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Will the Christian Church Keep Its Promise?
World AIDS Day

A guest essay by Art Ammann, the former Director of the Pediatric Immunology and Clinical Research Center at the University of California Medical Center in San Francisco. In the summer of 1981, Ammann treated a prostitute IV-drug abuser and three of her children, all four of whom presented unusual deficiencies in their immune systems that were aggravated by opportunistic infections that did not fit normal medical models of disease. He determined that the mother and all three children had contracted AIDS, which was tragic enough because the disease was fatal, but perhaps more devastating was his shocking conclusion, hotly contested and very controversial at the time, that HIV-AIDS was not limited to adults. Ammann determined that HIV had passed from the mother to her children as an "acquired" and not an "inherited" disease. In 1982, he thus documented the first cases of AIDS transmission from mother to infant, and also the first blood transfusion AIDS patients.

In 1998 Ammann founded Global Strategies for HIV Prevention, where today he ministers around the world. With a special focus on women and children, Global Strategies implements international strategies to prevent HIV infection and to work toward "a generation free of HIV."

For Sunday December 7, 2008
Second Sunday in Advent

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)
           Isaiah 40:1–11
           Psalm 85:1–2, 8–13
           2 Peter 3:8–15a
           Mark 1:1–8

An HIV-person in Bangladesh.
An HIV-person in Bangladesh.

           It happens every year on December 1 — World AIDS Day. The theme for World AIDS Day this year is “leadership,” promoted with a campaign slogan, “Stop AIDS. Keep the Promise.”

           World AIDS Day was initiated in 1988.  In the 20 years that have followed, over 25 million people have died from AIDS.  Another 2 million will die in 2008. About 30 million people are living with HIV today — nearly 95% of whom live in the developing world. Grim statistics, causing one to pause and wonder just what promise is being kept.

           HIV is a preventable infection and so, theoretically, there should be few new infections. With over 23 drugs to treat HIV, the number of deaths should be decreasing dramatically. Not so! Although the number of new infections has decreased and people with HIV infection are living longer, more productive lives, there has not been a sea change in the epidemic.

           World AIDS Day is a time to reflect on why progress in stemming the epidemic has not been greater. One reason is that getting drugs to HIV infected people in resource poor countries is not easy. Paradoxically, most governments in poor countries, where needs are greater and more urgent, are slow to respond to the needs of their people. Like kingships of the past, many governments view their people as existing to support their own need for power and control rather than what is necessary for the public good. Thus bureaucratic delays hamper the delivery of life saving drugs. Even when drugs are free, the failure to emphasize education and training has resulted in inadequate numbers of doctors and nurses and a lack of infrastructure to treat and care for HIV infected patients.

           All this might make one despondent. But there is hope. Education on HIV prevention has resulted in decreased numbers of infections in India, China, Kenya, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Thailand, Brazil and the US. The incentive to change behavior is there — HIV is a treatable but ultimately fatal infection, therefore prevention is essential.

           What more could be done to prevent HIV infection and where does the Christian church fit in? Is there a void in leadership that has resulted in unfilled promises?

AIDS orphan in Zambia.
AIDS orphan in Zambia.

           As the HIV epidemic was taking off in the US and in resource poor communities, with few exceptions, the Christian church in America chose to stand on the sidelines. Issues of sexuality and blame took precedence over sound theology and compassion.  The teachings of Jesus were largely ignored.

           In the longest discourse in the Gospels, John chapter 4, Jesus met the Samaritan woman, a person with multiple sexual partners. He took the time to talk to her about the spiritual truths of “living water.” He himself was sustained as a result of that encounter.

           Elsewhere, as the crowd was ready to stone a woman found in adultery, he called out and said, “Let the person who is without sin cast the first stone.” Turning to the woman he asked, “Where are your accusers? Does no one condemn you?” She replied, “No, sir.” “Then neither do I.”

           Still another woman, likely a prostitute, took a jar of perfume and, weeping, wet his feet with her tears, wiped them with her hair, and proceeded to kiss and pour the precious perfume over his feet.

           These narratives contain deep truths that have meaning about how the Christian Church is to view the HIV epidemic today — Jesus’ leadership leads the way to overcoming condemnation, fulfilling the promises of hope that riddle the Scriptures, and in what is so desperately needed in the HIV epidemic today, a voice that speaks out to protect the increasing numbers of women and vulnerable children from the ravages of HIV infection.

           The HIV epidemic has shifted dramatically from 5% HIV infected women in 1982 to over 50% in 2007. As these are women of child bearing age, the number of HIV orphans, the children of HIV infected women who died, has increased to 12 million worldwide, with 6,100 new orphans added each day. Together, the HIV epidemic today is primarily one of women and children.

           The leadership required from the Christian church is simply to do what it says it believes. The Scriptures tell us clearly that our concern is to be with justice. “Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” (Psalm 117:17). Even more directly, James states, “True religion that is undefiled is this — care for the widows and orphans.”

           There lays before us yet another great test of whether the Christian church can truly become what it was meant to be — a defender of widows, orphans, refugees and the oppressed. There is yet another opportunity for the Christian church to respond to the HIV epidemic. Yet, in reality, it is not an opportunity of choice but a compelling command. It is an issue from which none of us have permission to abstain.

Global Strategies for HIV Prevention.
Global Strategies for HIV Prevention.

           "Then the righteous will respond, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or in need of clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'  The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'“ (Matthew 25:37–40)

           The question before the Christian church on this World AIDS Day, or any other day, is whether it will once again bump up against the reality of the HIV epidemic and once again find itself AWOL? Or maybe we will keep our promise?

Arthur J Ammann, MD, President
Global Strategies for HIV Prevention
104 Dominican Drive
San Rafael, CA 94901

For further reflection:

* How has HIV-AIDS impacted your community?
* Why has HIV-AIDS carried such a stigma and provoked such discrimination?
* How might you demonstrate the tenderness of God that moves people close to His heart?

Image credits: (1) and (2); (3) Global Strategies for HIV Prevention..