Moving Beyond Fear to Love. 1/12/10
Fortunately, progress is being made, but there is still much work to be done.
Today is World AIDS Day: a time when the global community is reminded of one of the world's worst health crises known to human kind. This year's theme is human rights. The theme calls the world community to guarantee access to health services, work, education and community participation for those living with AIDS — and to do so without stigma!
Fortunately, progress is being made, but there is still much work to be done:
Twenty-five million people have died from the AIDS virus. That equals the population of Canada!
The latest report released last week from UNAIDS states: “In the U.S. and Western Europe, an epidemic in gay and bisexual men continues to grow unabated. There are still two new people becoming infected for every one person who starts treatment.”
And, to complicate matters, corruption exists within government and even non-governmental organizations that receive funding earmarked for AIDS. This results in unnecessary deaths of many with AIDS.
The Psalmist cries out: ‘Oh Lord, how long must I suffer?’
The Psalmist cries out: “Oh Lord, how long must I suffer? Help me, O Lord my God! Save me according to your steadfast love.”
“Yes we Can” became a popular phrase during the 2008 election. It has been used by numbers of people throughout the world when attempting to rally the troops for one cause or another.
It is amazing that after 30 years of living with the AIDS pandemic, the world still needs people to challenge political leaders to do the right thing. How nice it would be if we only needed to say “Yes we Can” over and over again to realize the dream of the peaceable kingdom where all God’s children would be free of disease.
We need prophets
But we know it’s not that easy. There’s no doubt we need to be inspired.
We need prophets in our midst who challenge our every day denial that the world is hurting, and people are crying out need to be heard.
We need prophets in our midst who will stand up to the powers that be and say “no more” when it comes to neglecting the marginalized.
We need prophets in our midst who will, in spite of their fear, risk losing members in their local churches because those prophets choose to offer magnanimous hospitality to all people regardless of their position in life.
We need prophets in our midst who engage in soul-tending ministry with the poor, disenfranchised, widow and the orphan.
We need prophets in our midst who will put forth a vision of wholeness and peace proclaiming that the lion can lie down with the lamb, and we can and should turn swords into plowshares!
When we think of human rights, certainly, one violation is torture. In many respects the AIDS pandemic is, in reality, a kind of torturing experience. It reeks havoc on the body and soul of, not only those millions of people who have the virus, but of all their loved ones and their community.
Torture comes in many forms. No one would say that dying of AIDS in countries where access to drugs is non-existent is not torture. No one would say that women who are raped as a tool of war resulting in their being infected with AIDS isn’t a form of torture.
A complicit church
Speaking out against these violations is a call to the church and, yet the sad reality is that we, in the church, have been too silent and, therefore, complicit in its spread.
AIDS is messy. AIDS forces us to talk about sexuality, something the church long ago abdicated as a serious form of ministry. AIDS is victim to myths and lies, such as having sex with a virgin will cure this disease. AIDS is laced with layers of fear, stigma and shame that aren’t realties with other diseases such as malaria.
That stigma and discrimination couldn’t be more blatantly illustrated as we watch what’s been happening in Uganda the past couple of years. Proposed legislation in Uganda would impose the death penalty on anyone who is gay and has AIDS.
A Ugandan newspaper, Rolling Stone, recently published a list on its front page of “Uganda’s 100 top homosexuals.” The page had a bright yellow banner across it that read: “Hang them.” Alongside photos of the 100 men were their names and addresses. As you can well imagine, attacks against gay men in that country are on the rise.
It’s as if there is a confluence of negative energy swirling about us in this world that has taken on a momentum almost seemingly beyond our control. Radicalism has taken hold over the issue of human sexuality. It’s come to the point that condemnation is deemed the “will of God,” and our sisters and brothers are stigmatized to the point of death.
In many instances, the church has been an accomplice in the tragic loss of life and/or well being of God’s children: our brothers and sisters.
A triple whammy
Last month, the United Methodist Global AIDS Committee sponsored the “Lighten the Burden III” AIDS Conference in Dallas. The impact of stigma and discrimination was a priority focal point of this event. We heard stories of people who had died of AIDS where no pastor would perform the funeral service. We heard stories about how churches out of pure fear rejected pastors who were living with AIDS.
The stigma associated with AIDS is compounded when the infected person also is gay. It’s a double whammy.
A triple whammy was voiced by a man who was gay, had AIDS and was an ex-convict trying to put his life together. Mychael, who had given up on the church, said he was thrilled to learn that The United Methodist Church was sponsoring an event at which he found care, compassion and abundant love.
Denominations are seeking to increase members. So how about embracing the Mychaels in the world for starters as a way of realizing the fullness of God’s vision for humanity?
When advocating for human rights, we not only have to look at personal attitudes and behaviors but also systems that oppress. The church is one such system. We need to acknowledge the double messages between love and fear the church gives that create confusion and debate about who’s in and who’s out, who has rights and who doesn’t.
For example, the United Methodist Book of Discipline says that one role of the Annual Conference finance body is to “ensure that no entity in the conference uses funds to promote the acceptance of homosexuality." The Discipline then goes on to say that this restriction shall not limit the denomination’s ministry in response to the HIV epidemic.
So, it’s okay for us to spend money on the love and care of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters if they are sick with AIDS. But we cannot affirm their personhood and sexual orientation if they are healthy and AIDS-free.
This hypocrisy in the church is dangerous. It is just another form of casting stones to suit a political agenda counter to the teachings of Christ.
This violation of human rights through stigmatization is tragic. People literally are dying because of it. Young people, older people, someone’s child, father, mother, sister or brother. Where, O God, are the prophets who will speak for justice?
Why is it so difficult to love people who are different from us? Meg Wheatley writes in her book Turning to One Another: “Most cultural traditions have a story to explain why human life is so hard, why there is so much suffering on earth. The story is always the same — at some point early in our human origin, we forgot that we were all connected. We broke apart, we separated from each other.”
Wheatley writes about how we’ve labeled ourselves and others into categories, such as being an ENFJ (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator), or a “Leo” or a Type A personality. Some of these labels certainly are helpful in our understanding behavior, or our “aura.” But they fall short if we want to fully know someone’s true being.
“Labeling ourselves with minute identities creates far greater tragedy than stereotyping,” Wheatley writes. “All around the world, identity is used for self-protection and aggression. Identity has become a weapon; it materializes as campaigns of organized hatred against ‘others.’ It is only when we move beyond the categories and stereotypes, we are able to greet each other as interesting individuals and, perhaps, become surprised by who we are.”
This sense of separateness, of only thinking of ourselves in isolation, leads us down a path that brings further strife. It diminishes or erases the dream of a peaceable kingdom where all people can find wholeness and well-being.
World AIDS Day and Advent
We hear in the gospel that Jesus encourages us: “Come unto me, all you that are heavy laden and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
Moving from fear, suspicion and judgment to a place of love, care and compassion requires giving up old beliefs and, perhaps, some of our comfort. I think of all the people who watch lovingly and many times helplessly the deaths of their children and grandchildren by AIDS. Yet, in spite of it all, they move from any fear they might have to a place of love.
I think about the 14 women in Kenya who met in a one room United Methodist Church in one of the poorest slums in Nairobi to talk about AIDS, domestic violence and family planning. One woman was AIDS-infected. Yet there she was, working with the others on plans to reach and educate women about AIDS. She was in the middle of the fray wanting to take some kind of action.
That’s hope. That’s one way of working for human rights.
Don Messer, chair of the UMC Global AIDS Fund, recently wrote an article challenging churches that consistently reject commemorating World AIDS Day because it falls in Advent. Don writes:
The Advent season proves to be a perfect time to demonstrate that religious belief is not simply liturgy without meaning or ritual without substance. The four Advent Sundays before Christmas signify a season for “waiting” or making oneself ready for the coming birth of Jesus, the Savior of the world.
Reflective of this “waiting,” many churches have been lighting a new candle each week, using a few liturgical words. Typically, in successive weeks, candles are lit for hope, love, joy and peace. Instead of offering generalized spiritual pabulum, a focus on global AIDS can infuse special poignancy into the Advent celebration.
Time marching on
Friends, time is marching on. Fear and apathy keep us paralyzed while God’s people continue to suffer. The question before us is what are we going to do? How can I, can we, make a difference?
One way is to explore ways to connect and stop putting people into boxes that limit their ability to fully live. Let's take a different path and reach out and touch those who so yearn for companionship and care. Let us dig deep within to move beyond our own self interests and isolation and take the hand of someone who is begging for love and relief. It is only through relationship that the earth will heal.
And, a final thought, I offer Eugene Peterson’s interpretation in The Message of today’s scripture: “There is no room in love for fear. Well-formed love banishes fear. Since fear is crippling, a fearful life — fear of death, fear of judgment — is one not yet fully formed in love. … Loving God includes loving people. You’ve got to love both.”
Almighty God, you created us in your own image. Grant us grace fearlessly to contend against evil, and to make no peace with oppression. And, that we may reverently use our freedom, help us to employ it in the maintenance of justice to the glory of your holy name; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.