Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Not Unnoticed: World AIDS Day 2010

The woman, seeing that she could not go unnoticed, came trembling and fell at his feet. In the presence of all the people, she told why she had touched him and how she had been instantly healed. Then he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.” (Luke 8.47-48)

Perils of Invisibility

June 5 of 2011 we will enter our fourth decade of fighting HIV/AIDS. It boggles the mind that we’ve been at it for so long—for most of us, more than half our lives. We who witnessed the battle’s commencement find it impossible to imagine a second generation will soon come of age never knowing a world free of the virus. It frustrates us that many younger people are less concerned about HIV/AIDS than we’ve been. This is the dark side of progress we’ve made to disarm the virus. HIV is now a “manageable” disease like hypertension or diabetes. We thank God it is. Yet there’s no ignoring the disconnect between what “living with HIV” means to anyone who survived the plague’s devastation versus those who’ve grown up since the discovery of how to contain and treat it.

The invisibility of HIV/AIDS in the Western world unleashes new perils. Chief among them, of course, is our blunted sense of vulnerability to infection and vigilance against its spread. Safe sex is now widely viewed as a choice. In the gay community, “bug-chasing” is on the rise, with people intentionally seeking high-risk sex with HIV+ partners, presuming infection will end the need of protection. It’s heinously selfish—naïvely so for risk-takers, and downright criminal of anyone who obliges them. Such stupidity was inconceivable before medical advances commuted HIV/AIDS’ death sentence to life without parole. Seeing the virus devour its victims turned unsafe sex into cultural taboo.

With visibility among us reduced practically to nil, HIV/AIDS is mistaken as nothing to fear. That’s the myth we now battle. That’s our new frontier. And the reckless shift in our culture perpetuates further perils of invisibility by blinding us to the plague’s rampage in Africa, India, and Southeast Asia. There—where customs, superstitions, and ignorance impede prevention, while poverty, access, and shortages frustrate treatment—HIV/AIDS sightings are all too common. Breathing skeletons walk the land. Orphans and widows beg alms in the streets. Exhausted healthcare workers stagger beneath unbearable loads. But even when we’re shown what full-blown AIDS looks like there, we don’t really see it, because that’s not how HIV/AIDS looks where we are. Since driving this villain underground, comfort in living with it has dampened fervor to conquer it. Every grateful prayer for learning to defuse HIV/AIDS’ violence should include an earnest plea for renewed courage and commitment to defeat it once and for all.

Unafraid of Being Seen

In Biblical times, the relationship between disease and invisibility is the reverse of today. No thought is given to suppressing symptoms so the sick can live without detection. Raising barriers against disease and offloading non-productive family members holds primary importance. The Law banishes afflicted people from their communities. The lame, blind, deaf, mute, mentally ill, and lepers line city walls or huddle in designated areas, surviving on the charity of passers-by. Those with internal sicknesses languish at home, explicitly banned from public gatherings and worship. Ignoring these restrictions constitutes a felony, in some cases a capital offense. And so, as we observe World AIDS Day by revisiting the story of the hemorrhaging woman, it’s essential we understand the huge liabilities she assumes to be cured of her condition. Ongoing relief and concealment of her symptoms aren’t viable options. Her only hope rests in defeating the disease that plagues her once and for all.

For twelve years she’s agonized with abnormally heavy and prolonged menstrual periods, which classifies her “unclean.” Because her flows are unpredictable, she’s not at liberty to move about when well. Once her period begins, she closes her door, sparing visitors the cleansing ritual and daylong quarantine required of anyone who contacts her. Those who know her obviously know she’s sick—which is why simply leaving her house when Jesus visits her village amazes us. Although she’s currently bleeding, she’s unafraid of being seen. Anyone she touches will be contaminated, raising the prospect of being exposed to the whole village. Suppose she reaches Jesus. What will she say? “I’m hemorrhaging” would be social suicide. Even if He heals her, disregard for everyone she bumps into will breed contempt. Hope of regaining freedom she lost to sickness will be futile; she’ll still be a pariah. She devises an ingenious strategy, investing all her faith in it. “He doesn’t need to see me, hear me, or speak to me,” she tells herself. “If I can touch His coat’s hem, I’ll be cured.” Her predicament puts her in the strange position of avoiding notice to benefit from Jesus’s attention.

Standing with Christ

While the strategy ultimately fails, the woman’s faith carries the day. The bleeding immediately stops when she catches Jesus’s coat. In what must be a most alarming, unforeseen complication, she also stops Jesus. “Who touched me?” He asks. Everyone backs off. Peter tries to break the tension by reminding Jesus He’s swarmed with people jostling Him. “Somebody touched Me,” He insists. “I felt power leave Me.” Luke 8.47-48 tells us: “The woman, seeing that she could not go unnoticed, came trembling and fell at his feet. In the presence of all the people, she told why she had touched him and how she had been instantly healed. Then he said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.’” Her confidence is why she’s cured. Compassion is what stops Jesus. He knows the woman is healed. He felt it happen. It’s vital to Him that she’s not unnoticed, so He can rid the stigma of her disease as well. He calls her His daughter. “Go in peace,” He says—an overt warning to anyone who might ostracize her in contempt. And He ratifies her freedom by ignoring the cleansing and quarantine ordinances for anyone touched by a menstruating woman.

Normally, we enter miracle stories in the shoes of the sufferer. Today, as we focus on HIV/AIDS victims and the critical issues swirling around the virus, there’s much to gain from standing with Christ in this story. We possess power to feel the tug of HIV/AIDS, to rid its stigmas, to warn anyone who ostracizes its victims, to ratify their freedom by ignoring phobic reactions to their touch. Healing and health are matters of personal faith; they’re beyond our reach. Our primary concern is ensuring HIV/AIDS is not unnoticed, for the benefit of those it afflicts, as well as current and future generations at risk. Living with HIV is an advance, not final victory. The war must not end until the virus is irrevocably defeated.

We stand with Christ in compassion for more than 40,000,000 people afflicted by HIV/AIDS and its stigmas—and millions more oblivious to its dangers. They cannot go unnoticed.

Postscript: "Hidden Faces of AIDS"

If you've not seen this powerful intro to World Vision's "Acting on AIDS" video, it's well worth the one minute, eleven seconds of your time.


Sherry Peyton said...

Oh Tim, thanks for reminding us. I remember all too well the way people were treated who had AIDs back at the beginning. It was appalling to say the least. I understand that the rate of infection is going up again in the South, due to their hampering use of abstinence as the only method of sexual "protection." We need to keep this focused as an ongoing issue, one that continues to need our attention. As therapies have improved, we are heartened that so many seem to be living fuller long lives. But ending the disease is the real goal. Bless you for telling the story again.

Tim said...

Sherry, the increased incidences in--shall we say--more Puritanical regions of the country is an urgent problem. So is the ongoing issue with higher transmission frequencies in minority communities where conservative social/religious values encourage bisexual men to hide their extracurricular activities by not protecting their female partners. And all of this is because HIV/AIDS is no longer viewed as the monstrous killer it is. In these situations, the disease often progresses to critical states before the victim knows he/she was exposed to the virus.

It's a dilemma that presents with great conflicts about how we address it. Certainly, we don't want to go back to the horrible days when we looked the virus in the face. But we've got too relaxed with it as a nation, and modulated our message to be "It's treatable"--which many misread to say, "It's no longer a threat." And that's why so many have dropped it on their concerns list, replacing it with things like abstinence and deceptive fidelity.

My father always taught us a job half-done is a job undone. We can't lose sight of the thing we're really dealing with here and keep our focus on ending the crisis entirely.

Thank you for pointing out how easily we lose our way.