From the Archives: One Christian's Response to AIDS

Please note that the articles published in Movement Magazine some decades ago do not necessarily reflect the views of SCM now, its staff, its trustees, or members. These articles are provided to demonstrate the history of SCM in relation to LGBTQ+ history. From Movement Magazine Issue 67 - Autumn 1987.

Content warning: This blog post contains some views that are no longer widely accepted regarding cases of AIDS being attributed to bad personal decisions. This blog post also contains some terms that are no longer generally used, as well as descriptions of people with AIDS that are upsetting. This article has been edited for clarity.

One Christian’s Response to Aids

I worked in my capacity as a hospital chaplain for almost four years with people who have AIDS, or AIDS-related conditions, and with their families and friends. I first began that work as a student minister on an internship in a hospital chaplaincy training programme, while studying for my degree in pastoral theology at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California. At that time, AIDS was, in many respects, a more frightening phenomenon than it needs to be for us today. Little was known about the cause or wider implications of it in 1981-82, but today, AIDS is not something we need to fear, as long as we are prepared to acquaint ourselves with the known facts about the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (the cause of AIDS), and act upon that knowledge. We do not have the means to cure those already infected and those dying, but we do have the means – if we have the will – to prevent the spread of this viral infection.

Working in a large general hospital in the San Francisco Bay area, the chances that I would meet someone with AIDS, even then, were fairly high. The prospect frightened me! What would I say to the patient with AIDS? Would I be expected to touch her? Would I be expected to pray with him? Would I be able to share a hug, as I did with many of the other terminal patients I was working with? Would I catch AIDS? How would I cope? I realised, even before meeting my first patient with AIDS, that I needed a framework in which to work… a theological, scriptural base upon which to build my ministry.

The newspapers in California in 1982 were full of ‘God’s wrath’ talk. Many of our more fundamentalist, evangelical sisters and brothers were deciding that AIDS was surely God’s judgement on a group of people whom they themselves had judged to be somehow more sinful than the rest of us - AIDS was understood as a punishment for sin. I thought long and hard about such views. I thought about all of the very sick people with lung cancer, kidney disease, heart disease – people I was visiting in hospital at that very time – and asked myself: if AIDS is a punishment of God, might not all of these other illnesses also be a sign of God’s wrathful relationship with fallen humankind – for are we all not sinners in one way and another?

All this wrath talk in the media forced me to my Bible. I needed to seek out some Scriptural truths which would enable me, as one expected to minister, to serve God through the service of God’s people. I needed to clarify for myself what God’s role might be in the emerging AIDS crisis.

I studied New Testament with an Anglican scholar called William Countryman, of the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley. Countryman understands theology as a process we must enter into. Theology is offering ourselves to meet God and to discern God’s will at work in the world around us. A process of self-giving and discernment. Five years ago I offered myself to God in and around the context of AIDS, and began a long process of discerning God’s will in this particular tragedy of humankind.

The Sermon on the Mount in St. Matthew’s Gospel gave me some nuts and bolts from which to being the building of a theological framework. In a climate of ‘God’s wrath’ moralising from the religious right wing, I found a clear warning against judgement – that we human beings need to see the logs in our own eyes before seeking out the splinters in the eyes of others. I found that God desires us human beings to live in a way which stretches our credibility in God: that we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us so that we may become more like God’s children. I heard Jesus’ teaching that God makes the sun rise on the evil people and on good people, and that God’s rain falls on the just and the unjust. An astonishing and uncomfortable truth hit home. God does not run this world by our human values of moral recompense. We human beings cannot separate good from evil by measuring either worldly success or worldly affliction.

Yet there seems to be an inherent desire to find fault in the victims of suffering. We hear claims that the rape victim enticed her rapist by walking in a seductive manner or wearing sexually suggestive clothes: that the person who was mugged was guilty of stupidity or carelessness: that the cancer patient smoked too much. We lay these burdens on others. Why? To make ourselves feel more secure perhaps? To reassure ourselves that we can make God be good to us by obeying a set of rules? How many of you, like me, have played the game of personal merit at some time in our lives? Jesus speaks to us directly and plainly about such foolishness in Luke 12:

‘At that time there were some people present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered them: ‘Do you imagine that because these Galileans suffered this fate, they must have been greater sinners than anyone else in Galilee? I tell you – they were not! But unless you repent, you will all of you come to the same end.’

Differences in human merit, if they exist at all, are so slight in God’s eyes as not to be of any use or consequence in the governing of the world. God’s grace, and not our limited, childlike understanding of good rewarded by good, and bad punished by bad, is the powerful mystery by which God responds again and again to fallen humankind. And that grace is not dependent upon our goodness. And if the good gifts of God that we share do not prove our goodness, the inevitable corollary is that human affliction is no index of badness. Those who maintain otherwise are denying the gospel of Jesus Christ – and denying the faith of the Church, both catholic and reformed - it is by God’s grace that we are saved, not works of righteousness.

If the God we discern through the life of Jesus of Nazareth – the Christ – is a God of Grace, a God who does not run the world according to human values – a God whose grace outstrips wrath – then what might such a God be doing in the emerging AIDS crisis? I can only begin to offer partial answers, because the AIDS crisis continues to unfold, because we still have much to discern, because we can never fully know God’s way. And it is to St. John’s Gospel that I now turn. A first partial answer comes from the ninth chapter:

‘Jesus and his disciples saw a man blind from birth, and the disciples asked, ‘Who sinned that he was born blind? He or his parents?’’

Jesus sweeps away their suggestions that the man’s blindness was the result of someone’s sin – what a preposterous idea! Jesus tells them that the man didn’t sin, and neither did his parents. It’s a reality that he’s blind, but Jesus won’t have the blindness blamed on sin or on God. But because the main is blind, God’s works of love, care, compassion, and healing must be revealed to him – and Jesus himself becomes the channel of God’s care, compassion, healing and love, and in so doing challenges us as his followers to do likewise.

What is God doing in the AIDS crisis?

God is certainly calling out from the wasting, deformed bodies of people with AIDS, and the plea is, I hurt, and I need you to comfort me… I am frightened, and I need you to stay with me… I am feeling rejected, and I need you to accept and love me… My body is wasting away, and I need to know that you care. What I believe God is doing through the AIDS pandemic is leading us all to a time of trial, a time in which we are all tested. In the New Testament Greek such times are called peirasmos. Such times are not to be desired – we pray in Our Lord’s prayer not to be brought to them.. ‘Lead us not to times of trial.’ and the prayer continues, ‘..deliver us from evil..’ Deliver us, that is, not only from the evils of the world which attack us, but from the evil within ourselves which raises up our prejudice, our fear, our anger, and works away at making us unfaithful followers – betrayers and rejectors of Jesus’ challenge to be the channels of God’s healing works – in the face of trial, be it the face of a blind man or the face of a person with AIDS.

Through the AIDS crisis then each and every one of us is challenged by God to respond to the deep human suffering and need which people with AIDS, their families, lovers and friends experience – a test, a peirasmos, calling forth our faithful response.

A second partial answer can, I believe, be discerned from the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, as found in the fourth chapter of St John’s gospel. It is a story about Jesus meeting a woman in circumstances which suggest to him that she is in deep trouble. Women just didn’t go out to the well alone at midday unless something was wrong. Through the eyes of Jesus, a Jewish male, this woman was considered to be unclean because she was a Samaritan – and possibly because she may have been experiencing her menstrual period. Jesus would have defiled himself, according to the social customs of his day, and according to the regulations of his faith, if he spoke to and was touched by her.

He asks her for a drink – which shocks her, because she knows ‘the rules’ as well as he does! She passes him some water, which he drinks, thus defying the social norms of his day and the regulations of his religious institution. Through their conversation it becomes evident that she is outcast from her community because she is a prostitute – she is sexually promiscuous, to put it in nineteen-eighties language. Notice as you read the story for yourself, that there is no wagging of fingers on Jesus’ part. No harsh words either! Judgement is expressed within the context of great compassion for her estrangement from God, and takes the form of a speaking of truth in love and even praise for her truth telling. Through this encounter, which caused Jesus to defy social norms and religious regulations, this woman, an unclean, untouchable outcast, was touched by God’s healing love.

Whatever label is placed upon people by society – prostitute, unclean, promiscuous, homosexual – this story challenges us as Jesus Christ’s Church in the world to come face to face with the reality that the Church has no remit to exclude anyone. The story reminds us that to seek to become channels of God’s love, care and healing, may demand of us that we defy social norms and religious regulations in our own time. Yes indeed, we may need to challenge the uncaring attitudes of a society hell-bent on self-destruction, self-gratification, self-indulgence and self-centredness. But we also need to challenge the regulations of our Church institutions, especially in the realm of human sexuality. The churches in Britain have failed repeatedly to work towards a theology of human sexuality which takes seriously the leaps in understanding of the natural variance in human sexual orientation so widely acknowledged and accepted within the personality sciences. For the churches in Britain to attempt now, in the shadow of the AIDS epidemic, to make pronouncements about human sexual morality based upon uninformed, prejudiced and fear-laden interpretations of human sexuality is to risk ridicule and disregard.

A third partial answer emerges from my own working experience with people who had AIDS and AIDS related conditions. God is speaking to us, directly, revealing insights about the meaning of Hope, of living life to the full each day, of human kindness, joy and courage, the meaning of forgiveness and repentance, through the experiences of people with AIDS themselves. Through the centuries God has chosen many unexpected people to reveal glimpses of truth to humankind: a harlot called Rahab; a famer called Amos from Tekoa who challenged the injustice of a nation: a nobody born in the back end of nowhere, called Jesus: a persecutor of Christians called Paul: a Samaritan prostitute who, touched by Jesus’ self-revelation, became a witness to Christ’s power to change lives. So why might God not be using people with AIDS to teach us? We have to open to the possibility that God may well choose the person with AIDS to speak with us.

Those among us diagnosed with AIDS have stories to tell us, if we are willing to listen. Stories which will say something to us about God – Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer – and about the Church as one body, a body wounded and scarred. Faced with death, as you people with AIDS are, you can teach us about the preciousness of human life lived moment by moment, day by day. Faced with persecution, as many with AIDS are,  you can teach us what it might mean to pray for our persecutors. Faced with uncertainty, anxiety and fear, you can teach us about hope – hope for healing in a world so crippled with hatred, fear and misunderstanding. And those of you in our midst with AIDS, you too are in the midst of trial, peirasmos, and you too are challenged to be the channels of God’s care and love in the healing of our blindspots.

AIDS is a disease which develops as a result of an infection with a virus. It is not a sin, and neither is it a punishment, although it may, in some circumstances, be the consequence of some wrong choices and irresponsible actions. And wrong choices and irresponsible actions are realities which all of us, if we are honest, must own up to.

AIDS kills people. As yet there is no vaccine or cure in sight. But the ways in which the virus is transmitted are narrow and few. The Church then, as a community of faith and care, has a responsibility to the people of God to share accurate information about this viral infection so that people can make informed choices about the ways in which they live their lives.

The Church, as a community of faith and care, has a vocation to keep the mystery of the grace-filled presence of God real to the individual dying of AIDS, those infected with the virus, and the families and friends of people with AIDS.

The Church, as a community of faith and care, is challenged to be non-exclusive – challenged not to disregard people because of labels society has placed upon them. The Church is challenged to work more systematically and with grater dialogue with the personality sciences towards a more honest understanding of the complex nature of human sexuality.

The Church as a community of faith and care is invited too, to listen and hear what God is saying through the experiences of people with AIDS: what God is saying about human courage, joy and faithfulness. What God is saying about repentance and forgiveness. What God is saying about life and death and about ways in which we late Twentieth Century people deny both life and death.

John Sam Jones is a Biological Sciences graduate of the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, and holds a Master’s degree in Pastoral Theology from the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California. After working for a number of years as a hospital and prison chaplain both in the United States and Britain, he currently works for St. Helen’s and Knowsley Area Health Authority as an AIDS educator.