This may seem like a very odd question, seeing as the virus and its resulting disease did not descend upon humanity until nearly two thousand years after the last books of the Bible were written. Yet it is a crucial question, and our dear friends here in Swaziland and all over the world are desperate for the answer. Closely related to this question is the one which asks what the church’s response is to this disease and the plethora of issues surrounding it. Yet it is difficult to know how to respond before we know what, if anything, the Bible has to say about it.
Let’s start with Jesus. (Always a good place to start.) What do his words and actions say about HIV? Well, at face value, nothing. But when we spend time digging deeper and looking closer, we realize that Jesus spoke and ministered to the most basic of human conditions that are found everywhere and throughout time: suffering, rejection, sinfulness, shame, and the desires for love, belonging, and redemption. All of these elements are familiar to anyone who has been affected by or infected with HIV/ AIDs.
When Jesus touched lepers, He provided more than physical healing. Lepers were the most ostracized group of people in Jesus’ time. They were literally shunned by their societies and families, and sent to live by themselves or with other lepers. “Clean” members of society could not touch, eat with, or be knowingly in the presence of someone who had leprosy. Part of this was a misunderstanding of the disease that led people to think that it could be spread by touching a leper. However, there was also a belief that a person who had contracted leprosy had done something wrong to deserve it. He or she had sinned against God, and this was their punishment. In the sacrificial system of the Jewish temple, however, they were not able to offer a sacrifice for atonement because they were “unclean” and could not enter the temple.
When Jesus interacted with, touched, and healed people with leprosy he was making a statement. He was bringing justice. He was giving emotional and social healing as well as physical healing. He was restoring the humanity that years of shame and rejection had taken away. He was bringing the outsiders into the inner circle of relationship, chosen-ness and blessing.
The same is true for a number of other people groups with whom Jesus freely mingled. He ate with tax collectors, a despised group of people in the eyes of the first century’s “religious right.” He talked openly with women, even sinful women who were known to be prostitutes. In John 8 we even see Jesus defending a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery, rescuing her from the punishment she deserved, and most importantly offering her free forgiveness. This is a Jesus who was fearless in breaking down the walls resurrected by judgment, shame, fear, stigma and sin.
In Swaziland and many places of the world, there is nothing more shameful, nothing that can bring more rejection, and no more ostracized group than those who receive a positive result on an HIV test. These people are placed firmly on the “outside” of society life, often times even in the church. There is a shockingly deep and penetrating stigma surrounding HIV. This is primarily fueled by fear and a lack of understanding, as most stigmas are. This fear leads to silence and denial, because not talking about it is better than being confronted with a shameful truth.
Yet what can we learn from the life of Jesus? What does the Bible say about HIV and AIDs? It says that Jesus is not afraid of it. He’s also not afraid of what causes it. Loud and clear, it says that Jesus’ compassion, love, forgiveness and grace is extended especially for those who are suffering on the “outside,” including those with HIV and AIDs. Knowing what we know about Jesus, I think it is safe to say that He would spend plenty of time with people who had been pushed to the outside by HIV/ AIDs. His whole mission was and is to bring outsiders in – into grace, into relationship, into forgiveness, and into the blessedness of being chosen by God. This is to be the church’s mission as well.