Unsettling the Christian Church
Written by Musa W Dube
"Woe to you...hypocrites...for you have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy and faith" (Mt 23.23).
Preaching to the converted
When I was still a secondary school student and an active member of the Student Christian Movement, I met a zealous Christian girl who asked me, "Have you received the Lord Jesus as your saviour? Are you born again?" I said, "Yes." As if she had not heard me, she began to preach to me. She told me to repent, to accept Jesus as my saviour, to be born again. You can imagine my response. I can tell you for sure that I was looking at the wall, trying to tell my undeterred preacher girl, "Shut up. Go and find non-believers and preach to them, if you really want to preach a message of repentance."
Preaching a message of repentance to the converted is difficult. The converted feel uncomfortable. They feel insulted, judged and undermined. They say to themselves, "We are believers. Tell us a message fitting for our faith, not a message of repentance." Instead of bringing God's people together, we run the risk of disintegrating them.
Yet we must ask: why are believers so intolerant of evangelists who bear the good news? Why is the message of repentance so difficult for us the converted?
I invite you, then, to try to hear again the message of repentance as a message that is fitting for us - a message that should bring the church together rather than divide us in our fight against HIV/Aids. Allow me, therefore, to elaborate on three images: John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness; Jesus' harsh sermon in Matthew 23, and the image of my mother - a mother to thirteen children, whom I immediately link with the wailing voice of Rachel.
John the Baptist preaches in the wilderness
In the first image, I see John the Baptist standing in the wilderness and screaming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!" I see many people coming out of Judea, repenting and getting baptized, confessing their sins. I see Pharisees and Sadducees coming from Jerusalem to repent and to get baptized and I hear John the Baptist saying to them, "You brood of vipers, who warned you of the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say, "We have Abraham and Sarah as our ancestors'; for I tell you, out of these stones God is able to raise up children to them" (Mt 3.7-9).
John was preaching to the Jews, a people who knew and lived according to the law of God. He was preaching to the converted. The Pharisees and the Sadducees were the spiritual and political leaders of Israel, the holy nation of God.1
The Sadducees were priests, men of the collar, who administered the holy sacraments in the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem. The Pharisees were committed men of God who spent their time learning the law, interpreting the law, teaching the law and taking care to keep the law. They spent their lives agonizing over the question "What does the Lord require of us?"
At a time of national crisis for the Jews, when Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed in the Jewish-Roman war of 63-70 CE, it was the Pharisees who managed to keep the faith of God's people together, for they had always practised a spirituality that flowed into all aspects and moments of their lives - a spirituality that did not revolve around the temple and Jerusalem. They were able to show their fellow Jews that it was still possible to know and to do what the Lord required of them.
John looks at these spiritual and political leaders of the nation and says to them, you "brood of vipers, who warned you of the wrath to come?" (Mt 3.7). It takes courage to speak like that to your superiors, your bosses, your bishops and your priests. The picture we get from John the Baptist is that the spiritual and political leaders are in fact the worst sinners - they are a brood of vipers. But if he spoke harshly to them, they did not protest. The story shows us that the converted do listen to the message of repentance. They do need to confess their sins and to get baptized.2
Now I know that among my audience there are many national and international spiritual leaders. What if I say to you, come down from Jerusalem, come down from the temple, come down to the wilderness, to Jordan - listen, confess your sins and be baptized? Will you be willing to see yourselves as a brood of vipers? Will you be willing to hear the command that you need to bear "fruits that are worthy of repentance"? What if I tell you: do not presume that you are the Christian church, do not count on your traditions, your various Christian ancestors, your Jerusalem cities? What if I tell you that "God can raise up children outside your churches"? What if I look you in the eye and tell you, as Jesus said, "Prostitutes and tax-collectors will enter heaven before you" (Mt 21.28)? Will you repent? You must.3
Jesus repented and confessed his sins
Jesus also responded to the message of John the Baptist. Jesus, whom we Christians hold highly as the Son of God, as one without sin, heard the message of repentance and came seeking to undergo the baptism of John. Of course, this is not agreeable to many Christians, who think of Jesus as holy; yet Jesus himself said, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God" (Mk 10.18).4 The text tells us that John could have prevented Jesus from undergoing the baptism of sins as he protested (v.14), saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?"5
The move of Jesus is instructive. If Jesus responded to the message of repentance, we are certainly not above our master (Jn 13.13-14). We need to reflect seriously as Christian leaders, as people of faith, as the church. Do we regard ourselves high up there, as holy? Or do we acknowledge we need a message of repentance? Do we hold that we know it all and people have to learn from us that they must get baptized by us? Or do we believe there are moments when we must come down from the thrones of our power and learn from people who are lower than us? How does our self-understanding play itself out in the age of HIV/Aids? How does it inform our response and our impact?
The church and its leadership must repent of theological mediocrity
I suspect that we, the Christian church, and our leaders in this HIV/Aids era are hindered from hearing the message of salvation. More often than not, we claim that those who are infected and afflicted by HIV/Aids are being punished by God for their sins. Instead of fighting HIV/Aids, we begin to fight the victims. Instead of doing away with the stigma associated with HIV/Aids, we add to it. Many of us are not ready to say that we all need to repent, Christians and non-Christians alike, for both are failing to abstain, to be faithful. If Christians are not failing, then how else do we explain the fact that "churches are themselves living with HIV/Aids," that our church "members fall ill, become incapacitated, die and are buried"?
To say, "Those who are dying of HIV/Aids are being punished by God; they are paying for their immoral lives," reflects our theological immaturity. It is our theological understanding that needs to change, for it does not explain the children who are born with HIV/Aids infection. It does not confront the problem of married women who are married to unfaithful partners. It cannot address the situation of those women and girls who are raped in their homes, on the roads, in their offices and in their churches. It does not account for sex workers, who have to choose between dying of hunger and selling sex.6 Neither does it address the question of loving mothers, old women in rural areas, or nurses who get infected in the process of caring for the sick. Is God punishing these groups of people? Have they sinned?
A theological shift is needed in an HIV/Aids context
That Jesus went around healing the sick signifies that health is God's will for all people. If Jesus did not care to ask his patients, "how did you get your illness?", but restored them to full health, this shows the need to shift our theological focus and concentrate on the healing of God's people without judgements. We need to operate from a theological standpoint that holds that health is a God-given right of all people and that HIV/Aids is an epidemic that violates God's creation and kingdom and therefore cannot be sent by God.
One of the debates that seems to consume energies in the church and its leadership, and, in my opinion, indicates an urgent need to shift our theological focus, is the condom debate. Many argue that condoms promote promiscuity. Other church leaders point out that condoms are not one hundred per cent safe - as if to abstain and to be faithful have proved to be 100 per cent safe in the church or outside. If there are voices in the church leadership that advocate the use of condoms as one of the viable preventative intervention strategies, they are way too few and most of the time they remain silent, perhaps, to facilitate unity amongst the churches.
The sensibilities surrounding the condom debate in the church are connected to what we regard as Christian sexual values of holiness. As church leaders we are afraid to talk about the condom for, if we do, we might be heard to be promoting sex outside marriage. We are also afraid to advocate condom use among married couples because, if we do, we may be too close to tolerating unfaithfulness among married couples, we may be admitting that unfaithfulness happens amongst married couples. As church leaders, we thus insist on preaching abstinence for the unmarried and faithfulness for the married. Our fears, though, are ungrounded for they seem to imply that unfaithfulness did not happen prior to the condom and HIV/Aids. Our fears blind us to the fact that unfaithfulness and lack of abstinence does happen today with the deadly HIV/Aids epidemic. We have forgotten that Jesus said, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice" (Mt 9.13). Our fears and our insistence on abstinence, be faithful or die with HIV/Aids, seem dangerously to equate the gospel Christ and Christian salvation with sexual purity. We forget that we are Christians because we are forgiven, not because we are perfect; that we are saved by faith, not by our works. Our debates are, more often than not, naive, for they turn a blind eye to the structures that make abstaining, being faithful and condomizing, not as easy as ABC! When our relationships are based on gender, race and class inequalities, fighting HIV/Aids is more than just abstaining, being faithful and condomizing.
Confronting patriarchal sins in the fight against HIV/Aids
Like the biblical world, our churches and our societies are still patriarchal. Our societies in Southern Africa still marginalize women from access to property and decision making. Consequently, many women still need to dress like Tamar and to work as sex workers for life to go on. Many who are married or in relationships fear to insist on safe sex lest their providing husbands/partners desert them and leave them without food or shelter. Further, male violence has escalated in the HIV/Aids era so much that many girls, women and elderly women are raped both in the home and in public. In such a setup, the formula of "be faithful" does not work for many married and unmarried women. The formula of abstinence is defeated by our underlying social ways of distributing power unequally.
Indeed, our churches in Southern Africa are, more often than not, the guardians of patriarchal power and other unequal relationships. HIV/Aids studies, however, show that a major factor in the spread of HIV/Aids is the powerlessness of women: their incapacity to make decisions about their lives due to the lack of material ownership and decision making powers. (UNAIDS 2000, pp.45-54) That is, as long as men and women are defined as unequal, the control of HIV/Aids will prove to be a challenge. As long as we are living in families, churches and denominations that promote the inequality of men and women, then we are a significant part of the problem in curbing the spread of HIV/Aids. This is a factor that calls the church and its leadership to repent from baptizing patriarchal relationship and to struggle with propounding a theology that affirms both men and women as made in God's image and equal before God (Gen 1.27). Jesus set precedence for us when he disregarded patriarchal power and called into being a church that recognizes the equality of men and women (Mk 5.24-43; Mt 15.21-28; Lk 7.36-50; 10.38-42; 18.1-8; Jn 4; 8.1-12; 12.1-8, 19-20; Acts 2.14-21). As Facing Aids (1997, p.16) correctly tells us, "Wherever gender discrimination leaves women under-educated, under-skilled and unable to gain title to property or other vital resources, it also makes them more vulnerable to HIV/Aids infection". Do we really want to uproot HIV/Aids? If our answer is yes, then we must uproot patriarchy from amongst us. We must develop and implement a theology of gender justice.
Care-giving is good but not enough
There is no doubt that as a church we pride ourselves in our care-giving roles. But the problem with our excellent "care" programmes is that they lack equally effective prevention programmes. This unbalanced approach suggests that the church and its leadership focus on symptoms. We only come in to manage a crisis, but we do not deal with the root problem. What is even more problematic with this care-oriented picture, is that it puts our theology of respect for life in doubt. If we really respect all life as sacred, if we really regard every human being, Christian or non-Christian, as made in God's image, shouldn't we demonstrate this theological stance by designing programmes that make us effective instruments in the prevention of HIV/Aids as well?
Another theological problem that confronts us in the struggle against HIV/Aids is that we have failed in our prophetic role. Our response remains bound to the traditions, to the boundaries of our ancient practices. The HIV/Aids epidemic, unfortunately, requires more from us. It requires that we deliver a new and prophetic message to our churches and society. It requires prophets who are willing to act, hear and see outside the comfort of tradition. We need a prophet who is willing to say:
"You have heard that you must abstain, but I say to you, 'Avoid all relationships that deny the human dignity of all people, be they women, children, blacks, ethnic minorities, indigenous people, people of different sexual orientations or illegal immigrants.'
You have heard that you must be faithful, but I say to you, 'Be honest to confront and do away with all the inbuilt oppressive relationships of men and women in marriage, in church leadership and all other social relationships.'
You have heard that you must condomize, but I say to you, 'Confront all factors that destroy human life and creation as acts of your worship.'
You have heard that you must abstain and be faithful, but I say to you, 'Whenever you have sex condomize.'"
Scribes disciplined for God's kingdom
The prophets of the Old Testament were individuals who were socially connected and well informed. A prophet was an individual who was a social analyser, one who delivered criticism on the prevailing oppressive social structures and called for a new social order. In our efforts to become active prophets in the struggle against HIV/Aids, we need constantly to scrutinize our theological frames of reference, to be fully informed about the latest best practices on HIV/Aids, and to revisit our policies and the structures of our councils and churches. Do we have an HIV/Aids policy for our employees and for all our programmes? Have we trained our officers and project officers on mainstreaming HIV/Aids in all their development projects? Have we trained our members on gender awareness, gender planning and gender mainstreaming in all the projects and programmes of our councils. If we have answered "No" to the above questions, then we need to start by holding workshops for our own education, for we cannot afford at this point to become blind guides.
Woe to you, hypocrites!
My second image is that of Jesus preaching to the crowds and to the disciples in Matthew 23. He acknowledges that what the Pharisees teach is correct and instructs the disciples to keep their teaching. But he faults the scribes and Pharisees for their practice. Jesus' harsh castigation of the scribes and Pharisees indicates the serious responsibility attached to being spiritual leaders, to being preachers, interpreters, theologians or ordained clergy. The crux of Jesus' unhappiness with their leadership is in verse 23. Here Jesus says, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith."
In this age of HIV/Aids, are we as church leaders, sitting responsibly in our seats of power? Can both our teaching and practice be trusted or are we hypocrites? The message I see in this image of Jesus is that all of us who are entrusted with the task of interpreting should responsibly hold to our positions without, as Jesus tells us, neglecting the weightier matters of the law; namely, justice, compassion and faith. These, I believe, should be an integral part of our theology in the fight against HIV/Aids.
Rachel is wailing for her children
My third image is the image of my mother, a mother to thirteen children. I remember my mother's fear of not knowing which child would be sick next, which one would be hospitalized next, which one would be dying next and how long she would be nursing and burying, and then again nursing and burying. Thirteen times, not counting the grandchildren. I try to imagine how such a woman sleeps. How does sleep come to her eyes with such a heavy shadow of death hanging around her children? How does she eat? The scripture that came to my mind to articulate her situation was the words of the Prophet Jeremiah, (as quoted by Matthew) when he said,
"A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more." (Mt 2.18)7
Last year, when two of my mother's siblings were in and out of the hospital, my mother made a confession. She said a long time ago, when she had just got married (1948) and had to leave her maiden church and attend the Vapostoro, which was her mother-in-law's church, a prophet said to her: "I see a vision that you will have many children, they will all grow up and then they will all die." My mother has just told this story for the first time - her eldest child is now 54, while her youngest is 24. Obviously, she told this story in realization that this HIV/Aids era may be the beginning of the fulfilment of an old prophetic word. I have wondered why she never ever told any of us this prophecy before. It could be that she dismissed this prophecy as empty babbling. Yet the fact that she never forgot this half-a-century-old prophecy suggests otherwise; she most probably did not wish to articulate such a word, for it almost amounts to putting a death curse on all her children. And yes, indeed, I have had a good time reflecting on this prophecy - I have asked myself, "so am I going to go down with the HIV/Aids scourge? If so, when? I am sure that each one of us who has heard this old prophecy has immediately feared that they are walking in the valley of death. But beyond my family, many of us who live in HIV/Aids front zones harbour the same concern; we constantly ask ourselves this question and worry about the fate of our children. We in Southern Africa are plagued by an uncertain future; we are walking in the long valley of death.
But what about her: the old woman who fears for the death of thirteen children and now we can add the grandchildren too. And here I invite you to imagine the nightmares of many mothers, many parents, who fear for the death of their children. I invite you to hear the wailing voices, the loud lamentations of the mothers of Southern Africa weeping for their children. Like Rachel, they refuse to be consoled because their children are no more.
HIV/Aids is worse than war
Commentators tell us that the image of a wailing Rachel was referring "to two significant defeats of Israel by imperial powers: the exile of people... defeated in 722 by Assyria... and [those] defeated in 587 by Babylon... These events...meant great suffering caused by imperial powers" (Carter, 2000, p.86). It was the wars that brought the mothers of Israel to wail and to lament loudly for their dead children. Yet if war caused this much wailing, we now know that "in sub-Saharan Africa HIV is now deadlier than war itself." Statistical evidence holds that, whereas "in 1998, 200,000 Africans died in war, more than two million died of Aids." Does this enable you as church to hear the loud and wailing voices of my mother? Can you hear Mother Africa weeping for her children? Can you hear the sound of her tears? Do you understand why she refuses to be consoled?
I do not know what your answers to these questions are, but I say to you, Let those who have ears hear. I say to you, Let the church know that they cannot afford not to repent, for the kingdom of God is violated in your families, in your congregations, in your denominations and in your societies. I say to you, Let the church know and understand that they must repent from judging the sick, by saying those who contract HIV/Aids are punished by God for their sins, hence fuelling the stigma of those living or dying of HIV/Aids. I say to you, Let the church know, understand and repent of the patriarchal structures embedded in your families, in your churches and in your societies which are sentencing millions of women and girls to death by HIV/Aids. Yes, let the church know and understand that every human breath is sacred to God; every human being is made in God's image - and that we, as church, are in the business of respecting all creation. I repeat, Let the church repent, for we have neglected the weightier matters of justice, compassion and faith (Mt 23.23). Yes, let the church bear fruit worthy of repentance (Mt 3.8) in the struggle against HIV/Aids.
- Buckenham, Karen, ed., Violence against Women: A Resource Manual for the Church in South Africa (Natal: PACSA, 1999).
- Carter, Warren, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Press, 2000).
- Dibeela, Moiseraele P, What does the Lord require of us? (Nottingham: United Reformed Church East Midland Synod, 2000).
- Dube, MW, Postcolonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible (St Louis: Chalice Press, 2000).
-Dube, MW, "Healing where there is no Healing: Reading the Miracles in a HIV/Aids Context," in Essays in Honour of Daniel Patte (Philadelphia: Trinity Press, 2001).
- Lerner, Natan, Religion, Beliefs and International Human Rights (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000).
- Maluleke, TS, "Towards a New Theological Education Curriculum for the Twenty-First Century in Africa: HIV/Aids and the New Kairos." A paper presented at HIV/Aids Curriculum for Theological Institutions in Eastern Africa and Southern Africa. Map International, Nairobi, June 26-30 2000.
- Allen, Hon L & Pamela Scharffer, "Reports of Abuse: Aids Exacerbates Exploitation of Nuns", National Catholic Reporter, March 19 2001.
- Norwegian Church Aid, The Global HIV/Aids Epidemic: Understanding the Issues, November 2000.
- Newsom, Carol & Sharon Ringe, eds., The Women's Bible (Louisville: SPCK, 1992).
- Nyambura, Njoroge, Kiama Kia Ngo: African Christian Feminist Ethic (Legon: Legon theological Studies Series, 2000).
- Rakoczy, Susan, ed., Silent No Longer: the Church responds to Sexual Violence (Natal: Natal Witness Publishing Company, 2000).
- Roetzel, Calvin, The World that Shaped the New Testament (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1985).
- Schüssler Fiorenza, Elisabeth & Mary Shawn Copeland, eds., Violence Against Women, Concilium 1994/1 (London: SCM Press, 1994).
- Theissen, Gerd, Sociology of Early Palestinian Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977).
- UNAIDS, Report on Global HIV/Aids Epidemic, June 2000.
- UNDP, Botswana Human Development Report: Towards an Aids-Free Generation (Gaborone: UNDP, 2000).
- WCC, Facing Aids: the Challenge, the Churches' Response (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1997).
- WCC, "The Ecumenical HIV/Aids Initiative", Southern African Regional Consultation, Johannesburg, March 26-28 2001.
- Welbourn, Alice, ed., Stepping Stones: A Training Package on HIV/Aids Communication and Relationship Skills (Herts: ACTIONAID, 1998).
- West, Gerald & Musa W Dube, The Bible in Africa (Leiden: Brill, 2000).
This article is adapted from a paper entitled, "Preaching to the Converted: Unsettling the Christian Church! A Theological View: A Scriptural Injunction," presented to the Southern African Regional Consultation: "HIV/Aids: Together We can Make a Difference," Johannesburg, March 26-29 2001.
1. For detailed descriptions of the various Jewish groups see, for example, Calvin J Roetzel, The World that Shaped the New Testament (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1985) and Gerd Theissen, Sociology of Early Palestinian Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977).
2.Perhaps the African Independent Churches have grasped an important theological point, for they baptize their members several times. See I Daniel, The Quest for Belonging (Gweru: Mambo Press, 1987).
3. Some of us may be thinking, "Hai mane [no], do not tell us anything about Pharisees and Sadducees. They were sinners and they needed to repent." The strongly negative image of the Pharisees in the gospels has indeed misled many of us to overlook the historical fact that they were holy men who spent minute moments of their lives seeking the face of the Lord. But a close reading of the gospels indicates that Jesus closely engaged with the Pharisees and the Sadducees, because the issues of the law and the keeping of the temple were in their hands.
4. Indeed, the Matthean parallel of this verse (Mt 19.16-30) indicates that the first-century church was already uncomfortable with Mark's human portrait of Jesus. Hence in Matthew this statement is redacted to read, "Teacher, what good deed must I do..." The denial by Jesus that he is good is safely tucked away. Luke maintains Mark's version (Lk 18.18-30).
5. Redactional analysis indicates that Mt 3 is already involved in a major apology for Jesus' act of undergoing a baptism of sins. Hence it is only in Matthew that we find an extended discussion of Jesus and John prior to his baptism, which is really an explanation of why he had to undergo a baptism of sins. In Lk 3.21, we find some similar manoeuvring. Luke separates the baptism of Jesus from the rest. He does not describe it, but reports it in one sentence, with John the Baptist removed from the scene. In Mk 1.1-11, the first gospel to be written, which was also used by Matthew and Luke to write their gospels, we do not have such explanations. Jesus simply goes to John the Baptist and undergoes his baptism, which was a baptism of sins.
6. For example, a Zambian widowed mother says, "How else do I feed my children except by having sex with men?" (NCA, Global HIV/Aids Epidemic: Understanding the Issues, November 2000.)