Foundations for a
Holistic Christian Response to AIDS
Stanley J. Grenz
College, Vancouver BC
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.