“Is the Church HIV Positive?
Building the Political Will to Remove Barriers and Restore
School of Theology
Kansas City, Missouri
Delivered by Rev.
John L. McCullough, Executive Director and CEO of Church World
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
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.
governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, “A Model of Christian
Charity,” a discourse written aboard the Arbella during
the voyage to Massachusetts, 1630]
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.