Our reflection for the fifth week of Lent (17 to 23 March 2013) is written by Sr Mary Owens IBVM, director of the Children of God Relief Institute, Nyumbani, in Kenya.
“Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” – Jn 8:7
In the Gospel of the fifth Sunday of Lent, Jesus invites us into the heart of the Good News – the challenge to be compassionate. As I live my life, I become more and more aware of being capable of every sin, every evil. When I touch the lives of the poor, in particular, the poor who are challenged to live with HIV, I often ask myself: If I were in their situation, how desperate would I be, even to the extent of violating the moral code? How frustrated would I be because ‘those who have’ fail to reach out to ‘those who have not’, contrary to a spirit of equality of persons? How angry would I be that I am stigmatised because of my HIV status? One call in today’s Gospel could be to examine where we stand in stigmatising others.
The story of humankind throughout the world, down the centuries, is characterised by stigmatisation: people seek security through conformity while difference is often perceived as threatening. Stigma is severe social disapproval of characteristics, behaviour or beliefs that are against the prevailing cultural norms – a powerful tool of social control but not of social justice and Gospel values.
The Scribes and the Pharisees were clear that the woman caught in adultery had to be stoned to death. If we are to follow Jesus, as Sr Joan Chittister says in her book, God’s Tender Mercy: Reflections on Forgiveness, “there’s no place for condemnation once we face our own sins… there’s no place for stoning if we are supposed to be pure enough to do it.” Or in the words of Mechthild of Magdeburg, a medieval mystic: “Insofar as we love compassion and practice it steadfastly, to that extent do we resemble the Heavenly Creator who practices these things ceaselessly in us.”
Questions to ask about the stigmatising of persons living with HIV could be: First, do I stigmatise? If so, why? Is it because of fear, an irrational belief system, lack of accurate information regarding HIV? Is it because HIV has been associated with dying, with behaviour already stigmatised? If these are the reasons, social justice calls me to educate myself in the accurate facts about HIV. If I am stigmatising on grounds of a moral offence that ‘deserves’ punishment, Jesus shows us the way in today’s Gospel –compassion.
The social injustice of stigmatisation has been brought home to me as I care for children who inherited HIV from their parents. Only too aware through socialising and from the media, our children face the daily possibility of discrimination, of being excluded, condemned because of their status. “This is your mug,” “this is your blanket,” “that’s where you will sleep (apart from everyone else)” was the experience of one child visiting after having finally found extended family. “These children should not be in this playground, have them leave,” was another experience.
As our children grow up, no different from any other child, questions in their hearts are: “If my friend learns I have HIV, will (s)he still be my friend?” “Who will employ me?” “Who will marry me?” I believe that the terrible damage stigmatisation does to children breaks Jesus’ heart as we know well his love for children: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me” (Mt 18:5).
Stigmatisation of all persons living with HIV must stop! It begins with me…
To read this reflection in French, please go here.
To read the reflection of the fourth week of Lent, please go here.
To read the reflection of the third week of Lent, please go here.
To read the reflection of the first week of Lent, please go here.
To read the reflection of Ash Wednesday, please go here.