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Stigmatization and Discrimination: Not a “Far-Away” Reality

Five years ago, Indonesian movie theaters showcased “Bohemian Rhapsody” (2018), a film narrating the captivating journey of the iconic British singer Freddie Mercury and his legendary rock band, Queen. Being an ardent fan of the band, I eagerly attended the screening to immerse myself in the dramatic portrayal on the grand cinematic canvas.

My acquaintance with Queen dates back to 1991, a period shortly after Freddie Mercury succumbed to AIDS. It was then that I first encountered the term AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome), a perilous ailment with no known cure. At the time, this “peculiar” malady, triggered by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), seemed a distant reality to me, embedded in a world separate from my conscious awareness.

Even during my theological studies, HIV/AIDS surprisingly remained absent from the spectrum of human challenges scrutinized and contemplated from a theological perspective. My theological college focused predominantly on interfaith dialogue, engagement with local culture, and the pervasive issue of poverty. It wasn’t until the release of films like “Nada untuk Asa” [Nada for the Hope] (2015) and the free-to-watch drama series “Kisah Carlo” [The Story of Carlo] (2015) on YouTube that my awareness began to expand.

These cinematic works endeavor to shed light on the lives of People Living With HIV/AIDS (PLWHA). “Nada untuk Asa” unfolds the poignant narrative of Nada, a woman whose husband’s demise was initially attributed to lymph cancer. However, it is later revealed that he had contracted AIDS years earlier, subsequently transmitting HIV to Nada. The revelation prompts society to shun her, driven by the misguided belief that AIDS is a “dirty” disease linked to immoral behavior. The film endeavors to underscore the real-life struggles of those stigmatized due to HIV/AIDS, illustrating the societal rejection faced by individuals impacted by the virus.

Similar themes of stigma are explored in “Kisah Carlo.” The series delves into the intricate lives of individuals exposed to HIV, representing diverse age groups and social backgrounds. Drawing inspiration from real-life experiences within a hospital setting, the episodes underscore that HIV/AIDS transcends mere medical-biological dimensions. It became evident to me that the complexities surrounding the care of PLHIV extend beyond the simplistic notion of administering a particular medication for a guaranteed cure.

HIV/AIDS and Religious Issues

These two films at least opened my eyes to the fact that the reality of HIV/AIDS is not just a reality “far away.”  The profound impact of HIV/AIDS on individuals and communities has transcended mere medical and social dimensions, extending into the realm of religious beliefs. The realization dawned upon me through the lens of two compelling films that HIV/AIDS is not a distant reality but a pervasive presence within our midst. Beyond its medical and social facets, the epidemic is entangled with complex religious perspectives, where incomplete understandings contribute to the perpetuation of stigma.

Research by Philomena Mwaura in Kenya highlights the persistence of negative attitudes towards People Living With HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) within the Church (Philomena N. Mwaura, “Stigmatization and Discrimination of HIV/AIDS Women in Kenya: A Violation of Human Rights and Its Theological Implications”, 2008). These attitudes often stem from misguided beliefs associating the disease with perceived immoral behaviors such as premarital or extramarital sexual relations, infidelity, unfaithfulness, and sin. These views are not confined to Africa but resonate globally, serving as contributing factors that fuel the stigmatization of individuals affected by HIV/AIDS.

Moreover, an unsettling assumption that AIDS is a divine punishment further fuels stigma. This notion, as articulated by Frank Sanders, is grounded in “metaphysical interpretations of biological phenomena.” (Frank Sanders, “Is AIDS a Divine Punishment? Excessive Metaphysical Interpretations of a Biological Phenomenon”, 2007). The understanding of AIDS as a form of divine retribution rests on concepts incompatible with the Christian image of God—specifically, the idea that God inflicts suffering and punishes sinners with disease.

It is crucial to challenge such perceptions and recognize that the presence of suffering, whether due to illness, natural disasters, oppression, or injustice, does not necessarily reflect divine intent. Many individuals undergo hardship not as a consequence of wrongdoing but as a result of distorted notions of God that contribute to stigmatization. Addressing these theological misconceptions becomes paramount in fostering empathy and compassion and dismantling the barriers that perpetuate the discrimination faced by those affected by HIV/AIDS.

Breaking through the Negative Stigma

Stigma, synonymous with injustice, becomes particularly pronounced when intertwined with the notion of divine punishment, reinforcing societal bias against individuals living with HIV/AIDS. This phenomenon is not unique to contemporary times but echoes historical parallels, as seen in Jesus’ era. During that period, some believed that conditions such as blindness were a consequence of personal or familial sins (John 9:2). Similar sentiments were attached to leprosy, regarded as a form of divine retribution. This interlinking of physical-biological realities with moral judgments spurred specific treatments, including avoidance, exclusion, and discrimination.

Embodying the Good News proclamation, Jesus responded to such injustices by engaging with those marginalized in society. He associated with tax collectors, prostitutes, and lepers, demonstrating a commitment to inclusion and acceptance (John 10:10). Christ identified as the good shepherd, envisioning a life of abundance that encompasses wholeness, healthiness in body and soul, flourishing, and happiness founded on accepted and respected dignity. Sadly, for many diagnosed with HIV, the promise of abundant life seems distant, making the disease a significant challenge for Jesus’ disciples in the pursuit of justice.

Stigmatization, beyond its social repercussions, silences the life struggles of People Living With HIV (PLHIV) and obstructs the realization of abundant life. Listening to their narratives is paramount, revealing that a truly fulfilling life defies simplistic formulas. Abundant life, synonymous with happiness, relies not only on physical health but also on social, economic, and environmental conditions. Socio-economic factors often drive risky behaviors leading to HIV exposure.

For PLHIV, an abundant life entails freedom from differentiation and discrimination, emotional support from family and friends, medical professional respect, and equal work or study opportunities. Reflecting on human development, rooted in the divine image and likeness, emphasizes the Creator’s desire for humanity to flourish and experience happiness.

The complexity of HIV/AIDS can be comprehended through the lens of the Church’s Social Teaching, which analyzes factors contributing to a malfunctioning of everyday life. Recognizing the complexity does not imply the problem is insurmountable; instead, it acknowledges the intricate web of interconnected social injustices, such as violent poverty, unequal economic development, poor neighborly relations, and a lack of comprehensive health knowledge.

Drawing parallels to the leprosy of Jesus’ time, HIV/AIDS is not solely a physical-biological ailment but is burdened by societal perceptions rooted in a misunderstanding of divine principles. Much like the discrimination faced by lepers, those affected by HIV/AIDS encounter societal rejection. However, the Gospels depict Jesus’ compassion for lepers, challenging religious laws and demonstrating closeness to those marginalized. This compassionate approach serves as a poignant reflection for contemporary responses to individuals exposed to HIV/AIDS.