Thursday, 26 August 2010

Jesus with HIV

My attention was caught by an article in Ekklesia yesterday, it was about a South African pastor, Xola Skosana who has caused some controversy by preaching a sermon entitled “Jesus was HIV positive.”
The point was not to suggest that Jesus was promiscuous, as most of Skosana’s critics have assumed, in fact, the sermon was not even meant to be taken literally, or as a factual statement, but as a message about Christ attitude to suffering, shame and stigma and his call for compassion.
Skosana, whose two sisters died of AIDS, said he wanted to break down the stigma which deters people from being tested in the country with the highest rates of worldwide infection. He also wanted to demonstrate that Jesus came to earth to participate in human shame and suffering. Using the quote,
“ I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me”,
Skosana explained that God put himself in the position of the marginalised. From the beginning to end of his life, Jesus dwelt among poverty, fear, stigma, shame and disease. He not only touched the leper, he was himself suspect; he was born to shame and illegitimacy, lived amongst the poor, and died an ignominious criminal.

Why can’t people cope with challenge to their ideas about God and humanity? In Open to Judgement Rowan Williams writes,
“This is the solitude of truth, the solitude, finally, of God; God as spastic child who can communicate nothing but his presence and his inarticulate wanting.”
This comparison of God to a disabled child provoked anger among some, but I don’t know why. Don’t people understand that analogies and metaphors are not meant to be definitive statements, much less deliberate insults, but that they are meant as starting points to make us struggle and search for meaning – to challenge us?
Jesus constantly challenged people by using analogies that shocked or surprised. Perhaps we are too familiar with the gospels to see how shocking the whole thing is. The Christian story is not polite or sanitised. The idea that God would be born in all that blood and shit, be touched by lepers and whores, tried, found guilty, spat upon, tortured, broken, and killed is pretty shocking! Just as shocking is the act of bursting through the stench of decay of death, not imaginary death, but real, visceral, physical death.
Perhaps we do need to be shocked a bit more; perhaps the idea of Jesus with HIV is just the kind of positive message we need.

(Above: Guido Rocha's sculpture "The tortured Christ"
Left: South African schoolchild's red AIDS ribbon picture, the text reads "Love them all equal HIV positive or not.")


  1. There is a problem with many Christians (or Muslims and Jews for that matter) in that they are apt to suffer occasions of ‘Flanders’ Syndrome’. Let me explain. In the "Eternal Moonshine of the Simpson Mind" episode of the Simpsons, Marge gets a black eye and on seeing this and hearing a disturbance at the house, Ned Flanders reports it as an incidence of domestic violence to the police. In the end it is revealed the black eye was an accident and Chief Wiggum asks Ned Flanders why he presumed it was the result of domestic violence and Flanders replies ‘I’m a Christian, naturally I think the worst!’ (or words to that effect, lest a Simpsons purist bore us with a correction!).

    I think this highlights a tendency to see threats that are not there – one blog I used to post comments now no longer allows me to post for similar reasons, because I raise some problems with the blogger’s view of Christianity and its purpose in British life (a purpose where he just happened to see himself as having a fairly leading role!) and he saw this as a personal attack on God (the idea that God is perfectly able to defend himself, rather passes these sad folk by!) when in reality I think he just didn’t like awkward questions about his particular version of Christianity – nor the fact the fact my comment WAS a personal attack on some of his ideas, but for the purposes of having the moral high ground, he chose to see it as an attack on God.

    People have a habit of sculpting God to suit their own needs and ideas, obviously this works two ways – but the sense I am thinking of here is the problem of limiting God’s mercy to their own sense of mercy (often excusing their own failings and condemning the failings of others!); reducing the Incarnation to the production of a superhero; or holding a particular view about Old Testament society, that of course suggests ‘Christians’ should have political power etc.

    I think the second of these misconceptions is relevant to your post. There are some very unhealthy ideas around about the Incarnation: at one extreme, those that are fostered by an over legalistic interpretation of Augustinian theology of Penal Substitution or – at the other extreme – Jesus the ‘right on’ social worker come socialist revolutionary. Orthodox theology (and the capital ‘O’ is purposeful) treads a via media where the Incarnation is God’s act in Love of drawing humanity once again into the Communion of Love that is the Trinity and was God’s original intention for humanity. This Love was so great that God became man, redeeming fallen humanity and steering it on to its real purpose. ‘God became man so that man might become god’ as Athanasius puts it.

    In this sense, Jesus is the person with HIV! As you know I have worked in social work for many years. When I was working in unqualified social work at a Christian Nightshelter in Leeds, someone once said to me, after a particularly difficult situation, where a drunk, smelly, aggressive, homeless guy had showered me with verbal vitriol and added to this, his spit: ‘He’s made in the image of God’. I came to realise there is no ‘us and them’ – I’m just better at hiding my foibles! So to my mind, those who have problems with the notion of ‘Jesus with HIV’ should ‘get real’. The fact they feel scandalised by this idea perhaps suggests they have rather an over-inflated idea of their own ‘righteousness’. If we’re saved by Grace, then there is no gradation humanity!

  2. Thanks for this thoughtful comment. I agree about those who get easily scandalised - but I wonder if at some level they are just maybe a bit dim and don't "get" the idea being suggested, or at least too quick to make assumptions?

    I now want to know who the blogger was who banished you from his site. Aren't I nosey? You could always email me!

  3. An inspired and inspiring post!

  4. Hi Suem,

    "Don’t people understand that analogies and metaphors are not meant to be definitive statements" - No they don't.

    As tpwr puts it, the Flanders’ Syndrome.

    They don't get The Flying Spaghetti Monster, or fairies analogies. Here the point of the analogy is not to liken God to the obviously ridiculous FSM or fairies.

    The analogy is about the reasoning that gets you from some hypothesis, such as there is a God, or there is an FSM, to a full explanation, a theology, and even descriptions of characteristics of this hypothetical entity, without any evidence whatsoever.

    The whole point of picking obvious nonsensical entities as the object of belief is to show that the same reasoning or faith that give you God can give you these others; and so the reasoning and the faith is a flawed way of acquiring truth.

    How come some Christians can see through the literal message "Jesus was HIV positive", or "God as spastic child" and pick the intended message, yet fail utterly to see through the literal FSM and get the intended message?

  5. I don't know why some Christians (and human beings) can while some can't - or don't want to - Ron.

    I think your point about theology is also interesting. I suppose I would say that differing theologies are ultimately different ways of perceiving or approaching God (given that one believes in an entity or instigator behind the universe anyhow.) I don't see that any of them can be definitive.

    Having said that, I am "biased" in favour of my own faith - because I believe that Jesus was the Son of God.

    But what I also have written into that belief is the understanding that others will be biased towards their own belief systems (or none) and may see my beliefs as irrational, or even "wrong" - morally or intellectually.

  6. "Christians (and human beings)" - Just wondering, were the parentheses meant to be inclusive or exclusive? :)

  7. (as is true of human beings generally)...

    An understandable mistake though, Ron :)