World AIDS Day: A Challenge to 'Speak Life'
On Dec. 1, the world commemorates World AIDS Day, a day in which we pause and remember the 25 million lives lost to the deadly epidemic. The day also challenges us to redouble our efforts to show greater solidarity with the estimated 33 million people worldwide living with HIV. The day's slogan is "Stop AIDS: Keep the Promise". This is a direct appeal to governments, policy makers, and regional health authorities to ensure that they meet the litany of targets in the fight against HIV and AIDS - especially the promise agreed to at the 2005 G8 Summit of universal access to HIV treatment, care, support, and prevention services by 2010. The 2007 theme of "leadership" highlights the stark reality that without a revolution in political will the epidemic will continue to outpace even our best response.
Dec. 1 represents a day for remembering the 2.1 million people that lost their lives this year due to this preventable and treatable disease. While we are starting to win victories in increasing access to treatment we are still losing the war to prevent new infections. Reports still show an alarming concentration of infections in the southern third of Africa, with nations such as Swaziland and Botswana reporting as many as one in four adults infected with HIV. Even closer to home, statistics released last week in Washington, D.C., reveal a state of emergency in which one in 20 residents is HIV positive - with 80 percent of cases among black men, women, and adolescents. The report shatters the common myth that AIDS is predominantly a gay disease, as 37.4 percent of newly reported cases were due to heterosexual contact. Behind these sobering statistics are real lives, real families, and real people made in the image of God.
We can give thanks to the degree to which Christians, including evangelicals, have now embraced AIDS as an urgent and legitimate cause. This weekend Pastor Rick Warren is convening thousands of faith leaders from across the country and world for his annual Summit on AIDS and the Church. I applaud his leadership in shining a spotlight on the indispensable role of the church in the fight against AIDS. However, past conferences have often shied away from the political nature of this epidemic and failed to deliver a clear call for political action to address the systemic injustices that so often fuel it. We can celebrate major advances in global treatment due in large part to increased funding through the President's Emergency AIDS Plan and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria. Still, only 20 percent of people in need in the developing world currently have access. Thanks in large part to activism through the 2008 Stop AIDS campaign, all three leading Democratic Presidential candidates have agreed to a bold campaign promise to increase President Bush's pledge of $30 billion for AIDS prevention and treatment over the next five years to a figure more commensurate with the global need of $50 billion. Now we must pressure the Republican candidates to follow suit.
AIDS tests our faith as well as our humanity. Applying Matthew 25 to the contemporary age of AIDS, I believe God will also ask us "when I was living with HIV, did you love me, care for me, and use your prophetic voice to help stop the epidemic?"
The gospel music artist Donald Lawrence came out with a song last year titled "I Speak Life." As Christians we must speak life by loving and supporting people around us living with the virus. We can speak life by using our voices to challenge Congress and the Bush administration to make good on their promises to achieve universal access to treatment by the year 2010. We can speak life by breaking down the walls of stigma in our churches and communities, raising awareness, and encouraging testing. We can speak life by addressing the underlying injustices and issues that so often fuel the crisis of AIDS, including intravenous drug use, poverty, sexual violence, promiscuity, and infidelity.
An old African American Spiritual says it best:
Sometimes I feel discouraged, and think my work's in vain.
But then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again.
There is balm in Gilead to heal the wounded soul.
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.
Adam Taylor is director of campaigns and organizing for Sojourners.