"Some Theological and Ethical Reflections on AIDS"
Randall C. Bailey,
Associate Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew,
Interdenominational Theological Center, Atlanta, GA;
Visiting Professor of Scripture,
College of the Transfiguration, Grahamstown, RSA
"Who can separate us from the love of Christ? ... I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:35a, 3839, NRSVB).
Isn't it a paradox. The one writer in the bible who has most fervently been used to fan the flames of homophobia and assisted the church in its repression of gays and lesbians, is the same writer who gives us the words quoted above, words which ought to be recited at every AIDS Christian healing service, at every AIDS interfaith conference, at every Christian funeral or memorial service for one who has died of AIDS related complications. NOTHING CAN SEPARATE US FROM THE LOVE OF GOD IN CHRIST JESUS. Both passages found in the same book, only chapters apart. Both passages examples of rhetorical flourish. Both passages calling forth intense emotional fervor. Both passages ringing with argumentation.
Many Christians would resolve the paradox by saying that Paul just didn't know about AIDS. If he had, he would have changed his mind and written, "most things." Others would say that it is because of words such as the Romans 8 passage that help them hang in with the religion and resist the vitriol of Rom. 1:26-27. (Dare I quote these verses? As Paul says later in Rom. 3:31, me genoito, definitely not! For to do such would be to acknowledge, no it would be to unleash destructive forces.)
This paradox of Paul, therefore, points to one of the crucial theological elements, namely the authority of Scripture. It speaks to the crux of the problem of how we use the bible (I guess you can see my preference.) Do we see it as a measuring rod for the formulation of theological and ethical discussions? Do we take this as an endless, eternal word from God? Or do we see it as reflections of forerunners in the faith, who had their own views of God, some of which were on target, others of which were not? Or do we throw it out all together? Or do we pick and choose? On what bases do we make these decisions? How do we enter into dialogue with those who hold alternative positions? What is the basis of the discourse? Can we hear each other? "The Bible says!" "It is written in the Bible." "The biblical writer suggests/implies." "Can you believe such is found in the bible?" All of these are starting points used by Christians in their approaching some resolution to what is God saying to us about AIDS? For of one thing we are sure. In this clash of voices, God is not silent. God is clearly speaking in paradox.
One of the major problems we face in dealing with AIDS is our own doctrine of God. For many of us, just like the writer of John, we know God is in it, if there is no other logical way to explain it, or if there is a miracle associated with it. The way in which this notion plays itself out in terms of AIDS is that medicine/science has not been able to come up with a cure. Since we primarily believe in medicine as our God, we are baffled by its inability to address the situation. Since doctors can't cure it, it must be a plague from God. As the Johannine writer says, "Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe (Jn 4:48)." Pull out a trick! Stump the doctor! That's how we know God has to do with it. Since the result is death, then we know that it involves judgment from God, or so the arguments go. AIDS points to the paucity of our doctrines of God, which results from theologians' attempts to protect God, or more properly our views of God.
Who is the God spoken of in such terms that AIDS would be viewed as just punishment. How does one separate out the wheat from the tares? How does one decide the so-called innocent PWA? The child born H-IV+? The unsuspecting wife of the bi-sexual? The husband of the IV drug user? The person operated on with the infected transfusion? Does the virus distinguish its fixing in a host in such simplistic terms? Does one who is involved in a loving, mutually supportive, nurturing same sex relationship become the deserving one? Do we give up our right to respect in such moments?
Even more fundamental than this is the whole question of sexuality. Most of our theological pronouncements on sexuality begin with a biblical understanding. They go to passages such as Leviticus 18 and 20, Deuteronomy 22, Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 7, Ephesians 4. They do not look at the underlying ideologies of these passages or their writers. They do not look at the Hebrew Scripture passages as grounded in their heterosexual contexts, in a view of women as the property of men. Thus, the laws in many respects depict ways of protecting the property rights of these men. Similarly there is a depiction of the "other," be that in terms of nationality, gender, sexual orientation, or the like, as one who is controlled by voracious sexual desires for the taboo. These passages appear to be dangerous places for guidance in the matter of sexuality.
Under the influences of these passages, many people have developed a most sophisticated "theology by genitalia." This theology functions such that when one gets to the Pearly Gates God will be there asking to see one's genitals and receive a report on what one has done with them. And on that report will rest our salvation. Sexuality is raised to the penultimate position in this view. Ask anyone to list sin, and they will most likely start with naming sexually taboo behavior. How does one develop a sense of healthy sexuality? AIDS, with its association with sexuality and death, has reinforcement for this lethal theological strand. Until we see sexuality outside of the patriarchal boundaries of both the biblical (con)text and Puritanical views of the self, we shall be locked into this theological conundrum. If sex is always listed in the sin category, how does one move to a theology which recognizes sexuality as a vital, creative, essential part of life?
Closely associated with this theology is a theology of "otherness," in which one is depicted as part of the out-group, and, therefore, "hateable." Missionary religions posit an in-group/out group mentality, which is expressed in the dictum, "I'm OK, but you're not. And the reason I know that I'm OK is that I'm not you!" These religions which teach intolerance of people who practice another religion, depict followers of other religions as heathens, pagans, infidels, "kaffirs", savages. These religions also malign the cult practitioners of these other religions by renaming them as sorcerers, witches, magicians, witch doctors and the like. These maligning religions have at their root a demonology of "otherness." Once one is able to place another in this outsider category, oppression of them becomes not only normative, but theologically sanctioned. One is able to practice a "holy hatred" of them, steal their land, enslave them, exploit them in any form. This oppression is sanctioned, because the theology has allowed the dehumanization of the other and the idolatry of the self. Once one practices this dehumanization with those of another religion, one easily extends this "holy hatred" to the variables of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, nationality, and whatever variable becomes convenient. Since the other is not understood to be like the self in humanity, one need not respect any of their life qualities, with the "Blessed Assurance" that one is practicing the will of God. In this way the treatment of PWA's as non-humans is sanctioned religiously.
One must keep in mind that this theological construct of "Otherness" is closely bound to conquest theologies. Once I declare one "other," I can steal their land. Thus, the invasions of all part of the globe by people from other parts, is fed by this theology. Once one declares the local inhabitants other, one can do anything to them. And what better way to declare them other than to label them negatively with sexual innuendo? This theology of conquest, not only functioned for Israel in biblical times, but also for Europeans who massacred native people in the Americas, Africa, Pacific Islands, Asia and the like. This tendency guides the space exploration of this era with the depiction of life on other planets as "sub-human" and therefore, we may invade this space. In this way the interlocking oppressions of racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, militarism keep mutually reinforcing each other, with the help of the oppressed, themselves. Just look at how David refers to the Philistines as "the uncircumcised ones," (I Sam 17:26), thereby reducing them to the phallus and sanctioning the murder of Goliath by chopping off his head. And we read it and are immune to the interlocking oppression and say, "Yeah, God!"
Closely akin to this theology is the desire to be more than conquerors and to be on the right side. The insidiousness of this tendency, is that one who is declared to be "Other" on one dimension, is willing to place their neighbor in the "Other" category in respect to another variable. Thus, those who are oppressed on one variable, are willing to join with oppressors on a variable upon which they are not oppressed, but viewed to be normative. In other words, people oppressed on the variable of race, are willing to oppress others on the variable of sexual orientation. Similarly, those oppressed on the variable of sexual orientation are willing to oppress others on the variable of nationality. Similarly those oppressed on the variable of nationality are willing to oppress others on the variable of gender. Thus in some communities, PWA's who get the disease from drug usage are viewed as more acceptable than those who are gay. The amazing facet of this phenomenon is that the oppressor joined by those oppressed is often their own oppressor. Somehow, we do not learn from our oppression not to be oppressors. Rather we learn how to be oppressors. We do not have a theology of liberation. Rather we have a theology of our own amelioration. In essence we do not, or refuse to, understand that many of our privileges come from oppressive systems. Thus, we look for the privilege and nurture it, thereby being coconspirators with oppressive forces.
A corollary ethic to this theology of otherness/self amelioration is an ethic of dispensableness. We declare that certain people are not needed. This ethic usually begins in the benign form of making objects dispensable and discardable. We move from things to people in rapid succession. This is hooked up with globalization and its destructive forces. We give pharmaceutical companies exclusive rights to drugs. We certify drugs as "orphan drugs." We then allow exorbitant amounts of money to be charged for these drugs. We only allow certain people to have access to them. Thus, PWA's in South Africa and Uganda have a life expectancy of six months, because medications are impossible to secure in these contexts under these conditions. We patent drugs which will make a few rich, while exploiting the fears of others. We declare certain segments of the population, since they are not us, as expendable. Thus, since the first group of primary contractors of H-IV were gay males, who were viewed as the "Other," and thereby expendable, there was nothing done. Once part of this group was willing and able to pay the price of medication, they were moved up on the "expend ability ladder" and treated at a high price. As long as we do not develop an ethic which values human life, which values life, in all forms, we shall enforce the "ethic of expend ability." Insurance companies can cancel policies and no one says anything, because it is happening to the "expendable." Land lords can evict people and there is no outcry, because these people are expendable. You see the picture.
There is no ethic of neighborliness. We do not engage the powers and principalities which are reeking havoc in the lives of PWA's. Rather we close our eyes to it. We hold healing services but no accompanying demonstrations at the national headquarters of these companies. We do not recognize the healing power of such actions. We leave that to ACT UP. We do not want to jeopardize our own incomes from those who work there and are part of our congregations. We rather say, we'll pray for you in some ecumenical/interfaith way, but don't ask us to be neighbor and stop the carnage on the Jericho Road. Isn't it enough to bind you up and put in a hotel somewhere? We do not recognize that communal action against legislation which supports heterosexism is a healing event. We do not recognize that staging protests against the inundation of the black, brown and Asian communities with drugs, is a healing action of neighborliness. Rather, we opt for the safe and respectable. There is no turning over of tables and chasing out the money changers of the biomedical conglomerates. There is no organizing against politicians who reduce funding for AIDS research, training, and education. That is not healing, we think. Let us rather once a year hold a service, not expecting God to say, "I hate, I despise your festivals. Remove from me these choirs. Let justice roll down. Get out there and do some social intervention of true neighborliness. That is the healing I desire." And then God adds, "If you do both, I'd even be able to enjoy the worship."
In all of this there is a conspiracy of silence on the part of religious institutions. We say, "Go away you that are heavy laden, for there is no rest here!" The most insidious way this theology gets carried out is when we allow/encourage members to keep silent about their living condition. We hold services and never say what has caused the death. We train people to be stoic and pretend that something else is going on in their lives. In this way we further stigmatize them, for we reinforce the feeling that they are not worthy of our attention. We do not raise the subject in our sermons, except on special days. We do not challenge prevailing views. We further oppress people in this way. This is not to say that people do not have the right to their privacy. It is, however, to say that we should not encourage hiding, when such only furthers stigma.
One of the major gifts of AIDS has been in the model of forgiveness given to the Christian Churches by UFMCC. When they made application to join National Council of Churches, as an expression of their ecumenical commitment, they were met with resounding rejection. When Faith and Order of NCC wanted to do a study on the Church and AIDS, however, they had to turn to UFMCC for guidance and assistance, because the other Churches were not doing much. UFMCC opened their doors and showed us what it meant to live a life in the face of death and to have hope in a God of love. They also showed us how to love those who have reviled you and misused you. Would that we could model such humility and reconciliation.
AIDS is nurtured by a youth culture with sees itself as invincible. It won't happen to me. I'm too young. AIDS places death at the door step of homes regardless of age, race, class, ethnicity, national boundary. AIDS also offers us the opportunity to function as true family, bearing each other's burdens, accepting each other's limits, and bolstering each other's courage. It forces parents to re-examine their understanding of their children as their key to immortality. It presents children with the need to move beyond shame in accepting the limitations of their parents. It forces us to rethink the notion of quality vs. quantity of life. It leads to redefinition of family to those who love God and serve God through the nurture of the abandoned. It creates new vistas of hope in seeing a God who lives with us, Emmanuel, in the midst of our pain and suffering, a God who identifies with us in the shortness of time to live, a God who does not abandon us, even if our loved ones do. We may have to look hard and struggle to experience this God, but this God is there and struggles to get through to us. We experience a God who is trustworthy in the midst of our sorrow. We experience a God who enfolds us in love. We experience a God who is able to break through the institutions which are supposed to help us experience this God, but often stand in the way. But we do experience this God in the hands that bring the meals, the cars that drive us to medical treatment, disability payments that finally come, family members that hug us. We experience this God and say, "Amen!" Grahamstown, RSA 10 March 1997