Pandemic and Pentecostal

  • Question from FM, Zimbabwe

    What is the explanation of post modernity or other theories on the HIV/AIDS in the Pentecostal churches. Pentecostals seem to stress the spiritual way of handling this pandemic instead of approaching it literally.

    The spread of HIV/AIDS proves to be contentious for Christians, mainly because of the means of transmission. In the developed world, it is still largely confined to homosexual men, despite some ‘cross-over’ into the heterosexual community. It is also more common in injecting drug users who share needles.

    Due to its associations with homosexuals and drug addicts, the initial reaction among fundamentalist Christians was to pronounce it as divine judgement on sinful lifestyles. There were some very unfortunate statements made that homosexuals almost ‘deserved’ to catch AIDS because they were ‘living outside the will of God.’ This opinion has generally been dropped within Christian circles in Europe, but is still sometimes heard in America.

    In Africa, the situation is different and much more serious in terms of its effect on society. The devastation caused by AIDS in Africa is due to a number of different factors. Firstly, it is very common in the heterosexual community. Secondly, unlike in the developed world, contraception (‘safe sex’) is rarely practiced. Thirdly, pharmaceutical companies have protected their patents to prevent affordable life-extending drugs being available in the developing world. The combination of these three factors has led to a rapid spread of the disease and, in some places, the near-destruction of an entire adult generation.

    The reaction of Pentecostal churches in Africa is different to the reaction of fundamentalists in Europe and America. Rather than being a symbol of divine judgement on sin, it is seen as being Satanic in origin. This does reflect popular Pentecostal attitudes towards sickness and disease as being ‘of the devil’.

    In a way, this is true. Christian theology has always held that sickness entered the world as a result of human sin (‘the Fall of Man’); sin that was encouraged by Satan, if, as many Christians do, Satan can be identified with ‘the serpent’ of Genesis chapter 3. However, whether the origins of AIDS are seen as spiritual or not, it remains a physical disease. It exists within the body of the host, attacking the immune system and infecting others exposed to it. In that sense, it is a physical thing and needs to be dealt with in a physical way – ensuring blood-safe practices, ‘protected’ sex and so on. The best preventative method is through faithful commitment to one sexual partner, ironically the Christian ideal as found in the Bible.

    If HIV/AIDS is regarded solely as a demonic or spiritual problem and nothing is done to address the physical (or literal) problem, then the disease will continue to spread, irrespective of what is said in any church.

    Thank you for your question, FM – the first one from Africa to feature on freelance theology.

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