Submitted by Jan on Tue, 09/04/2013 – 13:51
Year C (2012-2013)
Bible Book: Acts / Handelinge
Verse: 1 – 19
Acts 9:1-19a tells the dramatic story of Paul’s conversion. Prior to this event, when he was known as Saul, he had been a leader of the Jewish persecution of early Christians, implicit in the death of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and actively trying to destroy the church by capturing and imprisoning early followers. Following his conversion he not only supported the new movement among Jews, but led the outreach to Gentiles, going on long missionary journeys, founding churches throughout the known world, writing more than a dozen letters now included in the New Testament, and eventually dying a martyr’s death in Rome. Surely, Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus was one of the most influential events in the history of Christianity.
Christianity’s response to the HIV and AIDS crisis has the potential for being another important and influential event. The church has already played a strong role in providing care and support to people living with HIV or suffering from AIDS. Now the question is whether the church will play a similarly strong role in fighting the stigma associated with the disease. The parallels with Paul’s story are remarkable.
Stigma is the judgmental attitude experienced by many people who are infected with HIV. Fear of being stigmatized, and the accompanying social rejection, often keep people from being tested and treated. Without testing and treatment, more people die and the disease spreads faster.
Prior to his conversion, Saul obviously had a similar judgmental attitude toward followers of the Way. After his conversion, his attitude changed completely – Paul became a strong advocate for the new religion, not only supporting Jews who had adopted the Way, but reaching out to Gentiles far and wide. Likewise, it is imperative that today’s church shift its attitude toward people living with HIV. In the early days of the AIDS pandemic, many churches promoted a judgmental attitude toward people with HIV, some even calling the disease a punishment from God for immoral behavior. Since then, there has been a shift away from openly judgmental attitudes, but often only a shift toward silence, perhaps constrained by fear of dealing with issues that may be theologically and culturally complex. While silence is a step in the right direction, the shift in attitude is not complete, corresponding to Paul’s three days of blindness before becoming a strong advocate. Churches must break the silence to become strong advocates on behalf of people living with HIV.
There is one other lesson for us to learn from Paul’s conversion – the importance of persistent action. Paul was not content to simply speak words of support for new believers – he took strong action. He traveled, he counseled, he wrote, he suffered, and he never waivered. The church has the power to break the back of the AIDS pandemic. Doctors and scientists have made great progress – we now know about treatment and prevention, and about treatment as prevention. Medically, we know what to do to stop the disease. The problem is that stigma prevents us from taking advantage of that knowledge, because it keeps people from getting tested and treated.
In many ways, stigma is the last barrier to ending the AIDS pandemic, and it’s a barrier that can be overcome by church communities if they take persistent action. The only question is whether we will do so. If we do, then history will look back on these years as changing the course of history – a point in time when the church successfully overcame theological and cultural complexities to end an overwhelming humanitarian crisis. If we do not take action to end stigma, then, as a colleague once said, “What good are we?”
To think about: What am I doing to mobilize the global church to take persistent action against stigma and to save the lives of people dying because of it?
Author: Barstow D (Dr)