By: Albertus Magnus
Re: Aids and Christ
[This was sent out by the Episcopal News Service on 3/16/95.]
AIDS PAINTING AT CAPE TOWN CATHEDRAL SPARKS CONTROVERSY
By James H. Thrall, deputy director of news and information for the
(ENS) The idea, thought painter W. Maxwell Lawton, was as old as
Isaiah and reinforced by the New Testament. But when he linked the ancient
image of the "suffering Christ" or Christ as the "man of sorrows" with the
modern plight of persons living with AIDS, the resulting painting touched
off a furor.
Lawton, who has AIDS, painted the image during a visit to South
Africa as artist-in-residence at St. George's Anglican Cathedral in the
Diocese of Cape Town.
Critics charged that the picture, which shows Christ covered with
lesions and hooked to intravenous and oxygen tubes, was blasphemous. Some
threatened to destroy it. Others, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu of the
Province of Southern Africa and the local leaders of other denominations,
defended the painting as both effective and theologically correct.
Tutu said the painting challenged people to think about their faith
and their conception of Jesus, reported John Allen, his media liaison
officer. "He feels that victims of AIDS should be welcomed into the church
and not isolated and excluded," he said.
A graduate student at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington D.C.,
Lawton was a guest of Wola Nani, an AIDS-support organization associated
with St. George's Cathedral, and sponsored as well by the Episcopal Caring
Response to AIDS in the Diocese of Washington, a companion diocese with
AN ICON OF THEIR OWN
"People with AIDS need to have an icon of their own," said Lawton.
"They need to know it's OK to live with AIDS, that it's not necessarily a
death threat. For a lot of people with AIDS, they need hope."
Lawton admitted that his image "does push some buttons," but said he
didn't expect the response to be quite so dramatic. "It really woke some
people up," he said. "I certainly don't apologize for the painting," he
added, comparing his work to the words of a "prophet in the Old Testament
that would shock people into a righteous response."
Those who "see AIDS as God's judgement on people" react negatively,
he said. For them, "certainly God isn't going to be included in the
plague," he said. "They don't want to see God portrayed as an IV- drug
user or as homosexual or as whatever."
When he displayed an earlier version of the painting at churches and
a seminary in the Washington, D.C. area, the most positive reactions came
from "theologians and ministers who understand the image of the suffering
servant," he said. At least one Episcopal church, however, "several people
got into verbal arguments over the painting."