St Francis, AIDS & Bad Pharma

When I worked for the Iona Community, sitting in the cold Abbey in summer or in the freezing chapel of St Michael in winter, we would recite this prayer every Friday morning:

‘Take us outside, O Christ, outside holiness, to where soldiers curse and nations clash, at the crossroads of the world.’ (Iona Abbey Worship Book, p.20)

Theologically it doesn’t make a lot of sense and the alliteration covers an assumption widespread in the Community that while male aggression is the curse of the world, female empowerment is its salvation. Yet it is an arresting image. To step outside the cosy piety of churchiness. To risk misunderstanding of our motives, indeed vilification.

However, performing a grand gesture isn’t always laudable, no matter our motives. When I was a Franciscan novice, I was very attracted by the story of St Francis stripping off his fine clothes and throwing them at the feet of his father, in the Residence of the Bishop of Assisi. In this place (the ‘Room of Renunciation’) Pope Francis stated:

“The Christian cannot coexist with the spirit of the world, with the worldliness that leads us to vanity, to arrogance, to pride.” (OSV Newsweekly)

Nowadays I am ready to admit that Franco Zeffirelli’s filmic presentation of the beauty of Graham Faulkner may have had something to do with the attraction of this scene. I, now, also feel much more sympathy with the father – who surely only wanted to lavish his love on his only son and to set him up securely in turbulent times.

The other, earlier, scene which moved me was Francis getting off his high horse, giving his cloak to a leper and kissing him. Brother Sun, Sister Moon was filmed in 1972 and by 1984 (fateful year) the paperback edition of St Francis: A Model for Human Liberation was out in English. I’m not sure if it was the author, Fr Leonardo Boff, who first said that, ‘if St Francis was around today, he would kiss an AIDS victim’.

Following his example, many saintly people have done exactly that, St (Mother) Teresa of Calcutta and Pope Francis among them. Liberation theologians from South America have taken St Francis out of the birdbath and shown his piety to be far more radical than the smug spirituality of ‘being kind to animals’ (while eating them and being complicit in their torture for the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries). St Francis is a model of solidarity with the marginalised and oppressed.

In 1984 it became clear that there was a new category of marginalisation. Dr Robert Gallo patented ‘the AIDS virus’, ELISA and Western Blot test kits (which give different results for the presence of the sections of the proteins taken to be HIV antibodies) were hastily manufactured and people all over the world began to receive AZT, a chemotherapy drug that interferes with the most basic cellular functions. Within months many were dead.

Since then, antiretroviral drugs are not so lethal and people on them are living longer. Just stop and think about that sentence for a moment.

Dom Hélder Câmara, archbishop of Olinda & Recife in North East Brazil, famously said:

‘When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.’

Similarly, when you comfort those supposedly dying of AIDS, they call you a saint. When you ask why they are dying, they call you a ‘denialist’.

For over 30 years, the biomedical scientists who constitute the Perth Group (based in the research facility of the Royal Perth Hospital, Western Australia) have been asking two simple questions:

  • Where is the scientific proof of the existence of HIV?
  • Where is the scientific proof of the hypothetical link between HIV and AIDS?

These questions remain unanswered. Other biomedical scientists have raised dissident voices, most controversially Professor Peter Duesberg, member of the American national Academy of Sciences, and Dr Kary Mullis, Nobel Prize winner. More controversially still, in 2000, President Mbeki of South Africa sought advice and organised a conference of biomedical scientists, two-thirds of whom were of the establishment view on HIV/AIDS. These refused to debate the dissident view and vilified the President for daring to question the findings and remedies of the international pharmaceutical industry.

As Dr Eleni Papadopulos-Eleopulos of the Perth Group has said, the burden of proof is not on the dissidents but on the scientists who have made the claim that HIV exists and that it causes AIDS. This claim has never been substantiated (both scientists credited with the discovery of ‘the AIDS virus’, Gallo and Montagnier, have repudiated their original positions) and every other related biomedical establishment publication is based on it. Other eminent biomedical scientists, such as Professor Gordon Stewart of the University of Glasgow, have challenged this claim on epidemiological grounds.

The reaction of most good, fair-minded and compassionate people to the news that there are still eminent biomedical scientists who dispute this claim is one of disbelief – usually followed by ridicule and unflattering comparisons to Flat Earthers and other conspiracy theorists. Yet, as Professor Peter Duesberg painstakingly points out (in his book Inventing the AIDS Virus which has detailed references) this is not the first time that the well-funded ‘virus hunters’ of the pharmaceutical industry have brought about huge iatrogenic harm. Dr Ben Goldacre (who is not an ‘AIDS dissident’) shows comprehensively, in Bad Pharma: How drug companies mislead doctors and harm patients, that:

‘Doctors around the world – except in Norway – are taught which drugs are best by the drug companies themselves. The content is biased, and that’s why companies pay for it. For decades people have stood up, shown that the content is biased, written reports against it, demonstrated that weak guidelines fail to police it; and still it continues.’ (Bad Pharma, 2012, p.320)

Inspired by the saint of the marginalised, is it possible for us to step outside of our drug-funded respectability, to risk being ridiculed and vilified, being considered lacking in compassion for the sick – to ask why it is that our unexamined piety is killing them?

Brother Sun 6-1

Photo source: Brother Son, Sister Moon via DarkUFOBlogspot

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