Foundations for a Holistic Christian Response to AIDS
Stanley J. Grenz
Carey/Regent College, Vancouver BC
Northern Seminary, Lombard EL
For most of the last thirteen years, the focal point for Marty's attention has been the task of preparing for death. Marty asserts that he likely contracted the HIV in 1979 through involvement in promiscuous homosexual encounters. In 1996, however, his life took an unexpected turn. Marty's body started responding to the new protease inhibitors. Today, despite the tight parameters which his medication and its side effects place on him, he is no longer thinking about dying. Knowing that he has in effect been "snatched from the jaws of death,'
Marty faces the challenge of returning to the realm. of "normal" living. His energies are now consumed by such matters as renewing his architecture practice or even launching a new career in graphic design-and, ironically, preparing not for death but for retirement.
'Dear Ann: What could you possibly have been thinking when you replied to ... the reader who was critical of the sensitive personal information contained in newspaper obituaries .... You said that you didn't mind reading about someone's multiple marriages because that was 'part of the person's personal history' but that you would prefer to see an AIDS-related death referred to as an 'extended illness' to spare the family members any embarrassment. I can't understand how you failed to see the hypocrisy in your statement. An AIDS-related death is indeed a profound part of someone's personal history. To have it whitewashed implies that AIDS is a source of shame. It most empathically is not. The public needs to know how many lives are being lost to this terrible illness so that the search for a cure will not wane. Publishing such information in the obituaries confronts us all with the reality of this plague. Please, Ann, rethink your response.
West Coast Reader"'
When viewed together, the developments in Marty's life and the letter to Ann Landers reflect the fact that the AIDS epidemic in North America has reached a crucial juncture. There are now two dimensions-two faces-of the AIDS epidemic. A small, but steadily increasing number of HIV-positive persons, like Marty, are suddenly faced with the happy, but nevertheless difficult challenge of living-not dying-with AIDS. Yet the AIDS epidemic is not over. Contrary to what some people are suggesting, we haven't moved beyond the AIDS crisis. As 'Vest Coast Reader" poignantly reminds us, the other face of AIDS-that of the person dying with AIDS related illnesses-lingers.
What insight does the Christian faith offer to us at this mature stage in the AH)S epidemic? Two New Testament texts indicate what I believe must be involved in a truly holistic Christian response to AIDS, a response that is as important today as it was in 1985 when Marty was first diagnosed HIV-positive.
A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, "If you are willing, you can make me clean." Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. "I am willing," he said. "Be clean!" Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cured. Mark 1:40-42
Perhaps no disease was more horrible in first century Palestine than leprosy. Leprosy spread slowly until it made the body ugly and robbed it of vitality; infection meant separation from contact with all non-lepers; and not only was leprosy incurable, it was eventually fatal.
When Jesus encountered the leper on the Galilean pathway, he could have spoken the word of healing from a distance, as he had done on other occasions (e.g., Luke 7: 1-10). Yet Jesus chose to extend his hand-to touch the leper as he healed him In so doing, Jesus both defied
'Ann Landers, Vancouver Sun, June 23, 1998, C8. social custom and disregarded the horrible nature of leprosy. He chose to risk both health and acceptability in society to place his healing hand on the desperate man. Why did Jesus act in this socially and medically unacceptable way? Mark informs us that Jesus did so because he was moved to compassion by the plight of the leper.
The healing of the leper was no isolated incident. Compassion characterized Jesus' entire life and ministry. Repeatedly he sensed compassion in the face of ignorance, hunger, sickness, and even death. Thus, Jesus was gripped by c Compassion when he saw the aimlessness of the common people as "sheep without a shepherd" (Matt. 9:36; Mark 6:34), the sick and the blind among the multitudes (Matt. 14:14; 20:34), and the sorrow of those who had lost loved ones (Luke 7:13; John 11:35). Not remaining merely on the level of emotion, Jesus' compassion expressed itself in practical ministry. Out of compassion, he raised the dead (John 11; Luke 7:14), taught the multitudes (Mark 6:34), and healed the sick (Matt. 14:14; 4:23; 9:35; 19:2).
In ministering to the needy, our Urd was not afraid to make physical contact. He took the hands of the sick (Mark 1:3 1; Matt. 9:25) and the demon-possessed (Mark 9:27). His fingers touched blind eyes (Matt. 20:34; John 9:6; Matt. 9:29), deaf ears (Luke 22:5 1), and silent tongues (Mark 7:33). Most astonishing of all however, Jesus touched the lepers-the outcasts of his day (Matt. 8:3; Mark 1: 4 1; Luke 5:12)-thereby demonstrating the depth of his compassion.
Jesus' compassion knew no boundaries, extending beyond his friends to encircle his enemies. Anticipating the final rejection he would experience by the nation he loved, Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem (Matt. 23:37). During his arrest he offered his healing touch to the soldier whose ear had been injured in the scuffle (Luke 22:5 1). Jesus even prayed that his Father respond with forgiving mercy to the soldiers who were crucifying him (Luke 23:34). In so doing, Jesus lived what he taught, namely, that compassion should be extended to an without exception, after the example of his compassionate heavenly Father (Matt. 5:43-45). As one of his early followers concluded after reflecting on Jesus' life, "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ that though he was rich yet for your sakes he became poor so that you through his poverty might become rich" (2 Cor. 8:9).
According to the New Testament, Jesus is not merely a grand example of human compassion. More importantly, he embodies the compassionate heart of the God of the Bible. The theme of the compassionate God, as arising out of God's own self-disclosure, lay at the center of the faith of the Hebrew community. After revealing the divine name to Moses on Mount Sinai Yahweh described himself as "the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness" (Ex. 34:6). This God responds compassionately to the plight of humans, not because of human merit but because of God's own love and gracious mercy (Ex. 33:19; Dan. 9:18; cf Rorn. 9:15-16,18). Consequently, God is gracious even in the face of human rebellion and sin (Dan. 9:9). And divine compassion leads to divine action (2 Chron. 36:15; Psa. 78:38; Isa. 63:7; cf Luke 1:72) displayed above all in Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:4-5; Titus 3:5; 1 Pet. 1:3).
Because the God revealed in Jesus is merciful, God's people are to be compassionate as well (e.g., Col. 3:12; 1 Pet. 3:8). James declares, "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this, to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world" (1:27). Similarly, forging a link to the example of Christ, Paul writes "Carry each others burdens and in this way fulfill the law of Christ" (6:2). And the Epistle to the Hebrews suggests that compassion means even sharing in the distress that others face: "Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners and those who are mistreated as if you yourself were suffering" (13:3). So crucial is compassionate action-especially toward the outcasts of society- that it will be a basis for judgment at our Lord's return, and this because ministering to others involves serving Christ himself (Matt. 25:31-46).
Chief among the outcasts of our day are persons with AIDS. Despite the dissemination of information about it, contracting HIV still brings social stigma, incites fear and elicits the taunts of the self-righteous. Like lepers in the first century, persons with AIDS are often relegated to the fringes of society and shunned as "unclean," even as "experts" announce the end of the AIDS epidemic. If Jesus were to walk the streets of New York, Atlanta or Vancouver today, he would respond to HIV-positive persons-whether they be living with AIDS or dying from the disease with the same compassion that characterized his ministry two thousand years ago. However, chooses to be present though his followers, whom he challenges to be his fingers and hands in reaching out to suffering persons. '
As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, "Rabbi who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" "Neither this man nor his parents sinned," said Jesus, "but this happened that the work of God might be displayed in his life." John 9:2
Like most first century people, Jesus' disciples believed that there is a direct connection between calamity and personal sin. That is why encountering a man who had been blind from birth evoked from them the perplexing question, "Who sinned?" Ile disciples' question remains with us today. Encountered by persons who are HIV-positive, many people immediately ask, "Who sinned, that these people have AIDS' thereby indicating that they, too, assume a link between calamity and personal moral failure.
We would be negligent if we failed to acknowledge a possible causal link between personal choices and AIDS. Medical research has demonstrated conclusively that in the current context certain homosexual practices, heterosexual promiscuity, and drug-related acts such as sharing needles dramatically increase the risk of contracting the HIV. For that reason, a holistic response to the AIDS epidemic must include a forthright warning against involvement in high risk activities. In so doing, we can take our cue from Jesus' response to the adulterous woman whom his enemies brought to him one day. Although he steadfastly refused to condemn the woman, Jesus nevertheless warned her tersely: 'leave your life of sin" (John 8:11). Compassion demands that we tell the truth about HIV infection and admonish people accordingly.
At the same time, we must guard against allowing the desire to "speak the truth in love" (Eph. 4:15) to degenerate into mere judgementalism. The fact that not all who sin sexually or shoot up drugs contract the disease, whereas many have become infected with the HIV through no immoral action of their own, ought to caution us against any simple equating of AIDS and personal sin. Further, we must keep in mind that AIDS is not caused by promiscuity and drug abuse. Rather, such practices increase the risk of contagion and are vehicles of the transmission of a virus that does not discriminate on the basis of the morality of its potential host. Viewed from this perspective, we might say that as a disease HIV infection is related to sin, in that it is fundamentally a result of a fallen creation that according to Paul is subjected to "frustration" as it anticipates its future liberation (Rom. 8:20-21). Because creation is not yet the perfect order God intends it to be, life in the present entails illness and eventually death.
There is, however, another side of the link between AIDS and sin, namely, the ongoing connection between the epidemic and social sin. We are an prone to certain sicknesses because of our presence a particular society or nation. Such illnesses can be linked to the type of life that characterizes the specific social order in which we participate or the structures inherent in it. Hence, the spread of AIDS continues to be in part the result of social forces at work in North America.
One such dimension is the focus on sex prevalent in our society. We are continually bombarded with the seductive lie that "all you need is love," understood primarily as genital sexual encounters. This equating of love with sex, which feeds lust and self-aggrandizement, -contributes to the unabated rise of promiscuity and the rejection of any boundaries for sexual expression.
The emphasis on sex in our society is coupled with an equally strong and devastating focus on experience. We are also bombarded with tantalizing messages about the importance of experiencing all the world has to offer, if we would enjoy a full and meaningful life. This lie launches North Americans on a never-ending quest for new thrills in a vain attempt to satisfy our insatiable appetite for pleasure, a journey which leads some "bored" adventurers to drugs-~with the attendant danger of abuse and addiction-as the only way to experience ever greater "highs."
In this sense, we might view AIDS as one of the ongoing "side effects" of the North American ethos. This indicates that a holistic response at this mature stage in the epidemic requires that we seek to foster social change on the deeper level of attitude toward life and the goal of our human existence.
This should lead us to wonder as to whether we might best view persons with AIDS at least in part as victims, rather than merely as perpetrators. The largest group of MV-positive persons in North America continues to be gay men. While many Christians rightly find homosexual practices immoral, we must nevertheless consider the extent to which unbiblical attitudes toward homosexual persons actually advance the spread of AIDS. Specifically, many gays (and lesbians) are lured into high risk sex practices in part because they are unable to find a "home" within the one place where true healing, fellowship and reconciliation ought to be available-the church. To the extent that we as Christians fail to show God's love and do not offer true fellowship to homosexual persons, we are guilty of sinning against these people. If seekers find the doors of the church shut and the hearts of Christians cold, where can they go in their quest for God?
I would raise a similar question with respect to drug users. Of course, Christians must denounce drug abuse as the person-wrecking addiction that it is. Yet, we dare voice such condemnation only in the context of wrestling with its systemic causes. These include not only social ills like poverty and social marginalization, but also the hopelessness and boredom associated with contemporary life in a basically affluent society. In short, while not denying the element of personal choice in this social ill, we must ask, To what extent are addict "sinners" likewise the "sinned against," the "products" of a society gone awry and of a church that no longer announces good news to the captives?
The maturing of the epidemic also provides the occasion for us to look at the innocent victims: persons who have contracted AIDS through normal marital relations with unfaithful spouses, babies born HIV-positive, people who have become infected through tainted blood. There are no easy answers to these distressing situations, for in this fallen world the innocent do indeed suffer. The reality of innocent victims means that Christians cannot view AIDS merely as a moral problem, as nothing more than a side-effect of the immoral actions of the infected.
Rather, AIDS is above all a disease. As such it is an enemy of humankind. And a victory over AIDS is not only a victory for some; it is a victory for all.
This takes us back to the story of the man who was born blind. Despite important differences between the man's malady and AIDS, the response of Jesus to the disciples' question-'this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life" (John 9:3)-is not without application to our context. Similar to the incident in John's Gospel, the current crisis offers an opportunity for the work of God to be displayed, and this regardless of how an I-HIV positive person may have become infected.
For this to occur, however, Jesus' contemporary disciples must rise to the challenge of seeing the AIDS epidemic through his eyes. We must be Christ's body, responding to the crisis in a manner in keeping with his attitude and with our calling to be the vehicle of his ministry in the world today. Only then can we hope to be a witness to the one who alone can bring true healing to persons with AIDS-whether they are living with the disease or dying from it. And witnessing to Christ in the midst of the falseness of our world is ultimately the only truly holistic response we can offer to the AIDS epidemic.