Last Thursday, December 1, is World AIDS day, commemorating thirty years since the virus was first identified. In the last thirty years, thirty million people have died of AIDS. Thirty. Million. There was not much cause for hope in the early days of AIDS.
Thirty years ago, our government did not want to know about it. Polite citizens did not talk about it. It was expected that those who had the disease would best disappear and die silently. So many did. So many lives taken unnecessarily, by apathy, by hatred, by willful blindness. Now, though, there is much, much cause for hope. Last spring, at my parish's observation of Lazarus Sunday with the One Campaign, we learned about how the "Lazarus effect"-- the return to life --that is possible when people receive appropriate care. Anti-retroviral drugs are truly bringing people back to life. In preparing for my sermon then, I learned about some of the stories of those whose lives have been changed.
Princess Zulu Kasune is a modern day Lazarus. Fourteen years ago, she was given just six months to live. From a small town in Zambia, her doctor believed it was over for her. Her parents had already died from the illness, then undiagnosed and mysterious. She was, at the time, responsible for raising her siblings as well as her own family and two young children. Through global health relief, she was given the anti-retroviral drugs that make her illness treatable and keep her alive. The young woman who was given a death sentence at age 20 has now been to the White House to tell her story.
She says, "Jesus resurrected Lazarus from the dead, Jesus set us a model we have to imitate. He asks us to explore whether there is anything that can be restored, can we help deliver hope, hope for the children, the grandparents, he asks us to restore community. He asks us to be compassionate - to come alongside, to mourn and to sympathize, just as he did."
Kasune asks, do we have the right to judge which life is worth saving?
It sounds, of course, obvious. Of course, we don't have the right to ask that question.
How could we? How could we place ourselves in the role of God, giving life or taking it away?
The fact is, we are in that place. Making policy about AIDS testing being free and available, in fact, gives life. Blocking diagnosis takes it away. Advocating for drugs being available to those who need it-that gives life. Apathy takes it away. Policies that partner with rather than stigmatize at-risk groups of people--that gives life. Judgment takes life away. Silence here, as it was in the eighties when AIDS was first discovered, is deadly.
Our actions matter.
More than 5 million have begun to receive anti-retroviral drugs since 2002. That's 5 million people brought back from the brink of death. There is still a lot to do. There is still a lot wrong with global AIDS initiatives. But, there is a lot of success staring us in the face, as well. Success like Lazarus, walking out of that tomb.
Jesus wept when Lazarus died. He calls us to weep, too, at the graves of our friends and at the graves of all who die just because they live in the wrong place at the wrong time. To weep, but also to keep walking down the road toward the places of death and suffering and pain, to see how our hands can heal the hurt, and how our voices can speak for the suffering.
For more on Princess Zulu Kasune.