When Magic Johnson, that talented and affable basketball player, announced in 1991 that he was HIV-positive, most of us reacted with a combination of sadness and horror. It all seemed a little too close to home. Given the dire headlines and horrendous statistics at that time, most people assumed Johnson would be dead in a few years. And if Magic Johnson could be infected, wasnt it possible that the rest of us were in danger?
Thirteen years later, Magic Johnson is alive and well. He has traded in a basketball uniform for a suit and amassed a fortune as a savvy businessman. He does not appear to be unhealthy and has been quoted as saying that his infection level is actually lower than it was when he was first diagnosed. Johnson has become the most visible symbol of why Americans no longer worry about AIDS.
Meanwhile, more than 10 million people who were infected around the same time as Johnson or more recently have died, according to United Nations statistics. Most have died never knowing they were HIV-positive. Many have gone on to infect their spouses and then their children. And only a very small percentage even knew that their death was not inevitable.
Nowhere is the chasm between the haves and have-nots in the world wider and deeper than in the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
Johnson, a healthy and wealthy man, had access to the latest drug therapies of the time, was well-nourished, and had the best doctors money could buy. By 1994, anti-retroviral drugs were available to most AIDS patients in the United States. Treatment with these drugs was so effective that the "Lazarus Effect" is now used as a description of what happens to AIDS patients who receive drug therapy.
BUT IN MUCH of the world, and especially sub-Saharan Africa, the spread of HIV continued unabated, unreported, and untreated. Today, somewhere around 27 million people are living with HIV/AIDS in that region alone, most of whom were infected in the last decade. There are already 12 million orphaned children in the region.
And yet, ask the average American about AIDS and he or she is more likely to mention Magic Johnsons health than the fact that 3 million men, women, and children died last year from the disease. Americans are very, very good at denial.
Christian Americans have been somewhat better and somewhat worse than the average citizen in responding to the crisis. Some were quick to interpret God as punishing those with AIDS for immorality. Some were better at sending medical missionaries to help those suffering in far off lands.
But so far, its been pretty much of a draw. Christian condemnation has mostly given way to silence. Those charities who attempt to respond to the HIV/AIDS pandemic do so primarily with government funds. Raising money for such work is still not terribly popular among church-goers. We emptied our pockets in response to 9/11 but have not come close to giving as much to those same charities dealing with HIV/AIDS. It all seems so far away.
There are many reasons why Americans should worry about the pandemic. It is destabilizing nations, ruining economies, and producing millions of children who will grow up vulnerable to extremists. It is even beginning to impact countries like India, China, and Russiacountries directly tied to our economic self-interest.
But there is really only one reason why American Christians should be concerned. Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor as ourselves. He did not exempt us from such love based on distance, lack of economic self-interest, or nationality. Neither did he ask us to decide if the response should be tempered by our perception of morality.
And yet, for the most part, Christians seem to believe in Magic more than the commands of God. It is a frightening commentary on the church and a tragic disaster for the millions who are dying without treatmentor even acknowledgment. Nowhere is the chasm between the commands of scripture and the actions of Christians wider and deeper than in the AIDS pandemic.
Dale Hanson Bourke was author of The Skeptics Guide to Dealing with the AIDS Pandemic (Authentic 2004) and founder of The AIDS Bracelet Project when this article appeared.