AIDS: An Evangelical Perspective
by Ronald J. Sider
Ronald J. Sider is president of Evangelicals for Social Action and a professor of theology at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary. His article is based on a speech he presented to an October meeting of religious journalists sponsored by the National Leadership Conference on AIDS, the Centers for Disease Control, and the Associated Church Press. This article appeared in the Christian Century, January 6-13, 1989, p. 11. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
To be sure, there are other things that must be added. But only secondarily. One crucial test of our commitment to the sanctity of human life in our time will be whether as a society we will spend the money, take the time and run the risk required to treat people with AIDS as persons, down to the last painful gasp. That basic theological affirmation does not settle many complex issues of public policy, but it does provide an essential framework for grappling with them.
How should our response to the AIDS epidemic be influenced by the fact that in many places the primary transmitters of the disease are promiscuous male homosexuals and intravenous drug users? Answering this secondary question is more complex. It is a prejudical untruth to call AIDS a homosexual disease. AIDS is a viral disease that affects heterosexuals and homosexuals. There is no evidence whatsoever to indicate that this new virus was originally produced by homosexual practice.
At the same time, however, it is dishonest and unwise to minimize the fact that much of the transmission of AIDS occurs because of promiscuous (especially homosexual) sexual intercourse. Regardless of oneís view of either homosexuality or promiscuity, the facts are that the only truly safe intercourse is that within a lifelong monogamous relationship, and that AIDS is closely linked with homosexual promiscuity. The December 1986 Hastings Center Report indicates that "many AIDS patients report 1,000 sexual partners over a single life time." One third of all male homosexuals, according to an authoritative national survey cited in the report, said that they had had more than 50-70 sexual partners in the previous year. Insisting, in our public-policy decisions, on the importance of the connection between homosexual promiscuity and the transmission of AIDS is not an instance of heterosexual homophobia.
What about the charge that AIDS is Godís punishment for gays? For many this question might not even arise, and it is not the most important question. But it is essential to deal with it at some length, first, because some evangelicals have made this charge; second, because the media have spread the charge far and wide; and third, because some religious people discussing AIDS seem to want to ignore the biblical teaching that there is a moral order in the universe and that wrong choices have consequences.
To begin with, it is wrong to suggest that God created AIDS as a special punishment for the sin of homosexual practice. Such a suggestion ignores, for one thing, much empirical data. Apparently the virus is new. Why would God wait for millennia to design this special punishment? Furthermore, many people who have not engaged in homosexual activity have AIDS. At least 500 babies have already been born with AIDS, and a minimum of 700 people have contracted the disease through blood transfusions. If AIDS is divine punishment for homosexual practice, why donít gay women get it? Are the radical feminists right that God is exclusively female? In parts of Africa, AIDS affects heterosexuals and homosexuals in approximately equal numbers.
Furthermore, there is no biblical basis for linking specific sicknesses with specific kinds of sin. Certainly sickness and death are the result, in biblical thought, of the fall, but a specific sickness is seldom related to a specific sinful act, and then only by special prophetic declaration. In the one situation where Jesus explicitly dealt with the question, he emphatically rejected the suggestion that blindness was caused by a manís sin or that of his parents (John 9:2-3) Rather, Jesus said that the reason for the blindness was to make manifest the works of God. If Christians today offer compassionate, costly care to people with AIDS, they will in a similar way bring glory to God.
Evangelicals should be able, however, to condemn homosexual practice as a sinful lifestyle without being charged with homophobia or blamed for many of the problems emerging in the AIDS epidemic. Almost all evangelicals consider homosexual practice (which must be carefully distinguished from homosexual orientation) to be sinful. And I agree, although I want to add that it is no more sinful than adultery, greed, gossip, racism or materialism.
Ethicist James B. Nelson goes much too far when he argues that "we who call ourselves Christians bear major responsibility for the problems created by the AIDS crisis. . . . We have been the major institutional legitimizer of compulsory heterosexuality" (Christianity and Crisis, May 19, 1986, p. 179) Evangelicals confess that they have been guilty of homophobia. But they reject the charge that their condemnation of homosexual practice somehow played a major role in creating the AIDS crisis. To the extent that there is a link between AIDS and homosexuality, the major point that must be made is that it is homosexual promiscuity that stands condemned, not evangelical belief that homosexual practice is wrong.
This is largely unacceptable special pleading. Certainly there has been homophobic and misguided public restriction of private sexual acts between consenting adults, and that must end. But to demand that Christians either give up a belief that homosexual practice is wrong and endorse government sanction of gay marriage, or else accept major responsibility for the AIDS crisis, is nonsense. Gay folk can stop being promiscuous and thus end the risk of infection any time they choose. They donít need to wait for others to affirm their sexual preference.
My next comment on the issue of AIDS as punishment for homosexual practice may upset even more people than my previous point. The Bible throughout teaches that God is both loving and just, both merciful and holy, and therefore has established a moral order in the universe. Ignoring Godís law structured into nature has consequences. A major article on AIDS in a religious periodical asserted that "The God of the Christian revelation is not a God who punishes people" (Engage/Social Action, February, 1986, p. 43) But that is not what the Scriptures say. In fact, nowhere in the Bible is there more discussion of punishment of sin than in the words of Jesus. Furthermore, St. Paul argues the general point about there being a moral order in the universe precisely with reference to male and female homosexual practice (Rom. 1:26-28) God has created free persons who may freely choose to reject Godís law, but their choices have consequences both now and in the future.
This point is just as relevant, of course, to any type of self-destructive behavior, or to acts of economic injustice, as it is to homosexual practice. (Someone has quipped that if AIDS is divine punishment, then surely the people who bring us economic oppression, environmental pollution and devastating wars should at least get herpes.) Oppressing the poor violates Godís moral order and produces disruption, chaos and other evil consequences. (It is relevant to point out here that the unusually high proportion of blacks and Hispanics in the population of drug addicts, including intravenous drug users with AIDS, is surely related to the incredibly high unemployment rate for black and Hispanic teen-agers, which in turn is related to racism and economic injustice. Similarly, the increasing number of female prostitutes with AIDS is related to female poverty and the tragedy of battered women.) Sexual sin is no worse than other varieties, and they all have consequences.
We cannot ignore this general truth when we come to the issue of AIDS. If the Bible teaches that homosexual practice is wrong, as I think it does, then it is right to suppose that violating Godís law in this area will have negative consequences.
This is not to say that the AIDS virus is some supernatural divine creation to punish homosexual practice; have emphasized that I reject that view. But I refuse to bow to todayís widespread relativism and deny and ignore the clear biblical teaching that some actions are wrong no matter what Hollywood or Greenwich Village says. Ignoring the moral order of the universe has consequences.
As a citizen. I insist on the right to say that and to seek to shape public policy in ways consistent with that belief without being called a bigot. Evangelical Christians believe that one reason Western society today is in trouble is its widespread ethical relativism and accompanying sexual promiscuity (both heterosexual and homosexual) I do not ask that public policy enforce biblical sexual norms, but I do ask that public policy not undermine them.
It is important to add here that there are contexts in which it is appropriate, and other contexts in which it is inappropriate, to emphasize the link between actions and consequences. When a person is dying of lung cancer, one does not lecture her on the dangers of smoking. When a friend is struggling to survive a heart attack, one does not denounce him for poor eating patterns or failure to exercise. Nevertheless, warnings about smoking and vigorous personal appeals to friends not to destroy their health by overwork or overeating are entirely appropriate at other times.
I have been dismayed by failures to observe this very simple distinction. In his book on AIDS, John Fortunato quotes an evangelical chaplain who began every initial conversation with gay AIDS patients with a harsh denunciation of the sin of homosexual practice (AIDS: The Spiritual Dilemma Harper & Row, 1987], pp. 103-104). Such an approach is so far from Jesusí compassionate and forgiving relationship with the adulterous woman that one wants to scream. The first thing the Christian must say to an AIDS patient is that God loves him or her so much so that if it were necessary for Jesus to experience the cross again just for that person, he would gladly do it.
But just because one does not admonish and educate at the deathbed does not mean, to quote Episcopal Bishop John Walker of Washington, D.C., that "our calling is not that of judging but of serving" (Washington Post, October 31, 1986). We must do both, albeit in different settings. Much depends, too, on what one means by "judging." Harsh, insensitive, self-righteous attitudes are never acceptable. But "not judging" in that sense is fully compatible with insisting that certain behavior is wrong. Jesus never supposed, as do some modern relativists, that his command to "judge not" means that we cannot condemn sin.
The most basic role for the church is to set a good example. Thus far it has not batted 1,000. Members of one church in Florida not only led the fight to exclude three hemophiliac boys with AIDS from public school but also decided not to admit persons carrying the AIDS virus into Sunday school, worship or other church activities (Florida Baptist Witness, September 17, 1987). Many other churches, on the other hand, have exhibited a different spirit, recognizing that the AIDS virus cannot be spread by casual contact.
Second, the church should provide direct ministry, both pastoral and other services, to people with AIDS and their families. (Christianity Today rightly deplores the fact that far more is happening already in this area than the media report [August 7, 1987, p. 15]). Third, the church can serve an indispensable role in education. Because people generally trust the church, it should be able to combat the irrational fears and rumors by presenting facts and respected counsel.
Fourth, the church should, as James Nelson suggests, engage in further theological reflection on the issues raised by the AIDS epidemic. It needs to rediscover and proclaim the full biblical understanding of the joy and boundaries of sexual expression, teach by word and example the goodness of the lifelong marriage covenant between a man and a woman, and learn better how to offer unlimited acceptance to everyone without succumbing to mushy relativism. Those four points take only three minutes to articulate. To incarnate them requires a lifetime of struggle.
Nelson is very helpful in calling for a careful balancing of individual rights and social good. The people who speak most often about the sanctity of human life should have been the very first to champion the right of people with AIDS to adequate healthcare rather than lobbying against government expenditure for AIDS research, as did the Moral Majority. And the people who speak frequently about democratic freedom and individualsí personal relationships with God ought to be among the most vigorous champions of the right to individual freedom and privacy. At the same time, Nelson rightly insists that these individual rights must be balanced by a concern for the public good so that we protect the blood supply, and the health of schoolchildren and health professionals, while wisely allocating scarce medical resources.
Finally, the topic of condom ads needs to be addressed, not because it is more important than (probably it is not even as important as) other public-policy questions such as mandatory AIDS testing or contact notification, but because it has provoked such extensive discussion among evangelicals. Some conservative Christians have vigorously, even viciously, denounded fellow evangelical Surgeon General C. Everett Koop for suggesting advertisements and education about condoms in the battle against AIDS. Kooop insists that the only safe dex is that within a monogamous relationship, but he also demands that we deal with the real world where promiscuity persists and spreads the AIDS virus at a terrifying rate.
Koop is correct that we need a public education campaign that includes TV and print media encouraging people who choose to persist in high-risk behavior to use condoms. But I also find substance is the response of many people Ė from Sir Immanuel Jakobowits, the chief rabbi of Britain, to writers in Christianity Today to delegates to the 1987 Southern Baptist Convention Ė that the promotion of condoms could easily encourage promiscuity. Of we are trying to warn adolescent youngsters about the dangers of promiscuity, I doubt we do it effectively by a TV ad featuring (to take one current example) a glamorous young woman who says she wants love but she is not willing to die for it.
There is a way to meet both sidesí concerns. We could have TV spots featuring someone like Rock Hudson at a stage of the AIDS disease where its ravages are unmistakable. The text could read something like this:
The only safe sex is within a lifelong monogamous relationship. I wish I had lived that way before I got AIDS. But if, in spite of todayís harsh facts, you want to play Russian roulette with your life, then please use condoms. They are not fail-proof, but they do improve your chances.
Such TV spots would not glamorize promiscuity. But they would get the word out on condoms. It is highly unlikely that condom manufacturers would pay for such ads. But promoting their profits is not our agenda. (In fact, TV ads by condom manufacturers should be discouraged because their commercial interests will almost certainly override any concern for public-health education.) Rather, government agencies and private groups, including churches, should develop such spots, and stations should run them as public-service announcements.
Religious leaders today have the awesome task of helping to lead people through what may well become the most deadly epidemic in human history. I hope we will have the courage and faith to turn away from irrational fear, panic and the temptation to place personal security above compassionate care for the marginalized and ravaged. I hope that instead we will be given the grace to incarnate the belief that all persons, including our sisters and brothers dying of AIDS, are stamped with the divine image and are thus of inestimable value.