Mission & Evangelism
HIV/AIDS resources

Facing the Challenges of HIV/AIDS
in Southern Africa
Towards a Theology of Life

Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz and Yolanda Tarango have argued that speaking of theology as if it has one meaning would be misleading, restrictive, and unhelpful if applied to the varying challenges that humanity continually faces. Hence, they suggest that theology is a “dynamic space” that varies according to context:

It is unacceptable to speak of Theology (with a capital T) as if there were only one true way to deal with questions of ultimate meaning. Theology is... acceptable only as a heuristic device that provides a “space” in which different theologies can meet to discuss their commonalities and differences in order to deepen their understanding. This conversation is an important one for the different theologies to engage in because the struggles to which they relate are interconnected.1

I share their view that indeed there are many different types of theologies, which result from people’s differing experiences. I also believe that the differences are situational or contextual. Accordingly, in this paper, I treat theology not only as a “space”, or an “imagination” in which life takes place, but also as a space where all life-centred ethics begin. It is also in this space that creation, as the basis or foundation of the material goods that permit life to go on, begins. To emphasize the relation between “theology” as a space of imagination and creation, let me also refer to what Takatso Mofokeng has said.

He refers to creation (land) as a source of life that provides people with the basis for self-respect and identity, as the “mother” of all people and creatures. Creation carries, cares for and feeds all creatures.2 Theology can also be treated as a moment of opportunity to reflect on church communities as they engage in the struggle for and in life. Musa W. Dube describes it as a people-centred mission.3 Such a mission can never arise out of a vacuum. The concept of “space” thus assumes a dual meaning: a theological discourse, and creation itself. Human beings and all creatures have been privileged to occupy creation and to make good use of it.

Further, I agree with Larry Rasmussen that the space human beings and other forms of life occupy or inhabit is not just an “abstract space”, but is influenced by dynamic economic, social, ethnic, political, cultural and religious communities and hierarchies.4 Today, the space is being influenced by many challenges, some good, some bad. HIV/AIDS is one of the negative forces. It has forced Christian theologians to reflect anew on their beliefs and explore the effects of their beliefs on their lives. I believe that Christian theologians cannot carry out such a reflection without acknowledging that God, the Creator, is also an ever-present partner in the material goods that permit all life to go on. In other words, God as part of creation will continue to play an active role in human lives and be party to our theological discourse.

Another important relationship between theology, creation and life is articulated in Ingemar Hedstrom’s essay on a life-liberating theology. He proposes that theology must be articulated as the preferential option of life of all creatures on earth, and that the right to life in all its fullness involves partaking of the material base of creation, that is, the material goods that permit life to go on.5 Taking into account the above views on the relationship between creation, theology and the challenges of life today, how can a theology of life help us to address HIV/AIDS? And, more importantly, what is a theology of life? What does it involve?

A theology of life
We are all aware that theology is done in the context in which people live. It is the prevailing conditions that shape the nature of the theology that emerges in a particular context and at a given time in the lives of the people. A theology of life is, therefore, a product of a life-threatening context. It is born out of the problematic life experiences in which the people of Botswana and Southern Africa and indeed of the whole world find themselves. A theology of life is a response by the people to the pain and suffering brought by all that endangers life, such as the HIV/AIDS epidemic, war and poverty.

I believe that a theology of life offers a timely paradigm for urgently needed biblical theological reflection. A Christian theology of life aims at being able to face the nature and scale of life-threatening problems from a Christian perspective. It also aims at developing theologically sensitive policies, planning and development programmes that help people to tackle life-threatening problems such as HIV/AIDS.

Negative impact of HIV/AIDS in Botswana and Southern Africa
The habitable space and our way of doing theology in Botswana and Southern Africa have been invaded by life-threatening perils. Factors such as poverty, hunger, violence, land crisis and, of late, HIV/AIDS, have proved to be the greatest threats as they affect everyone, regardless of race, gender, colour and economic status. HIV/AIDS kills more people per year than war. It has now been fully recognized as a threat to humanity and life as a whole, mainly because it permeates the socio-economic and political spheres of human lives. The impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic is profoundly negative.6

Life in Southern Africa is beset by numerous problems, but HIV/AIDS is the most challenging and the most devastating the region has ever faced. It negates life as a whole. It brings about suffering, fear and hopelessness. It intensifies poverty and attacks the least privileged. It attacks and destroys the human body, by infecting it and eventually killing it. In a desperate attempt to protect those affected and help others, medical resources that could be used to cure and heal other diseases are stretched to the limit and exhausted.

HIV/AIDS adversely affects people’s economic performance, due to increased absenteeism by employees who are ill and stay at home to recover, who look after the sick, or who attend funerals. In addition, bereaved families often incur heavy funeral expenses. All these factors lead to low productivity, minimal savings and investments, and ultimately poverty.7 HIV/AIDS also has a significant gender impact for several reasons. Care-givers, who in most cases are women, carry the main psychological and physical burden. This is because in most African societies men share very little of the domestic responsibilities and family care with their partners. Further, women do not have control over their lives and bodies and this makes them vulnerable to infection. Given that women are the poorest, they are unlikely to receive quality care.

Spiritually, HIV/AIDS sufferers experience a crisis. They ask why they are the ones affected, whether God loves them, whether they have sinned or are just unlucky. Is the disease a form of punishment brought upon them by God? This last question is also fuelled by some biblical interpretations which link HIV/AIDS with sin. In the HIV/AIDS epidemic believers question their beliefs, and sometimes lose faith, or even doubt the very existence of God who is known to be the giver of life. As human beings, and as Christians in particular, the painful life experienced by HIV/AIDS sufferers also makes us ask ourselves, What is life? What is the purpose of life? What is the meaning of life today? What should we do to enjoy our lives to the full? What should we change to make our lives better and more meaningful? The answers to these questions call us to revisit our faith, beliefs and relationships with others and, more importantly, our way of doing theology in the context of HIV/AIDS. They call us to revision the role God plays in our lives in this epidemic. Such an approach to theology will assist us in developing a theology that affirms the sanctity of life.

God’s affirmation of life through creation
Since the HIV/AIDS scourge has not spared the church, a coherent framework for different theologies of life based on people’s ways of life becomes pertinent and timely in the fight against the epidemic. Hence there is a need to develop a contextual theology of life, which will highlight God’s intention in creating life. The Bible presents God as a liberating and life-affirming God. God should, therefore, liberate people from situations such as the one presently created by HIV/AIDS, and provide people with an environment conducive to freedom.

A good example of such a role by God is found in the first two chapters of Genesis which speak of the creation of the world and of people and how God has given humanity the stewardship to use creation for survival. This understanding of human lives is affirmed as a sign of love from God. Genesis 1 and 2 also present human beings as God wants them to be. That is, people must live in right relationship with God, with each other, and with the rest of creation. The story of Genesis also shows that human beings (Adam and Eve) were created for social integration and happiness through access to property and leadership (dominion over earth), human sexuality, procreation/reproduction, and in relation with God and creation itself. HIV/AIDS negates all these important life-centred relations. Therefore a new theology of life must strive to reaffirm all that is stated in the book of Genesis, namely, that God has created both men and women for a fulfilling life (1:27).

Another example of God’s intention to grant humanity goodness of life is in the book of Psalms where God is described as the source and sustainer of all people’s lives, who created people to be economically viable and self-supportive. This good intention by God is also negated by HIV/AIDS as it makes people sick, renders them unproductive, and relegates them to poverty and social discrimination. This point is the most crucial one for us as Christian theologians living today in the HIV/AIDS era, because the way in which the epidemic destroys life seems to nullify and contradict our teachings and beliefs that God is the Creator of all life forms. This is a great challenge, which a new theology of life must take up by affirming that the creation story is an example of God’s love and desire for humanity to live happily.

Jesus affirmed life not death
The importance of life can also be viewed and understood from a Christocentric perspective. That is, Jesus declared that he came that humanity may have life and have it to the fullest (John 10:10). Jesus was offering all people of the world the vision and the power to have life and, at the same time, he was sanctifying it. In John 6:27 Jesus told people to be more concerned about another kind of food, which is the power to live – a higher gift. This is something which will empower HIV/AIDS sufferers emotionally and spiritually. Jesus also promoted life by fighting whatever diminishes it, such as disease, physical challenge, social exclusion, national oppression and hunger. HIV/AIDS negates all these efforts made by Jesus.

HIV/AIDS is an enduring disease in the sense that it totally denies people self-realization and complete freedom. In doing a theology of life, we will be serving and reaching out to others just as Jesus did. We will also be showing love to those who are already infected, especially those with full-blown AIDS. In John 13:34, Jesus said, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” I see this as a challenge to all of us to appreciate those who are infected and affected by HIV/AIDS as care-givers in home-based programmes.

Kingdom of God/life
A liberating theology of life is also emphasized throughout the teaching ministry of Jesus, and in particular in the kingdom of God concept where the godly “space” is expected to occupy earthly life. It is notable that Jesus’ main goal was to build the kingdom of God, which was and is a place and a community full of love, peace, harmony, health, prosperity and equality, and one where all children can live freely. Accordingly, Jesus taught that children should come to God’s kingdom since it is meant for them (Luke 18:16). Assuring them a place in the kingdom shows the love that Jesus had for them. In my view, the word “children” also refers to the rest of humanity as children of God. HIV/AIDS denies humanity this privilege to enjoy life in the kingdom as planned by God by cutting short lives through infection, taking the lives of parents, and exposing people to social exclusion, poverty, ill health and physical illness. The power to live and share the glory of God, which Jesus offered humanity through the kingdom of God, is stated in Romans 8:19-21. Despite the negative impact of the epidemic in our daily lives, Jesus affirmed the importance of creation and the sanctity of life through the kingdom. For example, after baptism Jesus freely accepted the vocation to save and promote life by healing people with many different and dangerous diseases such as leprosy, restoring sight to the blind, casting out demons and feeding the hungry.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus preached the good news of salvation and offered people the vision and power to live happily as sons and daughters of God. He performed miracles, as a sign of the power to heal human beings, both physically and spiritually, but above all as a sign of God with us. Socially, he accepted the despised tax collectors, women, children and sex workers. Jesus associated with, cared for, and touched the lepers who, like HIV/AIDS sufferers, were isolated at that time. Touching a sick person is a very positive thing to do: it shows care, solidarity and love. It also restores a sense of life and belonging to them. Touching also instills love and hope – it is healing.

Ignoring and shunning them is like passing a death sentence and a judgment on them. Romans 8:2 states that the law of the spirit of life in Jesus has freed us from the law of sin and death. HIV/AIDS counteracts productivity: it impoverishes people economically by making it impossible for them to work and earn a proper living. On the contrary, Jesus always sought to improve poor people’s economic power, and to set them free from the bondage of slavery.

Towards a theological quest for life in the era of HIV/AIDS
The suffering and difficulties brought about by HIV/AIDS in our lives provide us with a challenge that calls for immediate attention from both the church and academic theology: How do we deal with the high number of people who are sick and dying, and, above all, how do we as Christian theologians justify the reasons for our faith, our belief in God? Because God seems to let our prayers for healing go unattended. In other words, we are challenged more than ever before to show that God is indeed the God of life who conquered death through Jesus Christ. This is far from an easy task. But an acknowledgment that there is a problem that needs immediate attention will be a good start for us to think of the role of theology in particular, and society in general, in contributing towards a solution to this epidemic.

We need to seek new methods of doing theology and biblical interpretation which take into consideration people’s experiences of life and the dangers posed by social injustice and HIV/AIDS. I believe that such an approach to doing theology will help the church as an institution to offer hope and grace to all of us as we face HIV/AIDS. It will also assist us to embark on a quest for a liberating theology of life, which will at the same time highlight the role God has played in creation and will continue to play in the history of our struggle against HIV/AIDS as well as our quest for a renewed life.

Whereas a theology of life is both pertinent and timely for the HIV/AIDS epidemic, it is only possible to do such theology if we involve the people who are directly affected and infected by the scourge such as women, children, people living with AIDS and other marginalized groups. But this means a call for all of us, since we are all affected. It is only then that such a theology of life would be responsive to the challenges to life as raised by HIV/AIDS.

Second, a theology of life should be multi-faceted, encompassing different theological agendas which are not static but dynamic and contextual. This will help us re-examine our Christian beliefs and see how best to relate them to God and Christ in our present lives as HIV/AIDS “sufferers”.

• Explain a theology of life and its relevance in the context of HIV/AIDS.
• Outline the possible sources of a theology of life in your own specific location.
• Identify the main entry-points you think the church can use in doing a theology of life and taking its teaching to the people.
• Formulate a new draft HIV/AIDS course on either of the following: Colossians 1:16 and Colossians 2:15 on the HIV/AIDS era; John 13:34 in the context of HIV/AIDS.

1 Maria A. Isasi-Diaz and Yolanda Tarango, Hispanic Women: Prophetic Voice in the Church, San Francisco, Harper & Row, 1988, p.2.
2 Takatso Mofokeng, The Crucified among the Cross Bearers: Towards a Black Christology, Kampen, Kok, 1983, p.23.
3 Musa W. Dube, “Theological Challenges: Proclaiming the Fullness of Life in the HIV/AIDS and Global Economic Era”, in International Review of Mission, 91, 363, Oct. 2002, p.537.
4 “Theology of Life and Ecumenical Ethics”, in David Hallman ed., Ecotheology: Voices from South and North, WCC, 1995, pp.112-13.
5 Ingemar Hedstrom, “Latin America and the Need for a Life-Liberating Theology”, in Charles Birch et al. eds, Liberating Life: Contemporary Approaches to Ecological Theology, Maryknoll NY, Orbis, 1990, p.120.
6 Botswana HIV and AIDS (MTP 11), Second Medium Term Plan, Gaborone, Botswana government, 1997-2002, p.19.
7 Ibid., p.21.

Next chapter:
Culture, gender and HIV/AIDS: Understanding and acting on the Issues, by Musa W. Dube

Back to table of contents