Bangkok AIDS Conference


Global AIDS and Theology of a Few

2004-08-08 / Knight Ridder / By Donald E. Messer     Taiwan News

When the son of a former U.S. president, Ron Reagan, contended at the Democratic Convention in Boston that "the theology of a few is harming the health of the many," he could have been speaking about global AIDS rather than stem-cell research.

At the recent 15th International AIDS Congress in Bangkok, Thailand, it was evident that theological taboos have contributed to the escalating HIV/AIDS crisis. At a time when more than 40 million worldwide are infected, with nearly 50 percent women, the religious roots of this disease must be examined to determine how the theological thinking of some have caused widespread harm to many.

These theological taboos include not talking openly about sex, thus preventing people from understanding how to prevent the disease. Second, moralistic judgments toward infected people and their families have added to society's stigmatization. And, third, religious prejudice toward sex workers, injecting drug users, gay men and others have contributed to discrimination.

Religion triumphs over science

"The theology of a few" has unfortunately long influenced many religious responses to the world's worst health crisis in 700 years. Patriarchal religious assumptions have made women vulnerable. Endless controversies over the value and efficacy of condoms have helped deny people the least expensive weapon of mass protection available.

Religious ideology too often has triumphed over science, as people have been given false promises of miraculous healing, in a time when no cures or vaccines exist. Fearful of funding abortions and alienating religious conservatives in America, the Bush administration repeatedly was accused in Bangkok of eliminating networks of crucial health-care centers for women.

Some religious communities have done pioneering work, but often their service has been obscured by the publicity given to others' theology, claiming "AIDS is the punishment of God."

This has prompted people to embrace a theology of condemnation rather than compassion, indifference rather than involvement. Instead of offering a theology of hope and health, faith-based groups sometimes have become missionaries of death, not life.

Twenty-plus years into the pandemic, faith-based groups belatedly emerged at the Bangkok conference demonstrating their willingness to participate in positive partnership with others engaged in efforts at education, prevention, care and treatment.

Vision of hope

Never before had people of faith from the world's major religions met together to face the world escalation of the AIDS pandemic. When Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus gathered for the first time in Bangkok, Peter Piot, a physician and UNAIDS executive director, sketched a vision of his hopes.

Piot declared, "I hope for a day when every church engages in an open dialogue on issues of sexuality and gender difference. I hope for a day when every synagogue will mobilize as advocates for a global response to find AIDS, when every temple will fully welcome people living with HIV, where every mosque is a place where people will learn about the facts of HIV and AIDS."

"When that will have happened," concluded Piot, "I am convinced that nothing will stop our success in our fight against AIDS." Piot's audience, however, knew that this day has not dawned, primarily because a theology of a few continues to dominate the leadership of many faith communities, and clog the wellspring of loving compassion of grass-roots laity and religious leaders.

Faith-based groups -- be they Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist or Hindu -- share common core values of compassion, love and human dignity. Embedded in all the great religions is sacred text equivalent to the Torah's promise that "when you save the life of one person, you save the world."

Just as attitudinal and behavioral change are essential steps in AIDS prevention, it is imperative that faith-based groups change certain beliefs and behavior so they can provide a message of hope, services of loving care and a theology of life. In the words of a Muslim leader in Bangkok, "Combating global HIV/AIDS is our common calling in this millennium. We must all join hands ... sharing mercy and compassion."

Donald E. Messer is a professor at Iliff School of Theology.

Bioethics and AIDS in Thailand: A Buddhist Perspective
pp.299-301 in Song, SY, Koo, YM & Macer, DRJ. eds. Bioethics in Asia in the 21st Century  (Eubios Ethics Institute, 2003)   website

The bioethical problems raised by HIV/AIDS are complex with no definite conclusion that convinces everybody. Yet practical decision-making is urgently needed. In the paper I will discuss firstly some of the major bioethical issues concerning this pandemic and secondly the work of Thai Buddhist monks, who, while these bioethical issues are still being debated, with no conclusive arguments on either side, have found alternative solutions in the Buddhist ethic of compassion and translate it into meaningful action. This translation of the Buddhist ethic into action, which can be undertaken by all people of good will, may be regarded as a practical solution to these bioethical problems, related to HIV/AIDS pandemic.

Such a warm and non-discriminating attitude is a typical expression of the Buddhist compassion with all the monks working with HIV/AIDS sufferers share in common. Although the temples are not hospices in the full sense (i.e. are not staffed with professional health care providers such as doctors, nurses, psychologists, and social workers) the monks' warm attitude and real concern for their welfare make the temple a sanctuary for AIDS sufferers.

The work of these monks is a translation of the Buddhist ethic of compassion into a meaningful action to alleviate the suffering of AIDS victims. This ethical ideal of compassion is the basis of all the most important bio-ethical principles, namely, respect for persons, beneficence, non-maleficence and justice. The bioethical principles of beneficence/non-maleficence are prima-facie duties, which are morally binding. The Buddhist compassion goes beyond duty or beyond the moral rule of beneficence. In their untiring efforts to help AIDS patients the compassionate monks are doing more out of compassion. However, genuine compassion, as demonstrated by the monks, means compassionate services to suffering humanity. When divorced from action ethical ideals such as compassion is nothing.   

read entire article

use back button on browser to return

back to Bangkok AIDS Conference index