Epilogue: A Time of AIDS-a Time of Grace

From New Directions in Sexual Ethics by Kevin T. Kelly, Geoffrey Chapman, 1998, Epilogue

Throughout this book I have often mentioned that we are living in a ‘time of AIDS’. The word ‘time’ in that expression is not used in a purely chronological sense (e.g. I am writing these words at 5.15 p.m. on 23 Oct 1996). Rather, it is used in a more theological sense, that is, in the sense of a kairos or ‘defining moment’, a moment of opportunity which might never return. In other words, a moment in time can be called ‘theological’ when what we are currently experiencing in life seems to hold a clear and compelling call from God to us. I would even dare to suggest that such a time presents us with a ‘creation’ moment, an invitation to set in motion another ‘big bang’. Such would be the case when the negativity underlying what is happening in life is revealed so starkly that it elicits from us the natural reaction, ‘This must not be allowed to continue. This is in contradiction to what life is meant to be all about.’ Edward Schillebeeckx calls such a moment a ‘contrast experience’, a time of hearing God’s voice calling to us through the cries of human suffering (cf. God, the Future of Man, London, Sheed & Ward, 1969, pp. 149-61). What is happening is a clear contrast to how God wants us to live. It is as though the negativity we are facing embodies the powers of darkness and out of this darkness we hear the voice of God crying out, ‘Let there be light!’. Since we claim, as Christians, to have had a unique historical experience of listening to God’s word and of continuing the search to discern its message for today, we ought to be particularly sensitive to such a call. Vatican II reminded us of this with its insistence on the need to be attentive to ‘the signs of the times’. Yet in a global determining moment God’s call to conversion and action is meant for our whole human family, not just for the Church. Hence, if the Church claims to be, in the words of Vatican II, a ‘sacrament or instrumental sign of intimate union with God and of the unity of all humanity’ (Constitution on the Church, n. 1), it cannot listen to this call on its own. The whole human family needs to listen to God’s call together. It belongs to the prophetic role of the Church to play a part in enabling that to happen.

The basic premise of this book is that an awareness seems to be growing that the AIDS pandemic presents us with such a defining moment in human history. Although many who are voicing this awareness are not speaking specifically as Christians, it is also being proclaimed loud and clear by an increasing number of Christians, especially those most actively involved in the field of HIV/AIDS.

In a strange little book, AIDS: Heresy and Prophecy: What the Virus Says (New Delhi, Theological Research and Communication Institute, 1993), Valson Thampu comments on the fact that many people who are living positively with AIDS seem to find their experience of life deepened and intensified. In the words of Thampu they ‘see this period not only in terms of impending death but also in terms of heightened life’ (p. 76). He even goes so far as to refer to this time as the ‘space of grace’. Not everyone involved in the AIDS scene will be happy with this kind of language. They know from tragic experience that for many others, sadly, AIDS is a totally negative and personally destructive experience, even in some cases culminating in suicide embraced as a longed-for release.

Like Thampu, I have been very struck by the fact that, paradoxically, for many people AIDS has been the occasion for their finding a new sense of meaning and purpose in their lives. In such cases expressions like Thampu’s ‘space of grace’ and ‘intensification of experience’ capture very well what seems to be going on in their lives. It might be helpful to offer a few examples.

At a conference on HIV/AIDS which drew together Asian theologians from many different countries, those attending were deeply moved by the witness of a man and a woman, both living with AIDS. Though neither of them had had much formal education, their testimony played a major part in shaping the thinking of the conference. Both of them witnessed to this intensification of experience in their lives. One of them, a former taxi-driver and married man who had slept around a good deal, even went so far as to say that, compared to his life now, his life prior to AIDS was like night compared to day. They had both developed a deeper sense of self- worth and were devoting their lives to helping others affected by HIV/AIDS. They felt they had something to live for.

Nearer to home, speaking on a BBC2 programme, The Spark, in August 1994 in the series Over the Edge, Charles Irvine, a Glaswegian now working with ‘Body Positive’ in Manchester, spoke in very similar terms when he remarked: AIDS has given a lot of people a sense of purpose, a shared faith, something to live for in life – to work for others, not just self, with a sense of common purpose – to live for and even to die for.’ There are some striking examples of this intensification of experience found in the book Embracing the Chaos: Theological Responses to AIDS, edited by James Woodward (London, SPCK. 1991). For instance, reporting on a conference held at the London Lighthouse, Stephen Pattison noted that some of those who were HIV positive in his group described their experience as being ‘analogous to being converted’. His description continued: ‘Suddenly life becomes both very precious and very precarious. It is important to live every second; everything from fear to hope is very vivid. It is not an exaggeration to say that some people felt they had really come to life for the first time at this fateful moment, a moment both unfair and wonderful’ (p. 11). Later he went on to say: ‘The people living closely with HIV/AIDS who met at the London Lighthouse (itself perhaps a sort of cathedral in this context!) were deeply alive and aware people converted to life by the threat of death’ (loc. cit.).

The very moving testimony from Nigel Sheldrick which I have quoted at the end of Chapter Four is another powerful example of this intensification of experience. Some of the HIV positive women I met in Uganda were living examples of this gift of living life with deeper intensity and commitment. Similarly, I can remember three men I met on my visit to Bangkok, all HIV positive through contact with prostitutes. All three have experienced profound healing – not of the virus but of that attitude and lifestyle which led to their infection and caused them to be shunned by family and friends as a health hazard. Today, far from being a health hazard, they are helping to promote healthy living by their HIV/AIDS educational work. One of these men said to me, AIDS is my gift’! When I returned from Uganda, I told the people in my parish that I had brought them a gift from many of the people I had met who were living with AIDS. It was the gift of appreciating the giftedness of the present moment, the preciousness of each day and the opportunity it offers us to continue making our own unique contribution, however small, to forwarding God’s Kingdom in our midst.

In the case of the people I have mentioned above, as for many others like them, the tragedy of their HIV infection seems to have presented them with a creative moment and their positive response has released new energy and light in their lives. It would be totally inaccurate to say that for them ‘living positively with AIDS’ is simply a matter of making the best out of a bad situation. It is much more than that. It is about beginning to live life more fully, more intensely, with greater awareness and with deeper impact on all who are touched by their lives.

A TIME OF GRACE: AIDS – A WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY FOR OUR GLOBAL SOCIETY?

Has this ‘intensification of experience’ occasioned by AIDS in the lives of many individual men and women any parallel at a more global level? It seems to me that it has. Although he does not use the terminology of ‘intensification of experience’, it is possible to detect a global version of this phenomenon in what has been said by Richard Parker, Professor of Medical Anthropology and Human Sexuality at the State University of Rio de Janeiro. In July 1996 he presented a major paper, ‘Empowerment, community mobilization and social change in the face of HIV/AIDS’, at the 9th International Conference on AIDS held in Vancouver. He is very concerned that the HIV/AIDS situation is deteriorating in many ways, especially in relation to the developing world. Despite that, he is still able to view the present as a ‘window of opportunity’ in terms of responding to the pandemic. Parker detects a fundamental shift in our response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic and identifies three key dimensions in this shift.

The first shift is from ‘individual risk’ to ‘social vulnerability’. The former approach stressed that specific behaviours by individuals posed the risk of HIV infection. This was soon refined into talking about ‘risk groups’, collections of individuals whose lifestyle was presumed to be high-risk. However, as the global pandemic progressed, this ‘individual risk’ model was quickly called into question, mainly because the spread of HIV infection soon went far beyond these risk groups, but also because it was creating very harmful stigma and discrimination against individuals belonging to these risk groups. Nevertheless, though not contained within these risk groups, the spread of HIV infection was not purely random. Despite the insistence of certain educational programmes that everyone was equally at risk (a ‘necessary fiction’, comments Parker), HIV/AIDS has never been a ‘democratic epidemic’. It follows a clearly defined pattern which is structured by very real social, cultural, political and economic circumstances’ (p. 5). For Parker, the notion of ‘social vulnerability’ is the key to this understanding of how HIV/AIDS infection spreads. The factors which foster its spread are ‘social inequality and injustice, prejudice and discrimination, oppression, exploitation and violence’ (p. 6). As a result of this clearer perception, we are now ‘able to more fully comprehend the consequences, with regard to HIV infection and AIDS, of (1) the sexual stigma and discrimination so often faced by gay men or sex workers, (2) the gender power relations and gender oppression so often faced by women, and (3) the social and economic marginalization faced by the poor’ (pp. 6-7). The development of this ‘critical consciousness’ is an important dimension in the shift in focus with regard to HIV/AIDS. It has major implications for determining effective policies and programmes for HIV prevention and control.

The second shift is from ‘information/persuasion-based behaviour intervention’ to ‘collective empowerment and community mobilization’. An ‘individual risk’ approach naturally tries to promote behaviour change by giving individuals and high-risk groups sufficient information about HIV infection so that they will appreciate the risks entailed in their behaviour and change accordingly. Hence, the focus, according to this model, is on information giving and reasoned persuasion. However, this model for promoting behaviour change has not worked. As Parker says, this has been shown ‘in study after study’. Hence, in line with the ‘social vulnerability’ model, there has been a move towards what Parker calls ‘collective empowerment and community mobilization’. This is very much in line with the Paulo Freire approach based on ‘conscientization’. Coming together, the socially vulnerable build up a critical perception of the ‘social, cultural, political and economic forces that structure reality’ and, working out of this awareness, are better able to take action against those forces which are seen to be oppressive. This model demands a whole new approach to public health with regard to vulnerable communities. While not ignoring the health care needs of individuals, its main focus is on empowering communities to respond to these needs and also to develop effective programmes of action aimed at confronting the root causes of their social vulnerability.

Parker sees the third shift to be one from ‘individual-based behavioural change’ to a ‘global coalition for social change’. The urgent needs of individuals living with HIV/AIDS must never be neglected. However, these short-term responses must be properly integrated into much wider and long-term, strategy. Since ‘social vulnerability’ is the key to this whole shift of approach, this long-term strategy needs to develop what Parker calls a ‘global coalition’ (p. 13). He explains clearly what he means by this:

Without effecting long-term changes in the structure of society, . . . there can be no real hope of ending or even slowing the epidemic. Without overcoming the consistent denial of their basic rights and dignity, gay and bisexual men, sex workers and injecting drug users will continue to suffer the effects of the epidemic, independent of the degree of behavioural change on the part of individuals within these groups. Without transforming the unequal relations of gender power that exist in virtually every society, women around the world will continue to be preferential targets of HIV infection and will be unable to negotiate and guarantee their own safety. Without redressing the social and economic injustice that exists both within nations as well as between the developed and developing world, the poor (both in the North and in the South) will continue to suffer the major impact of an epidemic that has already become all-too-intimately linked to poverty and misery, (pp. 10—11)

Parker concludes by referring to the present time as a ‘window of opportunity’ (p. 12). However, he believes that a solution can be found only by our moving away from concentrating on our self-interest as individuals to a commitment to solidarity based on concern for the common good. As Richard Rorty puts it: ‘moral progress can perhaps be found only in our growing capacity to overcome the oppositions that exist between our notions of “us” and “them”‘ (quoted in Parker, 1996, p. 14). Parker adds: ‘It is in this expanding notion of “us” that the essence of human solidarity … can be found: by assuming the pain and suffering of others as our own, we are moved to take responsibility for the collective struggle to change it’ (p. 14).

Many individuals living with HIV/AIDS experience a conversion to living more fully and with more commitment to what life is all about. Our human family is now living with HIV/AIDS. Will that experience turn out to be a conversion experience for us? I would interpret Parker as saying that it has all the potentiality for being a global conversion experience if we are prepared to be open to the critical awareness it is awakening in so many people and if we are also prepared to be enriched by being part of the global coalition for social change indicated by this critical awareness. In the Introduction to her book AIDS in the UK: The Making of Policy, 1981-1994 (Oxford University Press, 1996), Virginia Berridge explores various ways of understanding ‘history’ when looking at such a recent human phenomenon as AIDS. Though he is not a theologian, I would interpret Barker’s interest in history as being more theological, using ‘theological’ in the same sense as I did earlier with regard to ‘time’. For Parker, how we today respond to the challenge of HIV/AIDS ‘will write the history of the epidemic in years to come’ (p. 15). Theologically, I would suggest, our world is faced with a redemptive moment. If that is not a challenge to Christians and Christian Churches, what is?