An exceptional storm
On Christmas Day 1497 Vasco Da Gama first reached the South Eastern shores of South Africa. He named the area Natal. It is now called Kwazulu Natal. Recently, I visited the area on behalf of Christian Aid to explore issues around HIV/AIDS in conversations with theologians, including those living with HIV/AIDS.
On the day I arrived in Pietermaritzburg, as I shared a meal with staff from the School of Religion and Theology in the University of Kwazulu Natal, the challenges raised by HIV/AIDS began to confront me. Bongi Zengele quoted Mark: 4: 37-38.
“A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”
Bongi said this Gospel story aroused a lively debate as people living with HIV/AIDS discussed it in a Bible Study with her. “HIV/AIDS is the storm,” they said. “What gives us strength and removes some of our fear is the knowledge that Jesus is with us. It is the Church that seems to be asleep and not caring about the storm. It is time to wake up the Church.”
The storm in South Africa is extreme. UNAIDS estimates that, at the end of 2003 there were 5.3 million people in South Africa living with HIV/AIDS, 21.5% of the population. Nowhere is the storm worse than in Kwazulu Natal, where 37% of the population have been diagnosed HIV positive.
These are alarming figures. The Revd. Dr. Colin Jones, HIV/AIDS Programme Co-Ordinator, S. African Anglican Church said to me, “The exceptionality of HIV/AIDS requires an exceptionality of response. Nothing less will do.”
An exceptional response?
What would an exceptional response involve? It would begin by acknowledging that people living with HIV/AIDS enjoy the “Hermeneutical Privilege”. God’s will, way and word are discerned more clearly in those who tend to be dismissed as ‘victims’ and ‘the poor’. Recognising this, the Churches’ response would be distinguished not by frozen silence or frosty judgmental attitudes, but rather by a profound respect for and embrace of people living with HIV/AIDS.
Such a response would be consistent with Jesus’ style. Jesus was inclusive and refused to despise, judge or exclude those whom society rejected. When I met with a group of Zulu Christian women they immediately turned to the Gospel story where Jesus challenged judgemental leaders: “Let anyone among you who is without sin cast the first stone.” (John: 8:7.)
An exceptional response would go further, and display a readiness to listen to what people living with HIV/AIDS have to say. Betty Govinden Devarakshanam is a lay Pastor in the Anglican Parish of St. Aidan’s, Durban, and a senior lecturer in the Department of Education at the University of Durban. She said that people living with HIV/AIDS teach us about living and dying and suffering. Using Henry Nouwen’s phrase, she said that “the churches need to listen to the ‘wounded healers’ who can be prophetic voices to question the structures that keep HIV/AIDS in place.”
An exceptional response would be based on an understanding of the Body and Blood of Christ. The Methodist Church in Britain has produced a document entitled “The Body of Christ has AIDS.” Does Christ identify with us to the extent that His Body and Blood are HIV Positive? Phumzile Zondi is a member of staff in the School of Religion and Theology, University of Kwazulu Natal. She has disclosed her status as HIV Positive. Phumzile said, “ I need the Body and Blood of Christ to be HIV/AIDS free. I, as HIV Positive, need the Body and Blood of Christ to give me strength. I need to know that He stands with me, embraces me, holds me, loves me. I need the HIV/AIDS free Blood of Christ to make me whole.” The Body of Christ which is the Church may have HIV/AIDS. But the Body of Christ who is the Second Person of The Holy Trinity does not have HIV/AIDS. The Blood of Christ of which we partake at the Eucharistic Table is not HIV Positive.
Finally, an exceptional response would involve changing ourselves, as individuals and as churches. Colin Jones says that “fundamentally, HIV/AIDS latches on to our most basic needs for respect, embrace and fullness of life. It is not just about sex and individual behaviour. It is about how structures and institutions behave, especially churches. Churches must wake up to the fact that their patriarchal, hierarchical, parochial structures and theologies are destructive. If we do not wake up to these realities we will not be life giving.”
I left South Africa convinced that, as followers of Christ, we have no choice other than to wake up, and see his Natal Star.
1st December 2004