Advent, Apocalypse and AIDS

Guest blog for World AIDS Day (Thursday 1 December) by Richard Carson - CEO of ACET - AIDS Care, Education and Training.

2016 has been an apocalyptic year. Apocalypse means uncovering - revealing what was always there.

The first Sunday in Advent has just passed and the liturgy focussed on apocalyptic texts. The cosiness of the Mother and Child can wait a few more weeks.  If Advent is about Hope then our journey to Bethlehem must begin by grounding our Hope appropriately as we live in a world where there is much to be uncovered. 

At times like this the temptation to grasp at hope can be almost overwhelming. We may not need to hear  “I will give you all the kingdoms if you bow down and worship me.” For those of us involved in social justice and the things of God’s Kingdom that one piece of legislation, that one election result, that one funding grant that will change things for the better seems so near - almost within our grasp.

Yet the Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber recently reminded us that "It is dangerous to say that our hopes are not something in our grasp, that there is a future created not by ourselves, or our progressive beliefs or our institutions, but by God. It goes against every Western individualistic message we have ever received.”

The AIDS pandemic is at a fascinating point. Out are the global maps with figures of new infections and deaths by continent. In are the points of vulnerability in the life cycle that are preventing the ending of AIDS forever. Young women in their teens and early twenties are particularly vulnerable to violence while middle-aged men are most resistant to receiving a HIV test. Key populations such as injecting drug users, sex workers and men who have sex with men show increased incidence around the world. Eliminating mother to child transmission is entirely possible yet significant gaps remain in many countries. The medication is increasing longevity for those living with HIV to near normal levels yet, as for all of the world, the full scale of ageing with HIV and caring for the elderly is yet to be realised. 

The end of the pandemic is in sight but the resilience of HIV is powerful. An extraordinary effort is required to take seriously the challenges of gender inequality, cultural resistances to HIV testing, mobilisation of medicines, state enforcement of homophobia and more. Ireland is no exception and 2016 is likely to show the highest number of new HIV diagnoses on record with over 1 in 4 of those living with HIV unaware as they have yet to test.

The longer I work in this area the more I find that the answers to these challenges are found in the least likely places. Just as with climate change, where indigenous populations are far more in touch with what is taking place than the rest of us, solutions come from the margins. But to hear the voice of the sex worker, the migrant, the gay man and others we must crush the platforms that those in places of privilege construct. The supper table in Emmaus must become a clearer symbol of justice than the well-retweeted campaign. 

To declare hope in God rather than in ourselves does not mean passivity or inaction. Quite the opposite! There are few things more radical than Christological non-violent resistance, than treating the excluded as an equal, than Sabbath rest. In fact it’s exhausting. But the yoke is easy and the burden is light. There is joy set before us and joy is the protest that bursts from the margins. “You have given me hope” is a phrase we often encounter in our projects as the simple but profound act of making room for one another while living in the shelter of one another reveals a hidden beauty that was always there.  The apocalypse may unveil a disturbing darkness but a light shines and the darkness will not overcome it.