AIDS: Piety and Heresy

Standing at the back of the Cathedral (because the pews are packed) I see speaker after speaker who would not otherwise darken the door of a place of worship – and wholeheartedly despise organised religion – ascend the wooden steps of the high pulpit, and I listen to them recount stories of faith and hope and love to the faithful below. At some point, amid the red balloons and festoons of rainbow tape, below the banners proclaiming WE ARE ALL INNOCENT and THERE IS NO DEATH: THERE IS ONLY LIFE, candles are lit, and held up. And there is a reading of names. Amid the silences that follow, we murmur names of the faithful departed, our beloved dead. Our lovers, our kin, our stars, our friends.

We will remember them, but this is no Remembrance Day Service. Three weeks after the eleventh day of the eleventh month, we gather in the evening to remember the dead who bore no arms except their own, who loved and lost their lives against an implacable and inhuman enemy (despite its name). From the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them. Their absence accompanies us though all our daily rituals and even, especially, on our holidays. There are two lines of separation here: one between the quick and the dead; one between the negative and the positive. No, in this instance, it is preferable to be negative.

This is our faith. This is our practice. This World AIDS Day Service, generously supported by large pharmaceutical companies and attended by people who live their lives in the earnest attempt to be the solution: to be open, to be free, to love spontaneously, to give generously, to care for the Earth and all her peoples, to save the whales and to walk their dogs and to be inspired, in a thoroughly disorganised and understated sort of spirituality, by the wonders of Nature, and by the diversity of humankind and by the small acts of kindness that (despite our systems of structural injustice and personal meanness of character) we persist in committing, daily.

The atmosphere is holy, special, set apart. This is time out, time for reflection. They who have gone before us, wherever they have gone, have run out of time. We have not. So we must use our time to best advantage. Because time flies. And for some of us, perhaps many, in this place tonight, time is fleet-footed indeed. All we can do is cherish each other, for the time we have left together, and work for a solution that will extend that time. Until our inhuman enemy, HIV, the slinking emissary of AIDS, is finally defeated.

If it ever existed in the first place. Or if it were ever harmful. Imagine the rage that would course through the pews like a purifying fire, if such thoughts, such criminal and impious thoughts, were ever voiced aloud in such a setting. Imagine the inundation of indignant words against such thoughtcrime, such insensitivity, that would dare to suggest that all this piety, all the docility of those we love (surrendering their bodies to the side-effects of AZT/ ART/ HAART, succumbing finally to PCP, KS and liver failure) all this was mistaken. There is only one word for such impiety: heresy.

(Silence and Dissent: Expert Doubt in the AIDS Debate)

Candle lit in darkness

Thanks to George Hodan for releasing his image “Candle” into the Public Domain.


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