By Donald E. Messer
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).