IT’S A SIN and the Church’s Response to Shame and Suffering

By Rev. Christopher West

“He lies there all day, dying of shame.” So runs one of the most startling lines in Russell T. Davies’ latest television drama, It’s a Sin. The series is based on his own experiences and losses, and it follows three eighteen-year-olds – Ritchie, Roscoe, and Colin – as they move to London in 1981 and have their lives turned upside down by the AIDS crisis. Moving, eye-opening, and sobering, in so many ways, the series provides a challenging and deep exploration of HIV/AIDS in the United Kingdom over a decade. In so doing, it not only uses compelling storytelling to tell important truths, but also powerfully debunks myths surrounding the crisis.

As I watched the series of stories – of three tragically intertwined lives and loves and losses – unfold, I stumbled upon a newspaper clipping from about thirty years ago. The clipping told another tragic story, that of a ten-year-old boy, and his struggle with haemophilia. The newspaper named him ‘Ben’, keeping his details confidential for the sake of his family. Ben wrestled with a disease that prevented his blood from clotting properly, such that even a small scratch might bleed wildly. When Ben was diagnosed with haemophilia, he was treated with transfusions of special blood plasma.

But, at the age of eight, his condition suddenly started to deteriorate; he started to lose weight, and he was suffering from an enormous number of colds and infections. He went to hospital, where none of the medical staff could find anything wrong with him. Then, one day, during a hospital visit, his parents found his doctor kneeling in prayer at his bedside. Ben had contracted AIDS through an infusion of infected blood plasma. “He lies there all day, dying of shame.”

For a while, Ben seemed to be getting better, and the doctors suggested he might go back to school. The school, however, would not take him back, in case he infected other pupils, which it was impossible to do. Ben’s friends began to forsake him; they stopped coming around and began taking unnecessary precautions. In the knowledge that he was going to die, Ben and his parents were left alone. Worse still, they began receiving malicious letters and threats, even from fellow churchgoers. People treated the family as though it was their fault that AIDS was in the area, as if it might somehow spread like the flu. “He lies there all day, dying of shame.”

Ben’s funeral was a very lonely affair, with only the parents, members of the clergy, and a few hospital staff in attendance. No teachers, no friends, no parishioners attended the service. It is easy to look with some distance at this story, but I think, if we are honest, we do not really think that Ben would necessarily have done much better here and now.

Considering this, I am increasingly convinced that when we say, ‘Christ died for our sins’, we do not really mean that in some kind of high-flown, abstract sense; what we mean is that the real sins we commit – and, indeed, revel in – each and every day are the very same ones that put Christ on the cross: hypocrisy, pride, conceit, self-righteousness, self-justification. All the things, we might say, ‘nailed Jesus to the cross’, and they are all evidenced here, in these tragic stories.

The mission of the Church is nothing less than to demonstrate that each and every person matters in the eyes of the Church, Christ’s body here on earth, and hence – and even more crucially – in the eyes of the Christ. And, in Christ’s death and passion, we have the final and indisputable evidence as to where God is most readily to be found in his creation – and hence where we ought to be found. God is to be found with the doctor, kneeling at Ben’s bedside, who stayed with him, and who – let us face it – probably found that difficult. God is to be found with what is probably largely non-believing hospital staff, who again cared for Ben in that difficult place.

It is admittedly difficult to find God in the church-going neighbours, and their excuses as to why they could not visit him or even attend his funeral. Christ is never going to be found in the comfort or in the carelessness or in the snobbery or in the selfishness or in the self-satisfaction of our world; and so, Christians simply cannot turn away from something because they find it too uncomfortable or too difficult or too untidy.

Liberation theologians often talk in terms of ‘the underside of history’. In other words, not the mainstream history of the world – the powerful, the effective, the popular, the wealthy – but those who have slipped out of that history, those lying there all day, dying of shame. It is the view that Christ is going to be found and experienced most often in the non-powerful, unsuccessful, non-influential, difficult areas of human existence. The cross is an eternal witness to that. Christ is to be found among the suffering, among those others have been forgotten about or side-lined. May we never forget it.

It’s a Sin brings into such sharp focus that we cannot look back into the 1980s and 90s and not see how we really have not changed. We must do more. We must do better. Now. The bottom line is that we have failed each and every person who has been forced to lie there, alone, dying of shame. We have failed Ritchie. We have failed Roscoe. We have failed Colin. We have failed Ben. And we do it over and over and over again. Each and every day. Even now. Especially now. 

Christopher West is a priest in the Church of Ireland, a province of the Anglican
Communion. He lives in Dundrum, south Dublin, where he currently serves as Curate
Assistant of Taney Parish.

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