This is World AIDS Sunday. The worldwide campaign to end AIDS depends not only on stopping the spread of the virus but also stopping the spread of the stigma attached to those living with the disease. This stigmas is detrimental in many ways. The first way is by causing the spread of HIV since it makes people reluctant to know their own status. By not knowing, the person may not take adequate measures to improve their own health and their own life chances. They are more likely to not take precautions against spreading the virus to others.
The second way the stigma is harmful is by isolating the patient. This may be from family, friends, or society at large. It makes it harder to receive the support they need. It can result in a lack of housing, receiving needed meals, or the healing power of social interaction. The third way the stigma harms is by eroding the mental health of the patient. By attacking your self worth, this effects your physical health as well. Lastly, the stigma takes away from the spiritual health of the patient. This is often the last refuge of hope.
This last area is particularly harmful when used by a religious or spiritual figure or organization. Society may condemn you but the religious will condemn to death and hell. Today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Galatians contains the word”stigma”. Paul was arguing that a person did not have to be circumcised in order to be a Christian. It talks of carrying the stigma of Jesus on my body. In the ancient world, a stigma was a physical thing, a scar. There were three classes that could have a stigma: a slave, soldiers, or religious followers. Today, this would be called a tattoo.
Stigmas receive their power from the recognition of their meaning within society. When the person is the unwilling recipient of a stigma, they are defined by society rather than by themselves. It often is a means for mistreatment. An example of this would be slavery. Stigmas are hard to remove. Social stigmas must be removed from the minds of everyone in that society in order for it to go away. Paul’s message is that being a Christian embraces all other stigmas.