This week, more than 20,000 people are meeting in our nation's capital for the 2012 International AIDS Conference. Activists, doctors, people living with HIV and AIDS, development workers, theologians, social scientists and all kinds of folks are currently attending this event.
In the 31 years since the discovery of HIV and AIDS, nearly 30 million people have died from the virus with 34 million people currently living with the disease. The epidemic is at its worst in sub-Saharan Africa, and women are affected the most. In fact, 59 percent of people living with HIV and AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa are women.
Statistics like these are mind-numbing. Though necessary, they can nearly cripple our response as they point to the inefficacy of our actions. This is why, when I teach or write on HIV and AIDS, I prefer to tell stories. And as people of faith, we need stories, both ancient and new, to help us navigate our response to social issues such as HIV and AIDS.
Grace, whose name has been changed to protect her from stigma, is a woman who lives in the Lake Victoria basin of Tanzania. At 14 years old, she ran away from home with a man visiting her village because her parents could no longer pay her school fees. Grace and her husband had two children together. Although she married young, she valued her marriage. But once her husband got money, he took another wife without her consent. Her husband and his second wife were married in a Christian church. Even though polygamous marriage is illegal for Christians in Tanzania, Grace said churches rarely check to see if the partners are already married.
Grace didn't know what to do. She tried to live in this new polygamous relationship, but it became too much. After her husband took a third wife, she ran away to Nairobi, where she found a job as a maid. After she left, her children did not do well without her. Her oldest son was especially distraught. She managed to pay his school fees for his first two years of secondary school, but by his third year her situation had changed. She could no longer afford the school fees, and the father refused to help as long as the boy's mother was no longer acting as his wife.
In her job as a maid, Grace was constantly harassed sexually by the owner of the house. She refused to sleep with him for nearly a year, but then he offered to pay her son's school fees in exchange for sex. She still said no, but after hearing her son had been crying for two weeks, she finally gave in. She knew her poverty made it impossible to care for all her children, but she said, "Let me fight for just this one."
The only weapon Grace had for the fight was her body. As a result, she contracted HIV by giving into her boss' demands. This was how she protected her family. Grace's son has now grown up and graduated from college. He is smart, dedicated and cares deeply for his mother. He also has no idea that his mother contracted HIV while trying to secure his future.
While Grace's story shocks and angers us, the story is parallel to Ecclesiastes 1:9, "there is nothing new under the sun." The story of a woman being forced into a situation where she uses her body as a tool for survival is a story as old as time.
This is Bathsheba's story as well. She was bathing on the roof when King David, who should have been at battle, saw her and sent for her. 2 Samuel doesn't tell us much about the encounter, only that he sent, she came, and he slept with her. Missing from the biblical record is Bathsheba's voice. The only words we hear from her mouth is her message to David: "I'm pregnant."
What we do know is that in this time period, women had very few choices about their bodies. When a king sends for you, you come. We remember other stories, like the story of Tamar, who was raped by David's favorite son, Amnon, and we remember how David did nothing in response (2 Samuel 13).
Commentator Robert Alter notes that David's love stories take place amidst conflict and death. Bathsheba is not the only woman David married in the midst of pain or death. Similar stories can be found in his marriages to Michal (I Sam 18:20-29) and Abigail (1 Samuel 25).
Though separated by thousands of years, we find a common thread in Grace and Bathsheba's stories. Both women were at the mercy of the men in their lives, forced in to situations where their bodies became their currency for survival.
In doing fieldwork in Tanzania on Christian marriage and HIV/AIDS, the women in my study told me that they could not refuse sex with their husbands: if they did, they would be "beaten first and raped later." I wonder if Bathsheba would have told a similar story about her encounter with David. I wonder if she submitted because she feared for her husband's life. The text following this passage shows us clearly that David controlled Uriah's fate (2 Sam. 11:6-27).
Like the story of David and Bathsheba, death and love are too often linked in the stories of women living with HIV and AIDS in Africa. If we want to see this pandemic end, then women must be given space to have power and control over their own lives. One way to do this is for Christian churches to advocate for women's rights around the world. This global pandemic reminds us that its time for some stories -- like the story of patriarchy -- to come to an end.
Editor's Note: ON Scripture - The Bible is a series of Christian scripture commentaries produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks. Each week pastors from around the country will approach the lectionary text of the week through the lens of current events, providing a religious voice that is both pastoral and prophetic.