“Is the Church HIV Positive? Building the Political Will to Remove Barriers and Restore Dignity”
St. Paul's School of Theology
Kansas City, Missouri
Delivered by Rev. John L. McCullough, Executive Director and CEO of Church World Service
"What does the Lord require… "
"…a priest… passed by on the other side"
So, really, just what does the Lord require? I am asking the question, and it is a serious question. Are you sure you have the answer? Have you figured out this faith thing and all that it entails? Sometimes we can be so sure, so certain, so absolute. We talk about faith, quote scripture and other sacred texts, offer beautiful platitudes and clever rhymes; but do we really know of the things that we speak? Do we live our faith in ways that words themselves become edification of the things others already see in us? Or do our words serve to confuse, deceive, and deflect the truth. Maybe that is the question… Does the articulation of my faith and values effectively correspond with the ways others experience me?
In 2001, I attended the United Nations Global Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa. It was both an honor and a tremendous opportunity to join a global witness demonstrating against the injustices of racial prejudice and oppression, fear and the illusion of superiority. As an American, and as a Christian I was sure that my presence was right. I stood amongst cheering and jeering crowds making public our approval and disapproval as the parade of Heads of State and their colorful delegations passed by. My anticipation grew waiting for my nation to be counted, but it was not to be amongst the procession on that day. The United States did not officially register as participant in the Conference, though the then Secretary of State, Colin Powell was given the privilege of addressing the Conference to state American objection to this global exercise. In Durban the nations of the world gathered to examine and wrestle with global racism and xenophobia, to discuss their implications, and develop strategies for constructive change. Given its history, how could America not be in the forefront on this issue regardless of the political implications?
“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side…” The US chose not to participate, so it too passed by, but on the other side. It was not what I expected. I had to wrestle with my disappointment.
Now the onely way to avoyde this shipwracke, and to provide for our posterity, is to followe the counsell of Micah, to doe justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, wee must be knitt together, in this worke, as one man. Wee must entertaine each other in brotherly [Page 47] affection. Wee must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of other's necessities. Wee must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekeness, gentlenes, patience and liberality. Wee must delight in eache other; make other's conditions our oune; rejoice together, mourne together, labour and suffer together, allwayes haueving before our eyes our commission and community in the worke, as members of the same body. Soe shall wee keepe the unitie of the spirit in the bond of peace. The Lord will be our God, and delight to dwell among us, as his oune people, and will command a blessing upon us in all our wayes. Soe that wee shall see much more of his wisdome, power, goodness and truthe, than formerly wee haue been acquainted with. Wee shall finde that the God of Israell is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when hee shall make us a prayse and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, "the Lord make it likely that of New England." For wee must consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill. The eies of all people are uppon us. Soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our God in this worke wee haue undertaken, and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. Wee shall open the mouthes of enemies to speake evill of the wayes of God, and all professors for God's sake. Wee shall shame the faces of many of God's worthy servants, and cause theire prayers to be turned into curses upon us till wee be consumed out of the good land whither wee are a goeing.
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[JOHN WINTHROP, governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, “A Model of Christian Charity,” a discourse written aboard the Arbella during the voyage to Massachusetts, 1630]
Winthrop’s model is an interpretation of what it means to be a good Samaritan: to extend beyond oneself, to reach into the life of the other, and gain both an understanding and appreciation of his or her circumstances as an expression of good will. As an ancient proverb reads, “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it. Do not say to your neighbor, ‘Go, and come again, tomorrow I will give it’ when you have it with you.”
The parable of The Good Samaritan has been the subject of many an exegetical exercise. I don’t pretend to offer any new insight to the text, or revelation of some yet unrevealed hidden message. Rather, I lift it up simply as metaphor for the correct application of faith and moral responsibility. It is not a parable about convenience; it is a parable about inconvenience, and responsible behavior. And while it would be easier to discuss it in the context of governmental policy, it is more important for us to examine it as a matter of convergence - of faith and works, both as Christian community as well as in the church’s efforts to influence national behavior in a global context.
It is twenty-five years since the first documented case of AIDS in 1981, and the HIV and AIDS pandemic remains an enormous challenge today for all of us. This disease has killed more than 25 million people; and today the most conservative estimate is that 40 million people are living with AIDS, t he majority of which are young and middle-aged adults--the backbone of their nations' economies and the chief caregivers for children and the elderly. Sixty-five million people - more than twelve times the population of the entire state of Missouri have been or are directly affected by this pandemic. December 1 st represented the 18 th commemoration of World AIDS Day, and I dare say that despite well-planned and publicized events, still, the day passed by with barely a notice or thought by millions of people here in the United States and around the world. Talk about walking by on the other side.
Some may argue that at no time has there been more recognition, and support generated towards the eradication of HIV and AIDS, nonetheless we must recognize that still our collective response is woefully insufficient when it comes to justice, mercy, or humility. Still, the HIV and AIDS pandemic remains an enormous challenge today for all of us. Our global family remains conflicted, often divided on theological and moral ground differences. Muslims, many Latin American countries, the Vatican, and the United States under the influence of the religious right struggle with specific commitments to high risk groups, sexual practices, and gender equality. Empowerment of women, detailed language on HIV prevention, and explicit references to male and female condom use often stop the potential for dialogue before it can even commence. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan accused a number of countries of “putting their heads in the sand” and failing to deal with the global realities of HIV and AIDS. My point here is not to pick on the Religious Right. The so-called progressive left is hardly itself A Model of Christian Charity.
My point is to say that we would do well to examine our Christian posture towards HIV and AIDS, to ask ourselves, “Is the Church HIV Positive,” – positive that we have a moral imperative:
- To join in prayer with and for individuals and families affected by HIV/AIDS.
- To pray that each of us will realize that AIDS affects us all.
- To own this together as a common challenge.
- To remember those who have lost their lives to AIDS.
- To embrace the hope of an awakened spirit to respond to this pandemic with even greater urgency in the year ahead.
Or are we more prone to walking by on the other side of the road? As people of faith, is our moral compass leading us towards Winthrop’s “shining city upon a hill,” and is our Christian witness the example that we want for the entire world to see and follow?
For too long many people have thought of AIDS as God’s punishment for homosexual lifestyle, and the by-product of the dark culture of illicit drugs and back alley needle exchanges. Perhaps we need to reconcile that while we should make no excuse for reckless behavior, nonetheless the Church’s response to AIDS has at times been somewhat akin to robbing, stripping, beating, leaving for half dead the man on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho.
Wintrhop wrote: the onely way to avoyde this shipwracke, and to provide for our posterity, is to followe the counsell of Micah. To do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God in the face of AIDS is for the Church, the people of God to be HIV positive. To be HIV positive means to come to terms with the fact that AIDS is also about inequality, patriarchy, and power. AIDS is about violence against women and girls-including sexual exploitation and rape. Gender based violence contributes to the spread of HIV and must be stopped if we are to have any hope of eradicating HIV in areas of the world where AIDS is wreaking havoc.
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AIDS is about poverty and the lack of economic power. Seventy percent of those who suffer from hunger worldwide are women and girls. Sixty to 80 percent of farmers in the developing world are women, yet they own only a small fraction of the world's farmland. Many spend a third of their lifetimes fetching water and firewood. Women and girls often are responsible for providing water, food, and medical care for the rest of the family. To respond to these demands, many of them, throughout the world, end up working in unconscionable conditions. Some have even chosen-or been forced into--prostitution to help support the family.
AIDS is about street children, and child laborers who work for food - often isolated, sad, broken-hearted, physically and sexually abused. In sub-Saharan Africa there are more than 11 million children now orphaned by AIDS. By 2010, UNICEF estimates the number will nearly double as more parents die. Since the first diagnosis in the United States in 1981 the AIDS epidemic has spread to every corner of the world. This disease is stealing away our future. Many children orphaned by AIDS have become adults over theses 25 years. Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs." But in many ways these children have been ignored; they live with their trauma, their tremendous needs, with vulnerability, and the world is doing so little to respond. The Christian mission is to build the Kingdom of Heaven but in this respect we are failing.
Consider –over half of all new infections worldwide are among young people between the ages of 15 and 24. Every day, 6,000 young people become infected with HIV – more than five every minute. An HIV positive response is to bring them close, not stop them and squelch their future, for it is our responsibility to ensure that they have what they need to survive and to grow. Theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. They are our future.
As Christians we struggle with HIV and AIDS. We wrestle with an apparent tension that exists between our Christian mission to invite others to conversion and Jesus example of accepting others without judgment. Our challenge today, after 25 years of living with this disease is to become an HIV positive community – a community that positively joins those living with the disease in working to remove the barriers to finally overcome this dreadful scourge.
Liberato Bautista, in his article, “Scale Up, Lighten the Burden” wrote: It is time we scale up our efforts to address this pandemic. It is scaling up of political will as much as financial outlays and technical know-how. It is scaling up of organizational infrastructures so that responses to the epidemic are increased and their delivery more efficient. It is scaling up of education on prevention and eradication of stigma and discrimination.
Though some progress has been made in prevention, treatment and care of HIV/AIDS many barriers still exist and must be removed:
- The barrier to access treatment, if the world has the technology, it is amoral to not use it to save lives.
- The barrier of inadequate funding.
- The barriers of poverty, powerlessness and gender inequity.
- The barriers to our own willingness to become HIV positive people.
As we look at the life and ministry of Jesus – we see Jesus rarely concerned about HOW a person got sick, but we do see Jesus reaching out to touch, to heal, to restore dignity to the individual. When it comes to HIV/AIDS – many of us still ask the question, “How?” Does it really matter?
Time after time in the gospels we see Jesus moved by the suffering of others and reaching out to heal them – he does not walk by on the other side. In the healing process he usually asks something of the person healed. He tells one to pick his mat and walk ( John 5:8), and to another that he should go and show himself to the priest and perform the purifying rituals to restore his place in the community (Mark 1:44). In doing so, Jesus helps people to regain their dignity and to become a part of the society that once excluded them.
When Jesus was moved to free a woman from an infirmity, which kept her bent over for eighteen years, he was challenged for healing on the Sabbath (Luke 13:10-17). His accusers saw his healing on the Sabbath as a breech of the law. Jesus challenges this by pointing out that an act of compassion is more important. He asks, “…Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?”
The church being HIV positive means reaching out to those that society forgets and marginalizes even if it means challenging laws and social norms. It means restoring dignity in society and in our churches, focused not on exclusion but on welcoming all who struggle with the disease. It means breaking the stigma, the attitudes and biases we hold. It means allowing our faith to shine like a city upon a hill, a beacon of God’s grace sufficient for all to see as a sign of hope. This is what the Lord requires of us.