The Invisible Grief (Jan-Mar 2000)

By Matt Dabbs

Anna M. Griffith
January – April, 2000

This time the situation was slightly better. Four women attended the earlier one.

This situation extends far beyond our fellowship. In 1997 the annual meeting of the AAR/SBL was held in San Francisco. One widely publicized session organized by the Centers for Disease Control was a panel discussion exploring how faith communities and the government could collaborate in working toward HIV/AIDS prevention. The CDC had tried for years to educate the public on HIV/AIDS prevention, but had achieved only moderate success because the most effective key for prevention lies in changing behaviors. As a governmental agency, they were prohibited from teaching morals. However, they wisely recognized that behavior modification lies in homes and faith communities, so they targeted this meeting for this important dialogue.

They scheduled the meeting for the very best time, reserving a large banquet room that would seat several hundred people. Only six people attended. The disappointment of the organizers and presenters was palpable. Worse, they have not endeavored such collaboration since then.

In churches, the “can’t talk about it” problem is perpetuated with a vicious cycle. Well-meaning church leaders sincerely believe that “we don’t have a problem here” because they have never heard anyone talk about it. Families believe that they cannot disclose their pain because they have never heard AIDS mentioned from the pulpit, discussed in a Bible class, or even discussed in their more intimate circles. When the topic fails to surface in church leadership circles, it simply becomes one that we cannot talk about. Another problem facing us in the Church of Christ – maybe even unique to us – is that of being “right.” In most of the contexts I knew about fifty years ago, we were God’s chosen people because we had figured out all of the “right” ways to do things. Because of this, we had been forgiven through baptism, and we simply would not sin any more. This viewpoint has always given us problems as to how to deal with sin. I have known a few people who march down the aisle at least once a month (or more often) so that the church can pray for the sins they have committed.

For me, the answer to this problem lies in 1 John 1:7 where the Greek verbs denote continuous action: if the Christian keeps on walking in the light, the blood of Jesus keeps on cleansing him or her. However, old convictions are hard to change. There can simply be no sin in the camp if we are “right.” However, if there is, we just won’t talk about it. This has been applied most rigorously to pregnancies outside marriage and AIDS.

Why Do We Feel So Inhibited in the Face of AIDS?

1) Fear
One of the more blatant reasons that “we can’t talk about it” is fear. Early in the epidemic, medical professionals truly were ignorant about the causes of AIDS and how it was spread. Much misinformation circulated, some in dramatic and sensational ways. Now we know that the HIV virus is spread through bodily fluids and that, though infectious, it is not highly contagious – not contracted through casual contact. However, the early myths die very slowly.

I was under the impression that the level of fear was beginning to be negligible as more and more people become better educated and/or know someone who is seropositive. However, in the summer of 2000, I was lecturing to a group of graduate students who expressed the belief that we still “do not really know what causes AIDS,” and asked what I did to protect myself. Truly our level of fear puts AIDS on the taboo list. Only with difficulty do we discuss our deepest fears.

2) Ambiguities About Homosexuality
Most people in our nation associated AIDS with homosexuality. While the majority of new cases in recent years have been surfacing in heterosexual individuals, popular perspective still classifies AIDS as a “gay disease.” While Christians rightly adhere to the biblical injunctions against homosexuality, society is increasingly adamant that opposition to homosexuality is politically incorrect. Thus we take refuge in Ephesians 5:3-12 and refrain from discussing “such matters.” Truly, when I lecture about AIDS, people raise more questions about homosexuality (about which I know little) than AIDS (about which I know slightly more), but these should be two different issues.

3) Ambivalence About Death
Throughout history, death has been the ultimate enemy. The mysteries surrounding death – primarily revolving around whether there is an afterlife – and the futility of human efforts in postponing the inevitable have always made death a problematic subject. Every culture has ways of dealing with and speaking about death, some very carefully proscribed. However, twenty-first century North America is so pluralistic – so wide open to various cultural influences – that we do not in general have an ethnic consensus to help us deal with death and its issues. Various families and smaller communities often have established such traditions, but there is no consensus from the broader society.

In that wider social world, however, AIDS has forced at least one issue: It has led an entire generation of younger people to come to grips with their own mortality. In the natural course of life, that encounter usually occurs much later than it seems to be happening now. AIDS has filled the gap that an absence of war created, forcing us to contemplate our own mortality – often an uncomfortable exercise – so we avoid the topic. A truth that seems to be universally applicable: AIDS is not my (our) problem until is my (our) problem.

Although death remains traumatic and difficult, in the church we usually deal with it more gracefully. Our deeply developed faith in Jesus death and resurrection and our vibrant belief in a glorious afterlife with the Father truly have removed the sting from death (1 Corinthians 15:50-58). However, the difficulties accompanying an AIDS death take us to a deeper, more universal level of difficulty.

4) Stigma
If we go the distance with a person with HIV disease – if we walk with him or her through the initial discovery until their death – we must be in accord with that person (Amos 3:3). To be in accord, society insists that “I’m OK; you’re OK,” but this presents a problem. “You have this terrible disease; I don’t. Therefore, I’m OK, but you are not. To be ‘in accord,’ society insists that we whitewash your problem, pretend to go along together, and all will be well.”

The dilemma one now faces, of course, is that if I’m OK and you’re OK, why did Jesus have to die? In fact, not one of us is OK. If one of us – just one – could have lived a perfect life, we would not have needed the one Perfect Human Being – God Himself – to intercede in sacrifice for us. The fact that no one is OK puts us all in accord with each other, but we are all at odds with God’s holy righteousness. We come at last to our Waterloo.

If it is painful for us to face our own morality, it is next to impossible to face our own shame. We are so steeped in it that we cannot speak of it. We cannot stare it down. We are not OK.

But Jesus is. Jesus took our shame, and clad only in that shame, he hung suspended between heaven and earth as though he were fit for neither. He looked the enemy in the face and overcame death by the power of his own incorruptible life. Thus we have no choice but to take our stand at the foot of the Cross, bringing our shame and inadequacy (for that is all we have), and allow the blood of Christ to cover us.

5) Walking Alongside
If we walk alongside a person with AIDS, we must be broken enough to realize that God sees us both the same way – clothed only with Jesus’ blood and lifted up again with his grace, as being new creations or having the potential to become such. If we cannot talk about AIDS (or any other taboo condition), the reason is that we have bought into society’s mindset and ignored the scandal of the Cross. Society says, “We’re all OK.” Many Christians believe, “We’re OK; you’re not.” But Christians who are awed by the scandal of the Cross believe that we can all be OK through that grace. Those who can’t talk about AIDS and thereby stigmatize those who are affected simply are not acknowledging the power of the Cross – not in their own lives or as having the potential of regeneration in another’s life.

6) A Way Out
Preachers and church leaders, we need your help. Please help us rediscover what an insult sin is to God’s holiness; see clearly how sinful we really are; realize how universally we have all sinned – not just the marginalized people we would like to categorize as sinners not to take pride in “cleaning ourselves up;” understand the total truth of the meaning of 2 Corinthians 5:14-20; comprehend the height, length, and breadth of God’s grace – the scandal of the Cross; understand that God in Christ has taken all of that scandal on himself; fathom what it means to be OK, not because we have analyzed ourselves into numbness to the scandal of sin, but because Jesus died and is now risen.

7) The Church: A Place for Healing
A person who is a Christian living with AIDS told me recently, “I’m just so tired of being the only sinner around.” The reasons for this plaintive cry must be silenced. We are all sinners, saved by grace. When we can learn this, the church will become a hospital where we can all heal and be healed rather than a morgue where we shoot our wounded. We will be able to expose our sin, look it in the face, and find healing in the safe enclave of precious Christian fellowship. The invisible grief will then disappear.Wineskins Magazine

Anna M. Griffith

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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