Every year around December 1, the UWG community commemorates World AIDS Day. This day and the epidemic it underlines certainly deserve attention.
Worldwide, about 30 million people have died from AIDS, and still today about 34 million people are living with HIV infection or AIDS. In the United States to date, 1.2 million people have been diagnosed with HIV infection, and another 1.2 million, with full-blown AIDS. These numbers are not mere abstractions; they lie close to home. Following Florida and Louisiana, Georgia has the third highest rate of infection in the nation. Today this disease is almost completely a sexually transmitted infection.
This crisis is serious. Its proportion is unexaggeratedly global. Should we say, then, that HIV/AIDS is the most serious issue facing our world today?
Such a judgment would be hard to make. Our burgeoning global society faces other challenges arguably more serious. Politically, our nation’s system is so polarized that we cannot even address our problems. Ecologically, the entire planet is under threat. Economically, the Great Recession still remains strong enough to bring down the whole world order. And religiously, competing creeds and cultural hoards merely contribute to divisiveness.
We have plenty of serious issues to vie for our attention, and serious is a kind word: These matters are now critical. In comparison to them, HIV/AIDS might well deserve to be, surely, not forgotten, but, at least, put on a back burner.
To attempt to rank the seriousness of problems of this kind is to play the fool. Each is rightly frightening in its own way; each, impossibly, deserves our full attention; each is capable of undermining our civilization, and all are entangled with one another. What is more, the shared seriousness of them all suggests a commonality in their causes. I suggest that they all grow from a common root.
Perhaps the consecrated soul of a Roman Catholic priest that still animates me is what leads me to speak so broadly, so abstractly, as preachers tend to do, professing to have simple answers to every difficult question. In religious terms, then, to identify the problem, I would put my finger directly on sin.
But in the twenty-first century in an increasingly unreligious culture and on a secular university campus, one need not be religious to recognize the importance of openness, honesty, and goodwill for the harmonious functioning of society; and to make an academic point, the “lack of openness, honesty, and goodwill” is the secular translation of that now quaint word sin. One need be only an open-minded, honest, and goodwilled person to recognize that the lack of these very characteristics explains the massive world problems we face today at every level.
The religious contenders, for example, rest on an ungodly smugness. The threatening economic collapse stems directly from human greed and blind stupidity, deliberate oversight of regulatory mechanisms known for decades to be necessary in a modern economy. The now almost inevitable collapse of the earth’s ecology depends, again, on short-sighted choices for profit and personal comfort. Finally, the politicians’ sell-out to special-interest groups precludes openness to the multifaceted picture, honesty about the facts, or good-willed negotiations.
In all these cases, rather than do what would be safe, sane, and secure for the common good and what would offer promising prospects for a stable and long-term future, people are prone to ignore the evidence, skew their conclusions, and make choices rather selfishly and shortsightedly.
These very same issues are at the heart of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The seriousness of the problem is the same because the root of the problem is the same. Religious, economic, ecological, political, and sexual problems are but different expressions of the same liability that so easily corrupts humanity.
If you accept my argument, however, there is reason for hope. First, there is hope because the matter of HIV infection is so close to each one of us. Each of us has near full control over the spread of HIV in our own case and in our communities. Regarding those systemic issues, what can we do alone? But alone we can stop HIV, at least here and now.
Second, there is hope because our personal practice of openness, honesty, and goodwill in the case of HIV/AIDS can spill over into other areas of our lives, can foster a shared attitude that might come to characterize a whole community, and can spread to transform local, regional, national, and even global mindsets. From our own goodwill, exercised and strengthened in that most personal arena of sexual intimacy, a wave of concerned and responsible living can wash through the whole of society.
I speak in lofty and abstract terms, but what I mean lies in the heart of each one of us. We all dream of a fulfilling life. We all want to be loved. We all want someone to love. We all ache over inevitable losses. We all stand in need of forgiveness. We all fear suffocating loneliness. We all marvel at beautiful people and at times stand in awe of our world. We all reach out and want to touch, to hold, and to embrace. We all admire virtue, bravery, honesty, generosity, kindness, achievement, and we all wish them for ourselves and our loved ones.
These human experiences are the makings of every human heart. They are rooted in our bodies, and they stretch out to the stars. Our deepest longings are mixtures of the basest physical and the noblest spiritual elements of our mysterious existence. The very thrust of our being is out-going. It would search out, experience, know, and affirm all reality. We all want to move out along a trajectory of growth and become one with the infinite universe.
No doubt, this dynamism within us is ultimately spiritual. But what grounds it is our bodies, our animal natures. So to reach our heights, we need also to attend to our depths. We need to reverence our bodies if we would know the ecstasies of our souls. Our sexual practices must be caring, genuine, strong, playful, honest, and loving. Only so are they worthy of ourselves and worthy of our partners.
If we are sexually active, condoms and other protection must be a natural part of our love-making. In contrast to the rough and tumble shared nakedness of other eras, the sophistication of our postmodern world offers us breath mints, scented candles, exotic lubricants, romantic music, erotic DVDs, and other contemporary accoutrements of sex.
Why would we think that this postmodern complexity should not stretch down even to our sex acts themselves? Why object to condoms? The “latexification” of our sex is only an extension of the exuberance of our technologically creative world. Recent scientific advances make possible the sexual freedom we claim today, so this freedom includes the free and informed choice to be safe.
If we are sexually active, we need to be tested for HIV. We cannot afford to go on in unknowing. Not only will the test allow us, if infected, to begin immediate and life-saving treatment for ourselves, but our knowing and treatment will lessen the chances of our passing the virus along to others.
Awareness, honesty, good will—these are the characteristics of mature, responsible, genuinely human sex, especially in this age of HIV/AIDS. These are also the characteristics of all life-giving human endeavors—religious, ecological, economic, political, or whatever. These characteristics guarantee stability and advance in our global society. The lack of these characteristics is the root of all flaws, the primordial evil, that seeps in to corrupt and taint all human aspiration.
At its heart, the crisis of HIV/AIDS could be called the most serious of the issues we face today—because on its surface, it is a pulsing symbol of all the rest that we face. HIV/AIDS could stand as an icon for the challenges of the postmodern world.
Each year we light a tree on Front Campus Drive to commemorate World AIDS Day. Each year we light one more red globe on that tree as the epidemic wears on. The increasing number of decorations and the weight of their somber red convey a heavy message, a sad depiction. But this lighted tree also carries our message of hope—the hope of our open-mindedness, honesty, and goodwill.
Some passersby think this tree stands here as a decoration for the Winter Holidays. Yet, insofar as holiday lights are also beacons of hope in the darkness of winter, these passersby are not mistaken—and what difference, as long as the underlying message comes through?
Light in darkness, hope blazes forth. Its roots are in us—because we are here, we stand together, we are concerned, we have understood, we face the facts, and we are determined to make real in our lives what that tree represents.