Lutheran World Fellowship, Held at CRENIEO, south of Chennai, India – November 13, 1998
You will be hearing a lot about HIV and AIDS this week. My task is not to explain that condition. But I am glad that Asian Christian youth are talking about it, that you are being educated on this nightmare that affects many people. We cannot hide our head in the sand, like an ostrich, and pretend that the virus will only affect others. For you to be educated and in turn for you to educate those you meet is essential.
Just this week, an editorial in the Madras newspaper, The Hindu, made clear that “AIDS is real.” It stated: “India is the AIDS capital of the world.” About one of every hundred citizens harbors the deadly HIV within. Nine out of ten Indian carriers of the fatal germ are under age 45. When you enter a cinema hall, ten people among those attending the movie may have this disease. “In every college classroom, there may be one such youth.” The purpose in sharing such facts is not for you, in every group meeting, to look around with suspicion, to wonder who may be infected. Your Christian task is to develop compassion.
How many of you know in person someone with HIV or AIDS? Have you known in person someone who has died of AIDS? How did you relate to that person? How would you respond to your best friend if you learned that she or he is an HIV patient? A first cousin of mine died of AIDS. When my mother and I visited him after learning that he had the disease, she greeted him as she would any nephew who she had not seen for some time. She extended love to him as surely then as she had throughout his life. She assured him of her friendship and concern. She wrote letters to him and remembered him in prayer, without judging him.
My task this morning is to present a Bible study. Now, there isn’t any text that refers to AIDS. Perhaps AIDS did not exist in ancient, Old Testament times. It did not enter the experience of Jesus and his disciples. Believers in the early church did not discuss AIDS when they met to worship or share communion. The AIDS virus originated much more recently in central Africa where it affects heterosexual men and women in about equal numbers.
Biblical texts do refer to leprosy. Some laws about measuring the spread of leprosy caused disdain for people inflicted with it. Jesus called for revolutionary change. He scorned those who refused to help a person in distress. So, we find a basis for how to relate to people with HIV/AIDS. We have the privilege and the duty to live out the Bible’s call to share God’s unconditional love. I wish to read five verses from the Bible.
Leviticus 19:18 – We must not exact vengeance, nor must you bear a grudge against the children of your people. You must love your neighbor as yourself.
Matthew 22;39 – The second [greatest commandment] is like the first [which requires that we love God]: You must love your neighbor as yourself.
Mark 12:31 – The second is this. You must love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.
Luke 10:25-28 – There was a lawyer who, to disturb Jesus stood up and said to him, “Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” [Jesus] said to him, “What is written in the Law?” . . . He replied, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” “You have answered right,” said Jesus, “do this and life is yours.”
Romans 13:9 – All the commandments: You shall not commit adultery, you shall not kill, you shall not steal, you shall not covet and so on, are summed up in this single command: You must love your neighbor as yourself.
Galatians 5:14 – Serve one another, in works of love, since the whole of the Law is summarized in a single command: Love your neighbor as yourself.
You no doubt heard this scripture since you were a child. Did you know that it appears six times in the Bible? Do you know any other statement that occurs in the Bible six times? Does the fact of its frequent usage suggest its importance? Are we free to ignore this command? Are we to apply it to a person with AIDS? What do we believe that “loving the neighbor as the self” means?
Talk to one person next to you; say briefly what you think the phrase “love your neighbor as yourself” means…. Thanks.
Now talk to God. Reflect on your love for God. . . Now, explain in a little more detail to God what you think “loving your neighbor” means. Thanks.
We might look at key words in the phrase: love, neighbor, self.
Love: We know of different kinds of love. We might love samosas. Or we love to play cricket. Or we love to have a holiday from work. Using the word love in those statements suggests enjoyment or pleasure. The object in those statements is not another person. When we refer to loving a friend, we might mean that we love the kind way she relates to her parents or to us. Or I love his self-confidence and the way he causes me to feel good about myself. The presence or absence of love directly shapes relationships. With more intense feelings, we may refer to passion. Love that has depth is not only expressed; actions reflect the quality. How we live says a lot about what we in fact mean by love. Toward the earth, toward others (including those with HIV or AIDS), or toward God, “our actions speak louder than words.” In fact, to not live out what we say reflects how false we are.
A few words about neighbor: Who is your neighbor? The person next to you in this room? The person or family that lives near where you live? The country(ies) that share(s) a border with your nation? You have likely heard the phrase ‘the global village,’ which implies that distance between places is shrinking. Not literally, but because of more options for how we can be linked with others, we seem closer. Neighbor in a biblical sense refers to a person near to you who is in need. The need may be for food or for friendship. The need may be physical or emotional. The need may be sexual or spiritual, either of which is part of the other, I believe.
Recall Jesus’ answer to the lawyer, referred to earlier, who asked him about eternal life. When Jesus agreed that the man did indeed know the law, he stated but “you must do the law.” To live in the future, he must “love the neighbor as himself” in the present. Intent to justify his actions, the lawyer asked Jesus, “and who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied with the story of the Good Samaritan. For a Jewish lawyer to call a despised Samaritan good, was asking too much. To praise the Samaritan’s caring love for the injured traveler found on the road defined neighbor in a way that the lawyer resisted. So, we do well to think of a person with HIV or AIDS as the injured traveler. Who avoided the injured one? Religious leaders. Who passed by the wounded without helping? Those who neglect the wounded mistreat the neighbor. They fail to keep the command that is almost as important as to love God. Do we Christians have a choice to avoid the person with AIDS?
The third key word is self – “love your neighbor as your self.” That command clearly states that we must first love our self. Not a selfish love, love of self is healthy. To share love, we must possess it within. We simply cannot love another if we dislike our self. God created us good; we need to affirm that. We need to be neighbor to our self, to meet our own needs too. This is not a call to be arrogant, to think that I am better than the neighbor. But you and I do have worth. And when we recognize our worth, we are freed to give love to another. Anyone who deprives another of thinking that she or he has worth has sinned against that other. If we judge the person with AIDS as unworthy of our love, as worth-less to God, we fail to know God. For “to know God is to do justice.” The OT prophet Jeremiah stated that truth years ago. If we are not just toward those with AIDS, we reveal that we fail to know God.
Several other Bible texts could be mentioned. Matthew reports (18:5-7, 10) Jesus’ response toward children. Anyone who welcomes a child in my name welcomes me. But anyone who causes another who has faith in me to stumble would be better drowned in the sea… Never despise a believer, for I tell you that their angels in heaven are always in the presence of [God.]
The story about Peter in Acts 10 (9-35) when he was so concerned to not eat anything that he thought was unclean shows what he had something to learn. “The truth I have now come to realize is that God does not have favorites, but that anybody…who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to [God].” And Paul reminds the Christians in Rome (15:7), “it can only be to God’s glory, then, for you to treat each other in the same friendly way as Christ treated you.”
Today, people with AIDS and HIV are often treated like people with leprosy have been over the centuries. Too often, we who do not have the disease dislike those who do. We fail to value their dignity. We may resist seeing disease and pain because it reminds us that we too will die. The problem is not to have fears or feelings. But what do we do with them? Do we presume to judge the morals of others, without knowing the facts? Do we distance ourselves from pain by discussing suffering, rather than deal directly with it? Not only are they victims of a disease, we then make people with AIDS victims of our rejection. Doing that harm, we deprive ourselves of God’s love.
The human tragedy of AIDS is very real. But can we also see it as opportunity to open ourselves in new ways to people who have the virus? Can we open ourselves to their love? To their human feelings and fears? To their sexuality? We cannot think about AIDS without dealing with the fact that we are sexual beings. Often people deny sexual aspects. If we resist our being physical, if we shy away from being a body, we will be less helpful to people with AIDS. If we separate the soul from the body, or give more value to the one, we harm both.
We must affirm that God created us good—body and soul. Hebrew (or OT) thought does not separate flesh and spirit in the way that Greek (including some NT) thought does. We need to know what results from these two approaches. We need to see the interplay of the sexual and the spiritual. Part of being sexual is that we also have spiritual qualities. Part of having a spiritual nature is the fact that we are embodied. All that we do and our entire way of being in the world reflects our being both sexual and spiritual. As we claim the close linkage or interplay of these two aspects of who we are as human beings created by God, we are more likely to see why we dare not degrade another person. To violate another’s physical or emotional being also harms spiritual well-being, of both people—the victim and the one who causes the harm. If we reject a person with AIDS, we also destroy their fullness – of spirit and body.
I will speak personally. I am a body; I have a soul. I am a bodied being. I do not exist apart from my body. My body is endowed with life force from God. Or, God’s breath lives within my body. I expect to die. After my earthly life is complete, in faith as a Christian, I look toward a “resurrection of the body.” I cannot imagine what form that will take. Further, I am a sexual person. The first human creature who was created by God was not whole. Only when both woman and man came into being at the same time was each complete. Sexuality—the fact that each person was distinct but also created for loyalty to another—made each one whole.
My sexual body is female. I am so grateful to be a woman. Hopefully, you who are male are grateful to be male. But you dare not impose on us who are female any less value. We women are every bit as worthy as men in God’s sight. But patriarchy devalues woman. It distorts God’s plan by blessing man’s rule over woman, by expecting her to submit to him. If men think that women are not of equal worth, they sin against us females, against themselves, and against God.
Wisdom created all of us equally good. Why do I say all of this in the context of AIDS? Because HIV and AIDS have to do with our being body and soul. Because basic to our attitude of being human, whether healthy or ill, is understanding why the Bible calls us so often to ‘love the neighbor as the self.’ Because the church has been so ready to throw stones at those with AIDS rather than develop a healthy theology of sexuality. Such theology leaves no space for judging that AIDS is God’s punishment on any person. It requires us to claim profound love as the basic for Christian ethics.
I could speak at length about sexual activity—that which honors God and that which destroys human goodness. I trust others will address that during these days. Not all people who have AIDS prefer to be intimate with people of the same sex. I could speak at length about how the church has destroyed Christians who are gay or lesbian. Not all people who have HIV or AIDS have done wrong; many are innocent victims of other people’s choices and actions. We all need to weep for them. We need to mourn the plight of all who have AIDS, without first accusing or judging them. Only God is God, and God best knows each person’s thoughts and actions.
What we need to give energy to is how to be the church in the context of AIDS. Grace Jantzen states: “The church should be able to offer resources of dignity and support, not attitudes of shame.” As Christians walk alongside those with the AIDS virus, the goal is to replace shame with self-worth. Jesus did not add shame to those who suffered. He must be shamed, however, by those of us who affirm him as Christ when we fail to be compassionate toward those who suffer.
The moral task for the church centers in the primacy of love. To be faithful disciples, we must show that love of neighbor and devotion to God overlap. As Earl Shelp suggests: “AIDS presents the church with an opportunity to think critically about what it means to be a servant people serving a servant Lord. . . The church has no option but to respond with compassion and humility. . . A person’s need, and that alone, is enough to require of God’s people a loving response.”