of Integrating HIV/AIDS
As I went about business as usual, teaching the synoptic gospels from a feminist, narrative, historical or redactional criticism and the like, there came a point that this academic approach began to become artificial and strange even on my tongue. I began to ask myself: Why am I talking about the historical context of Jesus, redactional criticism, narrative and all this stuff and skirting the main issue in this context and the gospels, namely, sickness and healing?1
Teaching the synoptic gospels in an HIV/AIDS context thus forces me to rethink the purpose of the academy. I am forced to ask myself what good does my teaching do if it cannot address the most pressing needs of my students and society... I am forced to ask the “how” question – how can I make my teaching of the synoptic gospels, which are full of the healing miracles of Jesus, a social space for preparing students to live in their own context of HIV/AIDS.2
As African scholars and teachers of biblical studies in a time and context of HIV/AIDS, we are faced with a number of questions. How can we become partners in the struggle against HIV/AIDS? How can we help to provide quality care to the infected and affected, eliminate the stigma and discrimination around HIV/AIDS, and minimize the impact of HIV/AIDS on our societies? What methods can be used to mainstream HIV/AIDS in biblical studies? This latter question entails examining the usability of available methods as well as suggesting other new and creative ways of teaching biblical studies. This is indispensable, given that most of us who are currently teaching biblical studies have not learned about re/reading the Bible in the light of HIV/AIDS. Our efforts to mainstream HIV/AIDS in biblical studies must actively include the experience and the views of people living with HIV/AIDS (henceforth PLWHA). In what follows, I shall present what I have shared with many theological educators in Africa – often in poster form during the various training-of-trainers workshops I have held on integrating HIV/AIDS in theological programmes. I shall outline my poster presentation and then elaborate on each point. These include:
• defining the problem;
Defining the problem, and the rationale for including HIV/AIDS
in biblical studies
First, HIV/AIDS is a major attack on life. Since biblical studies is a discipline that centres on the divine creation of life and the search for the divine will for all life and relationships, it cannot ignore HIV/AIDS’s attack on life and how it affects particularly socially disadvantaged populations, who face poverty, gender inequality, violence, international injustice, racism, ethnic conflict, denial of children’s rights, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and ethnicity.
Second, the impact of HIV/AIDS itself warrants a pedagogical response in biblical studies. Its incurability leads to fear, hopelessness, intense search for healing, poverty, death, orphans, widows, and over-burdened grandparents who have to take care of orphaned children. It underlines the need for transformative compassion.
Third, HIV/AIDS also has an economic impact as production decreases and costs increase. Socially, it affects relationships at all levels. In politics, it calls for particular leadership at community, national and international levels. Its incurability has raised spiritual questions and its interaction with other social epidemics has exposed culture and many social structures and institutions as inadequate and in need of a review.
One could go on and highlight its impact on all aspects of life. But the basic point is that HIV/AIDS is not just a medical issue or one of lack of sexual morality, as some have maintained. It impacts individuals, families, communities and nations. Consequently, the fight against HIV/AIDS has been correctly defined as needing a “multi-sectoral approach”. That is, all departments, disciplines, all of us, wherever we are and whatever discipline we pursue, should ask how we are contributing now and how we can contribute in the future to the lessening and the final eradication of HIV/AIDS. It is our moral obligation as biblical educators to do all we can in the prevention of HIV/AIDS, the provision of quality care for the infected and affected, the elimination of stigma and discrimination, and minimizing its impact on our worlds. We must equip our students to live and operate in HIV/AIDS contexts and to contribute towards eliminating this epidemic and gaining new knowledge that can improve life in general.
The issue of spirituality and HIV/AIDS brings us much closer to home. Since the Bible is not just a collection of literature but rather a book that is read by millions in search of all the answers to life, obviously its interpretation in the light of HIV/AIDS is unavoidable.3 As individual and faith communities have tried to explain HIV/AIDS, they turned to the Bible. It is notable that most of the early interpretations were negative and served to stigmatize those affected and infected since they relied on texts that associated illness with a punishment sent by God on those who are immoral and disobedient (Deut. 7:12-15, 28:27-29).
While there is no guarantee that such interpretations of the Bible are no longer prevalent, as teachers of biblical studies we have to face our responsibilities. How can we re-read the Bible in the light of HIV/AIDS, to become part of the solution or as part of our search for healing and the healing of the world? Given the newness of HIV/AIDS, most of us will have to be creative and research-oriented in our teaching, especially because most of our library collections are silent on the issue. I will share with you briefly how I have responded to this challenge as a lecturer in New Testament.
Sharing my story: one pedagogical response to HIV/AIDS
My second move was an attempt to use my skills as an educator to produce a teaching tool for church ministers. I worked on producing a video entitled AfricaPraying: Orphans Need Love. The video documents the situation of orphans, what churches are doing about their plight, what they are able and wish to do, and what their limitations are. The video is thus both documentation but also a mobilizing and teaching tool on behalf of orphans. Producing this video brought me into contact with the world of project design and the search for sponsors. But even more importantly, it took me to real sites and brought me face to face with affected children and their care-givers and the reality of the stigma of HIV/AIDS. Despite all this, I still had not brought HIV/AIDS to my classes in the university of Botswana.
I was shocked into bringing HIV/AIDS into my teaching by the realization that it was futile if it could not address the havoc caused by the epidemic. I was then teaching a second-year course on the synoptic gospels to a large class of two hundred students. The majority of the class members were between 18 and 40 years of age. With an HIV/AIDS infection rate in the range of 38 percent among sexually active people in Botswana, I was suddenly struck by the fact that almost half of my class members might not be alive in ten years’ time. This devastating thought made me realize how futile my teaching was. I began to ask myself what was the point of teaching the synoptic gospels to this group of young people if it could not help them stay alive or live and operate in an HIV/AIDS context – if they could not even live long enough to utilize this knowledge. So how could I teach the New Testament in such a way that it would help my students to have an understanding of HIV/AIDS and its impact, and how we can all take part in the struggle against it?
There was a second reason that pushed me towards mainstreaming HIV/AIDS in New Testament studies. This had to do with the content of the synoptic gospels, namely, the miracles of healing performed by Jesus. As I narrate this story elsewhere,
...The miracles of healing seem to be [present] throughout these texts. As we read, we become consciously aware that we are reading two texts: the ancient biblical text and the text of our lives. The merging of these two texts is sharply ironic, for Jesus goes about healing all diseases and illness, while we believers in Christ know too well that there is no healing where we stand. Despite this overt contradiction, Jesus, who heals all diseases instantly and without demanding payment, represents our deepest prayers and wishes.4
Confronted with this crisis in my teaching vocation, I began to devise ways of integrating HIV/AIDS in my university work. First, I encouraged students to write their dissertation on the subject by making it clear that I would be happy to supervise any work in this area.5 Second, I assigned students various passages on the miracles of healing and asked them to design a questionnaire. Then they were to find four or five people from the outside community to read the passage with them through the questionnaire. In this way, students would read the miracles of healing with people in the community, compile their findings and present some of these findings in the classroom. This enabled us to discern the theology that arises from our HIV/AIDS context. More importantly, it broke the silence surrounding HIV/AIDS and brought all of us to talk. Breaking the silence revealed that,
In this process of talking, we participate in our own healing as we come to define ourselves as “all affected” by HIV/AIDS in our country, region and continent. The classroom becomes a social space for “tough encounters” as we take the moment to talk about what is really happening and how best we can bring ourselves to live with each other and our situation.6
In addition, my examination always included a question on some aspect of HIV/AIDS and how it can be seen from the perspective of the New Testament.
The third method I used was to mobilize my department to mainstream HIV/AIDS in our research, writing and publications. I happened to be the seminar coordinator for the department at the time, responsible for organizing speakers, from the department and elsewhere. So I proposed an academic year-long series of papers that focused on HIV/AIDS from our various areas of specialities as scholars of religion. Some rejected this idea, others supported it. To make it more appealing, I successfully approached a well-known journal and proposed to edit a special issue on HIV/AIDS and theological education, using the papers from the seminar. With a promise that their papers would be published in a good journal, I won the support of more colleagues and I also found speakers from outside the university community. I e-mailed an academic year-long programme of fortnightly presentations to the whole university community and things began to roll.
Every two weeks, except during exam time, we had a presentation. The seminars brought together students, staff, the university community in general and all interested outsiders. Soon our department was noted for its exemplary leadership in mainstreaming HIV/AIDS in our work. Again, the seminars served as a space for breaking the silence and hearing each other out. The end result of these seminars was published in Missionalia.7
This story, I believe, gives us various methods of integrating HIV/AIDS in biblical studies and in religious studies in general. First, it demands intellectuals that are interconnected with both their religious communities and society in general. This led, even before I brought HIV/AIDS to my university teaching, to liturgical writing and to the production of a teaching tool geared to mobilizing the religious community. Clearly, it calls for an activist biblical scholar. Second, the method of reading the Bible with and from the community was used to generate and discover a contextually relevant theology of our time. Third, research and the seminar approach also help to mainstream HIV/AIDS not just at individual level but also at departmental and campus-wide level through bringing people together to discuss the issue, but also through students’ dissertations. These, I believe, are some practical methods, but there are countless other ways, as I will outline below.
Some methods of mainstreaming HIV/AIDS in biblical studies
Teaching or re-reading the Bible in the light of HIV/AIDS means that such methods will have to be contextually oriented and theological. That is, the approach will be to read the Bible not only as an historical and ancient book, but also with an eye to current concerns. Luckily, both in African and worldwide biblical studies such an approach is now possible and recognized. In African biblical studies, as in most two-thirds world contexts, inculturation and liberation hermeneutics of the Bible have always been contextual. As Justin Ukpong points out, “This involves a variety of ways that link the biblical text to the African context such that the main focus of interpretation is on the communities that receive it rather than on those that produced it or on the text itself as in the Western methods.”8 Yet even in Western scholarship methods and theories such as reader-response, feminist and social location mean that biblical readers cannot avoid reading with their own concerns, identity and experience in mind. Basically, a contextual biblical study is inevitable.
Depending on various factors, such as one’s situation, training, speciality in methods, interest, type of students and academic environment, one can choose to use one of the following categories of methods in teaching biblical studies in an HIV/AIDS context: available methods, available African biblical methods, a thematic approach, a book approach and a comparative approach. Whatever the method used, it should be creative and imaginative.
Available methods of biblical studies
To start with the historical approach, those who use historical criticism can particularly help us to have a better understanding of illness and healing in ancient times and biblical thinking. Given that the initial response to HIV/AIDS focused on those biblical passages that associated illness with disobedience and punishment by God (Gen. 30; Num. 12, 14 and 21:4-9; 2 Sam. 24), a historical approach can help us to understand the context in which these passages were written and used. Such an approach can also highlight various other biblical perspectives of understanding illness, particularly that illness is not always a consequence of disobedience and divine punishment.10 Similarly, historical perspectives can also highlight biblical perspectives on social epidemics such as poverty, gender inequalities, national corruption, international exploitation, exploitation of widows and orphans. Historical feminist methods of reading can particularly help to highlight both oppressive gender relations in the Bible and those that empower both sexes. The latter could gives us an entry-point to advocate gender empowerment, given that gender inequalities have been identified as a major driving force behind the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Literary methods are various. They include narrative, rhetorical, genre, structuralism, reader-response, ideological, psycho-analytical, feminist, social location and post-colonial theories. Some of the methods are concerned with analysis of the text more from a historical perspective (Greek rhetorical and genre) than from a contemporary one. Some are more interested on focusing on the text itself than on history or the present (narrative and structuralism). However, all ways of reading will of necessity include the reader, the text and the context. For, example, reader-response theories can work in combination with most literary/historical and cultural methods. The presupposition is that different readers will highlight different aspects of the text depending on their experiences, identity and context. In short, the social location of readers informs the type of biblical interpretation they will make. If we are reading in a world and a context of HIV/AIDS, it follows that narrative, ideological, psycho-analytical, feminist and post-colonial methods will highlight those themes that have been vividly brought to the fore for us by HIV/AIDS. Literary methods of analysis are therefore particularly useful for the integration of HIV/AIDS in the reading of various passages.
To cite one example, I have read Mark 5:24b-43, the story of the bleeding woman and the dead young girl, from a feminist and HIV/AIDS perspective with different groups.11 I begin by inviting the group to do a narrative analysis, asking the participants to identify characters, setting, narrators, and the rhetoric of the passage. We then move to a gender analysis of our narrative findings and of the passage. Here we note the difference between men and women in terms of role and power. Lastly, I suggest reading the passage from an HIV/AIDS context. Here we are struck by doctors who cannot heal, patients who lose all their savings in the search for healing, the stigma that is attached to some illnesses, Jesus as a religious leader who is so sensitive to the touch of a desperate woman and who stops to listen, fathers who are actively involved in care, mothers who are imprisoned by having to give 24-hour care, mourning communities who have lost their children, and the chilling reality of the death of young people. Basically, in reading the text in the light of HIV/AIDS we find many similarities and helpful models. This text, for example, becomes important for calling for religious leaders who care (Jesus and Jairus); for an absolute insistence on hope and life even in the face of death and hopelessness (the bleeding woman and Jesus’ words at the news that the daughter is dead and to the mourners); for the need for young people to hear the call to arise into life against death by HIV/AIDS (symbolized by the rise of the little girl); for understanding the gender reality of illness, suffering, poverty and care (the bleeding woman, the little girl and the mother). The biblical text thus becomes mirror-like, enabling us to see and understand our HIV/AIDS context as well as giving us ideas for transformation. While this is one example, I believe one can apply a narrative feminist and HIV/AIDS reading to any passage which seems suitable. Similarly, those who do ideological and psycho-analytical criticism can also give us useful insights into re/reading the Bible in a context of HIV/AIDS.
Turning to the social-scientific paradigm, some of the methods listed under this category are social description, sociological analysis, Marxist readings, cultural anthropology and archeology. The presuppositions and questions of some of these methods closely resemble historical methods which emphasize letting the ancient text speak in its own terms.12 Social description is an explanation and elucidation of the institutions and customs of the biblical community.13 According to Priest, it seeks to describe the changes that take place in the long history of Israel, without explaining the reason, while a sociological approach uses macro-theory in an attempt also to explain the changes.
Cultural anthropology, on the other hand, focuses on the total life of a society and sometimes uses cross-cultural models where data are missing.14 It deals with the symbolic universe, societal institutions such as family, politics, economic and cultural values of a society.15 The ancient biblical text is seen as an artefact that represents, therefore, its place and time of origin – and it should be read on its own terms. Marxism, on the other hand, lays great emphasis on class analysis and material production. The usability of social-scientific methods is the same as the one described above for historical criticism. But its use-ability may even be more important for understanding our current social systems and how they help or hinder the struggle against HIV/AIDS, and in particular how societies and a people’s social institutions, structures and symbolic worlds inform their response. Marxist tools of analysis remain essential for understanding poverty and seeking economic transformation and justice.
African methods of reading
How can inculturation hermeneutics help us to re/read the Bible in the light of HIV/AIDS? There should be countless ways of doing this, depending on the most important theme or subject in a given place. For HIV/AIDS prevention, one can design a course on prevention of disease in African religions, and the Bible and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Such a course could also focus on care and stigma from both religious perspectives, and explore what is useful and what needs to be reimagined. It would be interesting to have a course on an inculturation approach to the social epidemic of HIV/AIDS. Here one would explore what both approaches say about social injustice and how that can inform our struggle against HIV/AIDS.
Turning to liberation hermeneutics, its use of class, race, gender and ideological analysis16 is quite central to re/reading the Bible in the light of HIV/AIDS. Current HIV/AIDS research and documentation underline that poverty and gender inequalities are lead causes in the spread of the disease. Any method that seeks to read the Bible in the context of HIV/AIDS cannot afford to be silent about or ignore doing class and gender analysis. Both black and African feminist methods of reading the Bible equip us with such skills. Most church leaders’ response to HIV/AIDS stops, pitifully, at a personal level (insisting on A/abstain and B/be faithful as the answer), which fails to acknowledge that individuals are socially located and the decisions they make are dependent upon that. Thus any pedagogical approach that assists students and church ministers to understand poverty and gender analysis will be extremely helpful in creating a church that is HIV/AIDS-competent and sensitive. Under the umbrella of liberation hermeneutics, one can do a thematic or comparative study of a particular book in the light of HIV/AIDS. Some examples could be Genesis 1-4: a liberation and HIV/AIDS approach; Exodus 1-12: a liberation and HIV/AIDS reading; the gospel of Luke: a liberation and HIV/AIDS approach; or Galatians: a liberation and HIV/AIDS re/reading. A liberation approach also assists the reader to analyze not only the text but also the society and to insist on transformative justice. The value of this method simply depends on using a little imagination.
Although the work of African women is categorized under African liberation hermeneutics, their innovative methods deserve separate attention. Most of these are captured in Other Ways of Reading: African Women and the Bible, but they are also more detailed in the individual works of the women who have contributed to the book. As I have explored their methods and how they can be used in the fight against HIV/AIDS elsewhere,17 I will simply outline them here.
Teresa Okure has, in a number of her works, insisted on a hermeneutic of life. She holds “that the Bible is about life and for promoting life... if it is consequently accepted that the primary hermeneutical key for writing and comprehending the Bible is life, then the question should be: How can the life experiences of the contemporary reader serve as key for reinterpreting the Bible?” (emphasis added).18 Okure underlines that a biblical interpreter is anybody who “reads the biblical text in order to discover life...”19 and that “any interpretation that fails to do this... becomes suspect and should be regarded as inauthentic”, for it has failed to “be in tune with this universal intention of God to liberate, save and sustain life”.20 I believe the usefulness of this hermeneutical point of view in the struggle against HIV/AIDS speaks for itself in so far as re/reading the Bible to save life is concerned – be it for prevention, care, elimination of stigma or minimizing the impact of the epidemic. Much can be said and done through this hermeneutic of life.
Story-telling and divination methods that are elaborated in Other Ways of Reading would, I believe, be very useful. Story-telling of the text and of the life of the listeners or readers can serve to break the silence and to hear each other out. This story-telling includes retelling biblical stories in the light of contemporary concerns21 and also bringing together African cultural stories and the Bible to be read together.22
Musimbi Kanyoro has proposed gendered communal and cultural hermeneutics, which takes both the Bible and African cultures seriously and which also seeks to do theology with and within the community for transformative reasons.23 Reading African cultures and the Bible together with the community to highlight gender and other social injustices would serve well in our search for a healing theology at a time of HIV/AIDS. As she underlines, “For us in Africa, it does not matter how much we write about our theology in books, the big test before us is whether we can bring change in our societies.”24 Similarly, divination which insists that health should be regarded as good relationships and that we are responsible for each other’s health is central to understanding HIV/AIDS and addressing the social evils that encourage it in our search for healing.25
A thematic approach
One can choose any one of these, or a combination, and follow it in various biblical books in order to identify, acknowledge and isolate various useful and unhelpful perspectives on a particular theme in relation to HIV/AIDS. For example, one could teach a course on healing in the synoptic gospels, or the creation of life in Genesis, or gender relations in the New Testament, the biblical concept of sin, stigma and discrimination in the Bible, or poverty and health: biblical perspectives in the light of HIV/AIDS. Whatever theme is chosen may be determined by what is the most burning issue in a particular context or for a given audience. For example, those who are in the Northern hemisphere may choose topics such as international injustice and HIV/AIDS, or advocacy, prophecy and HIV/AIDS.
A book approach
What is important in all these possibilities is to ensure that students have tools of analysis that assist them to deal with the complexity of HIV/AIDS and especially how it links with poverty, gender inequalities, violence, or other social evils.
A comparative approach
Our role as biblical educators in the fight against HIV/AIDS may seem very small, but it is nonetheless indispensable. When we employ some of the above frameworks and methods, or any other that we find useful, we will be doing our part in seeking to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS, ensuring that there is provision of quality care, contributing towards the elimination of the stigma, minimizing the impact of HIV/AIDS, and helping our students and communities to stay alive. For this commitment, I say to you, “A luta continua!” – the struggle continues.
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