Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Outside the Camp?
Leprosy, AIDS and the Bible
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 needa 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 infectedthough
surely the Scriptures also speak of meaning and hope to those
who face suffering and death from the disease.
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 periodthe time
from HIV infection to the development of AIDScan 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
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
331). 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:
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
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"
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 livesas we do today.
Again and again, the prophets challenged the people
not to separate justice concerns from true religion. Isaiah
powerfully expresses this conviction:
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
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 AIDSor at least supporting those who do
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 actionsystemic
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 assistanceand 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?