World Council of Churches

A worldwide fellowship of churches seeking unity, a common witness and Christian service

CHAPTER 3 Theological Perspectives

01 January 1997

Within the churches, HIV/AIDS may raise anguished questions such as "Why does God allow the HIV virus to exist?" or "What is God doing about the epidemic?" or "What beliefs about God and human beings should inspire the churches' actions in response to HIV/ AIDS?" In linking the medical and social context of the disease and its effects with belief in God, this chapter begins with the widest possible scope - a theology of creation - for it is only in the context of creation that the emergence of the HIV virus may be understood. Within God's creation live human beings, whose capacity for responding to relationship with God and each other, while remaining the social and sexual creatures they are, is critical.

Theology of creation

1. Relationships

Everything that is most valuable in a theology of creation may be expressed in terms of relationships. There are relationships within the Trinity; between God and creation, both its human and non-human aspects; among human beings; and between human beings and the natural world.

The life of the Holy Trinity moves in relationships among Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and characteristically all that God does in and with creation is also fashioned in the processes of relationships. Thus when God let the created world be (cf. Gen. 1:3), God did not let it go . The world was not left to survive on its own. Instead, at every moment the triune God initiates and maintains relationship with every part and particle of it. This is God's constancy, whether or not this divine action

is recognized. But what does such action say about God? That question may be answered by exploring two primary characteristics of a good relationship and the consequences of each.

• Freedom and the risk of evil. No good relationship can be created by force, with the stronger party dominating the weaker. Relationships which endure and enhance are built on the respect of each for the other. Likewise, God, who makes and maintains relationships with creation, will not dominate or rule by force, since that would destroy any possibility of creation's response. Instead, God has given humanity freedom, so that people may choose relationship rather than be manipulated into obedience like puppets.

But women and men may use this divine gift of freedom, which is necessary for entering into real relationships with God, to deny any such relationship, indeed to deny all kinds of relationships. It is possible to prefer the comfort and advancement of the self - or the extended self in family or clan - to the possibilities of relationship. From that exclusive concentration on the self - "curving in on oneself', is how Luther described sin - comes the possibility of moral evil, the evil human beings do to each other.

What is true of human beings is also true in its own way of the non-human world: God chooses not to rule by force, but to allow the natural world to evolve as it can. Thus God is not to be blamed for earthquakes or volcanic eruptions: these arise in the course of the free development of the evolving world. Creation, including all gases, insects, plants and animals, is a multiplicity of co-existing finite freedoms which interrelate in complex ways. As the human species evolved, it has made its own impacts on the natural world, further complicating any attribution of cause and effect.

It is not surprising that from time to time this has given rise to natural evil, that is, suffering which comes from natural events. For example, when the earth's crust cooled, it formed freely into tectonic plates. In later times, when these plates rub up against each other, earthquakes occur and suffering may be caused. Again, out of the freedom which God gave to the natural world, some creatures have evolved which are injurious to others. The tsetse fly carries a parasite which may in turn produce disease in cattle. Thus the tsetse fly may bring about both animal and human suffering, but it is an entirely natural creature.

In just the same way, the possibility of the HIV virus has come out of the freedom which God has given the natural world to develop. It is injurious to humans and causes great suffering; yet for all the pain and problems that result, the virus is not something outside creation, nor is it a "special" creation of God's intended to punish human beings. Rather, it is something which has become possible as the world developed, a creature like everything else, and hence able to interact with contemporary conditions and to produce natural evil. God allows this to happen in spite of the misery it causes, but this is not an "intervention" on God's part. God will not remove the freedom given to the human and non-human creation. Out of a desire for real relationship, God will not use power to dominate and control; indeed, such behaviour would be foreign to God's own nature.

This is a partial description of God's relationship to what God has created. But if that were all one could say, it would not adequately describe a God of love.

• The divine relationship of love . If the first characteristic of a good relationship is respect for the otherness of the other and renunciation of domination, a second, equally important characteristic is the affection, love or esteem in which each holds the other. Only with that warmth of regard and sense of interconnectedness will the relationship blossom and flourish for both. Thus the Bible portrays a God of love, who "so loved the world..." (John 3:16 ), and beseeches women and men in their turn to love God and to walk in God's ways.

No creature is excluded from this love and this pilgrimage. If God's love had to be earned by what men and women do, no one would be worthy of it. But because it is given, everyone is included. All those who tend to be forgotten, excluded, denigrated or marginalized in every society in this world are never abandoned, because the divine relationship is constant. Even those who refuse this relationship are not cut off from the omnipresent love of God.

According to a theology of creation which takes account of these two points, God first takes the risk that the freedom of creation will produce moral or natural evil. Consequently, what women and men do with their freedom is of the utmost importance. Furthermore, in making relationships with all that is, God is not only open to the joy and flourishing of creation but also vulnerable to pain at its viciousness and disasters. So no matter what problems may arise out

of the freedom of creation, God does not abandon it. Finally, although human and non-human creatures may have no choice but to suffer when the world in its freedom injures them, God has chosen out of love to accompany creation in all the changes of its precarious networks, seeking the finite response of creatures to the divine love.

2. Human beings in relation

To be human is to be in relation, to be involved in a web of connections with others - in the family, at work, in the church, at leisure. Above and beyond all this human relating is the relationship God freely offers to all in love. Relations with other human beings, like relations with God, may manifest the same respect for the otherness of the other which makes freedom possible, and the same warmth of relationship in the form of love.

Christians may speak confidently concerning God who is known in relationship because such a relationship of freedom and love was enacted visibly in Jesus Christ. During his life - which is as important for belief as his death, although it has had less attention in the Western theological tradition - Jesus showed in practice what it is to live this relationship with God, encountering others with the promise and demand of the kingdom.

There was in the way Jesus behaved an openness to people of all kinds, without barriers of class or race or gender. Just as God in love accompanies all creation, so Jesus went among the poor, telling them that they were loved by God even if they had not been able to keep the law scrupulously. He dined with a rich Pharisee, and told another who came to see him at night that he needed new vision and had to be born again (John 3:3). He healed Jewish lepers and a Roman soldier's child. There were women in the group that travelled with him, and unlike many holy men he did not shrink from the touch of a prostitute. In all that breadth of relationship, Jesus incarnated the accessibility of God, who "shows no partiality" (Acts 10:34 ; Rom. 2:11 ), but is open to all - rich or poor, sick or healthy, old or young.

When people and churches live out of relationship with God and follow Jesus, therefore, they will be continually open to others and offer relationship to them, even to those who seem very different. Just as there is no closing off of relationships in the gospel accounts of Jesus, so churches cannot withdraw into being congenial groups of the like-minded, refusing openness to and esteem for others who are physically or socially different.

A similar observation emerges from considering Jesus' relations with the religious establishment of his day. He attended the synagogue and was certainly no religious dissenter. But he denounced or bypassed religious practices and ordinances which put difficulties in the way of ordinary people in their relationship with God. Not only did he preach the immediacy of unconditional divine love and forgiveness, but he also put it into practice through his own accessibility and his going to where the people were. All this has something to say to the churches about human being-in-relation. It speaks powerfully against churches which confess that nothing separates us from the love of God (Rom. 8:39 ) - and then go on to set up barriers of their own between themselves and other people.

There can be no valuable relationship in which each does not desire the well-being of the others. God's concern for the well-being of creation is visible in Jesus' healing of the sick and his exorcising of demons. Medical work and forms of other healing maintain that tradition. This is one way human beings express both the openness, and the esteem and affection, of their being-in-relation to those with HIV/AIDS, even though no cure has been found.

Relationships continually require an enlargement of understanding. No one understands from the start everything about being in relation. It seems that this was the case even for Jesus. The gospels tell of Jesus' encounter with a Syrophoenician woman who asked for his help (Mark 7:24-30; Matt. 15:21-28). At first he answered that his calling was to Israel alone; but through this woman he came to understand that his ministry was to extend far more widely. Similarly, human beings in relation are always being called on to extend their understanding, especially when confronted by new situations such as that brought by the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Again Jesus, praying in the garden of Gethsemane that the cup of suffering might be taken from him, does not appear as one who is iron-clad in divine immunity, but rather as a person who went forward without the certainty of any such position and trusted in God. Nor are we required to be invulnerable and certain in our relationships. Rather we are called to be open, learning and trusting.

It is demanding to follow the way of Jesus in relationships. Such open being-in-relation, which acknowledges no barriers but seeks the well-being of all, will seldom be popular with the authorities. In political terms, Jesus was crucified because who he was and what he did represented a threat to the power which maintained public order as the Roman authorities saw it, and to the religious sensibilities of the Jewish leaders. Yet one understanding of the resurrection is to see in retrospect that no matter how abandoned and forsaken by God Jesus felt himself to be (Mark 15:34), God was present through it all and finally vindicated him. Not even the greatest misunderstanding or repression can separate those who are "on the way" from this sustaining love of God and from the fellowship of the church.

3. Sin, repentance and forgiveness

In our freedom, of course, it is possible to reject relationship with God and act as if this did not exist. It is equally possible to reject or disrupt relations with other human beings. Such distortion of being-in-relationship is sin. It comes about in relationships as selfishness works its way into action. Actions which harm others or the natural world are sinful, and we bear our share of responsibility for them.

This acknowledgment of human sinfulness has been expressed in a variety of ways in different church traditions and theologies. For example, the Orthodox churches, without denying the fact of human sinfulness, have emphasized the possibility of human perfection through spiritual growth. This theosis or "deification" depends on both God's grace and the human will. It is related to the human freedom to make choices which will lead in the end to greater union with God. As we are renewed by the Holy Spirit (cf. Titus 3:5) and continue to grow in our communion with God, our lives will show forth more of God's love and care. Protestant churches, on the other hand, have tended to emphasize the deep and pervasive persistence of sin, understood as the distortion of a right relationship with God, with other persons and with the natural order. They have stressed that this condition can be overcome only through justification - that is, the restoration of a right relationship with God - through Jesus Christ.

"All have sinned" (Rom. 3:23 ). No one escapes this situation. But a recognition of our common sinfulness may not only prevent feelings of personal superiority but also lead to mutual forgiveness and make spiritual growth possible. A story from the Desert Fathers illustrates such growth:

A brother at Scetes committed a fault. A council was called to which Abba Moses was invited, but he refused to go. Then the priest sent someone to say to him: "Come, for everyone is waiting for you." So he got up and went. He took a leaking jug, filled it with sand, and carried it with him. The others came out to meet him, and said to him: "What is this, Abba?" The old man said to them: "My sins run out behind me, and I do not see them. And today I am coming to judge the errors of another?" When they heard this they said no more to the brother, but forgave him. [1]

One of the complaints against Jesus was that he forgave sins. Only God could do that, said his contemporaries. Yet to those who came to him with at least a little faith Jesus said, "Your sins are forgiven." Jesus forgave sins during his life: he did not have to die in order to do so. Thus Christians see both in his life and in his death the great affirmation that God forgives us, with all our accumulation of great and petty wrongdoing, all the failures of our relationships in the family, workplace and community, all the omissions, lies and excesses that pervade our human lives.

Jesus told a story about a steward who was forgiven over a large debt and then threw another servant into jail over a much smaller debt (Matt. 18:23 -35). This is clearly not the behaviour hoped for from human beings-in-relation. Forgiveness enables a relationship to continue, but a refusal to forgive brings it to an end. Where there has been hurt, forgiveness is certainly not easy; and there are many situations related to the spread of HIV/AIDS in which relationships have been hurt and may take time to recover. True forgiveness - by God or by other human beings - never involves what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called "cheap grace". Yet it is gracious and it does make continuing relationship possible.

If churches are not to behave like the unforgiving steward, they have to become communities of the freely forgiven - communities of the healed which thus serve as places of healing for others. Churches of the forgiven are not in a position to reject or withhold relation from others. "Acceptance" in such a community is not a theoretical non-judgmentalism, but rather the enlarging experience of discovering who we all are-in-relation.

All this calls for repentance or metanoia as the proper personal reaction to a perception of what sin is really like in its horror and pain. Repentance does not bring about divine forgiveness of sin, as if that could be triggered by a human act. On the other hand, God's forgiveness, by which the relationship between God and human beings is maintained, precedes human repentance - although it is in repenting that the existence of forgiveness is discovered.

4. Punishment

A God who forgives in this way is not one who is concerned to punish . Neither the biblical account of creation nor the understanding of God gives any basis for attributing to God the desire for punishment. Moreover, when Jesus was invited to link sin with disaster, he refused utterly: "No, I tell you!" (Luke 13:3; cf. John 9:1-3). It may happen in private spirituality that the experience of HIV/AIDS may lead a person to repent of his or her own actions, as indeed other suffering may have this effect. But such a perspective on one's own actions is very different from believing that God, who is known in relationship and characterized by love, would deliberately send a punishment, let alone a punishment which falls more and more indiscriminately.

It is important to distinguish between punishment for an action and the consequences of an action. Consequences are the natural outcome of certain actions, the end result, to which several factors will have contributed. The outcome may be good or bad for the person or persons involved, but everything will have happened within "the way the world goes", and in the freedom God gave it. To speak of an event as "punishment" from God, however, attributes to God a requirement for retribution - as if divine morality were "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" - and a readiness, in pursuit of this retribution, to disrupt human or natural life by intervening in it.

A case study may make clearer the way in which actual events always involve a complex constellation of causes and consequences, rather than a single cause and effect, and thus underscore the problems and limitations involved in labelling consequences as "punishment".

Consider the following situation: A young girl from the hill tribes of northern Thailand leaves her family to find a job in the big city of Bangkok . Her parents urge her to do so, because - as subsistence

farmers whose produce commands a very low price - they cannot survive without additional income. In Bangkok the girl is put into a brothel where many girls are held in captivity by the wealthy owner. Most of the money from the clients goes to him, but the young girl does manage to send small amounts of money to her family at home. The brothel is regularly visited by rich men from Bangkok and by sex tourists from abroad who abuse the girls for their personal pleasure. The HIV infection rate among the girls is very high, as many of the clients are HIV-infected and pass the virus on to them - and they, in turn, pass it on to other clients.

Clearly there are many factors at work here: there is no simple process of cause and effect. Sinful structures in society are involved - economic conditions which virtually force the parents to sell their daughter into slavery, and sinful behaviour on the part of many people, including the brothel owner, clients and tourists who regard the girls not as human beings but as commodities or objects. At each point in the story, relationships are broken and disrespected.

This shows why it is socially, ethically and theologically impossible to link sin directly with punishment. If the girl were infected with HIV by a sex tourist, that would be a consequence, indeed a bad one, but given the circumstances of her background it cannot be regarded as "punishment" for being a prostitute. If, on the other hand, the sex tourist caught the infection from the girl, that would again be a consequence of the encounter. But who is to say what circumstances have led to his behaviour, or have discouraged him from living out his sexuality in a responsible way in a mutually faithful relationship? This is not to deny that some actions are better than others, or that people are always in some degree responsible for what they do. But it does suggest that once the background and all the circumstances of an individual are understood - as God does - then it is evident that the labelling of certain consequences as "punishment" for certain actions is inappropriate.

The World Council of Churches' executive committee emphasized in its 1987 statement the need "to affirm that God deals with us in love and mercy and that we are therefore freed from simplistic moralizing about those who are attacked by the virus". [2] The terminology of punishment should be rejected in favour of an understanding of God in omnipresent, constant, loving relationship, no matter how much some of the actions of every one of us may grieve God. A moralistic approach can easily distort life within the Christian community, hampering the sharing of information and open discussion which are so important in facing the reality of HIV/AIDS and in inhibiting its spread. The response of Christians and the churches to those affected by HIV/AIDS should rather be one of love and solidarity, expressed both in care and support for those touched directly by the disease, and in efforts to prevent its spread.

5. Acceptance

Christ's community of care is an environment in which risks can be taken, all members accept mutual vulnerability and stories may be shared in trust and commitment to each other. Unfortunately, many churches do not offer such a safe place for people living with HIV/ AIDS. All too often the knowledge that a person is HIV-positive results in gossip and rejection.

In a community of care, by contrast, "acceptance" moves from a simple avoidance of being judgmental to an embracing of who we are individually and, more importantly, together - the difference between receiving someone into your home as a guest, who remains "other", and embracing someone as a rightful member of the family.

The presence of HIV in our community - particularly, but not exclusively, in the church community - requires this shift in our understanding of acceptance. We are not called simply to offer charity to those whose physical bodies have the virus. Our undeniable belonging to the community challenges us to embrace the fact, however painful, that the virus has come into our body.

The parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11 -32) is a rich story about acceptance. Its characters depict contrasting attitudes similar to those which many of us hold, often simultaneously, about HIV. But we must be careful from the outset not to make comparisons in terms of "blame" between the prodigal son and persons living with HIV/ AIDS, for this would reflect a misunderstanding of the virus and how it is transmitted.

God's love and compassion are certainly not restricted to Christians, nor to those whom Christians might deem "worthy". Yet we often respond like the elder son, who self-righteously resents that

God's love, compassion and concern are shared generously with all. What is required in regard to HIV/AIDS is the attitude of the father, who meets his son with unconditional love without reference to the son's behaviour.

It is the younger son who begins with acceptance - of himself, his situation and his need for reconciliation. His action challenges his father to receive him home and to accept him as a son. In mutual acceptance, right relationship is restored and healing begun.

Similarly, we must first accept that HIV affects us as a community. Then, in mutual relationships with those whose bodies are infected, healing can begin. Such healing will include the restoration of relationship with ourselves, with others and with God.

A community of this kind will provide the environment for a mutual sharing of our stories. This is a process towards real conversion ( metanoia ) for all involved, a process in which the whole community, through moments of genuine vulnerability, offers and receives the gifts of each person in love and acceptance.

Human sexuality

Sexuality is an integral part of human identity. It is expressed in a variety of ways, but finds particular expression in intimate human relationship. It is "erotic" in the classic sense, that is, it drives one to move beyond oneself into encounter with another in relationship. And while this aspect of human identity finds particular expression in the dimension of physical intimacy, it cannot be separated from its emotional, intellectual, spiritual and social dimensions. A Christian understanding of sexuality seeks to take account of the fullness of all these dimensions, yet recognizes the mystery which God has given to human beings in sexuality as a whole.

Christianity has traditionally understood sexuality to be a gift of God for the task of procreation. In some traditions this is linked with an understanding of human beings as "co-creators" with God. While the role of sexuality in procreation is clear, a broader understanding of sexuality also values its role in enriching partnership between persons and in bringing pleasure. Society has therefore come to recognize a diversity in the types of human sexual relationships and continues to face questions, for example, about the acceptance of non-heterosexual identity.

Along with its potential for bringing the richness of intimacy and joy to human relationships, sexuality makes people particularly vulnerable - to each other and to social forces. In connection with HIV/ AIDS, sexuality increases vulnerability in two ways. First of all, as we have seen, many physical expressions of sexuality can bring one into contact with HIV infection. Second, the very fact that humans are sexual beings makes them vulnerable to the many and varied social factors which influence moral decisions and actions.

Like other aspects of creation, sexuality can be misused if people do not recognize their personal responsibility. Thus societies have always sought to protect people from vulnerability in this area. Through value systems which classify certain behaviours as socially unacceptable or through more formal means such as the institution of marriage, the expression of human sexual desire has been regulated and directed in ways deemed necessary for responsible and safe community life. Churches have particularly affirmed the role of marriage in this regard. In spite of all these attempts to provide protection and encourage responsibility, the abuse of sexual power and relations remains a reality. This is particularly apparent in the growing commercialization of sex and in sex tourism.

The AIDS virus is fragile. For its transmission it depends upon intimate contact. And there is an interesting connection between intimacy and vulnerability. Every intimate contact makes us vulnerable in all sorts of ways, not only through transmission of infection but also psychologically and in our personal identity. This is why every civilization has in various ways surrounded intimate relationships with rules, with structure=s, with ceremonies, with taboos. These have, as it were, protected the relationships.

What I see the AIDS epidemic as teaching us is that we Can no longer treat these intimate relationships lightly. That is where the world has lost its sense that close contact between human beings needs to be within an ordered framework:... This, it seems to me, is a moral and theological understanding which can be expressed in ways which are accessible not only to those with Christian commitment but to all those who think seriously about our human nature and our contacts with one another. 

Archbishop of York John Habgood, speaking at a hearing on AIDS during the WCC central committee meeting in January 1987

But ideas of what is sexually moral (that is, of what is "right" and not "wrong") are formed in a constant interaction between personal and community values. There is continuing debate about the origins of sexual identity , that is, whether it is genetically "given" or learned through social development. But it is certain that belief in, and adherence to, moral behaviour are developed in social interaction.

Christian faith and the churches clearly have an important role in influencing how this interaction occurs, and in the development of personal and community beliefs. In many instances Christianity and other religions have helped to develop, if not determine, prevailing systems of social moral responsibility. A case in point, as noted earlier, is the affirmation of the primary nature of marriage in building family and community.

Although the ongoing intra-confessional and ecumenical discussion about sexual orientation cannot be resolved here, it is important to recognize the role churches play in determining the environment in which people - often those with whom churches may disagree - are affected by HIV/AIDS. At times theological differences must be put aside in light of the imperative to prevent human suffering and to care for those who are suffering. The churches' role in developing moral decision-making skills is a key to this.

Orthodoxy is quite clear on this point: the sexual life of men and women is possible only in marriage, the purpose of which is procreation. Throughout the Christian world, marriage has become so unstable that it now seems almost unnecessary. In Russia , almost half of marriages break up, leaving about half a million children without one parent every year. Sixty percent of men and forty percent of women commit adultery, and infidelity ranges from one-time unfaithfulness to creation of a second and even a third family on the side. It is in this age that children enter sexual relations nowadays. The young people who do not want to marry entertain themselves sexually, corrupting their own bodies and souls. To speak nowadays about sexual restraint before marriage is something abnormal and even "amoral".

Meanwhile, marriage is God's institution, Orthodoxy has always taught that marriage has a great calling and regarded it as God's will and the fulfilment of one's earthly duty, which is procreation and propagation of Christian faith on earth.

Anatoly Berestov, Russian Orthodox Church, WCC consultative group on AIDS meeting, Geneva, September 1994

Churches have not always encouraged open and affirming discussion of issues of human sexuality. But if sound moral decisions are required of people, an environment conducive to making such decisions is necessary, an environment in which openness to honest sharing of experiences and concerns is promoted and the integrity of people and their relationships is affirmed. Apart from such an environment, the vulnerability of marginalized groups to high-risk behaviour is greatly increased.

Gay men, who were among the first to be affected by the pandemic and often play a very significant role in care and prevention, have frequently been condemned and marginalized by the churches. Some have argued that religious communities which have contributed to this marginalization bear some responsibility for the increased vulnerability of these persons, and that both parties must enter into a new relationship to make for more effective prevention and mutual care.

Of the many factors related to the pandemic, sexuality has perhaps received the least attention in ecumenical discussion. Further study in this area is essential for a deeper understanding of the challenges posed by HIV/AIDS.

A theology of suffering and death, hope and resurrection

Our lives and the whole of creation are held within the love of God in Christ. As Christians we live from the promise that nothing can separate us from God's love: no tragedies, accidents or disasters, no disease of body or mind, no personal actions, thoughts or feelings, no global structures of injustice and oppression, no natural or supernatural powers: nothing, not even death, can break God's solidarity with us and with all creation (Rom. 8:38-39).

We are also promised entry into God's final purpose for our lives and all creation. This is life abundant, a life in which each has enough and justice reigns, a life of fulfillment in which we can explore in security all the gifts God has given us. This promise shines through the Bible, from the varied accounts of creation (Gen. 1-3), to the words of the prophets (Isaiah 25) to the vision of the heavenly city

(Rev. 21-22). This is creation's birthright , the "glory" for which God has destined humanity and all of creation.

But within this framework of God's final vision for humanity and creation is another experience. For we do not live in a world in which there is no death, sorrow, crying and pain (Rev. 21:3). The way to glory evidently leads through suffering: for in spite of all the joy and beauty life has to offer, there is much sorrow, injustice, tragedy and waste. Some of this we can understand as the consequences - for ourselves and for others - of our own acting in the freedom given us by God; some we cannot immediately understand, though we sense that it may belong to a larger pattern of which we now glimpse only a part. But some suffering, sorrow and injustice we cannot understand at all; and we cry out, "I believe; help my unbelief!" (Mark 9:24 ).

But it is not only we who suffer in this world; the world also suffers in this world. The whole creation, for all its beauty and the marvellous order which it reveals, groans in "labour pains" (Rom. 8:22 ). Both living beings and nonliving material objects are subject to decline and decay. There is disease and illness. Many creatures live - and can live - only at the expense of others: indeed, many can live only through the death of others. The natural world is racked by equally "natural" disasters. Is this also an expression of the freedom God has given God's "creatures"? And for all their diversity, all living things without exception are united in facing a common lot: their lives in their present form will end in death.

The promise of God is strong and true. But it is hardly surprising that from time to time some of us are overwhelmed, confused or angry in the face of mysteries which test our faith in the faithfulness of God.

In such moments we experience the Spirit within us, calling us again to the mystery and "madness" of our faith, speaking for us when we cannot find the words, giving us courage to stand with others despite our own discouragement and fear, calling the church to be what it is: the body of Christ, broken for others in love. It is the Spirit which calls us to hear God's promise again, and frees us to hear it anew, opening us to hope (Rom. 8:15 ,24-26).

Finally we live by hope, for our questions and doubts are held within the larger frame of God's love and promise for us and for the whole of creation. We confess that we are not alone. We suffer with Christ - who is "God with us", Immanuel - "so that we may also be

glorified with him" (Rom. 8:17 ). Christ who has gone before us into glory is the basis for our hope. Christ is present with us in our suffering and struggle, not as one who offers a simple answer to every question but as the inspiration and pattern on our way. And in our weakness we are sustained by the Spirit who dwells in us (Rom. 8:11 ), interceding when we do not know how to pray (v.26) and finally granting life to our mortal bodies (cf. Eph. 3:16 ).

As Christ identifies with our suffering and enters into it, so we are called to enter into the suffering of others. Remembering the Suffering Servant (Isa. 42:1-9; 49:1-7; 50:4-11; 52:13-53:12), we are called to share the sufferings of those living with HIV/AIDS, opening ourselves in this encounter to our own vulnerability and mortality.

As Christ has gone before us through death to glory, we are called to receive the sure and certain hope of the resurrection. This is God's promise that God's promise, for us and for all creation, is not destroyed by death: that we are held within the love of God, claimed by Christ as his own and sustained by the Spirit; and God will neither forsake us nor leave us to oblivion.

The early Christian texts envision and express this hope in various complementary ways. Some speak of a new quality and intensity of life, infusing our present existence and transforming it with new meaning (John 5:24 ; 10:10 ). Other texts speak of a new existence after this present life - of our being raised to eternal life at the "last day" (John 6:39 -40) or awakening from sleep to new life in a "resurrection body" whose seed was sown at death (1 Cor. 15:35 -58). But all strands of the early Christian tradition affirm the bedrock conviction that God, through the power of the Spirit, gives new life in Christ, a life which is stronger than death.

The experience of faith in the face of suffering despair,
the search for healing and salvation,
the expectation of death, the hope of resurrection

Ernesto Barros Cardoso

 

Doing theology on the basis of foundations and epiphanie

My spiritual education always reinforced, during adolescence, the importance of faith as the certainty of certain foundations, a specificbase and structure. Too have faith was always, at that time of my life,' trust and total surrender "into the hands of God" and the acquisition of principles and values, concepts and affirmation that guided me, and made me a multiplier, interested in "speaking of , Jesus" to friends and strangers. On a number of occasions, what inspired me was the parable of the two houses and their respective foundations:_ sand; and rock (Matt. 7:24 -27).

For five years I-have been living in a house in a peaceful area in the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro , a fishing village. The house is spacious but its constructions simple and rather crude, not at all sophisticated. It is hard to fathom the process of construction and the logic of the builder. It is the kind of house that has been enlarged and renovated bit by bit - through momentary decisions, using space without ever having followed a plan, probably.

The work I have done on the house has taught me to pay great attention to this detail. It is difficult to make any changes in the furnishings of the house, but when I contemplate -making the space more efficient or adapting it to some new situation - out of a creative impulse or aesthetic sense; when I want to change the use of the basics in order to emphasize other characteristics and details which habit, boredom and repetitive action have made to disappear from sight,; then the task becomes even more difficult.

I can remember a children's game with a large number of small pieces and gears that had to be put together into a shape and sometimes made' to move. A variety of solutions using basic elements... something like 1001 creative possibilities?

Classical theology and the classical way of doing theology reinforce the importance of affirmation and certainties, of bases and foundations, of the security that springs from consensus. In the biblical tradition, a national, institutional, messianic theology, produced' during the era of reconstruction after the return from exile, affirmed faith in the foundations and in security as a way of overcoming times of instability and vulnerability. To the present day, biblical images, repeated in theological textbooks and in the poetry of traditional hymns (the hands of God, the Rock, the Foundation, Mount Zion that is never shaken, the anchor that holds against all the forces of the sea' and the tempest),- reinforce the experience of the Sacred as relationship; to the immutable.

But can theology be conceived as a risky and contingent activity - as in the declaration of faith by the father who went to find Jesus to cure his daughter: "I believe, help me in my lack of faith" (Mark 9:24 )? To find a genuine expression of faith inn the face of abandonment and doubt, it is worth looking back to the expression of Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Job. The Psalms also portray these instants of faith in the midst of crisis and lack of prospects or meaning: "Why do you not, hear me Lord? Why do you turn away?"" Some prophets said this situation of abandonment and distance from God was the result of the people's sin, the nation's sin. Sometimes they used the metaphor of prostitution, which meant Hoeing to other forms of security, trying to maintain political and economic power through bogus alliances, turning away from the pure gratuitousness of "serving Yahweh" and "surrendering into his hands" in complete trust.

It is appreciably different to emphasize the base, the structure, as what is relevant, significant, essential. Value resides in the structure, the foundations, and therefore in their invariableness, immutability, inflexibility and rigidity - like the stone, the rock, Mount Zion that is not shaken. But what a difference it would make to recognize the Importance of structure and foundation precisely because of the rich possibilities they offer to open up - on that structure 01 base - to new creations and interpretations, to successive epiphanies and expressions that inspire and sharpen sensibility, that stimulate vision, that call for a posture, renewing commitment, enabling a permanent "conversion" or metanoia, All of this is far from the inflexible and repetitive speeches which do not convince precisely because of the monotony of their forms and methods.

The experience of faith in times that "melt into air"

Doing theology in the 20th century has been a arduous task and has for a number of reasons grown n .re so: the acceleration of change at We end of the millennium and related concern about what Is to come over tile next decades; the weakness of categories and paradigms; the "pasteurization" of cultural processes, which attacks differentiation that becomes radicalism and sectarianism.

Despite the diversity of readings and responses, we live on the other hand with a great deal of accommodation to the processes of globalization, There is also a great silence about and a certain complicity with the imposition of nee-liberal models and global solutions , not only in economics and politics, but also in culture, Communities of faith, theological seminaries and ecumenical centres are slow to stay in tune and maintain a sense of timing with the changes. There are crucial issues, and the situation of AIDS with its impact on societies and cultures is only one example of the difficulty of response, experimentation, the construction of languages and visions.

 

Theology from the standpoint of the body that suffers and dreams and delivers itself up to the Mystery

It is hard not to speak in the first person singular. I do not think this implies reductionism or exaggerated individualism. Every time we pay attention to individual experience, we can identify elements that are more general, collective.

That is the case with the suffering body. When my infections became acute in recent years, the immediate sensation was of identification through my body with the bodies of so many other people, in anonymityand solidarity; with - somehow -- the suffering and the limits to, energy and to resistance to pain.

In a way, the suffering led me to recognize the limits of my body. There was a kind of division between the pace of thought and awareness - a quicker one, more hopeful, trying to get around limits - and the lack of control over legs and feet, over the body in pain, over the unexpected sleepiness and intermittent diarrhoea.

The experience accentuated the same feeling of weakness, fragility, vulnerability, mortality reflected in certain compositions by contemporary artists like Freddy Mercury, George Michael and Sting. Or the controversy caused by the curator of the 1995 Venice Biennale, the French art critic and historian Jean Clair. The theme was "Identity and Otherness: A Brief History of the Body", and according to Clair, the exhibition would be quite_ gloomy, "maybe because we are at the end of a century, and both art and society are living through a morbid period..." One commentator said that "morbidity is an elegant way of saying horror. One can wonder: why does the end of a century have to bring with it so many cadavers, deformed faces, diseases, physical unhappiness?",... An exhibition of the decadence and deterioration of the human project as this century ends. Profound contradictions.

As a normal response to the pain and despair of experiencing limits, a profound cry sometimes, in silence or in tears, a murmur that seems like Paul's image of all of creation groaning as if in the pangs of childbirth as it awaits its liberation from limits and vulnerability (cf. Rom. 8). A sensation of the collective unconscious: in one body, all bodies. The individual experience that can create bonds of solidarity, feel one with all bodies that suffer. Maybe this is close to one of the songs of the suffering servant: "Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases, yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God and afflicted" (Isa. 53:4). In one body, all bodies. The tired, suffering body of the world, the oppressed and downtrodden body of the poor, the repressed and violated body of so many women, the bodies, without energy and resistance, of boys and girls...

It is impossible not to have the feeling, in spite of the particularity of my experience, of identifying with millions. Yes, we are millions who are infected and affected .

 

Cure, destiny, salvation

In the face of the pain and suffering, the first solution that suggests itself is a cure: stopping suffering, putting an end to pain, recovering the energy, "coming back to life". As a cure is hard to come by or, in AIDS cases, impossible, the idea of some kind of miracle emerges very strongly. A fantastic solution, perhaps, but what can be said of the many cures in biblical narratives, or associated with the ministry of service ( diakonia ) and healing?

From the first time I-heard my diagnosis, I wondered why I should he or should want, to be cured. What about the millions of others? Would there be a cure for everyone? Would the miracle reach us all? And why? Would it solve the problem for everyone?

Here the questions about destiny and predestination and about the consequences or wages of sin arise again. Or perhaps it is a trial, a test. The same disturbing questions; that Job asked come up again and often elicit the same not very good advice as was offered by his friends in the biblical account. The same experience of abandonment and meaninglessness. If not as many cures happen as are necessary, is it a question of increasing the number of people who heal and pray? Is it a question of each person's faith? Is it a question about God's "plan"? Is it a trial or predestination?

Personally I understood miracles and cures like those described in the gospels as signs of divine possibility, of God's ultimate desire to reintegrate people's lives in terms of personal fulfilment, happiness, integration with social group and family, citizenship and bodily dignity. Jesus' gestures seemed like epiphanies . The fantastic and the unusual were indications of these possibilities of salvation ( shalom ) specific to messianic times, to the kingdom of God . They were expressions of the "madness" (or "foolishness as the apostle Paul says in 1 Cot. 1:18-31?) of faith, of what it is worth risking one's life for - that which is really essential.

Why should there be a cure for me if I know that millions will not he cured? Here we see the collapse of the theological concept of a God who makes choices, assigning a cure to some and suffering to others. What God have we constructed in the end? In the name of what God do we work? How many ridiculous and scandalous things have been seen in the "divine cure" section of certain churches and sanctuaries!

About "destiny": the Greek expression for this idea -- or power - that governed the lives of everyone, even the gods, was moira . Jose America, Pessanha, a philosopher from Rio de Janeiro , recalls that

moira originally had a spatial meaning. It is the feeling of one's own space, province, jurisdiction, parish, the territory a person can occupy. When someone lives life until the end, that person has opened out in space all of what he or she was able to be. Therefore, a second meaning of the word "destiny" is linked to "end'"; a person arrives a this or her limit or end, which is identified with death. Only with death does life's space show itself fully. Life is a conquest of space that broadens and with death gains its final shape. So noire, destiny, is that mapping, that acreage, the lot that each person occupied (in Fayga Ostrower, Acasos e craçao artistica , p.5).

And that makes me think about eternal life. Is it real? Will it be a gift? Is it a condition for hope? Or is it like an extra, assuming life - whatever the length - but soaking it in meaning, adding quality to it, giving it profundity by the intimate relationship to mystery that engenders and maintains it? Are these ways of "filling the space" (moira) and "fulfilling destiny"?

 

Mystery and grace - hope and resurrection

John of the book of Revelation dreamed of a land without evil or tears and of a tent set up for God to affirm Gods constant presence and company (cf. Rev. 21:22). He conceived faith as a paradise that was found less in longing for the past than in hope (utopia). Tire, key to understanding hope seems to lire this courage or energy to throw oneself into Mystery, the Sacred, what is beyond!...

This is counter to that idea of a human plan to "build the kingdom of God " which has boon pervasive in our theological centres and from our- pulpits since the 195Cs or 1960s. Again, the mages of the Venice Biennale indicate the bankruptcy of the 20thcentury project for civilization and the degradation of the human race.

The gospels present the kingdom in signs, gestures, indications, insights, first-fruits. So they point to a situation in which -- even if as the first-fruits, as an aperitif -- the quality of life, the defence of the dignity of life and of people, of their integrity, can be experienced not as struggle , which must lead to the naming of winners, of new holders of power (albeit in the name of the people, of democracy). Rather, the challenge of the kingdom is closer to an anti-power, an anti-institution, to the madness of faith, of hope against all hope (the hope of Abraham). The kingdom manifests itself - its epiphanies come -- in gestures, rituals and oracles without pretensions to universality or global plans and strategies. These manifestations occur in different cultural contexts, simultaneously and successively, as a response of faithfulness by men and women who rush into the "mystery", sharpen their senses to discover these "'epiphanies` and do theology as pure sensibility , as expression of dependence and surrender.

Rational questions cannot he asked of the mystery of life and death. That road leads nowhere. In the face of the Mystery, what is possible is simply to flow along, to let go, to throw oneself in like little turtles that are born in the sand and move clown to the immense sea and let themselves go.

Cazuza, a Brazilian composer who died of HIVIAIDS, used to sing: "Crazy life, brief life, immense life… if I can't take you along, I want you to take me."

The Mystery cannot be translated into words and rationalizations. Theological formulations in the classical mode usually take a scandalous distance from daily life, from contradictory and critical situations, from bodies that are on the margins of social and cultural experience, economically and politically excluded and discriminated against. Unfortunate y, this classical theology -- and its "rules as taught to new "theologians" always return to toe same refrains, the same words end round phrases, very good arguments, very well-reasoned, strictly following the models of the humanities and social sciences. Philosophical arguments...

I wonder what further action would be necessary to perceive this contact with the Mystery and the whole range of unheard-of and unusual situations, and the perplexity they cause in the mutilated and suffering bodies seeking hope and signs of resurrection. I renumber the absurd amount Job suffered and how, at the end of his experience of doing theology with his own body, he learned to reject rationalizations imposed as truths. I also remember what his friends said was "the foundation", "the basis" of arguments, and how they said that he should trust them, accept the pain, confess his sin and, who knows, be forgiven and cured! At the end of his experience, when he sees the Sacred in all its grandeur, Job collapses and says: "I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you" (Job 42:4).

Hope and resurrection are intimately related to his profound experience of faith. This confrontation usually does not find words and arguments that can express its impart. A radical change perception, of view and of projection:

 

In the face of the drama of so many bodies walking,
seeking a home a shoulder, an embrace,
a meaning that helps to understand this pain, to face it,
and go beyond resignation…
and then integrate it as a part of life experience,
of exercising the limits imposed, daring to advance
and extend the margins imposed by illness…

I think the attitude of the leadership of the churches, its thinkers (theologians) and its ministers (deacons and pastors), should help these people -- the multitude of homeless, roofless, shelterless, family-less, energy-less, future-less people - to recover and to reencounter, from within their Pain and their suffering body, the responses and arguments, the inexhaustible spring that helps to make radical changes. Only confrontation with the Mystery, with the always-open revelation of God, can break down the faith in well-prepared speeches which - for that very reason - no longer "convince" many people.

Now is when symbols, gestures, indirectness, silence are fundamental: learning to do liturgy with people who suffer, learning to discover signs of the Sacred in the midst of garbage and dregs, learning to recognize this "holy land" in order to remove one's scandals and, in silence and profound expectations, to meet like Moses what is "further beyond"!

I think that the most profound experience' for the sufferer who does not find a reason for suffering, who gets lost in the moray questions and recipes for alleviating Pain and curing the woes of body and soul, who is overwhelmed by advice from inept friends and empty talk, is precisely living a totally new experience based on a change in approach and perspectives, on openness to the newness of the revelation of God. This is something like being born again, being born in the Spirit: finding deeply, in solidarity and companionship, this Spirit of all bodies and of all of creation, who echoes the moans and clamours (Rom. 8) while awaiting the utopia of resurrection.

In its radicality, however, this experience is very fragile. It is like throwing oneself into the wind, into unpredictable movements, for this is how the Spirit is (cf. John 3:8: "you do not know where it comes from or where it goes"). What we have is just the effect of its passing, the effect of movement! Who has eyes to see and ears to hear...? Being "born in the Spirit" results from this jumping into the air or the wind like a hang-glider in free flight - or diving into the rapids or the ocean waves and "letting oneself go".

I remember children's games with soap bubbles: the lightness and fragility of the bubble, the careful filling it with air and detaching it from the straw to see it fly away free in the wind, the desire to extend the palm of one's hand to "hold up" the bubble - almost always impossible. The same often happened with the balloons filled with air or helium that we had at parties as children: Would they burst? Would they float away? There was a magic that moved us as we weighted the "lightness" of air in the midst of such vulnerability and fragility.

I have learned, with some difficulty and not without suffering, to exercise actively my experience of faith, This confrontation with my body - and with all bodies in solidarity, on the limits and at the margins-'and with the spiritual dimensions of my own existence gives me redoubled attention, a sharpened sensibility. From what I have seen, lived and experienced, I understand that theology and ethics are built like this, woven in the midst of existence, a constant epiphany, revelation, A fragile, contingent process that confronts life itself and the possibility of discovering in the midst of many risks (the bubble will pop, the balloon will not fly) a new rationality, of finding values regarding the base and substance of faith that have been lost or covered over by time, a technique that is more perfect than "jumping into the air" a matter of permanent conversions, this unheard-of and unusual conviviality of traditions and modernity, of foundations and epiphanies.

Then we come closer and closer to really pricking up our ears, focusing our eyes, sharpening our imagination and exercising new languages - to allowing ourselves to take the risk in the midst of symbols, words and sounds, colours, silences, memories of life, and to celebrate the Mystery of life. As Lulu Santos and Nelson Motta have written in " Como uma enda " ("Like a Wave"):

Nothing that was will be
again in the ways it once was

everything will pass
everything will always pass...,

life comes in waves like the sea
in an infinite to and from
all that is seen
is not the same that we saw a second ago

everything changes all the time everything in the world
there is no point pretending
or lying to ourselves

now, there is so much life out there
in here
always
like a wave in the sea.

 

Ernesto Barros Cardoso, a member of the WCC AIDS consultative group,
wrote this text during and just after his hospitalization in 1995
for AIDS-related opportunistic infections.
These led to his death following a further hospitalization in late 1995.

The body of Christ, the human body and HIV/AIDS

As the body of Christ, the church is to be the place where God's healing love is experienced and shown forth and God's promise of abundant life is made freely available. In making tangible the love and care of Christ, the church offers a prophetic sign and foretaste of the kingdom. In its confession, proclamation, worship and service, the church is called to witness to the presence of Christ in the world.

Christ's offer of abundant life is to be made available to all. The inclusiveness of Christ is especially seen in his parables about meals, such as that of the great banquet pictured in Luke 14:15-24, with their emphasis on the generosity of God's invitation, which does not discriminate among those invited on grounds of their merits, abilities, beliefs or moral standing.

Because all persons fall within the scope of God's love and are honoured with Christ's care, we are called to honour one another as if in each person we encounter Christ himself. When we fail to honour the icon and image of the divine which we should see in ourselves and in our neighbours, then we are not being true to our calling as members of Christ's body, the church.

As Christ identifies with our suffering and enters into it, so the church as the body of Christ is called to enter into the suffering of others, to stand with them against all rejection and despair. This is not an option; it is the church's vocation. And because it is the body of Christ - who died for all and who enters into the suffering of all - the church cannot exclude anyone who needs Christ, certainly not those living with HIV/AIDS.

In opening itself to persons living with HIV/AIDS, in entering into their suffering and bearing it with them, in standing with them against rejection and despair, the church expresses more fully what it is to be the body of Christ. And as the church enters into solidarity with persons living with HIV/AIDS, its hope in God's promise of abundant life comes alive and becomes visible to the world.

Some churches are showing courage and commitment in manifesting Christ's love to persons affected by HIV/AIDS. Other churches have contributed to stigmatizing and discriminating against such persons, thus added to their suffering. The advice of St Basil the Great comes to all those in leadership positions within the church, emphasizing their responsibility to create an environment - an ethos, a "disposition" - in which the cultivation of love and goodness can prevail within the community and issue in that "good moral action" which is love. [3]

The church is called to stand with persons who are affected by HIV/AIDS. This "standing with", this service of the church on behalf of those who suffer, will take different forms in each situation depending on the needs and possibilities. In some cases the church will need to work for better medical care for affected persons; in other cases, to work for improved counselling services, or for the defence of basic human rights, or to ensure that accurate factual information is available within the church and to the general public, or to ensure that a climate of understanding and compassion prevails. Most of the time all of these efforts and more will be needed.

In the incarnation, God in Christ has entered into the world, breaking down the barriers between the spiritual and the material, claiming the material world as a place where God is present and active for good. Thus, in the incarnation,

matter has itself become at least potentially sacred, the vehicle of the divine. The very stuff of creation is revelatory and is to be celebrated...
Matter is sacramental, instinct with the divine and, when used aright, it is a vehicle of the divine presence, the outward and visible becoming the effective sign of the invisible but real mystery of God.
[4]

Our response to God in this life is inseparable from our physical participation in the life of the world. To deny this participation by devaluing the material and physical world reflects a failure to understand the incarnation as a sign that heaven and earth are inseparable, that both belong to Christ and are honoured by Christ.

But the material world is subject to decay and death. The body is subject to disease. We fear AIDS not least because it brings these realities home to us, graphically and inescapably. We fear the "bodiliness" of AIDS, the way it confronts us with our physical, mortal nature over which we do not have control despite miraculous medical advances. The human body is still wild. We have not yet tamed it to do our will: it becomes ill, it grows old, it dies; it is beautiful and strong, frail and fallible; it is breakable and finally, one day, it is broken.

Facing these realities, we cry out in our need for healing, for freedom from this bondage to decay. And in Jesus' ministry we find a pattern for our own embodiment. For there we see Christ incarnate, embracing the conditions of our own humanity (Phil. 2:6-8). Jesus serves wherever there is need. He shrinks from no situation, however horrifying or repulsive: not from the wounds of the lepers (Matt. 8:23 ), nor even from the stench of Lazarus, four days in the tomb (John 11:39 ). He befriends those who are condemned by uncleanness like the woman with the flow of blood (Mark 5:25 -34) or who are cast out because of their ethnic identity or sexual behaviour like the woman at the well (John 4:7-30), or who are ostracized because of their fraudulent dealings like Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10). He accepts ministry from those deemed to have nothing to offer, like Mary who anointed him with ointment (John 12:1-8).

Jesus' deeds show us that, in the midst of the pain, brokenness and decay of our world, healing is yet possible, indeed necessary. Where there is no apparent hope, where death abounds, and against all odds, Jesus' act of service creates community and signifies life.

As the body of Christ, the church is called to such a ministry of service from within the suffering of the world. It can bear this task because it knows that, whatever its present condition may be, the

material world is created by and dear to God. It is held within the love and care of Christ and it is destined for glory through the Spirit ( Rom. 8:1-30). Because the things of this world are valuable and worthy of love and honour, the church will be slow to condemn even those things which seem in the eyes of the world to participate most irrevocably in the world's degradation and decay.

The church enacts this mystery of the material as a bearer of the divine each time it gathers about the table for that banquet at which Christ is meal and host and guest. Taking the things of the material world, it offers them up to God, signifying their true identity and home, and sending us forth in service to the world which God has made.

 


[1]   In Benedict Ward, ed., Apophthegmata Patrum (The Wisdom of the Fathers) , London , SLG Press, 1977, p.61.

[2]   Quoted in the Minutes of the central committee, loc. cit., p.135.

[3]   St Basil, Ascetic Works , 2.1.

[4]   Richard Holloway, in the introduction to Who Needs Feminism? Male Responses to Sexism in the Church , London , SPCK, 1991, pp.1-2.