I was ten when AIDS was first clinically observed. I remember that early attitudes to this, among the media and general population were revulsion and fear. There was a lot of ignorance. People worried that AIDS might be easy to catch. Even as a young man, as I became more aware of AIDs and how it was transmitted, I remember thinking that the human race were fortunate that this was not a more readily transmitted illness like, say flu.
There was a lot of angst about the idea of a new illness. Our confidence in medical technology was shaken. If an infectious agent could suddenly emerge like this, what was to stop another new illness from wiping out millions or even billions of humans. People with AIDs in the early days were seen as a bit like lepers, and were shunned. Some, and not just evangelicals, blamed the victims for their illness. Many were repulsed in some way. Some did even see AIDs as being God’s specific judgement.
As I think back, it is encouraging to me, that even very early on there was also a strong alternative voice. Jesus was not afraid of the lepers. He did not worry that they would “contaminate” him. He reached out, touched them, and healed them.
If we are to be like Jesus, then evangelicals quickly began to realize that they should be at the forefront of AIDs care. Dr Patrick Dixon was a leading Evangelical figure in the UK Church’s response. As a doctor in the late 1980s he met patients who had been refused care in hospices, or even at home because of fear and stigma. His evangelical conviction was that ALL people are made in the image of God, and that as a result we have an obligation to show love and care towards them. He established ACET to plug the gap in care that he witnessed. This was welcomed by the vast majority of UK Evangelicals as an appropriate response from those who love God towards those who were made in his image and had been infected by this cruel disease. Quickly these efforts spread to other countries.
Over time the stigma and fear of AIDs began to abate in the West. Evangelicals quickly began to see this as just another disease in a fallen world. Today for many in the West AIDs seems to have almost passed from consciousness. The existence of treatments that can hold HIV at bay means that it is no longer causing significant numbers of deaths. But in less wealthy countries, AIDs remains an epidemic. Organizations like ACET and the AIDs and HIV initiative founded by Rick and Kay Warren continue to do great work to try and counter the devastation this illness is still causing.
There is a growing perception among many in the wider population that Evangelicals hate gays. This is of course not true, and the ongoing Evangelical effort to work towards a day when this disease will be just a memory is one proof of this fact (although of course AIDS is far from being a homosexual-only problem). When Rick Warren was interviewed by Piers Morgan, Morgan’s criticism of Warren’s views was tempered by his acknowledgement that he had done a lot to help AIDs victims.
Christians do have varying views on human sexuality. But our love for our fellow man and willingness to reach out in compassion towards them should be what we are known for.
This post forms part of the Patheos Evangelical forum on this subject.