Harare Zimbabwe


HIV/AIDS: Finding God in the midst of human suffering

As people called to shepherd we are compelled to “reflect upon the mystery of suffering and above all to make our communities and civil society more sensitive to our sick brothers and sisters. If every person is our brother and sister, much more must be the sick, the suffering and those in need of care, at the centre of our attention, so that none of them feels forgotten or marginalised. The true measure of humanity is essentially determined in relationship to suffering and to the sufferer. There is something worth noting from the Encyclical Spe salvi n.38 ; that is, ‘A society unable to accept its suffering members and incapable of helping to share their suffering and to bear it inwardly through “com-passion” is a cruel and inhuman society. Like action, suffering is a part of our human existence. Suffering stems partly from our finitude.

Over twenty years of this pandemic has revealed its complex nature. First and foremost, this pandemic is an issue of relationships, relationship with God, self and others. However, HIV is also a medical issue because it is a virus that attacks the human immune system; but it is much more than a virus. In reality, HIV/AIDS affects the very core of what it means to be human. It is as much as a theological concern as a biological one. There are internal and external factors that promote the spread of HIV/AIDS. We note that where there is poverty, gender inequality, human rights violation, child-abuse, racism, human trafficking, economic instability, war and violence and so on, the pandemic thrives . Fr Robert Igo OSB says that; “if we add cultural beliefs and practice, as well as international injustice in terms of provision of drugs and ineffective health delivery systems then we can begin to recognise the magnitude of this particular virus”.

Where is God’s grace in human suffering?
Against the backdrop of suffering the challenge of doing theology today is to give meaning to this suffering; in this case we are looking at the HIV/AIDS pandemic. What does it mean to do theology today in the face of suffering versus technology ? Our theology has a foundation, which is Scripture and Tradition. We do theology on the basis of our experience of God, and on what has been said in the past, other people’s experience. Jesus came so that we may have life and have it to the full, according to St. John’s Gospel . The weight of suffering projected by this pandemic compels us to ask many questions in regard to our relationship with God and others. We take note of questions such as these; “Why does God allow the HIV/AIDS virus to exist?” or “What is God doing about the pandemic?” or “What sought of beliefs in God and human beings should be drawn to help deal with the problem?” and “Does God care, does he hear our prayers or is God punishing us?” Where is God’s grace in all human suffering?

The understanding of the pandemic is greatly influenced by the society’s worldview and also by issues of religious tradition. What do we mean by this? Let us explore the society’s worldview, largely the problem of stigma and discrimination. Fear or stigma is a human reality. It is common knowledge that HIV/AIDS is a sexually transmitted disease; a few isolated cases where people get infected through blood transfusion and other means like mother-to-child during pregnancy or delivery are acknowledged. Many people associate HIV/AIDS with promiscuity. Therefore, a greater percentage of infected persons live in denial because they would not like to be associated with promiscuity. Statistics show that 92% of HIV transmission is through sexual contact, 7% via parental transmission and 1% other. There is no room for error as a single sexual encounter with one partner may result in transmission depending on the status of the person at the time of intercourse.

An observation about the traditional theology in the light of human experience has been made by Musa Dube . According to him, the tendency of Christian theology and the church as a whole is to focus either on the past or life after death, making Christianity unable to grapple with problems of the present. Important as it is to assure people of their salvation, it is theologically irresponsible to think of Christianity simply in other-worldly terms. Since HIV/AIDS is currently decimating humanity, it is incumbent upon the Church not to shirk its prophetic and pastoral responsibilities. The hope that the Church should give is for the present as well as for the future.

Musa Dube brings in another element to this question, the problem of the dichotomy of reality by traditional Christian theology which, according to him, does not contribute at all positively to the solution of HIV/AIDS. He continues to point out that the inclination to separate life into different categories, for example, creation and redemption, the spiritual and the profane, visible and invisible, temporal and eternal, body and spirit makes it difficult for the Church to engage with the problems of human existence in a meaningful way. However, Oduyoye rightly reminds us that the spiritual needs are as important for the body as bodily needs are for the soul . It is such acknowledgment that will help us understand the scourge of HIV/AIDS in a holistic manner. The issue affects and touches on a person’s entire life and any effective tackling of the problem needs to take this into consideration.

Now what do we understand then about grace in relation to suffering? In this case Karl Rahner’s theology of grace would help by shedding more light. According to Karl Rahner, grace is everywhere as an active orientation of all created reality toward God. Fundamentally for Rahner, grace is salvation. But of what does salvation consist? The New Testament as a whole yields the answer that salvation is a participation in God’s own life. Human existence is called in the end to personal communion with God, but in such a way that even now in the world, God communicates God’s self to human beings. Grace then is God’s personal communication of God’s own self to human beings. This refers to the scriptural symbol of God as Spirit. Therefore, the presence of God’s Spirit can be interpreted theologically to designate God’s self-communication to human beings, or God’s personal presence to and influence on human subjects. Grace then quite simply put refers to God .

On this account God is understood here as God at work outside of God’s self, so to speak, and immanently present within human subjects as an offer of personal encounter. Grace includes the influence that God’s Spirit has upon human beings and the effects it has when accepted. It is God’s Spirit, which is God’s self-communication of God’s own self in love. This is what is revealed in and through Jesus of Nazareth; this is the message of salvation in the New Testament.

Therefore, in response to the question of where is God’s grace in human suffering, we join two ideas together, that is Karl Rahner’s idea that grace is salvation and the idea that God suffers with which we find in the Encyclical Spe salvi. The Christian faith has shown us that truth, justice and love are not simply ideals, but enormously weighty realities. It has shown us that God, Truth and Love in person desired to suffer for us and with us. Bernard of Clairvaux coined the marvellous expression: Impassibilis est Deus, sed non incompassibilis; God cannot suffer, but he can suffer with. Man is worth so much to God that he himself became man in order to suffer with man in an utterly real way in flesh and blood as is revealed to us in the account of Jesus's Passion. Hence in all human suffering we are joined by one who experiences and carries that suffering with us; hence con-solatio is present in all suffering, the consolation of God's compassionate love and so the star of hope rises.

All in all to say that through Jesus’ redemptive suffering our sufferings can have meaning is not to trivialise them in any way, nor does it make suffering any easier. It still feels just as awful, but what Jesus has done is to take hold of suffering and death and create a situation where it no longer has the ultimate power to separate us from each other or from God. Through joining ourselves with the suffering of Christ, our pain, our sense of isolation and loss can become part of the saving work of Christ, who suffered agonies and died for men and women.

Fr Casper Mukabva CSsR