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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”



by Elizabeth Bettenhausen

Because of Holy creativity, all that constitutes the Earth is interdependent -- from the wood tick to the blue whale, from the virus to the mountain. All creatures, including human beings, are complex characters. We live constantly interacting with every part of the planet, including all other humans. As individuals we are complex embodied relationships of what we call feeling, thinking, believing, and more. As social creatures we are not only wholly dependent on the entire planet but also are always creating and maintaining each other and smaller groups we call by many names. All is a living composition of parts: complexly interdependent.

Creativity and security are always human concerns. Today how each group interprets life on this planet grows more accessible to the other groups. This can create new interpretations of who "we" are. But often the "other" is construed as a threat to the security of the closely boundaried group: the "true people," as each group often calls itself. Creativity and security are often thought to be mutually exclusive. Closets are full, and such security is deadening.

For example, some groups in the United States describe others' treatment of family values in terms of decay and erosion and slippery slope and collapse. Whether caused by changing economic and political activity by many women, or by gay or lesbian parenting, or by growth in the number of families led by single mothers, or by other factors, new forms of family are interpreted as abnormal. The norm of heterosexual, reproductive monogamy is then the only route to security. Creativity that does not reinforce only this norm is viewed as destructive.

When a group claims that its narrow norm is universal, those who challenge the norm often use the same categories of interpretation. Reaction is caught in a dungeon of dualism: white/black, male/female, straight/gay, citizen/immigrant, adult/child, etc. Celebrating exclusively what has been dominantly defined as negative can be just as narrow as the opinion of those who interests are served by keeping the dualism's norms.

But political success may depend on celebrating what is dominantly defined as negative. Challenging the imbalance of burdens and benefits expressed in social policies is today more likely to be successful if particular groups define themselves in terms of one characteristic. This is usually called a "special interest" group. But it is "special" because a group's interests are not served by the dominant norm.

Special interests are trying to obtain more power, i.e., the ability to get interests met that are not served by the dominant norms. This is possible by having resources that serve the interests of others and for which the others will make changes in their own situation. For example, endorsing political candidates is powerful in direct proportion to the number of votes or the amount of campaign funds the endorsement represents. Defining the group's characteristics according to the original dualism may draw members willing to oppose the dominant norm.

However, special interests that are too narrow exclude characteristics either represented within the group or by expressing exclusive social practices of the dominant society. For example, all through the 1980s and 1990s, most government officials and scientists have assumed that the study of men provides universal information about the transmission of HIV. That women, girls, and boys are different from but not inferior to men is still an idea many who set public policy or define hypotheses for scientific testing find difficult to accept. That women and children are equally important has also been difficult for some to accept; they would rather interpret the well-being of women as solely subservient to the well-being of the child. At the same time, children are not-- by virtue of being "not yet adult"--somehow less interested in receiving equitable benefits and burdens in a society. But our society is deeply ambivalent about whether children can be public agents for their own interests. According to many adults, children's special interests are best represented only by adults.


Keeping interests narrowly defined in order to be politically more effective has very often in our society meant excluding "the other." To avoid this in special interest groups takes creativity and immense energy. But first of all it takes the desire and commitment to refuse defining identity by the "we aren't them" approach to the norm. Special and narrow do not have to be synonyms.

Each religion usually defines itself as the "true people," often to the exclusion of those who do not match the norms defined and defended by those elected to do so in the tradition. Here special and narrow and true are claimed to be synonymous. In this understanding of community, different is usually a pejorative term. Someone differs from truth. This is cognitively heresy and actively immorality. The true believer is the one who acts according to the norm that defines the interests of the dominant group in the religion.

To keep the abnormal hidden is in the interests of the dominant group. The burdened ones are somehow kept quiet as isolated individuals. However, developments in society now offer religious communities opportunities to confront in public the constrictions created by some of their own norms. This can take place in conversation within the religious community. Too often this has not yet happened. But norms that are interpreted as exempt from conversation are contemporaneously deadly.

In religious groups in the United Stats today, five themes in conversations and actions about persons and HIV/AIDS would be especially helpful. The themes are the international identity of many religious groups; religious groups as parochial communities; religious teaching about body and spirit; the meaning of illness; and, finally, mortality. First I pose three theological claims and elaboration here, because I believe they are preferable to stereotypical dualism that is present in so much theological tradition.

1. 1. Because of divine creativity, all that constitutes the Earth is interdependent,

1. 2. Security on earth is a function of this interdependence.

1. 3. Security entails meeting basic needs -- hunger and food, for example.

1. 4. Harvesting or killing some plants (and animals, for some people) is necessary for obtaining food (or creating maternal milk).

1. 5. Thus, to harvest or to have to kill what you eat is an element of security for you (and breast-feeding child) and possibly deadening for what you eat.

1. 6. Necessity thus sometimes entails benefits and burdens.

1. 7. Justice involves the distributing of benefits and burdens in an interdependent world.

1. 8. Benefits often entail burdens for someone or something else.

1. 9. In whose interests do we define benefits and burdens in relation to basic needs and why?

2. 1. Love is acting that amplifies benefits and diminishes burdens.

2. 2. The immediate recipient of love is the first to judge acting's efficacy.

2. 3. But interdependence means that love is never a single action.

2. 4. Amplifying benefits and diminishing burdens is a process affecting all.

2. 5. Thus the immediate community also judges the efficacy of the acting.

2. 6. But interdependence means that love is never only local acting.

2. 7. Thus, judging love's efficacy by its impact on the distribution of benefits and burdens globally is necessary, even though difficult.

2. 8. Can benefits be widely defined in such a way that not much burden is entailed anywhere?

3. 1. Self is embodied complexity: social characteristics and distinctive individuality.

3. 2. Self-interest as individualism is incomplete because interdependence is omitted.

3. 3. To love your neighbor (whom you might be defining as enemy) as yourself is thus to act identity that is interdependent.

3. 4. Construing benefits and burdens as isolated from each other ignores this.

3. 5. To amplify benefits for some by amplifying burdens for others diminishes the security of all.

3. 6. Self-interested love entails equitable distribution of benefits and burdens to meet basic needs of all.

3. 7. This may specifically entail in some cultures diminishing economic and political individualism.

In this context, in religious groups in the United States today, at least these five themes in conversations and actions about persons and HIV/AIDS would help us to stop replicating norms contrary to the well-being of interdependent creation.


1. Religious denominations are often international in their identity. This gives denominations in the United States an opportunity and responsibility for understanding and responding to the effects of HIV not only in this country. For example, are church pension funds invested in a pharmaceutical company that sells a treatment drug affordable only in affluent countries? By that action the holders of pensions are affecting afflicted persons in non-affluent countries, especially if the pharmaceutical company is not making the treatment drugs available inexpensively in those countries. Counteracting narrow nationalism in the United States is a second opportunity and responsibility provided by the international identity of religious denominations. The stereotypical attribution of disease to immigrants or to other countries or continents -- such as blaming Africa for HIV and AIDS -- needs daily, explicit challenge by religious organizations.

Construing immigrants as dangerous carriers of illness because they are foreign falls easily into the trap that racism sets for difference. Refusing to attend to the cultural and economic factors that may be some of the causes for the present rates of transmission in various groups already in this country also contributes to racism's power. The rhetorical commitment of white religious denominations to rid themselves and the society of racism can be actually embodied in the daily struggle with HIV.

2. Religious denominations in this country are often the prime location for experiencing community for the members. But parochial community both binds the members together and tends to exclude those who are not members. For various reasons this exclusiveness is now officially rejected by many religious communities. Religious groups can be precisely the location where the excluded, the cast out, in society are most welcomed. With regard to persons with HIV and AIDS, this has often meant that others members of the congregation have had to work against their own ignorance and fear. The attribution of "problem status" to the excluded is often a screen between oneself and another. Today many religious denominations combine homophobia and theological cl about divine authority. Some claim created identity and action expressing it are separable; so they require "homosexual" persons to be celibate. Some claim that all divinely created human identity is heterosexual. Political organizing among gay men, lesbians, families, and friends has opened a theological discussion within religious groups that can assist religious groups. This is especially helpful in confronting the idolatry that is expressed when humanly created definitions of divine will are absolutized and often embodied in definitions of institutional authority, including ordination.

3. Many religious denominations in this country have long construed themselves as the experts on the human spirit and often rightly so. Religious expertise about spirit has always been intrinsically connected with interpretations of body, even when this was not readily admitted or a solely negative notion of body. Today social changes in interpretations of embodiment offer the religious communities opportunities to develop a more existentially (including spiritually) adequate interpretation of embodiment. To construe body and spirit (soul, mind, psyche are often equivalent terms) as separable not only abstracts materialism and consumerism from religious analysis. It also makes it near impossible to interpret body as the locus of divine action. The Holy is abstracted from history and culture. In addition, interpreting the body solely as a medium for a functional theology of reproduction reduces sexuality to genital reproducing, and physical pleasure of any other sort is reduced to suspicious. Such a theology of creation is thus inadequate as a base for a social interpretation of justice. Churches, temples, synagogues and other religious communities today have an opportunity to become communities based on models of family other than those developed to meet the needs of pre-industrial agrarian societies. The economic consequences, including regarding provision of health care, are worthy of creativity.

4. Religious traditions have always attended to illness and healing. Today the defining of illness is a major social dilemma. In part this is due to the tendency in this society to use exclusive boxes to define everything, and the boxes are not allowed to overlap on someone else's "turf." This competitiveness never serves persons who are ill. Rather, it turns each person into a collection of boxed identities too. The person who is ill is then assigned the responsibility for integrating mutually exclusive categories of identity. If a person has HIV within her or his bodied-self, is that a matter only of excessive viral replication? moral character? ethnic identity? ignorance of condoms and needles? uncaring community? secular convictions? religious offenses? lack of emotional control? destiny? Such claims are often made, serving purposes other than the well-being of the person who has HIV. Whether such claims are appropriate within programs of prevention is contested by proponents of each. The claims also reinforce individualistic models of human action. Intense and extended conversations are needed between religious communities and medical communities to end the construing of the duet as one sung by mutually exclusive voices. The well-being of persons with any illness, including HIV, cannot be effected by compelling that each person to function according to combative categories of multiple definers of health, healing, and death.

5. Finitude in terms of mortality has also been an integral theme in religion, either as problem or solution. Today in the United States death elicits fascination and fear. Too often morality is defined solely in terms of sexuality, and religious groups posit certain behavior as prerequisite to post-death well-being. Too often health is defined solely in terms of immortality, and medical groups posit a certain behavior as prerequisite to avoiding mortality. Acknowledging finitude does not necessarily mean celebrating unlimited behavior. But it does reject a dominant theme in this society: perfection is the norm, obtainable by medication, piety, consuming, hard work, genetic therapy, or some other means. How can religious groups celebrate finitude and create interdependent well-being simultaneously? A good, long life for billions of people is a greater goal than denial of finitude by the affluent. With regard to the specific illnesses of the human immune systems, we will have to deal with the false security that individualism offers in order to obtain the cooperative work that is necessary for diminishing burdens and amplifying benefits on an interdependent planet. Religious communities in the United States can be the means not only for the social services necessary to attend to this. We can also be places of conversation and action in which we ourselves are willing to change, so that life around the whole planet will be more abundant in health and justice.