Promoting empathy for people living with HIV/AIDS

Genuine compassion should be considered a significant tool in addressing the HIV/AIDS problem.

Godwin N. Aja, DrPH, is a professor of health promotion and education, and deputy director of the office of research and international cooperations, Babcock University, Ilishan-Remo, Nigeria.
Gaius A. Umahi, PhD, is a pastor and teacher in the religious studies department, Babcock University, Ilishan-Remo, Nigeria.


Some nations are gradually transitioning from outright denial or superstitious beliefs about HIV/AIDS to acceptance of its reality and danger. In some parts of Africa, for instance, HIV/AIDS is believed to be a type of juju, which an enemy or the gods can inflict on a victim. Even among some religious communities, many believe that people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWAs) are sinners and should not be pitied or empathized with because gross sexual misconduct must have been responsible for their sickness.

This kind of belief is akin to what Luke wrote about in chapter 13. Some people implied that the misfortunes a few Galileans faced (Pilate had mingled their blood with their sacrifices) were a direct result of their sins. Christ’s response was powerful: “ ‘Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwell in Jerusalem? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish’ ” (Luke 13:2–5).1

Though AIDS was not an issue in Jesus’ time, we can still learn a lot from His example on how to deal with those who are, for whatever reason, deemed outcasts from society. This example is especially important as we struggle with the HIV/AIDS plague in Africa and elsewhere.

Some facts

For starters, people do not contract HIV/AIDS through holding hands or hugging, insect bites, or working or walking with people. Nor does it come through coughing or sneezing or through the common use of toilets. The virus is contracted through the transfusion of infected blood, direct contact of infected bodily fluids with mucous membranes or through a break in the skin, usage of infected needles, mother-to-child transmission (breast milk), and above all, sexual intercourse with an infected person.2

The latter is, arguably, the most common way for HIV to be transmitted worldwide.3 The statistics are disturbing. An estimated 22.4 million people live with HIV in Africa.4 In significant ways, the scourge has reduced life expectancy considerably. For instance, in 2008 alone, around 1.4 million people died from AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, and 1.9 million people became infected with HIV.5 The average life expectancy in sub-Saharan Africa is now 52 years, when it would have been 62 without AIDS.6

Nigeria, also, really struggles with the problem. Though HIV prevalence is low (3.6 percent) compared to the rest of Africa, 3.6 percent amounts to about 3 million PLWAs.7 Of this number, a significant percentage have died, largely due to the lack of antiretroviral drugs and compassion. The resultant stigmatization factor is especially troubling and should bring forth from Christians a serious look at how they practice their faith.

Biblical paradigms

Almost every follower of the Christian faith accepts that Jesus’ ministry centered on teaching and healing. He mingled with saints and sinners, the healthy and the sick—even the outcasts and dregs of society. Ellen White, in her book on the ministry of Christ, asserts that “[t]he Saviour of the world devoted more time and labor to healing the afflicted of their maladies than to preaching.”8

One of the examples of Jesus’ compassionate contact with sickness includes that of the leper, as recorded in Mark 1:40, 41. “Now a leper came to Him, imploring Him, kneeling down to Him and saying to Him, ‘If You are willing, You can make me clean.’ Then Jesus, moved with compassion, stretched out His hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I am willing; be cleansed’ ” (emphasis added). The immediate context shows that Jesus was on a preaching and healing tour of Galilee when this leper approached Him. Before we analyze the text, let us consider lepers and their relation to society in Bible times.

It is not a secret that the life of a leper, in the Jewish milieu, was that of rejection and condemnation. It has been stated that “[o]f all diseases known in the East the leprosy was most dreaded.”9 In fact, if somebody was confirmed as leprous by the priest, that person was quarantined from his or her family, ostracized from the congregation of Israel, “and was doomed to associate with those only who were similarly afflicted.”10 Anyone diagnosed with leprosy was in so terrible a state that “[t]he law was inflexible in its requirement. Even kings and rulers were not exempt.”11 In the event that a ruler was tested and was confirmed as positive, he had to promptly abdicate the throne and seek for asylum in another country.

Let us apply the issue of HIV/ AIDS to the story as presented in Mark. Imagine if it read, “Now an HIV/AIDS patient came to Him, pleaded with Him, knelt down before Him, and said to Him, ‘If You are willing, You can make me clean.’ Then Jesus, moved with compassion, stretched out His hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I am willing, be cleansed.’ ” Notice that in Jesus’ response, He first had compassion on him. The Greek word used here, splagchnistheis, appears in the aorist tense, from splagchnon, which may mean “the chief intestines, viscera; the entrails, bowels, . . . the affections of the heart, the tender affections.”12 Its deponent form, splagchniszomai, means “to be moved with pity or compassion.”13

Thus, Christ—highly sensitive to the plight of this sufferer—departed from the inflexible regulations concerning the afflicted one. He did not start by investigating the cause of his disease, but stretched out His hand and touched him. This action suggests that, in the face of critical health challenges, compassion and action serve a better purpose than rigorous interrogations, examinations, and remunerations. Notice that Jesus might have healed the leper by word only but applied, at the same time, the touch of His hand in order to express the feeling of compassion.

Matthew recorded another example of Christ’s display of compassion in chapter 20, verses 29–34. Here Jesus and His disciples had just left Jericho, bound for Jerusalem. On the road, two blind men who heard that Jesus was passing by cried out, “ ‘Have mercy [compassion] on us, O Lord, son of David’ ” (v. 30). The Greek word used here, ele son, is in the imperative, the mood of command implying the act of “pity, mercy, compassion.”14 Yes, blindness cannot be compared to AIDS; nonetheless, it is a frightening condition.15 To Jesus’ question, “ ‘What do you want Me to do for you?’ ” the blind men asked to be able to see (v. 32). Jesus’ question again shows His sensitivity to the plight of people. Verse 34 says, “So Jesus had compassion and touched their eyes. And immediately their eyes received sight, and they followed Him.”

A careful reading of this passage reveals that the multitude (including His disciples) had attempted to scuttle the quest of these blind people. Verse 31 says that “the multitudes warned [Greek epetimesen] them that they should be quiet” (emphasis added). This Greek word, which comes from epitima , means “to assess a penalty; to allege as a crimination; hence, to reprove, chide, censure, rebuke, reprimand.”16

Again, we see Jesus departing radically from the philosophical and ideological convictions of the people. His action was fueled by an inner passion for healing damaged lives—whether physical or spiritual. The people probably believed that blindness was an outward indicator of a hidden sin, which was also one of their major arguments against any person who suffered leprosy.

Thus, it is apparent that genuine compassion should be considered a significant tool in addressing the HIV/AIDS problem, one that we, as Christians, must not ignore.

Chikaoria’s story and a call for action

A young woman named Chikaoria17 contracted AIDS in 1998 while a student. She died, but some argued that her death did not come from the virus but from stigmatization and lack of compassion. She was rejected by her family, condemned by her church, and treated as an Osu18 by her community. Out of exasperation and frustration, a direct result of people’s lack of compassion, she drank poison and died. We can avoid premature deaths among PLWAs when we support them, care for them, and lend them helping hands.

In the face of such tragedy, what can be done? Another HIV-infected woman in South Africa who wished to remain anonymous, states that “living with HIV is not easy, especially if you are the only HIV-positive employee in an organization in which the rest of the staff are HIV negative or do not know their status.”19 In order to serve the HIV positives and negatives alike, all the segments of society, especially the church, must articulate possible ways of translating the following points into a reality: education, compassion, visitation, and provision.

The sixteenth International AIDS Conference, held in Toronto, Canada, August 13–18, 2006, promoted the theme “Time to Deliver,” which spelled out objectives including some of the points already mentioned above. A definite need exists for the education of the masses for public awareness.

This point is important for everyone, infected or not. Those who have been infected do need a lot of education. Untrue assumptions can be corrected. For instance, obiri n’aja ocha (a disease that ends in the grave), the Igbo name for AIDS, is both frightening and extreme. It insinuates that AIDS is a death warrant. That Igbo translation ignores the fact that other terminal diseases also end in the grave. Victims in such places need to know that with prayer, antiretroviral drugs, positive attitudes, and healthy lifestyles, an HIV-positive person could live out his or her full life.

In essence, there should be a large-scale sensitization of religious groups. This grassroots education should target the rural dwellers during their various festivals and celebrations. Seminars and workshops should be organized and executed by experts who can help educate those in rural settings.

Also, those who are not infected need to learn more about tact in dealing with the disease. The healthy ones should know that not all sufferers were sexually unfaithful and irresponsible. And even if they were, so what? They are people who need help, and Christians should help them.

The fact that a hospital staff worker could become infected by mishandling a bodily fluid of an infected person should remind us to exercise restraint in making judgments. For instance, some time ago, the medical director and other staff of Lagos University Teaching Hospital lost their jobs because of a baby who was “inadvertently transfused with infected blood.”20 This incident caused an uproar in the country and sent some strong signals to others to be extra careful. Furthermore, those who do not know their statuses should be encouraged to do so and help prevent further spread of the disease.

The crucial factor is having compassion for PLWAs. From biblical examples, clearly Jesus, the fulcrum of the Christian faith, expressed utmost compassion for the “AIDS victims” of His day. Butterick observes that the healing of the leper in Mark 1:41 “was an expression of Jesus’ spontaneous sympathy and compassion.” He continues, “It is an expression of what we meet again and again in the gospel narratives, the fact that nothing less than a personal touch with the person in need would satisfy Jesus.”21

This is strongly corroborated by Ellen White when she wrote, “The tender sympathies of our Saviour were aroused for fallen and suffering humanity. If you would be His followers, you must cultivate compassion and sympathy. Indifference to human woes must give place to lively interest in the sufferings of others.”22

The expression of compassion and tolerance towards PLWAs will reduce the effect of the pandemic. The presence of a loving compassion should exclude any form of stigmatization.

One of the objectives of the sixteenth International AIDS Conference in Canada was to “support the engagement and de-stigmatization of PLWHAs and those working professionally in HIV/AIDS.” 23 The fact remains that unless people do away with the habit of stigmatizing their fellow country men and women living with HIV/AIDS, it is estimated that many more of them will die, not so much from HIV/AIDS-related causes but from the stigma associated with the problem.

Another factor includes visitation. It is believed that visiting the sick can have a positive impact on their health. When we learn to visit and pray with the victims of this sickness, we can make a difference in their lives.

Lastly, PLWAs must be provided for. There are all kinds of international and local calls for people to give aid to those suffering from this disease. The Compassion AIDS Initiative is one. Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria is another international organization that grants financial aid to countries for the support of PLWAs, as is also the Adventist Development and Relief Agency. In this respect, all the rhetoric will not do so much unless we all do our honest part in providing for PLWAs. In real terms, our compassion should translate into something more tangible—cash or other valuables.


In one sense, we have stated the obvious: Christians are called to be compassionate to PLWAs. If more concerted education, loving compassion, aggressive visitation, and generous provision were put in place, a brighter health portrait for Africa and the entire world would be better seen. Jesus provided us with the example of how to deal with the outcasts of society. He is our Model. It is time to follow—and following is much better than what we have been doing so far.


1. Unless otherwise noted, all scripture references in this article are from the New King James Version.

2. University at Albany, SUNY, “UA HIV/AIDS Info: How HIV Is Transmitted,” accessed March 12, 2010, HIV/AIDS

3. Kaiser Family Foundation, “HIV/AIDS: How Is HIV Transmitted?” accessed March 12, 2010, Kaiser Family Foundation

4. AVERT, “HIV and AIDS in Africa,” accessed February 11, 2010, HIV/AIDS

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. AVERT, “HIV & AIDS in Nigeria,” AIDS in Nigeria

8. Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), 4:225.

9. Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Boise, ID: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1940), 262.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. Harold K. Moulton, ed., The Analytical Greek Lexicon (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1977), 373.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid., 131.

15. Blindness is a disease dreaded by many people. This fear is currently being mitigated by the invention of Braille and other aids for the blind.

16. Moulton, The Analytical Greek Lexicon, 162.

17. A pseudonym.

18. An Osu is a cult slave who has been dedicated to the service of the dedicator’s deity. It is one practice that
contradicts the much presumed Igbo egalitarian ideology. Although the practice was legally abolished in 1956, the Osu cast system is not dead yet. It is interesting to note, however, that the Osu in Igboland were among the first people to accept Western education, religious ideas, and other economic opportunities.

19. Royal Tropical Institute, “Living With HIV in a HIV-Negative Workplace,” Exchange on HIV/AIDS, Sexuality and Gender 1 (December 2005): 5.

20. Baby Eniola’s case generated a lot of medical dust at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH). It became a common news item on the television and in the print media. The problem began when Eniola tested positive to HIV while her parents were all negative. Following some investigations, it was found that the blood transfused to Eniola was infected. After some weeks, the then minister of health, Eyitayo Lambo, rolled out the federal government’s recommendations, which included the firing of the medical director among other things.

21. Halford E. Luccock, “Exposition [on Mark1:41],” in New Testament Articles: Matthew, Mark, vol. 7 of The Interpreter’s Bible, George Arthur Buttrick, ed. (Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1951), 667.

22. Ellen G. White, Counsels on Health (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1951), 34.

23. (PLWHAs mean people living with HIV/AIDS.) “Conference Overview,” in XVI International AIDS Conference: General Information, Conference Overview

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Godwin N. Aja, DrPH, is a professor of health promotion and education, and deputy director of the office of research and international cooperations, Babcock University, Ilishan-Remo, Nigeria.
Gaius A. Umahi, PhD, is a pastor and teacher in the religious studies department, Babcock University, Ilishan-Remo, Nigeria.

January 2011

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