As Orthodox Christians, we are charged with viewing people of all races equally, both under God as well as societally. This stems not from political opinion, but rather our shared view that we are all created in His image.
This year, as we commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we are reminded of his tremendous work towards racial equality and the sacrifices he made for civil rights. When evaluating the impact he has had on the world, we must not become complacent. As Archbishop Iakovos of blessed memory articulated in his explanation for being in Selma and marching with Rev. King: “We cannot be Christians in name, and not in spirit and action.” We must be knowledgeable and prepared to act while injustice endures. This is felt quite vividly in the ongoing HIV/AIDS crisis. And while HIV/AIDS is not often associated with the civil rights movement, the racial components of the crisis renders it a crucial part of the path to realizing Dr. King’s vision.
Since the first cases of AIDS began to spread in the early 1980s, significant improvements have been made around the world in both the treatment and prevention of HIV/AIDS.
Despite the advances, many argue that HIV/AIDS is a civil rights issue, centered on the fact that it disproportionately affects the African-American community compared to its share of the overall population. African-Americans represent about 12% of the U.S. population, yet they make up approximately 44% of new infections of HIV. Similarly, they account for 49% of new AIDS diagnoses, both demonstrating a lingering impact of the disease that isn’t shared by all demographic groups. As of 2013, there were more than 1.1 million individuals living with HIV/AIDS in the U.S.; alarmingly, 506,000 of those were African American!
This trend does not seem to be improving. While the overall number of infections and deaths have decreased, a disparity remains and will endure unless we provide the appropriate medical aid to this population. In the U.S., the numbers for new cases of HIV/AIDS tends to be more prevalent in a few specific groups, for a variety of reasons. For example, the LGBT community, individuals living in rural communities, and those of lower socioeconomic status all have higher rates of infection than the general population. Nonetheless, the African-American population intersects with all these population subsets, yet we do not see similar rates of infection.
Dr. Donna McCree, Associate Director for Health Equity of the CDC’s Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention, suggests a disappointing, yet insightful explanation for this phenomenon. She describes a so-called ‘perfect storm’ of economic and cultural barriers that have led to the lagging and disproportionately high rates of infection among the African-American population.
Things like higher incarceration rates, lower medical coverage rates, and substance abuse all impact contraction. Similarly, contracting the disease has a negative impact on a person’s socioeconomic status by constraining their ability to be employed and earn income. For example, 45% of individuals with HIV/AIDS are unemployed which, coupled with the remaining stigmas faced at both familial and clinical levels, can discourage individuals from seeking treatment, further exacerbating the problem.
Civil rights have maintained a central place in the Church’s message of unconditional love during the latter half of the 20th century and continues to serve as a catalyst for mutual understand, respect and love among all people. Archbishop Iakovos of North and South America summed up our mission in a 1963 statement:
But the Christians of America should feel that they have a special mandate to work for equal rights for all. We are challenged to prove that the Legions of Christ can, in His Name, uphold these rights wherever and whenever they are endangered. Christian love is not a semantic symbol. It is a commandment to which we must conform our actions as Christians and strive in every way to make a reality, consistent with the will of God which was expressed by His Son Jesus Christ when He said, Love ye one another.
This message remains our focus today. Individuals with HIV/AIDS continue to be possess the image of God, and we are mandated to overcome our own shortcomings and love them, have mercy on them, and pray for them. True to Iakovos’ vision in 1963, the Orthodox Church is not only a supporter of civil rights as an idea and political theory, it seeks to put into practice the love of Christ in her own work. Humanitarian organizations such as IOCC (International Orthodox Christian Charities), which partners with local churches around the world to serve the needs of those most vulnerable, and FOCUS (Fellowship of Orthodox Christians United to Serve), which offers adults and children access to healthcare through their medical centers, have helped the Church and her communicants answer the call to love one another as children of God, irrespective of our racial or ethnic differences.
Anthony Balouris is a Fellow at the UN for the Department of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (un.goarch.org)
The Archdiocese is an accredited Non-Governmental Organization at the United Nations through the Department of Public Information (UN DPI) and has General Consultative Status under the Economic and Social Council of the UN (ESOSCO). It has been actively working at the UN for 30 years.