A THEOLOGY OF
IN A TIME
OF HIV AND AIDS
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
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
‘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,
The most powerful contribution churches can make to combating HIV
transmission is the eradication of stigma and discrimination
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,
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
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
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
Throughout history, Christians are recorded whether figuratively or
literally with bearing these same marks on their bodies, the
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.
Copyright © 2006 M Burke
Published by Michael and Jean Burke
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
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