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  • Restorative Readings: The Old Testament, Ethics, and Human Dignity
    Restorative Readings: The Old Testament, Ethics, and Human Dignity
    Pickwick Publications

    Foreword by Walter Brueggemann, my chapter is entitled 'In conversation: The Old Testament, Ethics and Human Dignity'. A superb resource edited by Julie Claassens and Bruce Birch

  • What are we thinking? Reflections on Church and Society from Southern African Methodists.
    What are we thinking? Reflections on Church and Society from Southern African Methodists.
    by Dion A Forster, Wessel Bentley
  • Methodism in Southern Africa: A celebration of Wesleyan Mission
    Methodism in Southern Africa: A celebration of Wesleyan Mission
    by Dion A Forster, Wessel Bentley
  • Christ at the centre - Discovering the Cosmic Christ in the spirituality of Bede Griffiths
    Christ at the centre - Discovering the Cosmic Christ in the spirituality of Bede Griffiths
    by Dion A Forster
  • An uncommon spiritual path - the quest to find Jesus beyond conventional Christianity
    An uncommon spiritual path - the quest to find Jesus beyond conventional Christianity
    by Dion A Forster
Transform your work life: Turn your ordinary day into an extraordinary calling. by Dion Forster and Graham Power.
Download a few chapters of the book here.
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Entries in Theology (95)

Wednesday
Sep212011

Intuitive? Try God!

I was alerted to this fascinating research, done at Harvard, by my friend Philip Collier.

In summary, the researchers found that persons who are capable of making intuitive decisions are more likely to be people of faith. Intuition is an extremely complex function of the human brain, since intuition relies on gathering lots of data, processing it at speed, and reaching a conclusion.

God is related to decision-making style, with those who rely more heavily on intuition reporting higher rates of belief, while those who are more reflective tilt toward atheism.
By linking religious belief to intuition, the study supports the idea that there is something in the cognitive makeup of humans that promotes belief in a higher power. For example, the natural tendency that people have to see a purpose behind random events, or the need to reduce uncertainty in their lives — as well as the anxiety it causes — may promote a belief in God.

The research makes no value judgement on intuitive versus reflective cognitive ability (since this is a matter or style rather than intelligence).

What do you think? Are intuitive thinkers more likely to be persons who hold faith convictions?

PS. My doctoral work was in cognitive neuroscience and theology. You can read more about that work on this blog by clicking the neuroscience link (tab) at the top of the page or the tag below.

Here's the link to the Harvard Article: http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2011/09/intuitive-try-god/

Friday
Aug122011

Why I am a pastor scholar

“[Theology] has often overshot its goal and degenerated into repeating the same empty phrases…. Sometimes it seemed to proceed from the idea that it could answer all questions and resolve all issues. It has often been lacking in modesty, tenderness, and simplicity. This was all the worse inasmuch as theology has to do with the deepest problems and comes into contact with the most delicate stirrings of the human heart. More than any other science, it has to take to heart the admonition ‘not to think of itself more highly than it ought’ (cf. Rom. 12:3). It is better honestly to admit that a thing is not clear than to make a wild guess.”


Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), p. 605.

This is why I am a 'pastor scholar' - my desire is to think deeply about faith and the world in order to serve, not to merely 'tell' or 'teach'.

Sunday
Apr102011

Another chapter published!

On Friday I received an email from Paul Chilcote to let me know that 'Making disciples in a world parish: Global perspectives on Mission and Evangelism' was published.

I was privileged to contribute one of the chapters that make up this book.  I wrote about the theology and ministry of Christians in Southern Africa in response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic.  In my chapter I discussed issues such as the contextualisation of theological methodology, an insight into what it means to live with HIV/AIDS and what it could mean for Christians and the Church to respond appropriately in that context.  It is entitled 'Evangelism, mission and discipleship in Southern Africa: How hope is overcoming tragedy'.

I'd encourage you to check out the book at the following URL - you can purchase the book from Amazon here.

Thursday
Apr072011

Lent - the importance of Easter in the Christian faith

As I'm going through Lent, and preparing for Easter, I have been reflecting on the importance of this feast in the Christian tradition. Somehow in the West we place more emphasis on Christmas - perhaps it is because we're so self centered and are caught up in the reward and response of giving and receiving gifts!

This quote reminded me how important Easter has been for all of Christian history:

Take Christmas away, and in biblical terms you lose two chapters at the front of Matthew and Luke, nothing else. Take Easter away, and you don’t have a New Testament; you don’t have a Christianity; as Paul says, you are still in your sins. We shouldn’t allow the secular world, with its schedules and habits and parareligious events, its cute Easter bunnies, to blow us off course. This is our greatest day. We should put the flags out.

- N.T. Wright, Surprised By Hope (via @invisibleforeigner's tumblr blog)

May the Lord richly bless us as we prepare to celebrate the significance of God's generous gift in Christ.

Thursday
Mar312011

The body of Christ

I'm reading Hauerwas, Yoder and Cavanaugh...

The task of the church in the temporal is to embody what Christ has already accomplished in history by remembering his broken and victorious body. Christ’s victory is already won, and the Kingdom is to have transformative effects on Christian practice in history. The task of the church is to live as if this is the case, until Christ comes again and fully consummates his reign.
— William T. Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist(via @invisibleforeigner's tumblr blog.

And it is good...

I would suggest that you follow invisibleforeigner's tumblr blog. It has been such a great blessing to me to read the quotes, thoughts and ideas on it, many of which you will see on my blog. Thanks!

Monday
Feb072011

The ministry of a chaplain in the contemporary missional Church

For the past 3 years I have been seconded by the Methodist Church of Southern Africa to serve as a Chaplain.  My chaplaincy has been to a number of organisations (which are all connected with the work and ministry of Graham Power, a prominent Christian Businessman and member of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa).

I have served as the Chaplain to the Global Day of Prayer, the Unashamedly Ethical movement, to two of the teams that helped to arrange the Third Lausanne Congress in Cape Town, and to the 2000 employees of the Power Group of Companies.

I often get asked what a Chaplain is, and of course what a Chaplain does!  In particular people seem to find the concept of 'corporate', 'industrial' or 'business' Chaplaincy quite interesting.  Most people are familiar with military Chaplains, prison Chaplains, and hospital Chaplains.

What is a Chaplain?  A little bit of theology and history.

Before I talk about what I do let me give a little bit of background to the concept of Chaplaincy.  Most scholars trace this history of Chaplaincy to St Martin of Tours, a 4th century Roman soldier who was convereted to Christianity.  He was stationed in the North of France and tradition tells of how he encountered a destitute man at the gate of the city of Amiens one day.  He was filled with compassion for the poor, naked, man and so took his sword and cut his Roman cloak (capella) in half and gave one half to the shivering man.  The legend further suggests that the poor man that he helpded later revealed himself as Jesus (similar to what we read in Matthew 24:34-36).  St Martin was later ordained and allowed to minister outside of the 'gathered Church' in places of great need.  He became known as the keeper of the bisected cloak (the capellanus) - from which we derive the name 'Chaplain'.

It is interesting to note that Martin and his cohorts spread throughout the country meeting the needs of people and establishing places of worship (which where known as Chapels, after those who birthed and nurtured them, the Chaplains).  The Chapel this came out of the ministry of the Chaplain, and not the other way around as it is commonly assumed.

Robert Jones writes in the Journal, Epworth Review:

Here then is the initial feature of chaplaincy, that it first addresses the acute need with practical care. Secondly, it goes to where people are without wating for them to come where we are....  Finally, this story says something to us about status, for at the moment of the inception of [St Martin's] ministry, Martin was still a lay person. He was later ordained... Chaplaincy has had the potential from the beginning to be a ministry of the whole people of God.

I have found this image very helpful in my own ministry.  I am one who is called to meet people at their point of need.  The 'world of work' is often a place of great struggle, hardship, and drudgery.  I have had wonderful opportunities to offer practical and spiritual care in the workplace. Second, I constantly strive to facilitate instances of worship (Chapels if you will).  Sometimes these are places (like the prayer room we have at our offices).  And at other times they are short momemnts either with groups of individuals - for example when I go out onto our building and construction sites to meet with our staff.  Most importantly I have attempted to 'extend' the office of Chaplain to numerous people in our company and in other companies and contexts.  We have numerous 'lay people' who are ministers in their own right, offering pastoral care, teaching, and mobilizing ministry.

What do I do as a 'corporate' or 'business' Chaplain?

My Chaplaincy is primarily characterised by service.  I'm sure that each Chaplaincy is unique in its character and form, attempted to meet the needs of the context in Christian love.

However, since I serve a Christian man, and serve in a Christian organisation, I have many wonderful opportunities for ministry.  Among other things I do the following:

 

  • Offer counselling and care to our staff and their families.
  • Lead prayer meetings and Bible study groups in and around the workplace.
  • I develop and share materials on spirituality in daily life (prayer guides, daily reflections, ideas for ministry and service etc.)
  • I oversee and assist in the ministry of The Global Day of Prayer internationally and perform the same function with the team in our Unashamedly Ethical Office.
  • I oversee the management of our company's Corporate Social Investment and Charitable giving (we have a Charitable Trust for this purpose).
  • I do executive coaching for some of our senior leadership (with a particular emphasis on work life balance, spirituality, personal calling etc.)
  • I sit on numerous committees in the company that have an input into the wellbeing of our employees, that look after aspects of our decisions (particularly in regard to ethics and social responsibility).
  • I travel to lead workshops and retreats on the book that Graham Power and I wrote together called 'Transform your work life: Turn your ordinary day into an extraordinary calling'
  • I consult to individuals and companies who are serious about finding God's direction, guidance, and will for their lives and their resources.  I help to reshape both individuals and structures for greater significance in God's Kingdom.

 

Of course I perform a myriad of more mundane tasks that relate to budgest, meetings, planning, strategy, correspondance etc.

What is central to everything that I do as a Chaplain is the understanding that 'work can be worship' (Col 3.23).  And the little phrase I often use which says:

While some are called to pastor congregations, everyone is called to ministry.

I'd love to hear your ideas, feedback!  Do you do something similar?  Do you long to do something similar?  Have you got any creative ideas or inputs that could shape and form such a ministry?

Thursday
Jan132011

Prayer, social action and change.

Some years ago I wrote an article entitled 'Prayer, compassion and social change: Towards an understanding of prayer and spiritual activity as a praxis transformative of the individual and society'.

It's a mouthful, I know, but then what would the academy be if it is was not at least a little verbose!  ha ha!  The point of the article was to show how prayer and spiritual discipline are critical elements for individual and social transformation.

The following little quote reminded me that article:

Prayer is not an old woman's idle amusement. Properly understood and applied, it is the most potent instrument of action.  

- Mohandas Gandhi

Here's the abstract for the article:

This paper will argue that prayer and spiritual activity are not only effective means for transformation, but that they form a sound basis for all forms of personal and social transformation.

In order to develop this argument it is essential to start with a brief explanation of an emerging paradigm of reality.  In brief, this paradigm bridges the gap that has been created between creation and redemption.  The new paradigm no longer separates God’s ongoing work of creation from God’s activity of redemption.  Understanding this notion forms an essential basis for investigating how and why prayer, compassion and contemplative activity are effective in bringing about transformation, in both the individual and in society.

This paper will show, that prayer or contemplative activity is an extremely important starting point for embarking on any form of transformation or social change.  It will show that prayer puts one in touch with the source and goal of true transformation.  Along with this, it will be argued that true transformation takes place physically and spiritually (since the two can not be separated).  In the past great emphasis has been placed on mere physical action to bring about social change.  This paper attempts to show that true transformation or social change requires some measure of spiritual activity and awareness in order to bring about meaningful and holistic changes to individuals and societies.

It is in this sense that prayer and spiritual activity act as transformative praxis of self and society.

It was quite an interesting article since I attempted to bring together elements of traditional spirituality (with a focus upon the discipline of prayer and Christian meditation) and tie it in with elements of quantum theory, consciousness studies, some sociology and integrative theory.

I'd love to hear your thoughts (if you do read it!)  I have long since progressed to more subtle and intricate understandings of Wilber's thoughts on holarchy (of course Wilber has published a great deal in the past few years on this subject).

You can download the paper here.

Thursday
Oct072010

Is God a heretic?

In Mark 2.13-17 to we read one of the many accounts in the Gospels where Jesus was judged by the Pharisees for fraternizing with sinners.

There is little doubt that the religious establishment of his day thought that Jesus was a heretic!

I was reminded of this today as I was speaking to a friend about one of my little books 'Christ at the centre - discovering the cosmic Christ in the spirituality of Bede Griffiths'.  We were remarking how different Fr Bede's Christology was from that of his friend CS Lewis.  In fact, Fr Bede's theology developed in a very different way to CS Lewis' - I think that it may be because each of the men honoured the context in which they served Christ.  Lewis formed his faith in the University City of Oxford, while Griffiths formed his faith as a missionary monk in Southern India.  Both were committed to Jesus, yet that commitment found expression in quite different ways.

I was milling over our conversation as I was driving to a meeting at the University of Stellenbosch (where I was to give input into a new Master's degree for ministry practitioners).  My thoughts turned to two rather strange questions:

1)  I wonder how the contemporary Church would 'judge' God's radically gracious theology?

2) Would we, like the pharisees of Jesus' time, consider God to be heretic?

Here's a video I recorded while driving.

In the December 2008 volume of the Journal STUDIA HISTORIAE ECCLESIASTICAE I did a review on Richard Burridge's wonderful book 'Imitating Jesus: An inclusive approach to New Testament ethics' - Burridge makes an interesting point in his book, one that I tend to agree with.  He notes that if we read the words of Jesus (his teaching) we will see that he had a rather stringent ethic, a high set of moral standards.  Yet if we observe the actions of Jesus we will find that he acts far more graciously.  It is not a matter of incongruence, or cognitive dissonance, rather it is that the teaching of 'the law' finds it's fullest expression in a life of loving grace.

Perhaps the contemporary Church, and many Christians, have become too caught up in the stringency of 'the law' and have not held on to a lifestyle of loving grace.

Perhaps we would consider God to be unorthodox, maybe even a heretic? What do you think?

As for me, I am trying to be a little more like Jesus every day! I want His love for this world to run through my speech, my thoughts and my actions.  Some may find the company that I keep difficult to bear, the may even call me unorthodox, perhaps even a heretic!

Thursday
Sep302010

Could this be true? Study shows atheists know more about religion than professed believers.

Boing Boing is reporting the findings of an American study which shows that atheists have greater knowledge of some elements of religions than the followers of those faiths.  Boing Boing's report makes for interesting reading! However, what it fails to mention is that that while atheists may have far greater knowledge about certain elements of various faiths (by virtue of the fact that they would justify their stance by having reasons to support their lack of belief), surely they cannot have a better general, or overall, understanding of the subtleties of a particular religion?

For example, while many atheists may know some interesting facts about the creation narrative (I have even heard some atheist friends quoting words and portions of verses from the original Hebrew text to make a point), it is unlikely that they would have equitable 'technical' knowledge about others elements of a particular faith, e.g., the emphases of compassion, goodness, or love as expressed in those faith traditions.

Regardless, this is a an interesting article.  What do you think - is it true, do atheists know more about religion than professing believers?

A new Pew survey on religion in America finds that atheists and agnostics are more likely to be well-versed about different religions' beliefs and practices than people who profess a belief in those religions. For example, atheists and agnostics are more likely to know that during Communion (Catholicism's central rite), the wafer and wine are meant to transubstantiate into the literal flesh and blood of Christ -- they aren't merely symbolic, as 40% of Catholics believe. Atheists and agnostics are also more likely than Protestants to know that Martin Luther sparked the Protestant Reformation (the majority of Protestants could not identify him).

Interestingly, Mormons are, on average, better versed on the traditional New Testament Bible than evangelical Christians and mainstream Christians, many of whom consider Mormonism to be apostasy.

American atheists and agnostics tend to be people who grew up in a religious tradition and consciously gave it up, often after a great deal of reflection and study, said Alan Cooperman, associate director for research at the Pew Forum.

"These are people who thought a lot about religion," he said. "They're not indifferent. They care about it."

Atheists and agnostics also tend to be relatively well educated, and the survey found, not surprisingly, that the most knowledgeable people were also the best educated. However, it said that atheists and agnostics also outperformed believers who had a similar level of education.

The groups at the top of the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey were followed, in order, by white evangelical Protestants, white Catholics, white mainline Protestants, people who were unaffiliated with any faith (but not atheist or agnostic), black Protestants and Latino Catholics.

Thursday
Sep302010

The Bible and Christian Ethics - lectures at the University of Stellenbosch

This week I had the privelage of teaching at the University of Stellenbosch on two days.  The topic of the lectures was Scripture and Ethics.

The Bible is a critical source that informs our moral and ethical decision making processes, and helps us to justify why we have taken a particular course of action.  My lectures were based on two chapters that I have written.

Reading the same Bible and reaching different ethical conclusions:  The Bible and Christian ethics" by Forster, D (2009:131-156) in What is a good life? An introduction to Christian Ethics in 21st century Africa. Kretzschmar, L; Bentley, W; van Niekerk, A (eds). Kempton Park, AcadSA Publishers.

And,

"Why you can't simply trust everything you read" by Forster, D (2008:25-46) in What are we thinking? Reflections on Church and Society from Southern African Methodists. Forster, D; Bentley, W (eds). Cape Town.  Methodist Publishing House.

When we need the Bible most... Complex ethical dilemmas and Christian scripture

Sadly, the Bible is often abused in moral and ethical decision-making processes.  I often hear people quoting a single verse to justify a stance on something (whether it be politics, sexual choices, wealth etc.)  An overly simplistic approach to ethics and an ignorant application of the scriptures can be extremely hurtful and damaging in complex ethical decisions.

In this set of lectures we began by examining the complexity of ethical decision-making.  We used a story that a student shared with me when I was still a lecturer in Ethics and Systematic Theology at the University of South Africa (UNISA) some years ago:

Moral problems tend to have straigthfoward answers (right or wrong), whereas ethical dilemmas seem to have a mix of both good and bad.  No matter what choice you make it will not be entirely good or entirely bad.  The complexity is to work out what decision is best under the circumstances.  This process of deciding is often complicated when one asks the question 'What would God want me to do in this situation?', or 'What does the Bible say I can and cannot do in this situation?'

The example used in class came from a student that I taught at UNISA.

Example:  Is it ever right for a son to have sexual intercourse with his mother?  What does the Bible say?  The answer is, no, it is not acceptable for a son to have sexual intercourse with his mother.  The Bible will not allow that.  This is a clear moral problem.  It is easy to resolve since the choices are either right or wrong, good or bad.

However, in this instances the young man was at home with his mother.  A gang of thugs burst into their home, stole various items and then held a gun to the young man’s mother’s head.  The told him that if he did not have sex with his mother they would kill her.  What should he do?  Does the Bible make some allowance for him to break a law on sexual purity because the value of his mother’s life is more important in Biblical terms?

This last point is an ethical dilemma.  There is a conflict of values – the value of sexual purity in conflict with the value for life.  Which is more important in Christian ethics?  How does one use the Bible to inform such an ethical decision making process and choice?

Well, here are the slides from the lectures.  You can download the original Microsoft Powerpoint slides from this link (5MB).  These slides have notes and references in them. 

However, if you simply want to click through the slides then please use the slideshare window below.

In order to illustrate the complexity of using the Bible in Christian ethics we used a very contentious subject, the Christian (Biblical) perspective on persons with a same sex orientation, and in particular persons in an active homosexual relationship, to consider an approach to ethical decision-making.

I would highly recomend that you read the chapters referenced above.  They give a detailed technical outline of both the content of the lecture, but also the Analyse, Ask, Evaluate and Act model that is presented here.

Friday
Sep172010

The body of Christ has HIV AIDS - an update

Some weeks ago I posted and entry entitled 'Christian and positive - when the body of Christ has HIV AIDS' A short while before writing that post I had recorded a brief video describing my thoughts on this matter. I only managed to upload my video last night. So I am posting it as an update here. Please see the video towards the bottom of this post. God bless, Dion Here's that original post with the new video inserted towards the bottom of the post:

Today my friend Grant Russell alerted me to an article posted in the Guardian Online Newspaper entitled Pastor's 'Jesus had HIV' sermon angers South African Christians by David Smith.

I can understand why the preacher in question, Xola Skosana, would preach such a sermon.  However, I can also understand why South African Christians may take offense to both the title of his message and the sermon's title.

First, let me say that I agree with Rev Skosana - the body of Christ does have AIDS!  

In an article that I have just published in the Epworth Review, Vol 32, No 2, 2010 (a theological journal that is published in England) I made exactly the same point.  You can read the article here: The Church has AIDS: Towards a positive theology for an HIV+ Church.

Here are two excerpts from my introduction to the article:

One of the most controversial statements in the contemporary Church is surely the assertion that ‘The Church has AIDS’! This statement challenges Christians to recognize that it is impossible to do theology and engage in Christian life and ministry without taking into account the impact of HIV and AIDS on the world...

Within the Church – the Body of Christ – there are many persons who are HIV+. This reality changes not only who we are as a Church, it also changes how we are the Church. In our creeds we affirm that the Church is ‘One’ – this unity is more than just a structural unity. Solidarity is central to the unity of the Church. It was out of this reality of true solidarity that the Methodist Church of Southern Africa adopted the following statement at its annual conference in 2005: ‘The Church has HIV/AIDS: We care. “When one part of the body is affected the whole body suffers” 1 Corinthians 12:26.’

This image is a photograph of a poster that was circulated in Methodist Churches in Southern Africa.  It bears the bold, and true, statement "The Church has HIV/AIDS - we care".

The point is this, Christians believe, according to Paul's theology, that the Church is the "body of Christ" (see for example 1 Corinthians 12:12, Colossians 1:18).  If there are members of the Church that are HIV positive then the Body of Christ is HIV positive.

That is controversial, but it is true.  If one part of the body suffers the whole body suffers 1 Corinthians 12:26.

In my article I argue something similar to what the Guardian reports on Rev Xola Skosana - we are responsible for one another, and as such the whole Church (all across the world) must consider itself HIV +.  The HI virus infects the whole of the body.  Unlike cancer one cannot remove the ailing part of the body.  The virus affects every part of the body.  

Here are some statistics about HIV from the article in the Epworth Review:

South Africa’s HIV/AIDS statistics are fairly well known.6 Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest precedence of HIV infection in the world. Where it is left completely unchecked the HIV infection rate has risen to as high as 1 in every 2 persons (50 per cent of some population groups in Botswana).7 Of the estimated 33.2 million persons living with AIDS globally, more than 22.5 million live in Sub-Saharan Africa – that amounts to 68 per cent of all HIV+ persons in less that 10 per cent of the world’s geographic land mass. Each day more than 1,600 persons are infected with the virus. In most government hospitals more than half of the patients are HIV+. By 2009 the life expectancy of a person living in Swaziland8 had declined from 60 years of age to just 32 years.9 Compare this to the United King- dom where the life expectancy of the average person born in 2009 is 79 years.10 Approximately 4,500 people in Sub-Saharan Africa die of HIV/ AIDS-related medical causes each day.

In a chapter that I wrote for a forthcoming book entitled Alienation and Connection: Suffering in a global age. (edited by Lisa Withrow and Joerg Rieger) I developed this argument in a slightly different way.  The chapter is entitled Empire, economics and apathy: A theological reflection on suffering as a result of HIV AIDS.

I introduced the concept with another rather controversial statement, saying that any Southern African Church that does not have an HIV AIDS ministry cannot be a Christian Church!  [yes, I know that I will get into trouble for this one!]

My contention is this - if 68% of all HIV+ persons in the world live in this region, then the Church has a massive responsibility to see that God's loving will is brought to bear on this situation.  God cares about every person!  The Church is God's instrument, the instrument of the mission Dei (the mission, or work, of God).

So, yes, I agree with Rev Skosana - the Body of Christ is HIV+.  Perhaps I would have titled the message slightly differently.  Instead of saying 'Jesus had HIV', I would say that 'The body of Christ is HIV+'.

As a result I can understand how Christians may respond with shock at the statement that Jesus HIV.  That statement is not accurate.  But, I do believe that the point is well made.  As Christians we need to understand that we have a critical role to play in ministering to God's World.  And since this world includes HIV positive persons it is not a matter of 'us' and 'them'.  Rather it is a matter of 'us'.

Here is a video reflection that offers some further thoughts on this very important issue!

The body of Christ has HIV AIDS from Dion Forster on Vimeo.

I'd love to hear your thoughts, reflections, and ideas!

You can find the Guardian article on Rev Skosana here.

Thursday
Aug262010

Christian and positive - when Christ's Body has HIV AIDS

Today my friend Grant Russell alerted me to an article posted in the Guardian Online Newspaper entitled Pastor's 'Jesus had HIV' sermon angers South African Christians by David Smith.

I can understand why the preacher in question, Xola Skosana, would preach such a sermon.  However, I can also understand why South African Christians may take offense to both the title of his message and the sermon's title.

First, let me say that I agree with Rev Skosana - the body of Christ does have AIDS!  

In an article that I have just published in the Epworth Review, Vol 32, No 2, 2010 (a theological journal that is published in England) I made exactly the same point.  You can read the article here: The Church has AIDS: Towards a positive theology for an HIV+ Church.

Here are two excerpts from my introduction to the article:

One of the most controversial statements in the contemporary Church is surely the assertion that ‘The Church has AIDS’! This statement challenges Christians to recognize that it is impossible to do theology and engage in Christian life and ministry without taking into account the impact of HIV and AIDS on the world...

Within the Church – the Body of Christ – there are many persons who are HIV+. This reality changes not only who we are as a Church, it also changes how we are the Church. In our creeds we affirm that the Church is ‘One’ – this unity is more than just a structural unity. Solidarity is central to the unity of the Church. It was out of this reality of true solidarity that the Methodist Church of Southern Africa adopted the following statement at its annual conference in 2005: ‘The Church has HIV/AIDS: We care. “When one part of the body is affected the whole body suffers” 1 Corinthians 12:26.’

This image is a photograph of a poster that was circulated in Methodist Churches in Southern Africa.  It bears the bold, and true, statement "The Church has HIV/AIDS - we care".

The point is this, Christians believe, according to Paul's theology, that the Church is the "body of Christ" (see for example 1 Corinthians 12:12, Colossians 1:18).  If there are members of the Church that are HIV positive then the Body of Christ is HIV positive.

That is controversial, but it is true.  If one part of the body suffers the whole body suffers 1 Corinthians 12:26.

In my article I argue something similar to what the Guardian reports on Rev Xola Skosana - we are responsible for one another, and as such the whole Church (all across the world) must consider itself HIV +.  The HI virus infects the whole of the body.  Unlike cancer one cannot remove the ailing part of the body.  The virus affects every part of the body.  

Here are some statistics about HIV from the article in the Epworth Review:

South Africa’s HIV/AIDS statistics are fairly well known.6 Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest precedence of HIV infection in the world. Where it is left completely unchecked the HIV infection rate has risen to as high as 1 in every 2 persons (50 per cent of some population groups in Botswana).7 Of the estimated 33.2 million persons living with AIDS globally, more than 22.5 million live in Sub-Saharan Africa – that amounts to 68 per cent of all HIV+ persons in less that 10 per cent of the world’s geographic land mass. Each day more than 1,600 persons are infected with the virus. In most government hospitals more than half of the patients are HIV+. By 2009 the life expectancy of a person living in Swaziland8 had declined from 60 years of age to just 32 years.9 Compare this to the United King- dom where the life expectancy of the average person born in 2009 is 79 years.10 Approximately 4,500 people in Sub-Saharan Africa die of HIV/ AIDS-related medical causes each day.

In a chapter that I wrote for a forthcoming book entitled Alienation and Connection: Suffering in a global age. (edited by Lisa Withrow and Joerg Rieger) I developed this argument in a slightly different way.  The chapter is entitled Empire, economics and apathy: A theological reflection on suffering as a result of HIV AIDS.

I introduced the concept with another rather controversial statement, saying that any Southern African Church that does not have an HIV AIDS ministry cannot be a Christian Church!  [yes, I know that I will get into trouble for this one!]

My contention is this - if 68% of all HIV+ persons in the world live in this region, then the Church has a massive responsibility to see that God's loving will is brought to bear on this situation.  God cares about every person!  The Church is God's instrument, the instrument of the mission Dei (the mission, or work, of God).

So, yes, I agree with Rev Skosana - the Body of Christ is HIV+.  Perhaps I would have titled the message slightly differently.  Instead of saying 'Jesus had HIV', I would say that 'The body of Christ is HIV+'.

As a result I can understand how Christians may respond with shock at the statement that Jesus HIV.  That statement is not accurate.  But, I do believe that the point is well made.  As Christians we need to understand that we have a critical role to play in ministering to God's World.  And since this world includes HIV positive persons it is not a matter of 'us' and 'them'.  Rather it is a matter of 'us'.

Here is a video reflection that offers some further thoughts on this very important issue!

The body of Christ has HIV AIDS from Dion Forster on Vimeo.

I'd love to hear your thoughts, reflections, and ideas!

You can find the Guardian article on Rev Skosana here.

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