For churches in Africa, the Old Testament has historically occupied a prominent place in theological thinking. “Our theology is constructed with the image of God in the Old Testament,” says Charles Klagba, theological consultant for the Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiative in Africa (EHAIA).
“It is for that reason the reaction of many churches on this continent to the epidemic is very much influenced by the belief that illness is a punishment for individual sins,” he says. “This theology is very vivid in the Old Testament. This interpretation has reinforced the stigma and hindered the ministry of the church to be competent.”
Deconstructing this theology and giving birth to an alternative approach that can give hope to people have been at the center of Klagba’s encounters with theologians, pastors and church leaders.
Behind his ministry stands his conviction that it is not only the academic theology that needs transformation in the response of HIV and AIDS but also theologies expressed and lived by people in church settings at various levels, especially at the grassroots.
“I engage churches and theological institutions in a serious re-reading of the Bible in order to reshape for themselves their discourses that are rooted in the daily concerns of the people.”
His journey, he said, could be termed a “theology of deconstruction.”
He views theology as a dynamic and contextual process by which Christians ― as individuals and as communities ― reflect on events and experiences of daily life, try to comprehend them in the light of the Gospel and commit themselves to actions of transformation.
“This implies that theology should go beyond intellectual exercises,” he says. “It has to suggest and provide practical tools for Christians at all levels.”
In the context of HIV and AIDS, then, the challenge for all is to use the Word of God to liberate, to care and to heal ― not to exclude, to discriminate and ultimately to kill.
A healing community
Theology should help equip and empower adults and youth at all levels in the life of the church, Klagba asserts. He offers training not only in theological institutions at national and regional levels but also to pastors and lay people involved in the life of the church.
His ultimate objective is fostering new readings of the Bible that make the whole church an HIV-competent and healing community. With a focus on re-reading the Bible in the HIV era, workshop topics include ethics, mission, African religions, sexuality, gender and Christian education.
“Participants, somehow, come out transformed. Many clearly commit themselves to engage in some kinds of action as a result of this transformation,” he says.
Klagba has been an ordained minister of the Methodist Church of Togo since 1985. In addition to his initial ministerial and theological training, he is also trained in church management, pastoral care and counseling, philosophy and political science.
For 11 years, he served as executive secretary for theological empowerment within a mission organization called Cevaa (Community of Churches in Mission) based in France. His main task was to assist member churches (in Europe, Africa, Latin America, the Pacific and the Indian Ocean) to make “theologizing” accessible to every member in the pew. He also worked with theological institutions to reflect on the content of theological and ministerial education pertinent to future leaders of the churches.
Today, Klagba said he realizes more than ever the importance of a liberating theology. “One may imagine that theological institutions, being a laboratory for theological ideas, would be more receptive and progressive in the paradigm shifting with the challenge of HIV,” he says. “However, very quickly I realized that theology can easily boxed into a frame which itself needed liberation.”
The more activities he organizes, the more needs he sees expressed within the churches. “The EHAIA has really helped to break down their hesitation and their silence,” he said.