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Outside the Camp?
Leprosy, AIDS and the Bible

by Kenneth R. Overberg, S.J.

The client at the HIV/AIDS clinic startled the visiting students. "In society, people treat us like lepers," he said, "particularly people from the Church." He went on to explain his deep disappointment with the Church. "We listen to the beliefs and preaching, and so we hope to find acceptance, care and love. And that's just what we need—a community to belong to, a spirituality to help us keep going. But instead we are rejected."

How can we as Christians move past rejection to help build such a community of love and acceptance? Our Scriptures offer us sound guidance: (1) by reminding us that AIDS is not a punishment sent by God; (2) by giving Jesus as an example of care and compassion; (3) by challenging us to question and change structures of society that oppress people.

A biblical vision concerning AlDS is so necessary because the pandemic threatens millions of lives, and yet many people ignore or deny the horrible reality of AIDS. Others express intolerance or condemnation or even appeal to God's wrath as an explanation of its cause. This issue of Scripture from Scratch addresses all people, especially those who are not infected—though surely the Scriptures also speak of meaning and hope to those who face suffering and death from the disease.

Staggering Suffering

Before turning to our Scriptures for understanding and guidance, let's first recall some basic facts about this deadly infection. AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) is caused by HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus). This virus attacks certain white blood cells called T cells, eventually destroying the person's immune system. As a result, the individual can suffer from many diseases that a healthy immune system would reject. One of these "opportunistic" infections finally kills the person.

The AIDS virus is spread in several ways: sexual contact (including heterosexual and homosexual intercourse), exchange of blood (especially by sharing needles for drugs, tattoos or steroids), and the birth process (an infected mother can transmit the virus to her infant). HIV, then, is spread when certain body fluids are transferred from an infected person: in semen, vaginal fluids, blood, breast milk, as well as in the process of birth. HIV is not spread through casual contact, such as hugging or sneezing.

Once infected with HIV, a person (called HIV-positive) is able to infect other persons, even though the infected person shows no signs of the disease. This latency period—the time from HIV infection to the development of AIDS—can last more than 10 years.

AlDS was first recognized in 1981. Since then scientists have done extensive research. A breakthrough drug therapy has offered new hope of treatment, although many researchers warn us to be cautious about expecting a quick technological solution to AIDS. Moreover, the promising therapy demands precision, discipline and, of course, financial and technological resources. For a great percentage of the world's people infected with HIV, such treatment is simply impossible.

The spread of HIV/AIDS is staggering. Statistics constantly change, but the following numbers give some sense of the magnitude of this global epidemic. In 2000 an estimated 34.3 million people are infected with HIV. Forty percent of this number are women, an increase from 25 percent in 1990. Worldwide, more than 70% of infections are due to heterosexual intercourse. Nearly 19 million people people have died from AIDS.

HIV/AIDS is devastating the developing countries. Over 90 percent of persons with HIV live in these countries. By 2010, life expectancies will fall dramatically, for example, from 66 to 33 years in Zambia. Nations already reeling from poverty, famine, war, and other diseases are being overwhelmed by AIDS. In the United States, HIV/AIDS is especially attacking the African-American and Hispanic communities. More than 80 percent of HIV-infected infants come from these communities.

Such sobering statistics have led AIDS researchers to conclude that wherever HIV enters a population, it always moves to those peoples who are already experiencing poverty, oppression, alienation and marginalization. The harsh and horrible reality of global AIDS cries out for individual and systemic responses. And so we turn to our Scriptures for the foundation of our vision and action.

Biblical Roots

Two biblical convictions and one condition provide the context for developing a biblical vision of AIDS. The condition is leprosy; the first conviction holds that disease is not a punishment from God; the second conviction proclaims a faith that does justice. Underlying these convictions, of course, is the more foundational belief that all people are created in God's image and redeemed by Jesus and called to everlasting life.

Sickness As Punishment. Let's begin with the first conviction. Deeply embedded in some streams of Hebrew thought was the sense that good deeds led to blessing and evil deeds to suffering. If a person were experiencing sickness or other trials, then that person must have sinned in the past. This perspective is grounded in the Deuteronomy tradition, and is perfectly expressed by Job's "friends" (see the series of speeches in Job 3—31). The Book of Job, however, challenges this tradition; Job suffers despite his innocence. Job 31 is especially clear on this issue.

Jesus, too, challenges this belief. In the exquisite scene described in chapter nine of John's Gospel, Jesus heals a blind man. Then threats, excuses and faith take center stage. Even before the healing, Jesus declares that the man's blindness was not due to his or his parents' sin (John 9:2-5). Neither Job nor Jesus explains away the pain of suffering, but neither views sickness as a punishment from God.

Leprosy and the Purity Code. Next, let's turn to leprosy, one of those diseases that many interpreted as God's punishment. The Book of Leviticus devotes two chapters (13 and 14) to discussing this condition. The harsh rules describe an image familiar to the imaginations of many of us:

"The one who bears the sore of leprosy shall keep his garments rent and his head bare, and shall muffle his beard; he shall cry out, 'Unclean, unclean!' As long as the sore is on him he shall declare himself unclean, since he is in fact unclean. He shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp" (13:45-46).

It is helpful to note that the biblical term often translated as "leprosy" included many forms of skin disease, including psoriasis and ringworm. Scholars tell us that what we call leprosy today, Hansen's disease, may have entered Palestine around 300 B.C.E. and that many of those described as lepers undoubtedly had distasteful skin diseases but not Hansen's disease.

Whatever the actual disease, these people experienced alienation and rejection. Certainly, ancient peoples were afraid of contagion, but for the people of Israel leprosy became a ritual impurity more than a medical problem. They considered it divine punishment and feared that the community would also suffer if the leper were not forced "outside the camp."

Jesus not only rejects the judgment (John 9:3) but also crosses the boundaries of purity laws to touch the alienated. Mark's Gospel describes the scene this way: "A leper came to him [and kneeling down] begged him and said, 'If you wish, you can make me clean.' Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, 'I do will it. Be made clean.' The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean" (1:40-42).

With a simple but profound touch, Jesus breaks down barriers, challenges customs and laws that alienate, and embodies his convictions about the inclusive meaning of the reign of God. This dramatic touch is also described in the other two Synoptic Gospels, Matthew 8:1-4 and Luke 5:12-16.

This event reveals not only Jesus' care for an individual in need but also his concern about structures of society. Jesus steps across the boundaries separating the unclean and actually touches the leper. In doing so, Jesus enters into the leper's isolation and becomes unclean. Human care and compassion, not cultural values of honor and shame, direct Jesus' action. He calls into question the purity code, which alienates and oppresses people already in need. Indeed, this encounter with the leper is one example of how Jesus reaches out the marginal people in Jewish society, whether they be women, the possessed or lepers.

Faith That Does Justice. The second biblical conviction that provides the context for developing a response to persons with HIV/AIDS is the recognition that faith must be connected with politics, economics and all structures of society. Even though the ancient Hebrews had a profound sense of communal life, they had difficulty integrating faith into their daily lives—as we do today.

Again and again, the prophets challenged the people not to separate justice concerns from true religion. Isaiah powerfully expresses this conviction:

"Is this the manner of fasting I wish, of keeping a day of penance: that a man bow his head like a reed, and lie in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own" (Isaiah 58:5-7).

Jesus embodied and expressed this vision in his parables about God's reign and in his healing and table fellowship. His encounter with the leper is just one example; for several other examples, see the passages given in "Talking about Scripture."

A Response to the HIV/AIDS Crisis

Today many people suffering from AIDS experience judgment, stigmatization and rejection, as did the lepers of biblical times. In ways subtle and not so subtle, persons with HIV/AIDS are forced "outside the camp," whether it be with regard to housing, employment, insurance, school or even the practice of their religious beliefs.

Other societal powers make the spread of HIV worse. Throughout the world, economic systems and decisions trap people in poverty. Racism fosters oppression. Violence and widespread denial of any real freedom force women into tragic situations. These and other social conditions provide the perfect conditions for the spread of HIV.

How are we to respond? Clearly, our Scriptures challenge us to live as faithful disciples of Jesus. Our biblical reflections have led us to three specific points concerning HIV/AIDS.

1) We resist the temptation to judge and condemn people. HIV/AIDS is not a punishment sent by God. This change of attitude is where we start. This respect does not mean, of course, denying responsibility. Prevention is still the key to dealing with HIV/AIDS, so educational programs must encourage people to take responsibility for their actions.

2) We respond with care and compassion to those infected and affected by HIV, crossing the boundaries of fear and prejudice. With the attitude of Jesus, we reach out to these sisters and brothers. This means action, perhaps starting a parish support group or helping a local agency that assists those living with AIDS—or at least supporting those who do this.

3) We recognize the need for societal change as well as behavioral change. Recent social teachings of the Church help us translate the vision of the prophets and Jesus into just working and living conditions. This, too, means action—systemic action. The consistent ethic of life guides us in accepting personal responsibility to challenge and change political platforms, economic strategies and governmental decisions that foster a culture of death. We recognize global issues embodied in local ones. We work, for example, to provide group housing for those with AIDS who need such assistance—and not just in somebody else's backyard. Poverty, unemployment, lack of education and the oppression of women are other issues that demand urgent concern and action in our local communities as well as around the world.

Our Scriptures have much to say to us about HIV/AIDS. Will we listen and act?

Kenneth R. Overberg, S.J., is professor of theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati. Among his books and articles Is the award-winning 'Choosing Life: The Bible and Euthanasia,' Scripture from Scratch, October 1994.


Talking About Scriptures  

Read and discuss Matthew 25:31-46, celebrating your own ordinary acts of loving-kindness, especially to the marginal people in your life.

Read the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37) and the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). Draw connections to today's AIDS epidemic. Then talk about how you can help create a culture of life in your parish and even in our world.



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