There has been much coverage this week of the South African pastor who began a sermon by saying that ‘Jesus had HIV‘. I know I am not alone in being saddened by those who have opposed Pastor Skosana. Nearby Baptist pastor Mike Bele is offended, because ‘Christ is supreme and Christ is God’, but Skosana is not saying this is literally true, he is saying that Jesus always identified with the broken and the marginalised. Therefore the first thing to say is that this is emphasising a theology of incarnation.
But not only that, this is about an orthodox, dare I say conservative, doctrine of the atonement. By Pastor Bele’s account, 2 Corinthians 5:21 would only say of Christ, ‘him who had no sin’, but the entire verse says:
God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
We may want to protect the sinlessness of Christ (‘him who had no sin’), but Paul decisively aligns that with Christ’s identification with sinners on the Cross. Verses like these are behind the most substitutionary understandings of the atonement you can find in Christian theology. If you believe that God laid the sins of the world upon Jesus on the Cross, and if you believe that HIV is often contracted through sinful acts (both positions held by many conservative Christians), then it makes sense to talk metaphorically of Jesus having HIV. What’s the big deal unless you want to keep Jesus in heaven, never assuming human flesh to come and die for the salvation of the world? If you hold a conservative theology, I believe you should applaud Pastor Skosana, not demonise him.
Let me link this with some British history. In 1923, Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon married the future King George VI. The BBC wanted to broadcast the service on radio. Who objected? Not the Royal Family, but the Church. The Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey protested, saying that ‘men may be listening in public houses with their hats on.’
Maybe we laugh at that story now, but it betrays a religious attitude that majors only on people who are ‘not good enough’ and denies them the welcome (and challenge) of grace. For me, those who reject Pastor Skosana’s approach are people who will only preach ‘you are not good enough’ and not offer grace. Or they are, if they logically follow through with their objections. I know they will deny that, but to me that seems to be the logic.
But I can’t end this short piece without also pointing out another obvious matter, namely that HIV is not always contracted through sinful actions. Many who contract it do so as innocent victims. Some catch it in the womb. Some wives catch it from infected husbands who think they will be cured by sexual intercourse with a virgin.
And therefore the ‘Jesus had HIV’ metaphor has further power: it is not only about Jesus’ identification with sinners, it is about his identification with the sinned-against. Salvation from sin is about freedom from the penalty, practice and presence of sin. Salvation from the presence of sin is not only about anticipating God’s coming new creation, it is about the healing ministry with victims today.
May Xola Skosana challenge us all into a lifestyle that identifies with both sinners and the sinned-against.