Christianity and HIV
As an outsider who shares many values with sincere and faithful Christians, I am
troubled with the apparent lack of effectiveness of their most common approaches to
the current HIV crisis. The Christian ultimate objective of saving souls is not universally
shared, and arguments from that perspective will not be persuasive to a general
audience. However, even if we were all to agree to that goal, the current Christian
approaches are allowing far to many bodies and souls to be taken by HIV.
The approaches which Christians are taking toward this issue publicly viz., to outsiders
as well as co-religionists will herein be considered. The essence of the most typical
arguments will be explored. The impact of same will be analyzed, critically. Alternatives
will then be proposed. When pronouncements are made through the media and the
popular press by Christians as Christians, the impact upon perception of the faithful is
at least as great as upon the issue in question itself.
It is possible to have an ethical position promulgated which has the potential of mass
appeal without compromising any fundamental principles. Any pronouncements on an
issue as critical as HIV must take into consideration the current cultural climate.
Wanting of that, the risk of merely offending and the opportunity to reach a recalcitrant
mind to a moral perspective is lost as is the opportunity to save a lost soul.
It is also true that, a value-neutral approach is also ultimately doomed to fail. Doors
may be opened with a non-judgmental approach, but the root causes are not
addressed. Popular opinion notwithstanding, HIV is a consequence of moral decisions.
Yet, there is significant cadre of Christians who loathe to even suggest a moral cause
Clearly the most favored approach is what I will call the compassionate
non-judgmental method. This is also most typically used by secular treatment facilities
and is looked upon approvingly by the mavens of the popular culture. A typical example
can be found in article generated by the AIDS National Interfaith Network. In it they
proclaim that the enormity of the pandemic itself has compelled us to join forces
despite our differences of belief. (ANIN 1)
Further, we are told that AIDS is an affliction of the whole human family, a condition in
which we all participate. (ibid) The assertion is then made that God does not punish
with sickness or disease. (ibid) Now, if we agree that the Almighty is infinite and we, as
individuals are finite, how can anyone make such a definitive assertion of the intent and
method of Deity? This fallacy will be explored later; it is abused by advocates of several
The authors lay out their objectives: an emphasis on prevention for those not yet
infected and non-judgmental care, respect, support and assistance for those who are.
They are committed to transform public attitudes and policies. (ibid 2) These
attitudes which are to be transformed are the sins of intolerance and bigotry. We are
admonished to remember that AIDS is not a gay disease. (ibid) The policies
government? which need such transformation are alluded to in the assertion that
economic disparity and poverty are major contributing factors in the AIDS pandemic
and barriers to prevention and treatment. (ibid)
Not included in this advocacy for prevention and education is any assessment in
how the behaviors which transmit the disease may be major contributing factors.
Nowhere in this missive is the suggestion that any effective education might need to
include what those who are infected may have in common and what could be learned
We are instead expected to take the leap that intolerance and bigotry and economic
disparity should be the focus of our efforts in the struggle against AIDS. Are we to
suppose that even they actually believe this to be true? Do they really mean to imply
that the original outbreak of HIV/AIDS and/or its continuation was caused by people
who consider the behaviors which transmit the disease to be morally abhorrent?
Also, there are places where HIV/AIDS are virtually unknown which have an essentially
medieval socio-economic structure viz. a great deal of economic disparity and
poverty. The social mores in these traditional societies are as equally backward in
comparison to ours as are their economic situations. How are we to assess that?
Claudia L. Webster, a Board of Directors member of the United Methodist General
Board of Global Ministries advocates what I would characterize as the practical
approach. Church leaders are encouraged to facilitate discussion and education
targeted toward adults, teens and children. Personal stories should be shared about
how HIV/AIDS has affected families… to bring home the reality of HIV/AIDS.
Sensitive issues should be, addressed italics mine such as, abstinence and
monogamy as well as safer italics mine sex practices including using a condom. (ibid)
Also to be addressed is needle sharing by intravenous drug users and, caring for all
types of people. (ibid) Ms. Webster does allow that, it is not who you are, but what
risk behaviors you engage in (ibid) which risk infection. She offers that this aspect of
her recommended education program would be challenging… to put it mildly. (ibid)
The author considers that a church setting would be a very meaningful place for
teens and children to learn about HIV/AIDS. (ibid 3) In addition to medical facts
children could be engaged in discussion of church teachings regarding caring for
persons who are ill and for families in need. (ibid) She goes on to admonish her
co-religionists to avoid discrimination against HIV-positive volunteers and employees
(ibid 5) Infection control procedures are listed if a situation arises to necessitate the
handling of bodily fluids such as First Aid situations. (ibid 6)
Advice on compassionate counseling is offered for the families of the dead and dying.
Practical matters such as day care for those who are incapacitated by the illness are
outlined. Of course, no compassionate treatment on this subject would be complete
without the recommendation to advocate on behalf of increased government
involvement in the above-described recommendations. (ibid 9)
At least Ms. Webster recognizes the necessity of addressing such sensitive issues as
monogamy and abstinence but note how she phrases these as if they were morally
equivalent to using condoms and not sharing needles! Unlike ANIN, she is willing to
discuss the relationship between the behavior and disease, but the half-sentence
devoted to not engaging in the behaviors at all is dwarfed by the eleven pages devoted
to living with the behavior and its consequences.
A perspective which acknowledges accountability is what I would call the revelation
and repentance approach. Johnny Chatham is a person who, as a young man,
embraced the homosexual lifestyle. He became alienated from his parents and sought
to justify his behavior and demonize his parents reaction to himself. After he tested
positive for HIV, he went through the typical periods of denial and resignation which,
ironically included a party phase. (Chatham 1-4)
His parents were practicing Christians and, after much struggle, convinced him to come
back home with them. They insisted that he go to church and attend other Christian
events and services with them. Upon reflection, he noted that when spiritual guidance
and/or intervention was needed, it came. His father upset him greatly upon suggesting
that he might not be saved. He told me that great men and women of the Bible have
sinned, but that they didnt continue to live in sin as I had. (ibid 4-5)
He was reminded of how, when David was confronted with the sins he had committed
with Bathsheba, he repented. Johnny opened his Bible to Psal. 51 and found that a
broken spirit is what God wanted. He took from that he would have to give up
everything he had previously had built his life upon, the homosexuality, the parties,
everything! (ibid 5) He came to the insight that his former life had become my god,
Mr. Chatham apparently succumbed to the disease it is not said exactly when, but not
before he was re-united with his family and embraced the spiritual aspect which joined
him to a greater family. He considered himself subject to divine intervention the entire
time and assessed his life and impending death as ultimately leading to victory.
His early adult life was defined by living the isolated, myopic lifestyle which revolves
around sexual pleasure as the beginning and end of existence. Faced with an early
death which was precipitated by that lifestyle, he found himself forced to take a look at
the meaning of his life from a larger perspective. Eventually, he came to realize that
what people did, even as consenting adults, had consequences outside himself.
Further, he was not alone, he never was; he, like each one of us is bound by willful,
A spiritual experience such as this is by its nature personal. It cannot be adequately
explained to someone who has no similar point of reference. Unless one knows
firsthand what it is to experience divine contact… well, a clinical explanation of a voice
or image or feeling of power which cannot be summoned to be observed in a laboratory
Beautiful and moving as a testimonial of this kind is, the effect would be limited. There
may be those who are wavering in their conviction that there is nothing more to life than
what appears. Im sure the story was told partly to reach those people before it is too
late; before they would have to learn what Mr. Chatham did the hard way.
There are organizations such as the Family Research Council, which, according to its
official website exists to promote the traditional family unit and the Judeo-Christian
value system upon which it is built. There is a real or perceived suspicion by a
significant segment of general public that the media cannot be trusted to provide
unbiased coverage of current affairs. This perception is expressed in the hunger for
and the success of organizations such as the FRC and media commentary by
individuals who seek to counterbalance the bias of the cultural elite as well as that of
official pronouncements of government agencies.
Most of these alternative information sources are not speaking officially for any church,
but most are unabashed about their religious convictions. They are thus held as
examples of the conservative Judeo-Christian perspective. They are engaging the
secular humanist world head-on, in the public arena.
An illustration of how this happens is the controversy over the effectiveness of
condoms in HIV/AIDS transmission. The Center for Disease Control has found it
necessary to address this issue repeatedly. One recent example was contained in an
article proclaiming with the full faith and credit of the U.S. government that the correct
and consistent use of latex condoms during sexual intercourse…can greatly reduce a
persons risk of acquiring or transmitting STDs sexually transmitted diseases,
including HIV. Furthermore, they are highly effective in protecting against HIV
Our servants in Washington go on to cite several studies which should prove this to us
all. As long as the subjects used condoms consistently, the infected person did not
transmit the disease to the uninfected sexual partner. (ibid 1-2) Several common
doubts and concerns about the effectiveness of latex protection are labeled myths
and are debunked, one by one. Condoms dont work, they break, the retrovirus can
Failure is caused by inconsistent and/or incorrect use. Tests show the breakage rate to
be less than 2 percent. (ibid) Is 2% good enough to bet your life on? Whether or not
the pores in latex are larger than HIV is not directly addressed, but studies are cited
showing that intact latex condoms provide a highly effective barrier to sperm and
micro-organisms, including HIV and the much smaller hepatitis B virus. (ibid 3)
U.S. representative Tom Coburn, (R) OK. is quoted as saying that the media and the
CDC have not printed warnings about the high communicability of some STDs because
the idea that truly safe sex is just a myth is unpopular. (Wyatt) The above-mentioned
FRC asserts that condoms are useless against HPV the virus which leads to genital
warts and cervical cancer. Abstinence is recommended as a better solution. (ibid)
Planned Parenthood president Gloria Feldt is quoted responding that abstinence is
the only 100 percent safe method to prevent STDs and unwanted pregnancy. (ibid)
However, she felt compelled to add that the abstinence-only sex education message…
is not in the best interest of adolescents or adults. (ibid) Ms. Feldt went on to chide the
FRC for promoting ignorance and clamed FRC supporters want to impose their own
personal religious and moral agenda on all people. (ibid)
Further examination of the medical studies gives a hint as to who is promoting
ignorance and who wants to impose their own… agenda upon whom. Stanley
Monteith, M.D. is a columnist and radio talk show host with a medical background. He
questions the science and the moral implications of the pronouncements of the CDC.
The study which the CDC refers to is not cited completely. Viral-sized particles do pass
through the latex. The amount is decreased significantly, but when dealing with one of
the deadliest diseases known to mankind, the presence of any infectious viral-sized
particles penetrating an intact condom is unacceptable. (Monteith 1-2)
Another clinical source cited by the CDC stated that condoms may reduce the risk of
HIV infection by approximately 69%. (ibid 2) The author goes on to state that a 31%
failure rate is hardly highly effective. (ibid 2-3) Further studies used by the CDC to
bolster their claims of protection are analyzed by the good doctor who concludes that,
although condoms obviously offer a measure of protection to the uninfected, a 1% a
year failure rate as indicated in an African study of heterosexuals is unacceptable
when dealing with a disease that is 95-100% fatal. (ibid 3)
Interestingly, Dr. Monteith concludes on a moral/social note: condom instruction and…
distribution purport the notion that sexual experimentation and sexual activity before
marriage are socially acceptable. He is explicit in stating that condoms are not an
acceptable safe alternative to abstinence in the age of AIDS. (ibid 5) He then
explains in quantified clinical detail why this is so.
It goes on and on like this. The amount of data which is apparently deliberately
misinterpreted and distorted by the CDC is too vast and would be too great a
digression for the purposes of this paper. What this shows is that science can
sometimes take a very long and painstaking approach to prove a point that any sincere
follower of a life and love centered-religion already knows.
Unfortunately, as we have seen, it is necessary for even those who study the ethics of
a particular religion to delve deeply into the intricacies of other fields in order to get a
clear picture. Those who have an agenda which is antithetical to the goals of spirituality
and objective truth will stop at nothing. They will ignore truth; they will perpetrate
What can Christians do in the face of this? Science must not be abandoned to the
secular humanists. Their perspective is no more rational nor based upon reason than
those who embrace religion. I would contend that the humanist perspective is less
rational; they deny objective truth in favor of moral relativism, wherein each one of us
carries with our own rules, our own truth, our own reality. The clinical definition of that
Is AIDS or any other human suffering Gods punishment? The Almighty by definition is
infinite. We, as individuals are finite. Who are we to say what is the ultimate will of the
infinite? I will say as a prospective clergy student that anyone who presumes to make
pronouncements as to the will of the Almighty, whosoever dares to appoint themselves
to be the voice of God is committing blasphemy.
The simple fact is that if it were not for the widespread intimate sexual contact with
multiple partners, there would be not HIV/AIDS pandemic. This cannot be denied. U.S.
Rep. Coburn had said STDs are a symptom of the illness that truly plagues us. Many
people dont have the integrity and courage to say that there are consequences to
Perhaps we can, as finite beings, infer that occurrences such as HIV/AIDS are
examples of divine punishment. Perhaps it is another test to determine our worthiness.
I prefer the assessment of one of the Christians who rescued Jews from Nazi-occupied
France: we apparently needed a lesson. We suffer because we have failed to
understand a fundamental principle which governs human existence. We will continue
to suffer until we learn it, or perish because we failed to learn it in time.
AIDS National Interfaith Network ANIN, The Council Call A Commitment on
HIV/AIDS by People of Faith. from The African American Clergys Declaration
of WAr on HIV/AIDS The Balm in Gilead Inc. 1994: 1-3.
Webster, Claudia L., Focus Paper #13 – AIDS Ministries and The United Methodist
Church. HIV/AIDS Ministries Network 17 Feb. 1989: 1-11.
Chatham, Johnny, Gods Grace is Sufficient. Oklahoma City: First Stone Ministries
Oct. 1993: 1-6.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention CDC, Facts About Condoms and Their
Use in Preventing HIV Infection and Other STDs U.S. Department of Health and
Human Services, Public Health Service, Washington, D.C.: Aug 1996.
Wyatt, Rebecca, Activists attack safe sex as myth. The Washington Times 23 Sept.
1999, final ed. p. A8.
Monteith, M.D., Stanley, Myth #9: Latex Condoms are Highly Effective in Preventing
the Spread of AIDS when Used Consistently and Correctly. A Nation Deceived
and Betrayed: AIDS Update, 13 Jul. 1998: 1-7.
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