A biblico-theological reflection on HIV-AIDS
Tomb-raider versus Tomb-Dweller
One of my favorite movies is Lara Croft, Tomb Raider, played so beautifully by Angelina Jolie. She is your modern day archaeologist, philosopher and treasure hunter. So when you see her with her tightfitting outfits, boots, luxurious hair and pouting lips, you cannot help but wish you were like her, if you were female, or be with her, if you were male. She is called the Tomb Raider because she finds long-lost treasures in the tombs of great rulers. In this morning’s text, we encounter not a tombraider. We encounter instead a tomb-dweller.
Before I proceed with my interpretation of the text, I just need to point out that in the Philippines, according to a documentary which was shown a few years ago, there are over 6,000 tomb dwellers in our public cemeteries. I am sure there are more now. They are the poorest of the poor, who like Jesus at his birth, found no place among the people. Jesus was born in a manger where animals lived. The poorest among the Filipino People live among the dead. The documentary produced by GMA was entitled “Buhay sa Mundo ng Patay.”
Mark 5 v3-5, describes how a man with an “unclean spirit” lives apart from his community and family and lived among the tombs. The tomb obviously symbolizes death. Death separates us from those who love and care for us. In this biblico-theological reflection, I propose a reading where the tomb-dweller in Mark is a person living with HIV-AIDS. But not because they are life-less but because the empire has denied them life. More importantly, not because they are demon-possessed but because they have been empire-possessed. They have been possessed by the empire.
The man in the text must have had a difficult life. The text reads, “no one could restrain him anymore… for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains.” (v3-4) It says further, “Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones.” Reading the text, I asked myself, what did the chains and shackles symbolize? From what did he run away from that he preferred tombs and the mountains? Was he driven away by others or did he want to escape from someone? Unlike many mammals, human beings cannot survive on their own when they are born. They need to be fed, nurtured and protected. Wise women have said in many ways that it takes an entire community to raise a child. What has happened to this man that he now lives apart from those who have raised him?
In our society today, there are many who live like the tomb-dweller in Mark 5. They dig out plastic bottles and tin cans from piles of garbage; sleep on the side-walks and run away from those in authority who may place them in locked rooms and behind bars. They sell their bodies while many of us pretend not to know and are paid like slaves for the dirtiest jobs no decent human being will do. They endure so much abuse and neglect that they forget the community that raised them. Or is it the other way around? Could it be that we are part of the abuse and neglect and we forget that we are the community that raised them?
People living with HIV-AIDS have mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, friends and co-workers, churches and communities, governments and societies. We say we are here for them. But are we really? If we truly care for them, why do people living with HIV-AIDS feel alone. Why do many of them live like the tomb-dweller?
Empire and Legion
When you walk into one of the more expensive malls, more often than not, you will be offered a leaflet that is an advertisement for a condominium, a house and lot, or a row house. The prices range from as low as PhP600,000 to as high as PhP 20 million. Nobody ever offers anyone to live in a tomb. Nobody ever dreams of living in a tomb. Nobody ever imagined that they would live in a tomb. Does God intend for anyone to live in a tomb? Does God will for anyone to live like they were dead? These are very important questions. If we believe that the God of love plans for some to live in tombs while others live in mansions, we cannot renounce the evils in our midst.
In the text, Jesus said to the unclean spirit inside the man, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” According to several Bible commentaries, a Roman legion was made up of 6,000 men. They embodied Rome’s control and power over Judea. They were mostly citizens of Rome who now serve in an occupied territory where they serve as a military force to ensure that the Roman Emperor was obeyed and followed. Legion and empire were words associated with violence and oppression. The same legion and empire possessed the man who lived in the tomb. In the possession of his body, he was dispossessed of dignity and was separated from his community. Legion and empire are not alien to us. In Jesus’s time, it was Pax Romana. In our time, it is Pax Americana. Then and now, in empire-building, profit is more important than people. The empire possesses people, as individuals and as a nation.
What has empire got to do with HIV-AIDS? Migrant workers are separated from families and in their loneliness have unprotected sex with other partners; vulnerable persons are sold drugs and use needles which spread infection and destroy lives; fundamentalist and evangelist preachers promote a theology that condemns sexuality and homosexuality that further alienates persons who need communtity and compassion; and poverty has been accepted alongside greed and corruption denying and dehumanizing people, especially the most vulnerable among us. Legion and empire are organizations and systems that possess people’s lives so that their own bodies are no longer theirs. And when the unclean spirit was named in Mark 5, it identified itself as “legion.” What will it take to drive away this unclean spirit? What must we do to dismantle legion and empire? How can a human being be liberated from its possession?
At the beginning of Jesus’ Galilean ministry, he said, “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near.” (Mark 1:15) Jesus embodied the Kingdom of God. In his presence, those who have abused power and authority felt threatened. Thus, in Mark 5, when the unclean spirit called “legion” came face to face with Jesus, they begged him, “Send us into the swine: let us enter them.” (v11-12) In the succeeding verses, the unclean spirits entered the pigs, rushed to the steep bank, and were drowned in the sea. I wish it were that simple to get rid of unclean spirits, legions and empires. But what is important in the text is that we recognize that we can only be liberated when we get rid of those who possess our bodies.
Compassion or Condemnation
It is interesting that when Jesus arrives in Gerasenes, the man with the unclean-spirit met him, bowed down before him and shouted, “What have you to do with me….do not torment me.” (v6-7) Jesus does not. Jesus does not say “you have sinned.” Jesus does not say, “you have no faith.” Jesus did not even try to preach to him. Jesus’ response to the tomb-dweller was not condemnation. His response was compassion.
After the unclean spirit called “legion” left the tomb-dweller, he was found sitted beside Jesus in his right mind. When the people saw what had happened, they were afraid. They begged Jesus to leave. Their response to the man’s healing was not rejoicing but fear. They did not welcome him into their homes to celebrate his return. Their response to the tomb-dwellers healing was condemnation. Their response to Jesus’ healing was condemnation. Unlike Jesus, they were not ready to show compassion.
Finally, when the man who was healed wanted to follow Jesus and remain with him, Jesus refused saying ,”Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” He then let Jesus go on his way and he himself went away and shared with others what Jesus had done for him. I stated from the very beginning that I want to present the tomb-dweller as a person living with HIV-AIDS. I need to say that while Jesus gave healing to the tomb-dweller who was rid of unclean spirit, persons living with HIV-AIDS may not have the same physical healing. I am tempted to say that he had a spiritual healing, but I do not want to say that. What I want to leave with you is the challenge of how, by following Jesus’ example, we must enable people living with HIV-AIDS to name their demons, seek compassion from somebody like Jesus, and find courage to return to their communities and live amongst their people.
People living with HIV-AIDS have a disease. It affects their bodies. But communities that reject, demonize, and condemn people living HIV-AIDS have an illness. It is a sickness that affects minds and relationships. It is a sickness that destroys life and communities. We all have a choice: to show compassion or to respond with condemnation. What will it be?