Thanking God for condoms . . .

By Donald E. Messerexecutive director Center for the Church and Global AIDS In my new book called “52 Ways to … Continued

By Donald E. Messer
executive director
Center for the Church and Global AIDS

In my new book called “52 Ways to Create an AIDS-Free World,” I thank God for condoms. When used correctly and consistently, condoms are humanity’s best protection against getting infected by HIV. With no cure or vaccine in existence or in sight, condoms remain the greatest “weapon of mass protection” available; without condoms millions more people would be infected each year.

Religious groups typically emphasize the first two letters of the alphabet of life, namely “A for abstinence” and “B for being faithful,” but when it comes to “C” they fail to advocate for the correct and consistent use of condoms. Yet, as Melinda Gates, reminds us, “In the fight against AIDS, condoms save lives. If you oppose the distribution of condoms, something is more important to you than saving lives.”

World AIDS Day is a fitting time for people of faith to join with others seeking to discover ways to curtail and halt the global spread of this virus through education, prevention, research, care and treatment.

Faith-based groups globally contribute significantly to the care and treatment of persons living with HIV and AID through hospitals, clinics, hospices, and home-based care. However, what is most problematic is the role religion plays in discouraging HIV and AIDS prevention.

First, silence prevails, with many religious leaders unwilling to address HIV and AIDS. World AIDS Day remains unobserved; pulpits are silent. Most churches were too busy celebrating the beginning of Advent, instead of focusing on the more than fifteen million children orphaned by AIDS.

Secondly, stigma persists. Most people worldwide tell me that worse than having the disease is the way people treat you. In church people feel labeled as “sinners” and often ostracized. Particularly stigmatized have been men who have sex with men, commercial sex workers, transgendered persons, injecting drug users, and prisoners.

Third, gender inequality predominates. The “ABC’s” of prevention are inadequate unless gender equality is underscored and women are accorded autonomy over their own bodies and destinies. Religious teachings and customs often increase the vulnerability of women to infection from HIV, as they are told to “obey” their husbands, even if those same men have been unfaithful to them.

UNAIDS reports that last year two million people died from AIDS and another 2.7 million were newly infected with HIV. An estimated 33.4 million people are now living with the disease. Almost 50% are women; in Sub-Saharan Africa females comprise about 58% of those infected.

Religious leaders and faith-based communities globally are beginning to take a positive, pro-active role in the struggle against HIV and AIDS. AIDS cannot be defeated by religious groups alone, but without their involvement it certainly cannot be conquered.

Stigma can be overcome when religious communities at their best affirm the worth and dignity of every human being. When HIV and AIDS are viewed through the lens of global poverty, rather than simply as a matter of human sexuality, most religious leaders will agree that the vast majority of persons infected and affected by HIV and AIDS in the world are more “sinned against, than sinners.”

Emphasizing gender equality and providing women greater freedom and autonomy are essential in the struggle for an AIDS-free world. Increasing educational opportunities for impoverished women enhance the prospect of HIV prevention. A woman without an education is a woman without a future.

AIDS prevention efforts dare not be reduced solely to the traditional “ABC’s.” A broader understanding of prevention includes a broad range of personal and society strategies such digging a well and ensuring clean water, making hunger history, helping stop mother-to-child transmission, working for peace, starting social businesses, reforming prisons, and advocating global school lunch programs. These are prime concerns of faith communities and ultimately essential for a truly AIDS-free world.

Above all, people of faith are called to bring health and hope to the world. While none of us alone can save the world, together we can have a meaningful role in creating an AIDS-free world.

Donald E. Messer, president emeritus of the Iliff School of Theologys, is executive director of the Center for the Church and Global AIDS. He also serves as chairperson of the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund. His new book is “52 Ways to Create An AIDS-Free World” (Nashville: Fresh Air Books, 2009).

  • kert1

    “When used correctly and consistently, condoms are humanity’s best protection against getting infected by HIV.”For the main point of his article, there is little support given to what he concludes. I guess we are just supposed to accept this point and move on as he criticizes religious groups.I suppose you can believe the myth that condoms prevent HIV but this is clearly untrue. While it may prevent AIDS in individual circumstances, we need to look at things as a whole. For instance, if someone has sex once with a condom, they have probably only a 5% chance of failure. Not particularly bad, but this is clearly not the whole picture. In the real world we know a person may have sex 1000 times (probably a low number) if given the opportunity. This would make 1000 x .05 = 50 failures and an almost certain spread of HIV to other partners. Of course this problem is compounded as these individuals are promiscuous and engage in many partners.As you can clearly see, the only way to prevent the spread of AIDS is to not engage in risky sex or other risky behaviors. Condoms can’t stop the spread of AIDS. Condoms only give people the sense of invincibility, which is a myth, and ultimately leads to the further spread of AIDS.Of course, we haven’t even dealt with the issue of other STD’s or unwed pregnancies and their effects. Of course, these ones rarely lead to death, so we don’t really have time to help Africans with these type of problems. Of course we do know that about 25% of sexually active teenage girls have STD’s in our country. It’s kind of odd that since the advent of modern contraception, like condoms, we have seen a spike in the number of STD’s and unwed pregnancies. Nothing like pushing a concept that has proven to work. Yeah right.

  • ElizabethToledo

    Thanks Don for the inspiring article.

  • DouginMoz

    Many people often complain, “Why are Christians always sticking their noses into other people’s bedrooms? What is their hangup with sex?” Biblically, God reserves sex for marriage where it acts as a bond to hold the two people together for a strong family. When we fail to heed God’s words given for the health of the community, then the “wages of sin is death.” When broaching the subject of sex to Africans, I will tell them,”Please do not misunderstand me. I want condoms available. If you are going to have sex and there is a chance of getting an STD or becoming pregnant, I hope with all of my heart that you use a condom. If you are going to disobey God, then do not make it worse by getting an STD that you will pass on to others or creating a child that will be abandoned later. Do not make it worse. But you must also understand that condoms fail. Condoms have a 5% failure rate if used perfectly every time that intercourse happens. On average, condoms have a 21% failure rate. This is because they are used inconsistently or improperly. Condoms used by adolescents that lack experience have a 36% failure rate. What are the results of this failure rate added with the failure rate of even bothering to use a condom. In America where everyone has been trained to use condoms, 36% of births are to unwed mothers, 1,700,000/yr – up from 36,000/yr in 1950. Throw in another 1,000,000 abortions/yr (40 million worldwide); and the fact that 25% of adolescent girls (ages 15-19) have had the dubious pleasure of dealing with one STD or another. Fortunately, AIDS is not dominant in America like it is in Africa where we lose 6,000 Africans per day. Look closely at those numbers. We lose more people to death because of our sexual mores than in all the wars that we have fought. We can’t even do statistics on the unkept promises and broken hearts and altered futures derived from a promiscuous lifestyle.The only choice that is 100% safe is abstinence. Abstinence does not fail unless the people in question fail to be abstinent. Of course, that is the rub, isn’t it? To remain abstinent until marriage and then to be faithful and devoted to one spouse to the end of this life does not jive well with a promiscuous world that demands instant gratification for its sexual desires. So no one wants to look at the results of the “new morality.”

  • ccnl1

    Of course there is always “monoperson hand jiving” for sexual release!!!! And it is guaranteed not to result in AIDs, STDs or pregnancy. Conclusion: Africa needs to install “masturbation stations” asap!!!!

  • gimpi

    “To remain abstinent until marriage and then to be faithful and devoted to one spouse to the end of this life does not jive well with a promiscuous world that demands instant gratification for its sexual desires. So no one wants to look at the results of the ‘new morality.’”DouginMoz,I’m afraid there is nothing new about the “new morality.” The only thing that is new is that we are actually talking about sexual issues, rather than trying to hide from them. Shotgun weddings, red-light districts, and the hypocrisy of “she better be pure, but he can sow his wild oats” really weren’t better, now were they?The problem with the abstinence and fidelity model is it has never, ever worked well. People simply have never adhered to it consistently, anywhere, all over the world. Societies have tried to impose abstinence and fidelity, mostly by controlling women, (while allowing back-door liberties to men, usually through prostitution) and they have all failed miserably, without exception. They have also often lead to fairly extreme oppression of women, in the name of morality. This is just as true of Christianity as it is of Islam, from a historical viewpoint.I appreciate your sincerely-held beliefs, but isn’t it more important to find something that really works? Preferably without oppressing women? If condoms aren’t as effective as they should be, how about looking for other, better preventatives? How about empowering women, so they have the right (and economic clout) to reject an unfaithful husband, and can earn a living outside of prostitution? These ideas may not address the “moral” concerns of sex outside of marriage, but they might just make the world a bit healthier. And that really would be a “new morality.”

  • kert1


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