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thanking god for condoms

By Diogenes (articles ) | Dec 05, 2009

On the Washington Post's On Faith page, Methodist AIDS maven Donald Messer titles his contribution Thanking God for Condoms. It isn't clear from his essay which deity his gratitude is addressed to. The religion he finds fault with, however, is orthodox Christianity. Messer is a man of his time.

In my new book called "52 Ways to Create an AIDS-Free World," I thank God for condoms. When used correctly and consistently, condoms are humanity's best protection against getting infected by HIV. With no cure or vaccine in existence or in sight, condoms remain the greatest "weapon of mass protection" available; without condoms millions more people would be infected each year.

In a word, no. Humanity's best protection is even simpler than that: abstinence outside of marriage, fidelity within it. Follow that rule, and, though ye walk through the valley of the shadow of retroviruses, ye need fear no evil.

Faith-based groups globally contribute significantly to the care and treatment of persons living with HIV and AID through hospitals, clinics, hospices, and home-based care. However, what is most problematic is the role religion plays in discouraging HIV and AIDS prevention. First, silence prevails, with many religious leaders unwilling to address HIV and AIDS. World AIDS Day remains unobserved; pulpits are silent. Most churches were too busy celebrating the beginning of Advent, instead of focusing on the more than fifteen million children orphaned by AIDS.

Can you beat that? Christians were so distracted preparing for their redemption by Christ that they neglected to wave their pom-poms (in front of the news cams) for AIDS victims! Messer doesn't mention victims of cholera, typhus, malaria, yellow fever, sickle-cell anemia, etc., but I'm sure that was just an oversight.

Secondly, stigma persists. Most people worldwide tell me that worse than having the disease is the way people treat you. In church people feel labeled as "sinners" and often ostracized. Particularly stigmatized have been men who have sex with men, commercial sex workers, transgendered persons, injecting drug users, and prisoners.

Messer's "secondly" shows he's lost the thread of his argument. He's meant to be telling us how churches discourage prevention of AIDS. But the Church's moral disapproval of sodomy, whoring, and drug abuse has the secondary but salutary effect of bolstering disease prevention among those who take that disapproval to heart. Ostracism, moreover, is a sociological and not a theological phenomenon. Church doors are open to repentant sinners, open in defiance of whatever odium society may have attached to their vices. In the real world, after all, it's Catholic nuns, not agnostic film critics, who are likely to be wiping fevered brows in an African AIDS hospice.

Third, gender inequality predominates. The "ABC's" of prevention are inadequate unless gender equality is underscored and women are accorded autonomy over their own bodies and destinies. Religious teachings and customs often increase the vulnerability of women to infection from HIV, as they are told to "obey" their husbands, even if those same men have been unfaithful to them.

I can't believe Messer is serious here. Christianity is the only institution that defends the pertinent sense of "gender equality" -- insisting on the one hand that the man who resorts to a harlot is morally as blameworthy as the harlot herself, and insisting on the other that a woman's "autonomy" over her body (i.e., her moral responsibility) obliges her to remain a virgin until marriage and permits her to remain a lifelong virgin for the sake of the Kingdom. The martyrology is full of accounts of Christian girls who died rather than obey their pagan fathers' or suitors' demands that they relinquish their virginity. Is there, by the bye, any solid evidence for preachers' using "obey your husbands" to exhort wives to submit sexually to a lethally diseased spouse? If so, what they're preaching is residual paganism, not St. Paul.

AIDS prevention efforts dare not be reduced solely to the traditional "ABC's." A broader understanding of prevention includes a broad range of personal and society strategies such digging a well and ensuring clean water, making hunger history, helping stop mother-to-child transmission, working for peace, starting social businesses, reforming prisons, and advocating global school lunch programs. These are prime concerns of faith communities and ultimately essential for a truly AIDS-free world.

Many of these goals are praiseworthy, and many of the people making personal sacrifices to bring them about are Christians motivated by a Christian notion of charity.  But to call them "prime concerns of faith communities" is old-fashioned 19th century cultural imperialism marching under a different name. As Mark Steyn wrote: "Even impeccably PC lefties refer carelessly to other cultures as 'developing nations': the phrase assumes they're 'developing' into something closer to ours, because that's the direction of progress. Even hardcore multiculturalists want to live in a western society." Exactly. Most of us First World Christians want medicine and clean water for others as for ourselves, but we're not deluded that those others will be closer to God for having it, whence these "strategies" can never be prime concerns of our faith.

Most dithering Christians who, like Messer, advocate a Safe Sin approach to moral hardship employ what Allan Bloom called "conspicuous compassion" toward the wretched in order to gain permission for choices that morality excludes. In brief, they would shift God's forgiveness of a sin committed in the past (a theological necessity) into God's indulgence toward a sin to be committed in the future (a theological absurdity), having us believe that God would prefer that we sin rather than have us suffer in doing His will. Thus whereas orthodox Christians are edified by Jesus' forgiveness of the woman caught in adultery -- "Go, and sin no more" -- the Safe Sin theologians us ask to picture Jesus handing St. Peter a 1st century condom -- a tied-off piece of sheep-gut, perhaps -- with a wink and a word of caution: "You've had an overly adventurous fortnight, old boy. If you roger the frau when you get back, just do the responsible thing …"

An unrecognizable Christ? I agree. But if you're a Christian and you're out to "thank God for condoms," you can mean nothing else.  Nothing.

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