Don't Be Daunted

By Art Ammann

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 1982, Ammann documented the first cases of AIDS transmission from mother to infant, and also the first blood transfusion AIDS patients. In 1998 he 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, 2014
The 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

           The first world AIDS Day was held in 1988 to bring attention to the global HIV epidemic. This year, World AIDS Day falls on December 1. The theme is "Focus, Partner, Achieve: An AIDS-free Generation."

           It’s not a very clear cut call to action, especially as the world’s attention has been temporarily focused on the Ebola virus epidemic. Some people feel that the AIDS epidemic has fallen into obscurity, in spite of the fact that there continues to be over 2.5 million new infections each year, the majority in women and children. In fact, we often get used to some of the most pressing world’s problems — there seem to be so many of them.

           Who decides what is most important as threats to our health and wellbeing? Perhaps rather than having the media direct our attention to what they feel is important, it would be best to focus on what has not changed since the days when Jesus called his disciples together to teach them and his followers what was important.

           Yes, Jesus did use specific diseases to illustrate how we are to respond — leprosy to show that discrimination and ostracization were not barriers to healing; the crippled to highlight that others need our help in their daily lives; the blind to emphasize that it is not the fault of the sick that they are blind. What lays behind all of these examples was that Jesus was establishing standards of justice that apply to those in our everyday lives that we can help.

           It is unlikely that Ebola or HIV existed during Jesus's day, but leprosy, an ancient disease, did. Jesus focused on leprosy, I believe, because it held the greatest fear in people’s minds that they would risk their own health and perhaps even their own lives if they were to help them. But what intrigues me is that Jesus made no attempt to heal all of the lepers, even though he could have. Why? He set an example of how we are to respond to the difficult issues of this world.

           As stated in the Jewish Talmud, "Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it." And in the New Testament, “Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.” Jesus asked us not to walk away from the calamities of this world but rather to consider through his example what we can do.

           Jesus was in fact placing a great responsibility on those who claim to follow him. We are not "islands to ourselves" where our responsibility extends only to those who we brush elbows with or who share our same culture, class, education, religious or economic circumstances. If anyone crossed these boundaries, it was Jesus and the great Apostle Paul.

           The HIV continues today for many reasons, but among the most important is the continued infection of women and their infants. Women are infected through unwanted sex or are not told that their sexual partner is infected. Infected women in turn, if not treated, pass the virus to their infants. Behind these behaviors lays the diminished dignity and rights of women. It is not surprising that so much of Jesus’s teachings focused on women and children. Long ago he set the example for what we should do today.

           In the Old Testament reading from Isaiah, quoted by the gospel of Mark for this second Sunday of Advent, it was in the harsh desert wilderness that God called John the Baptizer, who in turn called us, to "prepare a way for the Lord," to make a highway in the most unlikely of places, to "speak tenderly" to the oppressed, and to bring "comfort, comfort to my people."

Image credits: (1–4) Global Strategies.