'Jesus had HIV' sermon sparks South African fury

An Aids orphan in South Africa (September 2010) HIV still carries a stigma in South Africa’s townships

"Today I will start with a three-part sermon on: Jesus was HIV-positive," South African Pastor Xola Skosana recently said in a Sunday church service.

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Pastor Xola Skosana

The best gift we can give to people who are HIV-positive is to help de-stigmatise Aids ”

End Quote Pastor Xola Skosana

The words initially stunned his congregation in Cape Town's Khayelitsha township into silence, and then set tongues wagging in churches across the country.

Some Christians have been outraged, saying he is portraying Jesus as sexually promiscuous.

HIV is mainly transmitted through sex, but can also be spread through needle-sharing, contaminated blood, pregnancy and breastfeeding.

However, as Pastor Skosana told those gathered in the modest Luhlaza High School hall for his weekly services, in many parts of the Bible Jesus put himself in the position of the destitute, the sick and the marginalised.

"Wherever you open the scriptures Jesus puts himself in the shoes of people who experience brokenness. Isaiah 53, for example, clearly paints a picture of Jesus who takes upon himself the infirmities and the brokenness of humanity," he told the BBC.

He is also quick to emphasise that he is using the metaphor to highlight the danger of the HIV/Aids pandemic, which still carries a stigma in South Africa's townships.

"Of course, there's no scientific evidence that Jesus had the HI virus in his bloodstream," says the pastor, whose non-denominational Hope for Life Ministry is part of a growing charismatic movement in South Africa.

"The best gift we can give to people who are HIV-positive is to help de-stigmatise Aids and create an environment where they know God is not against them, he's not ashamed of them."

'Mock Christ'
An HIV test being carried out in Pretoria in December 2009 There is often reluctance to find out one's HIV status

But Pastor Mike Bele, who officiates at the Nomzamo Baptist Church in nearby Gugulethu, said most clergy in Khayelitsha and other Cape Town townships are strongly opposed to associating Jesus with HIV.

"The subject of my Jesus being HIV-positive is a scathing matter," he says.

"I believe no anointed leader with a sound mind about the scriptures and the role of Christ in our lives would deliberately drag the name of Christ to the ground."

For Pastor Bele portraying Jesus as HIV-positive means he becomes part of the problem, not the solution.

"The pastor needs to explain how it came about for him to bring Christ to our level, when Christ is supreme and is God," he says.

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Reverend Siyabulela Gidi

Pastor Skosana has fortunately got the country talking”

End Quote Siyabulela Gidi

"There is a concern that non-believers would mock Christ and try to generalise Christ as opposed to the powerful force we believe him to be."

But Pastor Skosana, who has been in the ministry for 24 years and lost two sisters to Aids, argues that religious leaders have to play a much bigger role in combating the spread of the pandemic in South Africa where more than 5.7 million people live with the virus - more than in any other country.

And he concluded the last of his three-part sermon by taking an HIV test in front of the congregation - after which 100 churchgoers followed his example.

"The message to the church is that it is not enough for us to give people food privately and give them groceries, we must create an environment that's empowering because most people who are HIV-positive will not necessarily die of Aids-related sickness but more of a broken heart, out of rejection," he says.

'Fear and ignorance'

Amid the controversy, Reverend Siyabulela Gidi, the director of South African Council of Churches in the Western Cape, has come out in support of Pastor Skosana, saying his standpoint is theologically correct.

HIV in South Africa

  • 5.7m carry Aids virus
  • 18% of those aged 15 to 49 HIV-positive
  • 460,000 receiving ARVs(estimated in 2008)
  • 350 000 deaths due to Aids (estimated in 2007)
  • 1.4m Aids orphans

Source: UNAids/WHO/Unicef epidemiological fact sheet, 2008

"What Pastor Skosana is clearly saying is that Christ at this point in time would be on the side of the people who are HIV-positive - people who are being sidelined by the very church that is attacking him," the Anglican priest says.

"Pastor Skosana has fortunately got the country talking, he's got the world talking and that is what theology is all about."

Outside religious circles, Pastor Skosana has also received support from Aids activists.

"The pastor's sermon takes away the stigma that HIV is a sin and that it's God's punishment," says Vuyiseka Dubula, general secretary of the powerful Aids lobby group Treatment Action Campaign.

"To associate Jesus with HIV is powerful, particularly for those who go to church. Now people are starting to think: 'If Jesus could be HIV-positive who am I not to have it even if I go to church?'"

Jan Glazewski, a professor of marine and environmental law at the University of Cape Town who has been HIV-positive for 25 years, wrote in a letter to the Cape Times newspaper that he identified with the idea that God was on the side of the poor and marginalised.

View of Khayelitsha South African townships have been the worst affected by the HIV pandemic

"The pastor's metaphor gives strength to us all," he said.

"In aligning Jesus to HIV, his sermon has prompted an outcry as well as expressions of anger.

"This is because of fear and ignorance."

It is this fight against fear and ignorance that Pastor Skosana is determined to continue.

"The more we talk about it in our pulpits, the more we ask people to test voluntarily in the church the better.

"One of the most powerful things we can do as a church right now is to say Jesus was and is HIV-positive."

BBC News website readers from around the world have been sending their reaction to this story. Here is a selection of their comments:

Jesus came to identify with people in their brokenness and need. It is a good thing to try and bring HIV/AIDS into the open and remove the stigma. Christians who are living with the virus need the support of their brothers and sisters in Christ. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God - not just those with HIV/AIDS - and all need the grace of God which can transform their lives. Bev Bhaskare, Johannesburg, South Africa

This pastor has lost touch with moral goodness. Of all the very relevant and appealing examples, it remains incomprehensible to me why he chose to take this route. I don't wish to judge a servant of God but this metaphor leaves a sour taste. Otsile Oscar Motswagole, Gaborone, Botswana

I wholly applaud what Pastor Skosana is trying to do. For those who like everything neat, literal and sanitised, then his message will be a problem. However the gospel is all about God coming down utterly to our level so that He may lift us up to His. Jesus would never disassociate himself from anyone with HIV, just as He bodily embraced those with leprosy. However, those who are indignant should worry that Christ may disassociate himself with them! Peace on Pastor Skosana. Rev Richard Sherlock, Woking, UK

I don't really feel that portraying Christ as HIV-positive is the right approach to de-stigmatising the virus. He is not just a person but a divine being. People should try and respect that fact and stop politicising religion. Jude Ejike, Port Harcourt, Nigeria

I quite agree with Pastor Skosana. Yes Jesus took all our sins on himself, for it is our wounds that he bore (Isaiah). He became human to identify with sinners, the marginalised and the despised of the world in order to liberate us. This image of an HIV Jesus is most appropriate - we should all identify with our HIV sisters and brothers to help them lift up their heads and believe in love and life. Bernard Mallia, Rumbek, South Sudan

As a Christian living in America, I'm reluctant to comment too much on what resonates with Christians in other cultures, but I'm hesitant to affirm this pastor's metaphor. Yes, Jesus ministered to the sick and cared for the downtrodden, but that was NOT his ministry, nor was he on the "side" of the HIV-positive, as if those who are HIV-negative are spurned by Jesus. Jesus' point was to set an example for Christians living today. We are to reach out to the "HIV-positive" of the world, regardless of whether or not we actually have the virus. Lucas, Chicago, US

Exciting stuff - maybe this will help people at least to talk about it. I live in east Africa, and I can see that bringing the Church into the issue of AIDS has helped whole nations deal with HIV in an amazing way. If South African Christians will also embrace the HIV-reality as much as they embrace Jesus, then we will see those figures of how many are HIV-positive decline to a tenth of what they are now, just as they did in Uganda. Antony Elliott, Kigali, Rwanda

He was bruised for our transgressions. Jesus is portrayed as the bearer of man's suffering, and this includes modern-day ills, such as HIV. The direct connection may rub some people the wrong way, but the message is that he cares for us all. Eric, Nairobi, Kenya

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