I was sick and you looked after me.
Jesus makes this statement as part of a provocative picture of Judgment Day. He says He’ll identify everyone and divide them as a shepherd does: sheep go right and goats go left. In this scenario, He welcomes the sheep into heaven by reviewing their compassion, hospitality, and generosity. It takes them by surprise. When did they do all this? Loving their neighbors had become first nature to them; they never gave it a second thought.
But their surprise pales in comparison to the goats on His left. He turns to them and recites the same list, only in their case He says they failed to do these things. This outrages them and they become defensive. “Lord,” they protest, “we always helped you!” They quickly discover serving God means nothing if we fail to serve others. “By neglecting the least of these, you neglected me,” He replies before sending them away.
This story came to mind with early reports from Mexico City, where 22,000 people are gathered for the 17th annual World AIDS Conference. Scientists, healthcare workers, activists, advocates, ministers, and other concerned global citizens are there in attendance on behalf of the least. And, whatever religious beliefs they do or don’t have, our faith assures us their sacrifices and care won’t go unnoticed or unrewarded.
This pernicious virus continues to stalk the weakest, most vulnerable victims it can find. It exploits fear rooted in ignorance, superstition, and discrimination. This turns our attention to sub-Saharan Africa, where over 22 million people are infected. But no culture is safe from unfounded fright. Just this week, two news items prove this: China refuses to lift its ban on HIV-positive tourists for the upcoming Olympics and the Centers for Disease Control increased its previously announced US infection rate by 40 percent. In America, AIDS persists by coercing silence and shame from its victims and denial from society at large.
Disease and Dis-ease
As gay people, we’ve got used to living with AIDS. Some of us actually embrace it. We abandon any effort to protect others or us, mistaking recklessness for defiance. And we defy anyone to tell us what to do with our bodies and our lives. Whether or not we’re actually spreading disease, we’re undoubtedly spawning dis-ease. Accepting AIDS as a fact of life and then ignoring it is a deadly proposition. Anyone should understand the alarm and discomfort this causes.
By all means, GLBT Christians must attend to the sick. With AIDS, however, we should enlarge our scope of those we look after. While we extend ourselves to the physically ill, we can’t overlook the spiritually weak. If we choose to “understand” our brothers and sisters who endanger themselves and others and don’t try to steer them gently to safety, we’re like the goats in Jesus’s story. We neglect them and Him. People may love us for being polite, but are we really loving them? Might we be killing them with kindness? It’s as true now as it was almost 30 years ago: Silence = Death.