While I was celebrating my 39th birthday last Wednesday (May 28), it was estimated that worldwide there were 2 492 091 new HIV/AIDS infections that same day, according to the "HIV/Aids Barometer" published on the Mail and Guardian website.
According to the June 2006 "Methodist Response to HIV/AIDS - Revised Strategy and Implementation Plan" booklet, this disease is regarded as the "single, common and most violent enemy confronting the whole world today", and goes on to state that "it [HIV/AIDS] has robbed families of their loved ones, leaving orphans vulnerable and totally helpless".
I have to confess that until I started the TEEC course "Facilitating a Christian Response to HIV/AIDS", this was not something that I gave too much thought to. This is despite the fact that I went through a fairly comprehensive HIV/AIDS awareness programme run by Nampak, my then employer, some four years ago.
And despite participlating in the Voluntary Counselling and Testing programme, and testing negative (as I arrogantly expected to do), I didn't change my behaviour.
"What behaviour is that?" you may ask. Well, the fact of the matter is that up to that time I had been engaging in unprotected sex, and am still doing so in 2008.
"Shock! Horror!", you may be thinking as you read these words. "What kind of person are we allowing into the Methodist ministry? Get hold of EMMU quickly! This cannot be allowed!"
I can only hope that I'm not sending cold shivers down my loving wife's spine as she reads these words. For while it is true that I engage in unprotected sex, what is also true is that my wife is the only person on God's great earth with whom I have a sexual relationship of any kind. In fact, the trust within our relationship is such that we literally place our very lives at each other's mercy everytime we come together physically.
If by now you have calmed down enough to realise that the Methodist Church of Southern Africa has not just accepted a promiscuous philanderer as a candidate for its ministry, allow me to raise your blood pressure once again. For it is one's very own sexual purity that is often the biggest cause of prejudice when it comes to HIV/AIDS.
And I need to make my second confession of this post, in that I have been guilty of prejudice towards those who have been infected by this deadly virus. How so: Because since by far the most common way in which the virus is spread is through sexual contact, one automatically assumes that people living with HIV/AIDS must, by definition, have been engaging in inappropriate sexual behaviour.
As a result, many of us as Christians have added to the stigma that has already been attached to this disease. Some have referred to it as "God's judgement on the sexual promiscuity of this generation".
But in case you're wondering where I'm going with this, I'm not about to distinguish between the various ways in which one may have been infected, or the circumstances under which such infection took place. Whether one has been infected through consensual sexual intercourse, rape, mother-to-child transmission, intravenous drug use, or the receipt of contaminated blood from a transfusion (thankfully extremely rare nowadays), is irrelevant in terms of our Christian response to people living with this disease.
I say "irrelevant", because if we attach relevance to the cause of the person who has contracted the virus, we immediately become judgemental. After all, when a member of the congregation becomes afflicted with cancer, we don't get into a whole discussion of how this happened - we provide pastoral and other care to the person. We even show a measure of sympathy for the person who sustains a self-inflicted injury - my severely-sprained toe about a month ago, which was the result of me playing backyard cricket with a bunch of 10 year-olds comes to mind. Yet when it comes to HIV/AIDS, we immediately get all defensive and start judging people according to how the disease was contracted.
Quite frankly, it's none of anyone's business.
Now I'm not saying that the Church should stop teaching on God's standards for appropriate sexual behaviour. Far from it - in fact, one of my gripes is that we don't do enough of this kind of teaching. But this teaching needs to be done in a caring, Christian manner, rather than a judgemental, condemning one.
HIV/AIDS is real. Many in our Churches are living with it. And being judgemental of people isn't going to get us anywhere in trying to prevent it.
I'll be sharing more of my thoughts on this subject as I progress through the TEEC course. But rather than it simply being an exercise to get another credit for a degree, I pray that God will use the course to open my eyes and change my attitude towards those who are living with HIV/AIDS - and most importantly, how to provide appropriate pastoral care. After all, "when one part of the body is affected, the whole body suffers" (1 Corinthians 12: 26). Jesus showed love and compassion to all in His day who were afflicted with disease - we should be no different.
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