CENTERING THE BODY IN OUR HIV AND AIDS RESPONSE: ON BEING JUSTICE-LOVING EARTH COMMUNITIES BY PROF. MUSA W. DUBE
Musa W. Dube
University of Botswana Theology and Religious Studies dubemw [at] mopipi [dot] ub [dot] bw
Introduction: HIV and AIDS as a Revelatory Journey
Three decades of living with HIV and AIDS in our world has been a journey of revelation, self-understanding and re-awakening to our membership in the earth community. As I wrote elsewhere, “The onslaught of HIV/AIDS is an apocalyptic event which reveals starkly the existing social evils and the most terrible forms of suffering. As an apocalyptic event, however, HIV/AIDS also underlines the urgent need for transformation and justice in the society and the lives of individuals” (Dube 2003: vii). When the HI virus was first scientifically discovered in 1981, we responded to it medically, taking care to ensure that we use disposal injections and ensuring that all blood transfusions are thoroughly checked before being used. Quite quickly, it became evident that HIV and AIDS is not just a medical issue, but was everybody’s business as well (vii). A multi-sectoral approach was thus introduced, which encouraged all sectors and departments, individuals and families, communities and nations, countries and continents to mainstream HIV and AIDS prevention, care and mitigation of impact in their core business. For example, if you were an educator you were to think of ways of mainstreaming HIV prevention, care and mitigation of impact in your curriculum as well as designing HIV specific projects and programmess. If you were a church member or leader, you were to think of ways of including HIV concerns in your worship, sermons, prayers, teaching, projects, programmes and among all the various departments such youth, women, Sunday school and men’s sector. In short, each department was to utilize its own particular business and resources for an effective HIV and AIDS response. The journey with HIV and AIDS had revealed to us that HIV and AIDS is not just a medical issue, rather it is everybody’s business.
It was the second stage that began to focus its attention on behavioral change as the popular formula slogan “ABC” (abstain, be faithful and condomise) was thoroughly advertised through print media, radio, TV and community gatherings such as church, workshops and public meetings. Moreover, this approach encouraged care giving to those amongst us who were already-living with and affected by HIV and AIDS, such as orphans. This approach firmly recognized each individual as possessing the power and the capacity to stop the spread of HIV by either abstaining from all sexual practices if not married; being faithful to one’s partner if married or in a relationship; practicing protected sex if one is sexually involved, either unmarried or married and, lastly, giving care to those of us affected by HIV. This strategy promised us much for it underlined that we individually possess the power to significantly stop the spread of HIV in our lives and to mitigate its impact by giving care to those amongst us living and affected by HIV. One cannot overemphasise the importance of individually empowered members of the community and their capacity to protect themselves from a deadly virus and to protect those that they love and live with. The behavioral change strategy of promoting abstinence, faithfulness in relationship, practicing protected sex and care giving thus remains vital in our continuing journey of living with HIV and AIDS in our earth community.
Yet for all the continuing journey of facing HIV and AIDS (Bongmba 2007), for all the intensification of efforts to combat its spread, the national documentation of infection and death rate worldwide consistently rose to millions, with very little improvement (Dube 2006:131-156). Why was the powerful message of abstain, be faithful, condomise and be care giving so ineffective? Why was such a simple and powerful message, one that is capable of being implemented by anyone anywhere, so difficult to implement? Why would people faced with a deadly virus, one that was claiming millions of lives and causing such intense suffering, fail to observe such simple preventative measures? When we started asking these questions, HIV and AIDS had brought the earth community to a moment of revelation in the global history (Dube 2008: 102-108). HIV and AIDS had forced us to come to a point of both self-understanding and self awakening. It had brought us to a point where we were forced to acknowledge our embodiedness, our interconnections and our need to become a justice loving earth community. These revelations are key to issues to consider for our current and future engagement with HIV and AIDS.
Centering the Body
Three decades of living with HIV and AIDS in our world has forcefully brought us to be aware and to acknowledge our embodiedness. In other words, we are members of the earth community, birthed, living on and in the earth in all its concrete material ways. This means we have physical bodily needs such as food, shelter, clothes and love that should not be undermined. It means we are fully grounded people, living on the earth as physical bodies. Yet centred, as we often are, in Christian theologies, cultures and philosophies that are heavily invested in denying the importance of the body; centred, as we are, in structures that do not always serve justice to all members of the earth community, we were, over these three decades, ill prepared to respond adequately to HIV and AIDS. Consequently, our efforts to combat the spread of HIV; to mitigate impact; and to provide quality care to those among us living with HIV could not bear expected fruits in the past three decades. The supposedly simple, powerful and effective behavioral change ABC message fell far too short of the desired results, primarily because we are a world that has denied the bodily needs of many of our members. Indeed, millions of our earth members do not have food, shelter, clothes and love. Research and documentation on HIV and AIDS has made it quite clear that individuals and communities that are denied the most basic human needs possess limited powers for making and implementing decisions over their lives.
Those amongst us who are denied the most basic human needs often find their lives governed by the circumstances surrounding their lives. Many times their lives are determined by those who have the power in the society. Being embodied individuals thus means we do not only inhabit our own physical bodies in isolation of others. It means that our individual bodies are enmeshed in other bodies of our families, friends, nation and international nations. We are interconnected bodies. It means that we belong to the social, economic and political bodies that equally impact on our lives— either empowering us, disempowering us or both. Unfortunately, in many places of our world, the social bodies that individuals inhabit dis-empower people according to class, age, gender, sexual orientation, race and geography. The disempowerment of óthers’ is often justified according to culture, religion, law, policy, practice, and, many times, unbridled greediness. Full health and effective response to HIV, however, greatly depends on the full health of our various social bodies that we inhabit as individuals and communities. One, therefore, cannot over-emphasise that we are fully embodied people individually, communally, nationally, continentally and globally. We live in physical, social, economic, political and spiritual bodies that impact and determine our health. It is thus imperative that we continue with our quest for justice-loving earth communities and center bodiliness in our theological frameworks.
The body metaphor evokes, of course, the physicality of our being; diversity, interconnectedness and systematic coordination. As we look ahead to another decade of responding effectively to HIV and AIDS, I propose that we should center the metaphor of the body as a framework of seeing and acting. We need to promote the health of individuals and communities; we need to assess the health of our social, economic and political bodies that house people, enabling or disabling individuals to make decisions and to act on them. A major part of centering the body and creating healthy social bodies in our HIV and AIDS response involves a quest to become particular communities, which I wish to call, justice loving earth communities. But what are justice loving earth communities? What is the theological base for building justice-loving communities?
Conclusion: On becoming Justice Loving Communities
Justice loving earth communities are sacred communities, that embrace that the earth and everything in it as sacred—created by God’s design and created good. Justice loving earth communities embrace the goodness of the earth. They embrace that all people were created in God’s image, all blessed and all given leadership through stewardship of God’s creation. Justice loving earth communities accept that God blessed all people and gave them resources for food, shelter, clothes and love. In the justice loving earth communities individuals are fully embodied people and sacred in their bodily forms, since God created in them in God’s own image.
The justice loving earth community is the creation community. The justice loving earth community is a healing community. The justice loving earth community is interconnected and interdependent. The justice loving earth community is also an empowering community. It is a space and the place that embraces sacredness of all creation and serves justice to all its members. In this space and place we are better equipped for a much more effective HIV and AIDS response. Most of our methods for HIV and AIDS prevention, care, treatment, mitigation of impact and elimination of stigma and discrimination stand a better chance for yielding a better and richer harvest in such a sacred space.
Our denial of the body, its sacredness and provision for its needs as form of worship,
has meant being ashamed of that which God found worth to be created in God’s own image. The undermining of our physical bodies has often meant we have no words and, programmes to talk about sexuality, an issue that is undeniably central to the spread of HIV and AIDS. In those times when we do speak about human sexuality we tend to equate it with sin, and consequently, to hold those amongst us living with HIV and AIDS as unethical. Yet it is a larger picture of denial of the body and failure to be justice loving earth communities. Our failure to occupy the earth as justice-loving earth communities has meant that we have found it easy to deny some people access to food, shelter, love and that which they need for clothing. We have created poverty, which undeniably is one of the greatest forms of violence we unleash upon other human beings. Poverty is a violation of God’s will. This denial of God’s will for all people has created millions of disempowered people. In these past three decades, it has meant that we are communities that are not prepared for an effective response to HIV and AIDS, since were are not space and place that empowers and heals all the members of the earth community.
For Christian communities, the Bible gives us sufficient scriptural base to embrace the embodiedness of our being. God did not just create the earth and all that is in it, God also created all people in God’s own image (Genesis 1). This, undoubtedly, is major statement on the sacredness of the body and all creation. In the New Testament, not only did Jesus assume the human body, he also dwelled amongst us and embarked on the resurrection of the body, hence resisting all that negates life—including death. HIV and AIDS has been a massive attack on the body and it has been massively assisted by the social, economic and political bodies that do not affirm the sacrality of all life and people. As we enter another decade of seeking to be an HIV and AIDS competent church (Chitando 2007) we need to increasingly look for ways of becoming justice loving earth communities. We need to increasingly appreciate our physical bodies and their needs. We need to constantly examine the social, economic and political bodies that we have created—nationally and internationally. We need to examine their interconnectedness and its impact on the worldwide community. We need to seek to structure our systems according to the goodness and sacredness of the whole creation. We need to actively and continuously strive to build social, economic and political bodies that become spaces of justice and healing. In so doing, we shall participate in our God given responsibility of being good stewards of God’s creation and keeping its goodness available to all.
Bongmba, Elias. K. Facing a Pandemic: The African Church and the Crisis of AIDS. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2007.
Chitando, E. Living and Acting in Hope, Vol. 1& 2. Geneva: WCC, 2007.
Dube, M. W. The HIV&AIDS Bible: Selected Essays. Scranton: Scranton University Press, 2008.
________. “Four Hearts Joined Together: On Becoming Healing-Teachers of Indigenous Religions/s in HIV&AIDS Prevention,” pp 131-156. African Women, Religion, and Health. Ed. By I. Phiri and S. Nadar. New York: Orbis Books, 2006.
_______ ed. HIV/AIDS and the Curriculum: Methods of Integrating HIV/AIDS in Theological Programmes. Geneva: WCC Publications, 2003.
 Musa W. Dube is a New Testament professor at the University of Botswana. She has also worked as gender and HIV& AIDS theological consultant for World Council of Churches in the region of Africa.