Archbishop Desmond Tutu speaks about church and AIDS

In the run-up to the Bangkok AIDS Conference, Christian Aid interviewed the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and asked him to explain the role the church should play in combating the disease.

How do you feel the church should treat HIV-positive people? I always say: Let us, as a church, speak out and speak up. HIV/AIDS is not God's punishment for sin. You have got to say that quite firmly and categorically. How can it be said that a baby who has AIDS through mother-to-child transmission is being punished for sin? If it is a God who is punishing them, then that God is one I would not worship. Silence kills. Stigma kills. We should not want to treat those living with HIV as the modern equivalent of the biblical leper who had to carry a bell and a sign saying, 'I am unclean'. They are not unclean. We should embrace them physically and emotionally as members of our community.

How, specifically? The church should speak out very firmly against stigmatisation. But this must go hand in glove with legislation that ensures that people living with AIDS are not discriminated against in their jobs, for example, once their status has been discovered. We need legislation that prevents them from being dismissed or from missing out on certain benefits. We, the church, should be at the forefront of this. We follow a master who was always on the side of those who were having a hard time. So we have got to be where Jesus is. Has the church spoken out about HIV/AIDS before? In the cathedral in Cape Town, there was quite a hoo-haa over a painting of Jesus with a caption, 'Jesus with AIDS'. Yes, there was quite an outcry. And so we had to say, 'So what? This is Jesus who has accepted our humanity and identified with us fully in our condition. And Jesus would identify with those who are sick, those who are marginalised, those who are ostracised.'

Sometimes you need something like that to hit you between the eyes to realise what that identification means. As a patriarchal organisation, can the church be inclusive and treat all with respect? Our church with the Lord we worship has to be an inclusive church, a church that is open and vulnerable - one that is ready to be ridiculed even. We tend to think that God is respectable. God isn't respectable, judging from the company our Lord kept, you know. We have put off many people by being bourgeois and being scared of being open and including everybody. I think it is important that we listen to the voices of people speaking for themselves, and that we not intimidate them. We should encourage every member of our community to articulate their pain and their aspirations.

The hierarchy should not feel threatened. We should really and truly seek to become the church that seeks to serve. We shouldn't want to serve only those who live up to our expectations and those who seem to abide by the rules that we ourselves set up. Some Christians have criticised the mention of condoms in HIV prevention education. What is your view? The church has what you might call a captive audience. It has very considerable prestige in most parts of Africa and has access to possibly the largest constituency of any other organisation. People take very seriously what the church says, on the whole. A lot of HIV prevention work seeks to reinforce what the church is teaching already, such as talking about faithfulness, abstinence, being careful. But you have to be aware that we live in the real world and therefore we have to take account of the fact that many people will find it difficult to live up to the high standards set before them [by the church].

So, as a matter of responsibility to the community, you say: 'If you can't do the best, then how do you deal with the likely consequences of not living up to the best?' We therefore have to say that people need to be taught that safer sex, with condoms, is for their own sakes. Unprotected sex kills.

Article published 14 July 2000

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