Healing the Church through a Pandemic: Ecclesial Reflections on the Scriptures. 03/03/08

Speech for Tearfund by the Revd David Peck, Archbishop of Canterbury's Secretary for International Development


I want to talk this morning—as we prepare to enter Holy Week—about repentance and redemption. Specifically, how the church can turn at least some of its stigmatising into repentance; and some of its laments in the time of HIV and AIDS into a redemption song. If it is truly the case that we are healed by God's wounds on the cross, then we must also see the potential for a divine intervention in which the church is healed by those who are afflicted by this pandemic. 

Musa Dube, the great Botswanan theologian, has for a decade told the church that we need our bible study to be more contextual.[1] In a world where tens of millions of our neighbours are infected and affected with HIV and AIDS, we are long overdue in reading our bibles in the light of the pandemic, and in the light of our own need for healing as the body of Christ.

I am so grateful to Tearfund for the invitation to speak to this gathering. But my wife was horrified that I accepted this invitation. What can you tell Tearfund or Kay Warren about either AIDS or the Bible? Absolutely nothing I replied. But I have a lot to learn that I will never know unless I agree to speak. So thank you to Rachel Carnegie and all her Tearfund colleagues for this overwhelming opportunity to learn by being forced to teach. 

As I reflect on global and local responses to the AIDS crisis the last 20 or so years I will talk about three paradigms—or responses to the pandemic. The first in terms of a stigmatising response based on a misreading of our scriptures. The second to very briefly consider the compassion and care response and global solidarity which Tearfund and others have pioneered with partners in the UK and global south. But mostly I hope to focus on the third paradigm, where we are not just caring for and calling for better treatment of those who are positive and carrying the multiple burdens of poverty and illness in the absence of health care, but as churches North and South, East and West, actually being healed ourselves by the wounds which HIV and AIDS inflict upon us. 

I give thanks that in his providence God put me in Zimbabwe a week ago to read my bible and prepare for this day. To read the bible in Zimbabwe is a fearful thing. It is so frightening because one's own belief hangs over an abyss of suffering and undoing by death that unbelief is so obviously a rational response. Can the word of God really speak in this context where millions are infected with the virus? And when they are sick stand so little chance of getting paracetemol, let alone anti retro-viral treatments, from their government? And what on earth can the church do amidst a national crisis when it can not even cope with burying the dead?

We know that when Christians first read their bibles in the light of the pandemic the most vocal among us responded to some of the most vulnerable people by creating a global response of "I told you so" prejudice and hypocrisy that created a wall of stigma so high it will still take us years to tear it down. With notable exceptions (and Tearfund was one) It took most of us a decade to respond with something better than prejudice or stigma, and that was silence. After two decades and the deaths of 25 million people—most of whom were our fellow Christians—we are beginning to find repentance for our sins. My brothers and sisters, what in God's name were we thinking? And what in God's word were we reading? 

I want to remind us all where we made some wrong turns in our biblical approaches in the early years of the virus. Of course we remember good Evangelicals who denounced those with the virus and even reinforced the connection between AIDS and sin because of the ease of its sexual transmission. How smug we were that the transmission could only take place outside the safe enclave of Christian marriage and family life. And it all seemed as clear as it was untrue. Many of us bristled at the denunciations because they were unkind and uncharitable and thus unchristian, even while we believed there was real truth in it—and there is of course some truth in it which we must not lose. And from this point we made the best response we could with ABC campaigns: abstain, be faithful and use a condom. But there is more and better on offer now than that. I encourage you to make the journey I am still in the midst of from ABC to a new and more holistic acronym, known as SAVE. Perhaps we can talk more about these initials later. 

But we now know, through the exegesis of Hebrew scholars such as Johanna Stiebert[2] that the links with disease and guilt and sin are not so straightforward as we thought. First of all, where there is clearly retribution in the sending of disease as punishment for sin, we tend to forget that the same context often sees hunger and war as punishment for sin too. Somehow we do not often hear sermons where Iraq is said to be a punishment for sin; or the famine of Darfur is evidence of the sinfulness of the hungry Darfuri people. Nor do we complain that the UN's World Food Programme is undermining morality by feeding people. In such situations we are very astute at not beginning our thinking or our praying by "blaming the victims". But that is where out Christian response started. 

Stiebert makes the point that in passages from Jeremiah and Ezekiel (Jer 14.12; 16.4; Ezek 6.11) God's inflicting or curing of diseases is usually making a point about his mastery over creation rather than simply punishing vice. Moreover, there are all those people afflicted with illness whose sin is not at all clear. From Job to the man who was blind from birth in John, we naturally, but wrongfully, end up asking with the disciples, "Who sinned: this man or his parents?" 


Before getting to the meat of what I want to reflect upon, which is John chapter 9, let me briefly offer some thoughts about the paralysed man and the pool of Bethsaida in John 5.2-11. And let me do that in the light of a slogan that is both helpful and unhelpful. Some say AIDS is not a moral issue. They say this because Christians have over-moralised HIV. But in time I hope to unpack some of the deeply moral issues that I think HIV and AIDS does uncover. I find John 5 really helpful in stopping the false dichotomy which some create when the church properly want both to preach good news and make a professional medical response to the pandemic. 

In chapter 5 Jesus has two encounters with a sick man. In the first he simply heals him unconditionally. There is no talk of sin at all in the first encounter. The shock value of the story of course is that Jesus healed him on the Sabbath. Jesus treats the conventional morality and religious norms as entirely secondary to the needs of the individual. The paralysed man is denied access to his treatment because he is too weak and isolated to get to the pool. (If Jesus was working for Tearfund of course he would not have taken the easy short cut of just healing the guy, but gone on about creating better access to treatment from the pool of Bethsaida for all the others like him. But what can you expect from a Saviour who did not do any development studies at university?) 

But the healing encounter does not end with the paralysed man who can walk. Later Jesus finds the man at the temple and said to him, "See you have been made well! Do not sin anymore in case something worse happens to you." But we must not conflate what the TWO encounters. John is careful to make clear they are separated by both time and place. To take the second step of talking helpfully about the moral context in which all health and all health care is set in, we must be first unconditional and unwilling to have secondary rules and regulations interfere with our radical self offering. The two encounters when considered in their proper light gives us a more holistic opportunity to think about illness, health-care and morality in a way that is stigma-free. 


Walking along the disciples saw one who was blind since birth and asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents?" Jesus answered, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned. He was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him." 

Here we see again how often the scriptures deal with disease or disability as an opportunity to show God's power and mastery over creation. And very helpfully for my purpose Jesus makes explicit that there is not necessarily any connection between sin and illness. He was born blind so that God's work might be revealed. I am sufficiently uneasy about the notion of God inflicting huge suffering for his own glory that I think what we are meant to understand is that this natural, indeed random phenomenon of the man's blindness, can be an occasion for God to manifest his glory through his Son. Our horizon completely changes in this encounter because this man was not just blind, but blind from birth. The affliction is as inexplicable as it is unchangeable. And yet, Jesus does heal. The means of his sight being restored was mud and spit (from things literally at hand—absolutely common: mud, touch and a bodily fluid). 

Now we are on dangerous ground here in a discussion about HIV. And I want to say something that take us right to the edge of this 4 way encounter between the disciples and the blind man; Jesus and the blind man; the Pharisees and the blind man; and the Pharisees and Jesus. Of course the 5th encounter is the most important--between us and the story. For we are meant to gain our sight along with the blind man and the disciples or else lose it with the Pharisees. And it is this role of sight being restored—or vision focussed—that I want us to be aware of. 

Verse 8 gives us plenty to think about in terms of stigma and its effects. There is an identity crisis: The neighbours and those who were used to seeing him as a blind beggar and treating him as such began to ask, "Is this the man who used to sit and beg?" Are we defined by our limitations—by our stigmatising? What happens when the limitations that the neighbours have put on the blind man are no longer there? Is he the same person? 

The next 10 verses are interrogations: How were his eyes opened? He and his parents are interrogated 4 times. Three times the formerly blind man gives the same account. But still, trapped in their dynamic of stigmatising, they insist he was born entirely of sin and in v 34 they finally expel him from the religious community. Thus Jesus then finds the man for whom something even worse than blindness has come to him: the stigma of exclusion, of excommunication. Even after being healed, something worse than the illness can be handed down from the neighbours and hierarchy to this man. I doubt his parents are going to the synagogue either. So the whole family system breaks down. 

And yet Jesus finds the formerly blind man—who at this point must be as bewildered as a man can be—and puts his new sight literally and metaphorically to the test. Jesus asks, do you believe in the Son of Man? And the man replies, "And who is he, Sir, that I may believe in him? And Jesus says, "You have seen him and he is the one who is speaking to you." And he replies, "Lord I believe." And he began worshipping him. (38) 

But the political implication of this and the political encounter comes next in verse 39: Jesus says, "I came into the world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind." How scary is that!? There is nothing that limits your field of vision more than thinking that all that there is to see is what you can see in front of you.

So at this point let us change gears and consider another paradigm—one that does not give rise to stigma and exclusion. The paradigm shift required at this point is, if we were writing a slogan: STOP HEALING AIDS WITH THE CHURCH AND START HEALING THE CHURCH WITH AIDS![3] 

If we take John 9 seriously, as programmatic for the church, then we want to start out as blind and end up with sight and not like the Pharisees to start with sight and end up blind when Jesus comes. To do this we have to unlearn all those things we think we know about the AIDS pandemic, the bible and the Church. We must unlearn who we think is HIV+, and why, and what we think about them. For those who are infected by the virus and affected by its impact are not objects of pity or fear, as if we are somehow normal and they are the distant "other". We must learn from that great Roman Catholic healer Fr Jean Vanier, and from Kay Warren's own testimony, whose approach is to let the afflicted open us up to our own woundedness and incompleteness and our need for redemption rather than their need. When the afflicted open us up to our own wounds then we can become, as Henri Nouwen describes it, wounded healers.

For most who are HIV+ any illness is as much a social, economic and political construct as it is an immunological one. The virus is transmitted from person to person, but with drugs to treat the viral agents, progression of the disease too often comes from a lack political will in the nations of the world to make drugs available to poor people. To people who lack nutrition; who lack nurses; who lack governments who give a damn about them; and who lack churches who give a damn about governments not giving a damn. 

And what complicates the response even further is an international community who is so anxious about the church preaching in the midst of a crisis that it balks at doing business with us. And the nightmare effect of all this is local Christian groups like the Mothers' Union in Zimbabwe, and all across Africa, who want to visit the sick and offer better care even where there is little hope of treatment, but can't get the equipment or training needed to make the small but crucial differences they can. So the despair spirals and the division deepens. The UK government and UN AIDS organisations speak about the unique local and global reach of the church to stand in solidarity with people living with HIV and AIDS, but it is they now who are doing too little and too late to both support the church and call it to account. 

But that must not stop the church from getting its own global and local house in order and to keen knocking on their doors. So what are our sins as a church from which we could be healed by HIV and AIDS? The gravest sin is of course the apathy of the indolent rich. Lazarus and Dives have something to tell us here. Forgetting to remember the vulnerable in our midst, those outside our national gates. Failing to live as the body of Christ in which we are all members one of another. 

The second sin that we as a church have to pray for repentance around is patriarchy. How on earth have we allowed women, who bear the brunt of poverty and family breakdown, to yet again to bear the brunt of this disease? And what are we not seeing or saying as a church about a masculinity that holds women in contempt? And what are we not saying about a femininity that thinks misogyny is fine with God. It is not. 

Too often it is a male hierarchy (lay and ordained) whose cumulative effect of insensitivity, ignorance, cowardice and detachment (take your pick!) that reinforces and perpetuates what has to be seen as hatred of women. How else could so much death and suffering be visited upon them and predatory and bullying male sexual behaviour go unchecked in countries with millions and millions of confessing Christians? Yet what do we hear on Sundays about this latent hatred? The sound of silence. Worse than the sound of silence, we hear the sound of the gospel preached with vehement irrelevance! 

And I am sad to say that I have been party to it. I have seen sentences in speeches I and others have tried to include written out of scripts before my very eyes for fear of the muck-rakers who, with the Pharisees, constantly look to the Archbishop of Canterbury to see how they might destroy people like him. Thank God we have leadership that is as deep as it is devout and steadfast from Rowan Williams in our world. If you want to read some of the most beautiful theological reflections on eroticism and sexuality, you must read his essay, The Body's Grace.[4] 


I want to wind down with a quote from Timothy Radcliffe, OP, a celibate Dominican priest, who also writes beautifully on theology, sex and the politics of our bodies. In a recently published essay, after some long quotes from Archbishop Rowan, Radcliffe writes this:

"If a good sexual relationship overcomes the distortions of power, reaching for equality and mutuality, then [that sexual relationship] is a preaching of the gospel to the society in which we live. [A good sexual relationship] challenges the unjust structures of every society. All too often relationships merely echo the patterns of dominance of the society. If society is ruled by men, then men will probably rule in the home and in the bed. So a good sexual ethic offers a challenge that is implicitly political. If we are formed in our homes for reciprocity, then we will not be at home in political structures that oppress.[5] 

Instead of asking who sinned—this man or his parents—let us look turn the church and the world upside down and see it as a means of our healing. Dare we say that the most serious challenges to the evangelisation of the world are contained in the drivers of the disease: poverty, patriarchy; and our inability to talk honestly about sex and sexuality? If we can galvanise our families, our congregations and nations; indeed communities of nations to follow where we lead; to resource where we serve; and to think as we pray then poverty and patriarchy and drug-pushers and prostitution can begin to be rolled back from our own cities and those of the developing world. 

In those who are HIV+ we see only ourselves. Instead of projecting our own fears and fantasies on them we have the chance of having our own theological health restored by them. We should see the ministry of the church in a world that is HIV+ as the best chance we have of being healed of our sinful patriarchy, our crushing wealth, our hatred of women, our fear of the sick, our denial of death, and our fear of sex and our own inadequacy, impotence and vulnerability. 

As Japhet Ndlovu observes from Zambia, "Jesus brought an image of holiness defined not by its distance from what is considered to be unclean, but by its proximity to it. Into a world so divided and separated within itself came Jesus, who, with the touch of a hand, restored human community."[6] 

How we perceive the body of Christ which is HIV + is how we perceive ourselves. If we are to love our neighbour as our self, and our neighbour, both literally and metaphorically, is affected by HIV and AIDS, this can only bring us back to our selves: to our sexual selves; to our moral selves; and to our gendered selves. It can only bring us back to our own bodily vulnerability and grace. You too will be ill; you too will grow old and dependent; you too will need medication that you may or may not be able to afford. You too will have your body taken from you. If we do not see ourselves as affected by HIV and our churches as responding to it, then it is not those who HIV positive who are liable to Christ's judgement as some first thought 20 years ago. Alas for us who live complacently with AIDS and patriarchy today: for we think we see, and yet are blind. 

[1] Bible study given at POSITIVE: the UK Church Conference on HIV, sponsored by Tearfund and Bracknell Family Church, England 15 March 2008

[2]Musa Dube, Towards an HIV/AIDS-Sensitive Curriculum, WCC Geneva 2003 p.10

[3] "Does the Hebrew Bible Have Anything to Tell Us about HIV/AIDS", in M W Dube, HIV/AIDS and the Curriculum, WCC Publications, Geneva 2003p 24

[4]I first heard this call to action from ANRELA+ in March 2006 at a consultation "Lifting the Veil: Islam, Christianity and the Challenge of AIDS", St George's House, Windsor Castle, England.

[5]Rowan Williams, The Body's Grace, written in 1989 for the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement and available at http://www.igreens.org.uk/bodys_grace.htm

[6]Timothy Radcliffe, OP, 'This is my body given for you' in Christians and Sexuality in the Time of AIDS, Continuum, Cerf 2007 p63

[7]Ndlovu as quoted in as quoted in Patterson, AIDS related Stigma,WCC 2007 p 2

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