AIDS: From Judgment to Hope

World AIDS Day on December 1 was marked with an inspiring flood of articles, reports, demonstrations, speeches, services, and much more. The overall tone was worried optimism. The optimism is because, finally, after years of extraordinary effort, we can see tangible progress in saving lives and slowing the ravages of this terrible global pandemic, that 30 years ago was just a blip on scientific radar screens. There is plenty to worry about, however, perhaps most of all the evidence of faltering political will that shows unmistakable signs of bowing to the economic and financial crisis and pressures from the multitude of competing global challenges.

The story of religion and AIDS is one of the most fascinating in recent international development history, and it is still being told. Fiery preachers were among the first to condemn the victims of HIV/AIDS as sinners. They helped to fuel a powerful stigma that associated AIDS with wrong-doing and outcast groups (especially sex workers, drug users and homosexuals). This condemnation delayed response by governments and international organizations but above all drove denial that AIDS was really a societal problem. Since one of the characteristics of HIV/AIDS is that people can carry and transmit the virus for years without showing a sign, stigma is devastating. We should not sweep under the rug that there is still plenty of this kind of talk and action, though it is increasingly challenged.

But, but... religious people, communities and institutions were often the first to recognize the pain and suffering the disease caused, for individuals, families, and societies. Saintly nuns and volunteers of many sorts cared for the sick and dying, built hospices, demanded justice in making sure treatment was available widely and cheaply as it slowly became available. They recognized the devastation of a huge generation of orphans, raised by children and grandmothers as parents died in the prime of life and moved to help them in countless ways, sending money, making sure children have enough to eat and go to school.

There are far too many saints to name but among the giants are Canon Gideon Byaumugisha, a Ugandan Anglican priest living with AIDS whose courage and wisdom knows no bounds, Sister Beatrice Chipeta from Malawi whose community orphan care program is an inspiring model, and Marguerite Barankitse, from Burundi, who has cared for countless children (upwards of 20,000) in Burundi.

Many religious leaders have long raised prophetic voices demanding action. Leaders like Hany El Banna (who has galvanized global Muslim leaders on HIV/AIDS) who demands that the "talk show is over, time to act", Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Pastor Rick Warren, former Bishop of Oslo Gunnar Stalsett, Swami Agnivesh from India, and many others speak constantly and with courage with messages that stress a blend of compassion, accountability and action. Religious leaders from many faiths gathered in the Netherlands in 2010 and their pledge for action has been signed by thousands more. UNICEF and others work with Buddhist monks and Muslim imams across South and Southeast Asia on creative, demanding and successful programs to combat the pandemic.

The Geneva based Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance is running a series of inspirational messages for advent. This past Sunday they featured one of my heroines, Nyaradzai Gumbonzvanda, Nyaradzai Gumbonzvanda the bold Zimbabwean lawyer who heads the word YWCA. She pleads for and demands "information, love, open hearts, and abundant love." Her focus is especially on the young girls who are most vulnerable to both the disease and to the stigma that goes with it.

In a sober December 1 piece on "World AIDS Day: the Role of Religion," Council on Foreign Relations scholar and activist Isobel Coleman balanced the "yes but" ledger this way: "While religious leaders are unusually well-placed to provide followers with guidance about this preventable disease, they have in many cases contributed to the epidemic by denying the importance of condoms in HIV prevention and contributing to the stigma that AIDS patients already confront." Constructive engagement of religious institutions is, she argues, crucial.

Coleman is absolutely right about the crucial roles and the complexities of the vast array of religious bodies involved. They are vital partners in the global struggle against AIDS. She is also right that the shadow of condemnation and opposition to condoms still looms large. The Catholic Church, with all its theological sincerity, still finds itself in a deep hole on contraception and AIDS,but the Vatican and Catholics in many places rightly point to the extraordinary work of Catholics working in communities across the world to fight HIV/AIDS. The lay Catholic Community of Sant'Egidio is among global leaders on HIV/AIDS, running programs across Africa, pushing scientific research inter alia on mother child transmission, and advocating passionately that everyone deserves the best care we know how to provide.

The global moral journey on HIV/AIDS is a remarkable story that has yet to be fully told, a journey of extraordinary devotion by women and men, of changing minds and hearts as people confront reality, of science and morality in combat and alliance. It may be the only disease where sufferers across the world have united to demand equal treatment for people they do not know, in far flung corners of the world. Religion is a pivotal part of this journey. Too often it is grossly over-simplified, relegated to a negative or saintly role (depending on the observer). What we need to highlight, as we continue this ethical journey, fired both by hope and worry, is to keep learning from complexity, and to hear the moral challenges but respond with science and compassion. We need prophets, scientists, and voices from communities in alliance if we are to fulfill the promise that we can indeed see an AIDS free world, soon.