A Pastoral Care Response to Those Dying with AIDS

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By Kate Riney

“Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.”

-Matthew 5:4

Since the beginning of the HIV epidemic, nearly 30 million people have died worldwide from AIDS-related causes[1] and at present there are 1 million people in the U.S. living with HIV, both diagnosed and undetected. [2] And while funeral home discrimination is illegal, many families and friends affected by AIDS are refused full or fair end of life care concerning their loved one.[3] The tensions brought on by moral conflict over homosexuality, strained family relationships, and the stress of grief can be a lot to face, but these should never deter ministers from fulfilling their calling to offer pastoral care and conduct funeral rites at end of life to all persons.[4]

Believing that God is punishing the U.S.' sodomy by killing its soldiers, Westboro Baptist Church is notorious for the picketing of military funerals. The most relevant instance of this consummated into a national court case. The family of Matthew Snyder sued WBC in 2007, alleging “invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress and civil conspiracy. A jury awarded the family $2.9 million in compensatory damages plus $8 million in punitive damages, which were later reduced to $5 million.” [5] However, the church appealed the case in 2008, and in a vote of 8 to 1, the Supreme Court reversed the ruling, siding with the church's allegations that its First Amendment rights were violated.[6] Thus, once and for all, the ruling clearly demonstrates that the law favors free speech over privacy rights. The question for Christians, is how would Jesus respond to such an ethical challenge?

The right to life or “sacredness of life” encompasses not only physical sustainment and quality of life upon the Earth, but also reverence and celebration of life as the gift of God, i.e. true spirituality. Thus, all persons, regardless of race, creed, religion, or moral stature should be given proper burials, a blessing and send-off from this world that memorializes their individual life and celebrates Life. If we claim to follow a norm of sacred respect and guardianship of life, we must do so in matters of death as well.

Violence to life can be done both actively and passively. Murder is active; the protests of funerals by Kansas fundamentalists is active; but even the refusal of recognizing a person's life and their friends' and families' need to grieve and them send them off, while passive, is a violent act. It does damage to the dignity and value of the person based on a perception of their sinfulness. Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, delivers this transforming initiative to his followers: “You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your friend and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love even your enemies and pray for them. Be like your Father in heaven who gives gifts and provision to saints and sinners alike” (Mt 5: 43-48, Paraphrase mine) —or as Kingdom Ethics puts it, “be all-embracing.”[7] And later he says this, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For the judgment you give, you will receive, measure for measure. Address your own sin, before concerning yourself with others'” (Mt 7:1-5, Paraphrase mine).

Fundamentalists argue that AIDS is a punishment inflicted by God upon homosexuals for their sin. If such a judgment is true, then shouldn't we consider infertility, miscarriage, and even cancer to be punishments for sexual sin as well? Jesus repudiated the notion of physical suffering as a direct result of personal sin (Jn 9:1-3).[8] It also contradicts the common evangelical belief in substitutionary atonement. Clearly Jesus' suffering and brutal punishment was not a result of his sin; rather it is historically interpreted as the result of and response to our sin as a people.

When commending someone into God's hands, we are not the divine judge. Our responsibility is to care for the loved ones left behind; to lead the celebration of Life, the process of grieving; and leave retribution and reward to God. God is supreme in life and death, taking responsibility for our being. Romans 14 says, “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living” (vv. 7-9). Scholar and gay rights activist, J. Michael Clark says,

We can […] learn to impose meaning upon tragedy, to reject theologically unreasonable explanations of suffering, and to reconceptualize God as a compassionate presence in suffering, alongside those in pain or on the margins, as well as the ultimate source of empowerment for appropriate response. Discovering this divine empowerment enables us to forgive God, the cosmos, ourselves, and one another. We are empowered to care for (and not avoid) those who are suffering and thereby to contribute actively as pastors to the healing of the psycho-spiritual pain which AIDS brings and to the development of deepened interrelationships and safer sexual behavior.[9]

It can also be said that we miss out on an evangelistic opportunity when we disregard the call to give pastoral care where it is needed. Attending the bedside of someone who is dying and supporting the family through their confusion and grief is part of the pastoral calling. It is a grave duty that we should find honorable. Dismissing such opportunities is a rejection of what God has called us to as ministers and as followers of Christ.

Scholar, Byron McCane, notes that death rituals are some of the most deeply symbolic of cultural values since death brings about reflection on the meaning of life and evaluation of experiences.[10] While memorial and funeral services are of upmost importance to us today, Jews in Jesus' time valued burial rites. Due to Jesus' conviction as a criminal, the Roman authorities would traditionally have prevented Jesus from being buried in a family tomb as this was a place of honor, however, Joseph of Arimathea took great care to place Jesus' body within his own family tomb.[11] In those days, honorable burial required immediate placement in a tomb, (often anointing with spices and oils), and mourning.[12] Jesus' followers testified to the dignity and importance of their fellow Jew, teacher, and friend, caring for his body in death and mourning the loss of his life even in the face of his conviction as a criminal and heretic (Mt 27:57, Jn 19:38). We have the opportunity to do the same for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.

Finally, we are called to care for “the least of these” (Mt 25:31-46). Whatever we do for a fellow person, Christ counts as if we did for him. A refusal to comfort the grieving and dying is a refusal to come to Christ's aid. No one should die alone. We endure immeasurable suffering in this world, but as Christians, we do not suffer alone. As far back as Israelite captivity in Exodus, God's people has bonded together and shared in one another's suffering as a people. Thus the attitude of a Christian should be, as Paul says, to “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15).

Treating our brothers and sisters suffering from AIDS as if they are Christ means giving them and their loved ones proper pastoral care, withholding judgment, and celebrating life through performing a memorial service and burial rites. Clark says, “As we help a dying friend to maintain self-esteem by realizing the tremendous value of his/her life, and as we enable ourselves and others to retain the goodness of that life, however foreshortened, and its effects (over and above the effects of death) in our own continued, future-ward living, thusly do we contribute to redeeming the tragedy of AIDS-death.”[13] Thus, protection of end of life rights become for Christians and ministers a co-redeeming activity with God, turning all that is against life, back towards it.

Kate is the managing editor for Tableaux and an anti-trafficking advocate. She is a third-year MDiv student at McAfee in the nonprofit dual-degree track. In her spare time, Kate loves cooking meals for friends, taking in the outdoors and drinking good joe.

[1] “Worldwide HIV & AIDS Statistics,” AVERT, December 1, 2012 (accessed November 3, 2014).

[2] “U.S. Statistics HIV/AIDS,” AIDS.gov, June 6, 2012 (accessed November 3, 2014).

[3] Jane Gross, “Funerals for AIDS Victims: Searching for Sensitivity,” The New York Times, February 12, 1987 (accessed November 3, 2014).

[4] Note: Not all homosexuals experiencing death from illness are patients with AIDS and neither are all AIDS patients homosexual or intravenous drug users. This distinction is crucial, though for the purposes of this paper, I will focus mainly on the right of homosexuals to pastoral care and funeral rites at end of life.

[5] Bill Mears, “Anti-Gay Church's Right to Protest at Military Funerals Is Upheld,” CNN, March 2, 2011 (accessed November 3, 2014).

[6] Lindsay Network, “Five Incendiary Westboro Baptist Church Funeral Protests,” USA Today, March 21, 2014 (accessed November 3, 2014).

[7] Glen Harold Stassen and David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context, (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2003), 341.

[8] J. Michael Clark, “AIDS, Death, and God: Gay Liberational Theology and the Problems of Suffering,” Journal of Pastoral Counseling 21, no. 1 (1986): 41.

[9] Ibid., 40.

[10] Byron McCane, Roll Back the Stone: Death and Burial in the World of Jesus, Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2003, 98.

[11] Craig Evans and N. T. Wright, “The Silence of Burial,” In Jesus, The Final Days: What Really Happened, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009, 44, 68.

[12] Byron McCane, Roll Back the Stone, 97.

[13] J. Michael Clark, “AIDS, Death, and God,” 52-53.