In the 1993 Oscar winning movie, “Schindler’s List,” Oskar Schindler is pictured at the end of the movie feeling guilty at not being able to save more Jews from the Nazis. Schindler, a real-life hero, saved thousands but his moment of retrospection left him thinking of the possessions he could have sold to “buy” more Jews for his industry where he protected them until the war was over.
If you knew that it was within your grasp to save more than 7 million lives and prevent 12 million new HIV infections over the next 10 years, how would you respond? Or, a decade from now, what will you say about the current opportunity to save lives? Will you be exclaiming that “We could have saved more!” or bemoaning the fact that we did nothing?
“What will you do?” This ethical and deeply spiritual question is before each of us and before the world, as thousands gather this week for the 19th International AIDS Conference in Washington D.C. The question 10 years from now is the one that will be staring us in the face if we fail to seize the opportunity that is very much within our reach.
We are at a critical moment in the response to HIV and AIDS. Progress has been made but it is not enough and will be lost if political will and financial commitments are reduced. When lives are treated like political chattel, the importance of faith communities is more important than ever to sustain an effective response to HIV.
Bishop Yvette Flunder is right when she declares, “It is our task to heal and to mitigate suffering in a way that is untied to judgment and tied to justice.” Stigma and discrimination are still very real around the world and we will not get to zero new infections and zero HIV-related deaths until we get to zero stigma and discrimination.
Too many people hesitate to seek testing or treatment because of fear. That is why people of faith must continue breaking the silence in every way possible. We must ground ourselves in the value that every child is endowed by their creator with worth and dignity that human judgment cannot set aside.
Faith communities are called to deepen their theological reflection on human rights and dignity, particularly where HIV and AIDS is concerned. The door is open to people of faith to stand with all those who are living with or are vulnerable to HIV.
As much as half of all health care in Africa is offered by faith-based organizations. Faith has a vital role to play in achieving universal access.
The fact is, we all have the chance for heroic action. You may not get a plaque on the wall or have a movie made for you, but, as a person of faith, you can speak out, organize and budget for a plan that is based on real numbers. Faith traditions typically have relationships around the world that can be mobilized, and when working ecumenically and through interfaith relationships, they bring the moral integrity needed to move nations to take action.
Today, voices of faith have better documentation than ever to demonstrate that collaboration and achievable funding patterns can take us to the next level of saving lives. For years, people cited vast numbers and dollar figures that were mostly aspirational and not grounded in science. Today, the Strategic Investment Framework offers a real path to achieve the ultimate goal of getting to zero and ending the HIV epidemic. Faith communities must play a vital role.
As the declaration by the organization, We Can End AIDS states, “New science and decades of research shows we can halt the pandemic. Condoms, sterile syringes, HIV treatment that prevents transmission, stable housing, microbicides, and more— we can protect our communities. And we can end violence and ensure the rights of LGBT people, women, people of color and members of other marginalized communities.”
All of this is doable and within reach, but to achieve it, we must make up the gaps between what we are doing and what we are capable of doing. This is why hundreds of faith leaders gathered to engage this question in a faith pre-conference and they joined the thousands from all sectors of the HIV response descending on the nation’s capital to identify new possibilities for treatment, new effective prevention programs, new mobilization efforts for the critical financial resources required, new collaborations for advocacy, care and support, and engage a renewed solidarity to get it done.
Every generation faces it own moral dilemma. Schindler faced his and saved thousands of lives. We have the opportunity to save millions. What will we do?
The Rev. Michael Schuenemeyer is the United Church of Christ executive for health and wholeness advocacy and executive director of the United Church of Christ HIV & AIDS Network, UCAN Inc. He served on the planning teams for the interfaith pre-conference and other faith events associated with the International AIDS Conference .