Learning to Lament

A reflection for World AIDS DAY by Richard Carson from ACET (AIDS Care Education and Training).

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Randy Shilts’s classic book And the Band Played On charts the early 1980s emergence of the AIDS pandemic, particularly in his home city of San Francisco. As the Reagan administration maintained silence, backed up by the Religious Right, a profound grief engulfed communities across the US and beyond. It was only the beginning of a story that would see us lose over 35 million people before their time. The opening epigraph of Shilts's book is taken from Revelation 6:8, And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death.

A colleague recently reminded me of a service of remembrance about a decade ago in a prominent Dublin church for those who had died from AIDS. One congregant that day was overwhelmed by the reading out of the names of the dead; too many were familiar to maintain composure. He wept uncontrollably. His partner, another gay man, sat beside him. It soon became apparent that the partner while wanting to embrace the weeping man felt he could not do so. The perceived shame that would come from two gay men demonstrating intimate comfort to one another in a church was too powerful. My colleague approached the couple with some words of reassurance and encouragement. With painful irony, a Christian side hug was all that could be mustered.

This may seem like a strange way to open an article on World AIDS Day 2017 as there is much to celebrate at this time. HIV treatments and renewed prevention efforts have meant that an end is in sight. The full clarification this year that those with undetectable levels of HIV in the blood, as demonstrated by over 90% of those adhering to medication, have a virus that is untransmittable to sexual partners ( U=U ) has radically changed how we communicate about transmission risks. Those who are unaware of their HIV status are now the group most worthy of attention.

Yet with all this news our focus in ACET, among voices within the communities we serve and, we believe, in the heart of God (for our foundations must be theological) is on the need to lament. Lament is more than a simple act of remembrance. It is a prophetic declaration against dominant powers. It is the elevation, through grief, of reality above denial. In ancient Israel it was up to the lamenting prophets to name things as they really were. With stark metaphors they opened up their listeners to the social reality in front of them. They were a glorious antidote to the dominant idea of their age, as demonstrated by false prophets who persistently pretended to be impressive. These false prophets remain to this day, clouding reality with false reassurances that everything is ok.

"To claim that whiteness is invisible is to repeat the gestures of hegemony."- Ruth Frankenberg

There is much reality demonstrated in the places our work on HIV has brought us that needs to be lamented and named at this time. Those who have migrated from Sub-Saharan African countries where two-thirds of those living with HIV reside, communities impacted by injecting drug use and gay and bisexual men have all been disproportionately affected. It is in these pre-existing margins that we have been privileged to serve. On the first of these, while there are stunning examples of generosity and welcome across Ireland, the fact remains that we are seeing the establishment of a racial hierarchy applied in organisations and communities with diverse membership but white-only leadership and governance. Workplaces, political settings and even churches (who ironically declare a vision at odds with this hierarchy) are all settings where the assumption of whiteness thrives. Adding the Hollywood-movie-token-black-guy to the team is not the solution. Something got us here and it needs lamenting.

“I am not an issue, I am a person, in Christ, please don’t talk about me without me.” - Gay Christian from West Dublin who probably went to the same retreat centre/church/summer camp as you.

Even with extraordinary social change and increased visibility, LGBTI people remain, for many, an ‘issue’ to be discussed (or not) rather than people to be lived alongside. Faith communities claim a rich heritage with the social depth of one-anothering. Yet too often they seem content to abstract away the lives of their neighbours and fellow local believers through the playing of "Social Media/Christian Book Poker" - a game, pretending to be a debate, where winning means whoever’s story shouts loudest while reinforcing established beliefs wins. No need to share the intimacy of a table and a church pew - I read a book/watched a YouTube video on the ‘issue’. It’s lamentable.

"Charity is the opium of the privileged” - Chinua Achebe

In 2017, ACET has had a greater focus on the North East Inner City of Dublin. Its 250 year-old story can be summed up as Empires of various forms repeatedly and deliberately neglecting the impact of unequal wealth foundations with devastating consequences. The resilience and courage of local communities is profound as enormous challenges continue. Lest we fall into the trap of distributive understandings of justice (i.e. just increase the social capital of those who do not have it, while ignoring the systems that got us here) lament must take place in the suburbs too. Overcoming inequities must involve something much more radical than charity that keeps those inequities in place. Real lament can bring us there. Those whose lives are hermetically sealed in comfort away from the suffering of our age always need reminding that the worst slave owners were the ones who were kind to their slaves.

To the centre from the edge:
This circle’s marked out 
by the dredges of your justice 
and at these edgeplace ruts,
we eat the crusts
of hope.
From Postcards to the Centre by Pádraig Ó Tuama.

With all of the above, lament must be carried out alongside others, in the margins, with a recognition that those margins have a depth inaccessible to those of us at the centre. Over 25 years, we have learnt that the deeper we go into the margins, the more we see how deep we cannot go. Postures of mission that suggest we are anything other than honoured guests in unchartered territories are ultimately fruitless. The margins are not strategic project centres for our productive activities, they are the home of image-bearers of our great mysterious God.  And yet, this posture produces hope. Hope in the midst of despair.  

God is, in Christ, making all things right. All injustices, all wrongs will be made right.  This hope transcends death, it transcends our need to grasp at impact and turn that impact into an instrument of our affirmations, it transcends our denial of reality. It transcends our insistence the we are in control of our mission and that our strategies will deliver us to the ends of the earth.  Hope is in the midst of despair, most of all when we’re surrounded by it. Advent teaches us that.

"Peace on earth," declared the angels to the shepherds -  some of whom had little boys soon to be murdered by Herod’s soldiers.