BODY & SOUL 00:49:25
Youth and adults
Sexuality and religion
Religions and HIV/AIDS
Cultural practice and HIV/AIDS
HIV/AIDS is forcing religious leaders to reassess their traditional attitudes to sexuality in a country where 90% of the population claim one sort of religious affiliation or another. During the struggle against apartheid the churches played a leading role in the fight for freedom. Today millions of people are in a desperate situation because of HIV/AIDS. What role do the clergy play in this new struggle for human rights? Body &Soul looks at the attitudes of three main religions in South Africa through people on the ground who have to interpret and practice religion in terms of today’s realities.
Questions For Discussion
- What do you think this film is about?
- Do you think the church has a responsibility to talk about sex and condoms?
- Do you think the promotion of safer sex contradicts religious teachings?
- What do you think of Bishop Dowling’s reaction to the church’s decision to prohibit condom use?
- How does your religious community deal with the HIV/AIDS crisis?
- How would you do it differently?
- What role can religions play in fighting the spread of HIV/AIDS?
With thousands of people dying of AIDS in South Africa, a country in which religious belief pervades every level of society, religions are being confronted with a reality which is greater than their understanding and their teachings. The film gives a voice to the individuals and organisations on the fringes of the mainstream religions, who are grappling to evolve a theology which embraces rather than shuns AIDS, a theology with a focus on justice and compassion rather than on sin and condemnation. This includes a radical review of teachings about sex, and a more life-giving vision of the relationship between sexuality and spirituality.
In Pretoria earlier this year, Catholic Bishops debated the use of condoms as a means of promoting safe sex in order to save lives. The proposal had been put forward by Bishop Kevin Rowland, who ministers to the poorest of the poor in Freedom Park, an informal settlement near Rustenberg. We witness this deeply empathetic and dedicated man as he goes about the daily task of alleviating suffering. His experience has led him to believe that theology is getting in the way of saving lives.
This view is backed by Abdul Kayum Ahmed, one of the founders of the activist group Positive Muslims, who doesn’t mince his words: “If religious leaders continue to talk about sex and AIDS as they are at the moment, it’s going to get even worse. They are being confronted with a reality that is far greater than their text books.”
It seems that orthodox practitioners of faith separate matters of the spirit from matters of the body. In this antiquated paradigm, according to Father Jape Heath, “sex equals sin and Aids equals sex and so our whole attitude to sex is perpetuating AIDS in the church.”
The separation of body and spirit is seen as antithetical to the African traditions that were in place before the colonisers with their missions arrived. Dr. Conrad Tsiane, a well-known traditional healer, states, “I feel the church has played a very vital role in dividing our nation. … We are a lost generation now – we don’t know whether we are blacks or non-whites.” A view sadly reflected in a Freedom Park care-giver’s belief that the suffering she deals with is Eve’s punishment.
Faghmeda Miller, the other founding member of Positive Muslims, was infected with HIV by her husband, who died shortly after their marriage. She tells us that her first reaction upon discovering her HIV status was to exclaim: “I haven’t done anything wrong. What will people say?” She relates how, when she disclosed her status, certain members of The Muslim Judicial Council , believing AIDS to be a curse from God, felt she should be stoned to death.
Farid Essack, of Positive Muslims, critiques the orthodox view of AIDS as a punishment for perceived sexual immorality. Giving a fresh reading to the story of Mary’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy, he believes that HIV is in fact a sign from God, one that foretells the need for compassion and a radical rethink of sexual mores. According to Abdul Kuyam Ahmed, far from being a curse, infection can often be seen as a blessing. HIV-positive people are able to “change their perceptions of the way they see themselves and the way they relate to others. It has in many ways broken down barriers between race, religion and gender, because it forces us to re-evaluate our understanding of our relationship with our own spirituality and sexuality and our relationships with others.”
And thus the radical theology alluded to at the beginning of the film starts to take shape. However, what may be a radical departure for those ingrained in western religious traditions is, in contrast, the norm in traditional African culture. According to a black Catholic priest, Father Victor Phalana, African culture stresses the interconnectedness of all things. In such a world view, the separation of body and soul is nonsensical.
Bringing us back to the specifics of the debate, Nursing Sister Georgina Boswell doesn’t think “that the church in general will change its view about condoms until it changes its attitude to spirituality.” As a result, she adapts theology to the practicalities of the suffering she experiences on the ground: “I cannot always take from what the church has said and neither did Jesus in his time.”
In vivid contrast to the stark realities of a hospital ward in an impoverished part of the country, Cardinal Napier, the General Secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference calmly issues the death sentence by insisting that: “If you are going to save a life using any moral means, I actually don’t think you are saving a life. You’ve also got to think of the spiritual life at that stage and it’s always been a principal of moral theology that you cannot do evil to achieve good.”
But Bishop Kevin Rowland and Abdul Kayum Ahmed are adamant that it is precisely this attitude which needs to be re-thought. Ahmed goes as far as to say that the natural link between sexuality and our experience of God has been separated. Dr Graeme Taute paraphrases the Dalai Lama, who believes that we are closest to God when we sleep, when we die and at the moment of orgasm.
Orthodox religious views are forcing people out of the church. We meet Reverend Paul Mokgethi, who has started the Church of Hope and Unity in Hillbrow. Most of the congregation are people living with HIV/AIDS.
However, back at the Bishops’ Conference, condoms are described as a ‘misguided weapon’ in the fight against AIDS. Their position is motivated by the belief, according to the Cardinal, that:
“The use of condoms goes against human dignity. Condoms change the beautiful act of love into a selfish search of pleasure while rejecting responsibility. The promotion and distribution of condoms as a means of having so-called safe sex contributes to the breaking down of the moral fibre of our nations, because it gives a wrong message to people.”
Needless to say, the dissenters express their disagreement. Backing Father Victor Phalana’s affirmation that African culture celebrates the body, Bishop Rowland insists that body and soul are one and that “it’s the wholesomeness of body/spirit which makes us the human person.”
Whether the orthodox dogmaticians like it or not, the AIDS crisis is forging a radical new approach to issues concerning our bodily drives and our spiritual aspirations; an approach that brings us closer to traditions that have existed on the continent for centuries.
In conclusion, Dr Graeme Taute tells us that “Predicaments which don’t have solutions inevitably take us into the spiritual realm. And AIDS isn’t something we are going to cure. It’s going to cure us. If we’ll let it…”
Melody Emmett worked in the South African film industry as a production secretary, continuity supervisor, and scriptwriter between 1979 and 1986. During this time she wrote two 13-episode drama series, one of which won several awards. This series, entitled Phindi, has been screened many times on the SABC. Between 1986 and 1999 Melody worked as an organiser, administrator, researcher and activist, primarily for the NGO sector. She also served as coordinator of the drafting committees during the Multi-Party Negotiating Process prior to the 1994 elections. Returning to film-making in the hope of finding expression for her religious and socio-political views, Melody worked on two short documentary inserts for television, one on Women and violence in the Church and another on the South African Government’s arms purchases. Last year, in association with Harriet Gavshon of Curious Pictures, she produced and directed a one-hour documentary film exploring the all-pervasiveness of patriarchy and sexism in five different religious traditions in South Africa. The film, entitled The Other Voices, was developed under the auspices of the World Conference on Religion and Peace (South Africa) and produced by Curious Pictures.
The Other Voices was unique in that it managed to deal with sensitive religious issues without causing major offence. We believe it is because the project was made from within religious discourse, and therefore has the credibility to engage with challenging issues. It has been received with great acclaim and is being used by religious and women’s groups all around the world.
During the making of Body and Soul, the personal stories of people in the film took on a new – often surprising – meaning and importance for me. The struggles and conflicts of the characters in the film became an extension of my own spiritual and political struggle. The film is an attempt to communicate a new truth and to cut through some of the destructive and damaging religious dogma, which people with AIDS have to fight against. As I grappled with the social and emotional issues impacting on the lives of the ‘characters’ in Body and Soul, I discovered an interconnectedness between people which I had not understood before, and this process of discovery was echoed in my own interior life as I reclaimed insights and understanding which I had lost or surrendered under pressure, during the course of my own journey. So in a sense the film became a process of personal excavation and a catalyst towards personal healing and transformation. My hope is that the film will also trigger a paradigm shift in the people who watch it.
Body and Soul, a film about AIDS, religious belief, spirituality and sexuality challenges us to a new vision, a new reality. The film says: Look, nobody has got the answers. The prevalent attitudes, approaches and moralizing of religions have failed. They have failed to bring solace. They have failed to change behaviour. They have failed in truth. Let us find a new way, a new understanding which gives meaning to the senselessness of the AIDS pandemic. Where is the link between body and spirit? How can we evolve a new vision in the midst of the tragedy and horror of AIDS which is enlightening, illuminating, inspiring, just and compassionate?
Being part of the STEPS project has been an unexpected honour and privilege.
Why me? I kept on asking throughout the making of Body and Soul. I think other people asked this question too, for different reasons! What extraordinary vision and compassion inspired this radical, groundbreaking project! And what an extraordinary experience to beoneof many people grappling with the AIDS pandemic from different angles through a range of films so diverse in content and approach. I am immensely grateful to Iikka Vehkalahti for his interest and attentiveness to my film in all its different phases, to my producer, Harriet Gavshon, and to Don Edkins, to all the other filmmakers, and to the wonderful and talented STEPS support staff who tirelessly supported, sustained and tolerated me through all the highs and lows of making Body and Soul.
- Sean Moloi
- Ignatius Philela
- Marius Boaden
- Shaun Murdoc
- Rick McNamee
- Burts Roets
- George Ramosime
- Nicci Bothma
- Martin Machaba
- Philip Miller
- Jakob Høgel
- Franz Grabner
- Audrey Maurion