Sheep, goats and stigma
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Date: 14 November, 2003

'Foremost among the marginalised people today are those who round the world are living with HIV/AIDS. Most of them are already poor, made vulnerable to infection by their poverty.'


Paula Clifford from Christian Aid offers a reflection about World Aids Day, which takes place on December 1

'The Son of Man ...will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.' (Matthew 25.31-2)

Can you tell sheep from goats? Is easy enough in the UK where sheep have distinctive white fleeces. But in many parts of the world the only way an amateur can tell them apart is by whether their tails point upwards or downwards.

Yet it's an important distinction to make because sheep are more valuable, and because goats need to have shelter at night if they are to survive.

In Jesus' mini-parable recorded in Matthew's gospel, the sheep signify the righteous, people who have shown love in their lifetime, while the goats represent the unrighteous or unloving. Only the shepherd can tell them apart, knowing the secret places of their hearts. Only he knows who among us has truly shown love to people who have been neglected or marginalised by society - the poor and hungry, the prisoners, the sick.

Foremost among the marginalised people today are those who round the world are living with HIV/AIDS. Most of them are already poor, made vulnerable to infection by their poverty.

And in many countries the situation of people who are HIV positive is made still worse by stigma - the theme of this year's World AIDS Day. Stigma is born out of prejudice and ignorance: people don't know how HIV is transmitted and fear they might catch it themselves. So they shun - cruelly - those they think are positive. Stigma forces people with HIV to keep quiet about it, and as a result of their silence, and the silence of some churches and governments, who deny that HIV is a problem in their countries, HIV continues to spread at an alarming rate.

Vitalis, a young man in his 20s living in Njombe in Tanzania, reveals how damaging stigma can be. He is HIV positive but can't bring himself to tell his family or friends. And he is not well enough to do much building construction work, which is how he used to earn a living. He says, 'Sometimes I walk down the street feeling totally isolated and suicidal'. Many of the people he walks past are in the same situation as he is, but the widespread silence and stigma means that they are unable to comfort and support one another.


Stigma also has to do with perception. It means failing to recognise in other people our shared humanity. It means failing to see in them the face of Christ himself. Yet this is the great mystery of the incarnation. Jesus loved the world so much that he chose to become one of us. Not one of the affluent middle classes, but someone who knew life as a refugee, who was thrown out of his home town, who had nowhere to lay his head, who was wrongly condemned to death.

Those who have love in their hearts - whom Jesus calls his sheep - will have no truck with stigma. To those whom society rejects they will offer food, clothing, or simply their own company. This World AIDS Day may we follow the example of the sheep and not the goats.

''Lord, when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you? ... The king will answer them, "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me"' (Matthew 25. 37-8, 40).

For World AIDS Day on 1 December Christian Aid has produced a new booklet, Travellers' Tales: Journeying Alongside people with HIV. It presents the stories of ten people from around the world, some who are living with HIV themselves and others who are caring for infected people in different ways. There are also brief reflections and prayers and a suggested order of service for groups or churches.

You can download it here

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