stigmatisation of others.

For a Christian in this context our place is not to be separated from those marked by stigmatisation, nor fundamentally is it to fight stigma, but rather it is to iterate with a world where markings and labels struggle for hegemony. The Christian can demonstrate coherence with the primary markings of the Creator by a life based on those markings and not a life driven by fear or transience. Christians can do this by partnering and living with those who the many consider as stigmatised. Yet the Creator sees these people who are stigmatised as bearers of his mark or marks.  The Creator does not see these people according to the transient attributions of those who fear.

The Christians of our time can authentically witness to the eternal significance of the markings of the Creator by defying the stigmatisation of the world and fully engaging in lives of commitment to those who are called by God, but rejected by men and women of fear. By aligning and intertwining with those the world stigmatises we affirm an agenda of another time and place. We proclaim the gospel, a message of news of sure hope and life eternal. This is an agenda that is contrary to the transient and relates to the eternal significance of the Creator. This agenda affirms the right to health and dignity of all, not only the well but also the stigmatised.

This is a call for the Christian community to affirm the primary markings of the Creator, and not be misaligned by the opportune stigmatisation of those motivated by fear. We are called to iterate the actions of the ministry witnessed in Jesus within our current setting. The HIV epidemic is a powerful case in point where the Christian can authentically affirm the markings of the eternal Creator as against the superficial and transient markings of those who would stigmatise the individual who is infected by the virus that leads to AIDS.

A theology of stigma places Christianity as integrated with stigma and its challenges. It is not an external reality that requires a pastoral theology, where we who are here need to engage with an external threat.  This engagement may find us on a spectrum of engagement from tokenism to commitment. A theology of stigma sees that we like Jesus, incorporate the alienation of the marked and see in this, a state of transient separation, but in the context of a God who seeks to reconcile. The Christian God cannot stigmatise. He can mourn and groan at our alienation and separation from relationship but he cannot mark us as people cut off and without hope of his love.

Jesus becomes a curse and we are to be in solidarity with our Jesus. Jesus was marked, stigmatized; we are in communion with his marking and his journey into engagement with those marked by the signs of the world. We are marked and the Christian message is a message for all who are marked. To pretend we are separate from a community that bears the mark of the world is to separate us and diverge from the example of Jesus. Jesus enmeshed himself in the struggles of the people of his community. He engaged with the stigmatized. Our way also needs to embrace a theology of stigma where we too eat with the rejected, as Jesus did with Zaccheus (Luke 19), engage with dignity and respect those that are marked differently to us, as Jesus did with the Samaritan woman (John 4:9) and visit the home of those most stigmatised, as Jesus visited the home of Simon the leper (Matthew 26:4). These lesser markings pale into insignificance compared to those recognised as marked in the image of God, and also marked by the cross. And we can engage and celebrate with the prodigal son whose externalized markings are seen as insignificant in the story of the rejected and stigmatised son (Luke 15:24).


This is written as a contribution to the ongoing iterative process of an eternal Creator, a chosen people and a world of false markings engaged in hegemonic dispute over attribution of these markings. Christians need to ground their contributions within the discourses and markings of the Creator, and not be deceived by the transience of stigmatisation of a world that fears. By engaging strongly, creatively and powerfully with the current challenges of markings attributed to the HIV epidemic and its implications and consequences, we do no more than authenticate for our time the primacy of the markings assigned by the Creator, of all made in the image of God, and a smaller group marked by the cross. These markings are hegemonic over the transient markings of stigmatisation. This needs to be continually and publicly affirmed and lived.

Michael Burke

Copyright © 2006 M Burke

Published by Michael and Jean Burke
ISBN 0-9775655-2-1

Extracts from this pamphlet may be produced by non profit organisations and by magazines, journals and newspapers, with acknowledgement. Permission to cite or copy portions of this pamphlet is granted, provided it is for non-profit purposes.

Printed in Australia


Ackermann, D. 2004, Stigma, HIV and Aids: An Embodied Practical Theological Response.
Barnhart, R.K. (editor) The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, H. W. Wilson Company, 1988

Byamugisha, G. 2001 Plan of Action: The Ecumenical Response to HIV/AIDS in Africa World Council of Churches 2001 available at  HYPERLINK ""

ICASA, 2003, The Role of Religious Leaders in Reducing Stigma and Discrimination
Related to HIV/AIDS, ICASA Satellite Session, 21 September 2003, a Report of the Round Table Discussion
Gilmore, Norbert and Margaret Somerville (1994), “Stigmatization, scapegoating and discrimination in sexually transmitted diseases: Overcoming ‘them’ and ‘us’.” Social Science and Medicine, 39(9): 1339–1358.
Goffman, E (1963), Stigma, Notes on the Management of a Spoiled Identity. Harmondsworth, Penguin.
Onions, C.T. (editor) et al., 1966, The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, Clarendon Press.

Patterson, G. 2002, Church, AIDS and Stigma

UNAIDS, 2003, A Report of a Theological Workshop Focusing on HIV and AIDS Related Stigma Windhoek, Namibia
8-11 December 2003