What breaks my heart, disgusts, and upsets me more than anything else concerning HIV/AIDS is the religious and social stigma that accompanies the disease. A guy by the name of Doug Fountain was on the verge of tears as he told our group the story of Mary; a UCU student that died of AIDS a couple of years back. Doug was giving our group a presentation on HIV/AIDS and claimed she would probably still be alive if she hadn’t been ashamed to get treatment. Mary kept her condition a secret, for fear she would be shunned by the Church, and died.
As if having a deadly disease isn’t bad enough the Church often adds shame, and ostracism. It may be very easy to cast judgment on the church in Africa and say it’s wrong and evil that they would ever ostracize anyone with a deadly disease. But we do the same exact thing. The issue may not be AIDS that you feel as though you need to hide or be ashamed of, but the issue sure is sex, or pornography, or cutting. Or maybe I'm the only one with real issues. The one thing we can learn from Mary is that secrets kill, you may not physically die, but emotionally and spiritually, secrets will eventually kill you.
How does the religion that kills people like Mary also claim to simultaneously follow Jesus? Jesus forgave and redeemed the humanity of the most shameful sinners of his society. He was scandalously popular among “women of the night”, tax collectors, lepers, Samaritans and other social outcasts. How does the Church claim to follow in the footsteps of Jesus when there are students dying due to shame at our universities? Or when there are Christians secretly struggling with drug addiction, pornography, and eating disorders; hiding in church pews across America? We surely cannot claim to follow Christ.
Jesus constantly challenged pharisaic religiosity with audacity and chutzpah. He relentlessly opposed religion that heaped on guilt, shame, condemnation, or secrecy. I believe that Jesus didn’t tolerate that kind of religion because it breeds pride and ultimately kills people; literally in Mary’s case. In the face of strict legalism, Jesus invited his followers to take upon them his yoke, which was light and his burden, which was easy. In translating The Message, Eugene Peterson paraphrases this portion of Scripture:
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly.”
I would be willing to bet Mary’s life that she was “burned out on religion” which Jesus would have set her free from had He had the chance. It’s very unfortunate that his Bride couldn’t afford Him that opportunity. But maybe Jesus’ offer isn’t intended for those with HIV/AIDS.
In one of Jesus’ last teachings before being crucified he condemns the Pharisees and teachers of the Law to hell because of their dead religious legalism. He knows that their religious system won’t save them and warns the people, “They tie up heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” Jesus continues,
"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men's faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to… Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.”
The difference between the religion of the Pharisees and that of Jesus is the freedom that following Jesus produces. Freedom, that comes from the ability to be open and honest without fear of judgment and condemnation; the freedom to respond to grace. Jesus never condones sin, but neither does He condemn sinners, He convicts, forgives and sets free. Why is it so hard for the Church to do that as well? It is as if Christians are afraid that if we start loving sinners we have somehow compromised our moral convictions. It is as if Christians think offering sinners grace isn’t fair. For some reason, I think Jesus’ forgiveness and grace makes people uncomfortable because it’s not fair. As if it’s too good to be true.
John 8 provides a powerful illustration of how I believe Christians are supposed to deal with HIV/AIDS, and any other issues the Church deems taboo. Religious leaders bring Jesus a woman that has been caught in adultery, and deserves to be stoned. Jesus says the person who is without sin should cast the first stone. Then Jesus says something that I believe is profound, “neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” Jesus does what the Church finds so difficult. Challenge people to change without the unnecessary condemnation. Jesus doesn’t ignore the woman’s sinful lifestyle, but He doesn’t condemn her either. Hopefully sooner than later people will begin to flock to Christian environments because of the love and acceptance they feel. Hopefully sooner than later Christians will start loving people like Jesus.
The Church worldwide is constantly tempted to fall into the trap of legalism and religion. Hopefully we can grasp hold of grace in time to care for a broken and dying world. Maybe in the process Christ will heal a broken and HIV positive Church as well.