Living with Death in a world of AIDS

Stuart C Bate OMI

Sin, death and AIDS

4,2 million people are HIV+ in South Africa: 10% of the population. This is the highest infection rate in the world (Source Doctors for life). In 1999, 2,8 million people died of AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa. But death comes long before the final moment. As soon as people are diagnosed HIV+ it is as though death enters into their lives. And with death comes sin because AIDS infection is perceived to result from sinful sexual encounter. Jesus came to conquer sin and death. What does he call us to do for these victims?

Raising the dead by conquering false perceptions

In Western scientism, HIV/AIDS is incurable. This means that becoming HIV+ is a death sentence. This is traumatic for all people but particularly so for young people. Acceptance of the incurability of HIV/AIDS creates the feeling of being cheated out of life. This is a recipe for anger, hopelessness, rage, and irresponsibility. What kind of God of love can do this to me?

However, saying "AIDS is incurable" can be confusing. Recent advances in medical research have turned HIV infection from an uncontrollable progressive disease leading to death to a chronic presence which can be managed by drugs to ensure many years of relatively healthy life. In a scenario like this, good news becomes the provision of such medication. Christian action for justice and peace is the struggle to provide cheaper medicines for victims of HIV. The "incurable" tag also affects human perceptions. A person who looks and feels well may continue to be judged as sick-unto-death by the community since she is >HIV+=. Christian healing occurs when communities dismantle this unhelpful cultural attitude. Then we follow Jesus who focussed on the human rather than the clinical. His healing was a healing that brought life (Jn 5:21; 10:10) and rescued people from sin and despondency to well-being and hope (Matt. 9:1-8).

Healing the sick by changing condemning attitudes.

Christianity and Traditional African cultures teach that participation in immoral sexual behaviour is participation in evil (Magesa 1997:166-169; 186). People often conclude that HIV/AIDS is the result of evil behaviour. Waliggo (2000:48) graphically recounts the sermons of a Catholic Priest in Uganda warning his people that because they have not followed the sexual teaching of the Church "It is now time to reap the fruits of your stubbornness..." The preacher seemed to take joy in the increasing deaths of the disobedient members of the Church. Commonly HIV/AIDS is interpreted as Gods punishment on people who refuse to follow Christian moral behaviour. A survey of secondary students at a mission here revealed that 32% believed that AIDS is Gods way of punishing people who are immoral. (Webb 1997:176).

When Christians identify themselves as the ones who condemn other people because of perceived sinful behaviour and participation in evil they do something which is itself deeply unchristian. The sin is condemned but the sinner is not. Jesus comes to save not to condemn. (Lk 18:9-14; cf also Jn 3:17; Jn4:1-30; Mt 7:1-5; Mk 10:46-52). Human behaviour is motivated by a whole series of social and psychological factors besides sin. That is why Jesus encourages us not to judge others (Lk 6:37) and not to throw the first stone since all of us are sinners (John 8:3-11).


The AIDS pandemic is reeking havoc in Africa today. It is a crisis which needs good news on all fronts. Many will eventually die but in life we should continually seek ways to raise the dead, heal the sick and preach good news (Mt 10:6).


Bate, S C 2000. Inculturation of the Christian Mission to Heal in the South African Context. NY: Mellen.

Doctors for Life:

Magesa, L 1997. African Religion: The Moral Traditions of Abundant Life. NY: Orbis.

Okure, T 1999. HIV/AIDS: A Scriptural perspective. Paper presented at 2nd Southern African Catholic Theological consultation on HIV/AIDS. Durban December 1999. Available at

Waliggo, J M 2000. A Woman Confronts Social Stigma in Uganda, in Keenan, J (ed), Catholic Ethicists on HIV/AIDS Prevention, 48-56. NY: Continuum.

Webb, D 1997. HIV and Aids in Africa. CT: David Phillip.