"Jesus was HIV-positive."
That's the title of a controversial sermon delivered in 2010 by South African pastor Xola Skosana. In an effort to lessen the shame associated with the disease, Skosana taught his congregation about the God who identifies with the weak and the stigmatized. And at the end of his message, he even took an HIV test in front of his congregation in the hopes of encouraging some of them to do the same.
As you can imagine, not all Christians took kindly to Skosana's claim that the second person of the Trinity was HIV-positive. As soon as word of the sermon got out, the complaints began to pour in. One pastor accused Skosana of "dragging Christ's name to the ground," which gives you an idea about what this minister thinks of people with AIDS.
The HIV-positive population in South Africa continues to grow. Yet in spite of the ubiquity of HIV, many South Africans refuse to get tested for fear that a positive diagnosis would cast a stigmatizing shadow over the rest of their lives. It's this fear that Skosana is challenging when he says, metaphorically, that Jesus is Poz.
I don't know what it's like to be HIV-positive, but as a gay man I do know what it feels like to be stigmatized as a blight on society. And for the record, I'm not drawing a comparison between having AIDS and being gay. I understand there are problems with linking the two given the uncomfortable history in America of equating being HIV-positive with homosexuality. Rather, Skosana's speech resonates with me as an analogy. He says that Jesus embodies the very qualities which cause polite society to flinch and turn away. He says that Jesus reaches the people who are used to being considered absolutely, unreachably Other. For gay men and women who are used to continual stigmatization by neighbors, politicians, family and strangers, Skosana's speech is tremendously powerful.
A few years ago at seminary, my class was given the following assignment: Find an explosive claim about Jesus. Someone brought in an article written by some crunchy yogi claiming that Jesus was a pothead. Another student brought in a newspaper clipping with the headline, "Jesus was a Warlord." When it was my turn, I told everyone that Jesus was a fag.
Now there are some people who think that Jesus was actually homosexual; I'm not one of those people. I can't imagine Jesus, the first-century rabbi, going around hooking up with men. I can, however, imagine him choosing to identify with those that did. One of the stories the Gospels tells us is about the Jesus who goes around befriending those thought to be sexual deviants.
Today has been declared a National Day of Silence in honor of the many LGBT students that are bullied into silence regarding their sexuality. Some have nicknamed the event "Gay for a Day" and have challenged straight people to try and identify with the queer among them. (Just to be clear, the challenge isn't for straight guys to sleep with gay guys, although I'm sure a few of my gay friends wouldn't decline the offer.)
I think the true power of this day lies in its ability to remind us of our common humanity. I don't expect straight men to walk around holding hands with each other today; but maybe as they hold hands with their girlfriends, they'll think about all those times when I've felt too uncomfortable to walk hand-in-hand with my boyfriend. Maybe straight women, as they buckle their children into their car seats, will think about all of those gay women who long to be mothers, but can't seem to break through the red tape that often stands between these would-be parents and the children they wish to adopt.
There is something very powerful about choosing to identify with someone different. And let's be clear: this identification can happen in spite of any particular ideology one might hold. I'm not asking everyone today to accept my gayness; I'm just asking everyone to accept the fact that I've accepted it, and to think about how that acceptance has at times brought me feelings of isolation and shame. And how those feelings have at times caused me to retreat into my own debilitating silence.
I don't think Jesus was gay, and I don't think he had AIDS. But I do think he'd have made it a point to identify with people who may have suffered from those or other social stigmas. I don't think Jesus formally observed this day, but I do think that he lived his life within a "Gay for a Day" ethos, one in which he identified with the strangers and misfits of society.
I'm observing this National Day of Silence in honor of the LGBT community -- and in honor of Jesus, who chooses to identify with them.