Beyond compassion towards just engagement : exploring moral exclusion of people living with HIV in local church contexts in Chitipa District of Malawi.
Four decades into the AIDS pandemic, stigmatization and discrimination of People living with HIV is highlighted annually as a leading obstacle in mitigating the impact of the pandemic. This persistence is occurring within a context of global commitment to getting to zero stigma. Historically, the church has contributed greatly in changing the trajectory of the AIDS pandemic at both a micro and macro level and is expected to play a pivotal role in making the Zero Discrimination Goal a reality. Yet, the church is still ranked among the most stigmatizing institutions. While there is extensive research on HIV and AIDS related stigma and discrimination, there is a shortage of context-specific empirical studies that have applied stigma reduction strategies; particularly so within religious spaces. In spite of the agreement in the literature that stigma and discrimination are socially constructed and hence need to be understood within the broader context of society, power, and culture, current dominant research models and conceptualizations tend to be individualized and stereotyped with the discourse occurring within disciplinary silos. Applying Pierre Bourdieu’s social cultural theory, Albert Bandura’s social cognitive theory and Foucault’s theory of knowledge and power within a liberation theology framework, this study examined the extent to which the moral exclusion of people living with HIV (PLWHIV) from full participation in church life impedes the global commitment to eliminate stigma and discrimination and impacts on the church’s calling to be an agent of justice in the response to the AIDS pandemic. The storied experiences of moral exclusion of PLWHIV gathered through in-depth interviews, focus group discussions and participant observation, within local church contexts in Chitipa District of Malawi, are critically analysed using a social structural conceptualisation of stigma. Hence the study explored the social and structural factors contributing to the legitimation of persistent moral exclusion of PLWHIV from full participation in church life and identified liberating theological resources within the church setting that could become part of a framework for praxis against moral exclusion. The findings revealed that the nature of stigma in the church settings takes on moral, social, cultural, spiritual and economic dimensions. Gender inequalities, patriarchy, symbolic power, symbolic violence, religious prejudice and moral policing were structures of injustice linked to the reproduction and legitimation of stigma within the Chitipa Church setting. Another revelation from the portraits was that the collective efficacy and solidarity was resulting in the creation of authentic communities emerging into new ways of being and doing church. The study concludes that moving the discourse on HIV and AIDS related stigma and discrimination from the compassion towards the justice framework warrants the interrogation of the power structures underlying moral exclusion, through inter- disciplinary dialogue. That from within its own polity, the church has access to theological resources that have the potential to move the discourse on stigma and discrimination into the justice space. These liberating theologies of mission, leadership, community, people and culture provide a framework that the church can use either to pursue an intentional destigmatizing culture or measure the extent to which its structures legitimate the moral exclusion of PLWHIV. As a contribution to the lack of stigma reduction tools, the study developed a liberative hermeneutic for missional justice that the church could adopt to create an enabling environment within which a culture of inclusion, participation and just engagement can be nurtured.