Religious thinking used for good

I try to be an honest broker. While I am staunchly anti-religion, I am perfectly willing to recognize when it does something I think is good. This is one of those rare examples where I can’t really spin this as anything other than a positive:

“Today I will start with a three-part sermon on: Jesus was HIV-positive,” South African Pastor Xola Skosana recently said in a Sunday church service. The words initially stunned his congregation in Cape Town’s Khayelitsha township into silence, and then set tongues wagging in churches across the country.

However, as Pastor Skosana told those gathered in the modest Luhlaza High School hall for his weekly services, in many parts of the Bible Jesus put himself in the position of the destitute, the sick and the marginalised. “Wherever you open the scriptures Jesus puts himself in the shoes of people who experience brokenness. Isaiah 53, for example, clearly paints a picture of Jesus who takes upon himself the infirmities and the brokenness of humanity,” he told the BBC.

He is also quick to emphasise that he is using the metaphor to highlight the danger of the HIV/Aids pandemic, which still carries a stigma in South Africa’s townships.

When I was young, I had a book of Aesop’s fables. For those of you too lazy to click, Aesop was a slave and story-teller from about 2600 years ago. His fables are among the most famous of all time, and still persist in our common lexicon (“sour grapes”, “crying wolf”, “dog in the manger”, “lion’s share”, “tortoise and hare”). The great things about the fables is that they didn’t require verisimilitude to teach a lesson – a talking fox that wants to eat some grapes is a stupid idea, but we can still apply the lesson. Oftentimes complex moral lessons could be drawn from the childish stories. It didn’t matter if Aesop actually wrote them, or if he even existed.

In the same way, Pastor Skosana is using the tale of Jesus of Nazareth to teach a complex moral lesson about compassion and empathy. As a non-religious person, I certainly doubt that Jesus of Nazareth was the son of Yahweh. There is some historical doubt as to whether Aesop actually existed, or whether (like Homer of The Iliad) he was in fact a non-corporeal “author” for a number of stories that were spread by word of mouth. There is equal doubt as to whether Jesus of Nazareth actually existed, or whether his story is an amalgamation of several messianic leaders that was hodge-podged into the story of one person. For the religious, it is vitally important for Jesus to have been a real person who actually lived; who did and said the things attributed to him. For the rest of us, it’s a relatively unimportant detail if Aesop, Homer, or Jesus were real.

There is a device of literary interpretation that is singularly well-used by the religious – that is, the co-opting of certain themes or passages to defend a position held a priori. The bible has been used in (roughly) equal measure to both protest and defend things like slavery, war, homophobia, sexism, xenophobia, evangelism… you name a topic, there are passages that both support and decry it. Thereafter, there are bitter fights among the religious to find out which is the real interpretation – for the rest of us, it’s a relatively unimportant detail if the Bible is for or against something. What matters is what the consequences are to people.

Most of the time, this cherry-picking and selective interpretation irritates me – people hold up the bible as some sort of inerrant guide for the world, when it is a largely-incoherent group of stories from either a pre-literate society or the half-remembered recollections of hearsay. However, in this particular case I will tip my cap to Pastor Skosana’s willingness to take a fable and use it to teach a much-needed moral lesson about acceptance. Jesus would have been on the side of those with HIV – they are the lepers of today’s society. If you wish to follow his example, you would have to drop the stigmatization and outright oppression of those who are stricken with the virus.

However, as with any religious debate, there are people who vociferously disagree:

For Pastor Bele, portraying Jesus as HIV-positive means he becomes part of the problem, not the solution. “The pastor needs to explain how it came about for him to bring Christ to our level, when Christ is supreme and is God,” he says. “There is a concern that non-believers would mock Christ and try to generalise Christ as opposed to the powerful force we believe him to be.”

And the facepalming can begin.

So I guess I have to walk back my original statement a bit. I agree with Pastor Skosana’s use of the story to teach a moral lesson about compassion. I disagree with Pastor Bele’s religification of the story – intentionally disregarding the dozens of passages wherein Jesus ministers to the sick and tells others to do the same – in order to advance some kind of untouchable, inhuman deity. I think they’re both wrong to say that one should follow one school of thought or another because YahwAlladdha says so – nothing could be further from the truth. The word of YahwAlladdha says all things and nothing, and should be used only like Aesop’s fables – using simple, childish stories to flavour moral lessons.

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