Rights or righteousness? Seeking common ground on sexual-identity issues in church and society

Published: November 22, 2011

(Editor’s note: To the casual observer, Evangelical Christians, the Vatican, African Anglicans and Muslims in half the planet are united in a hard line approach to “deviant” behavior (men who have sex with men MSM, intravenous drug use and commercial sex work) that may lead to higher risk for HIV infection. The institutional response has been to criminalize these populations while ignoring the advice of public health experts. Holy texts are invoked in Uganda, Malawi and Nigeria to support state-sanctioned violence against minority populations who are three times more likely to get AIDS in developing countries than their neighbors. Lack of access to information and services because of these laws is the problem, and not only their actual behaviors. LGBT advocates and legalists on the other hand appear to be influencing political leaders like David Cameron to cut foreign aid to countries that persecute homosexuals and other at risk populations using the secular holy texts of “human rights.” Both sides believe righteousness to be on their side. Meanwhile for every two people who are lucky enough to have access to medication, five human beings have been newly infected. How can we move beyond the apparent polarization and build upon common ground?

Recently returning to his native Ireland after a two-day conference in Geneva, Switzerland on HIV, theology and human rights, the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of San Diego reflects on the unique contribution Irish Christians could bring to the standoff. He describes it as an “identity conflict” where human needs and values must trump ideologies. After thirty years of violent sectarian conflict (where religious and political identities are both part problem and part solution) there may be an opportunity to present “best practices” not only to Irish discussions about homosexuality but a framework for some difficult conversations and policy changes over sexual identities and the place of sex workers and IV drug users in the AIDS pandemic.)

GENEVA, Switzerland — The two-day conference was organized by the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, a broad-based largely Christian coalition based in Geneva with support from a variety of UN bodies and NORAID, a Norwegian aid organization working on global AIDS issues.

For 30 of us, it was an opportunity for secular and religious leadership to review the UNAIDS High Level meeting where the Global AIDS Declaration was crafted by world governments this summer. Although the religious community plays a vital role in the creation of preventive and response strategies to the 30-year epidemic, there are some hurdles we have to still to jump if we are to meet the new challenges of the worst health threat yet known to humanity.

Almost 40% of HIV services are delivered through faith-based programs in Africa and all of the UK and Irish religious aid organizations all have multimillion-dollar programs caring for AIDS orphans, the infected and the dying. The religious community is united in its response to many aspects of the crisis – governments in developed countries should not step back from providing funding to “get to zero” new infections, zero discrimination and zero mother-to-child HIV transmission. (“Getting to Zero” has become the theme for global AIDS work in the next five years).

We could, if we wanted, provide inexpensive medication to prevent any child from being born with HIV through vertical transmission from mother to child at birth, but the moral issue has become- “who is going to pay for the cost it takes to save a life?” The religious community is united in its call to governments to “do no harm” to significant “at risk” communities, but we have yet to define what that might look like when we consider 76 countries still criminalize sex between men (MSM) intravenous drug users and commercial sex workers.

The recent UN High Level meeting on HIV (June 2011) demonstrated the urgency of addressing the moral and political problems associated with sovereign government’s role in protecting all their citizens and allowing for equal access to education and treatment. However, some governments are further criminalizing homosexuality in places like Malawi, Nigeria and Uganda. The dilemma is further complicated when religious communities in all 76 countries are playing a significant role in not only maintaining 19th century colonial punitive laws, but in some places, making them even more stringent.

Appealing to a universally agreed “Human Rights” framework by local and international activists or governments can bring pressure on other governments for legislative reform, but this strategy is proving to have significant limitations. At the Geneva conference, it was noted, for every two people who gain access to treatment, they are replaced with five new people with HIV. We are losing the battle.

The theological battle which in turn influences politicians (always looking for electoral support) may now become an issue hindering sound scientific public health policy. For example, gender inequality, often reinforced by traditional Christian and Muslim family values results in women continuing to be at higher risk for HIV than men. Domestic violence and religious taboo against divorce and condom use all contribute to an escalating pandemic.

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