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Health and Human Rights in the Fight Against HIV/AIDS: A Modern-Day Civil Rights Struggle

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3]  For example, 45% of individuals with HIV/AIDS are unemployed[4] 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.


[1] http://files.kff.org/attachment/fact-sheet-black-americans-and-hiv-aids

[2] http://www.ebony.com/wellness-empowerment/aids-2012-new-data-show-black-gay-men-face-worlds-highest-risk-of-hiv#axzz2JxYL2v1J

[3] http://www.ebony.com/news-views/the-state-of-hivaids-in-black-america-405#axzz4VEXkJse0

[4] http://www.apa.org/pi/ses/resources/publications/hiv-aids.aspx

 

 

When it Comes to Racism, Start with the Person in the Mirror

“Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me remove the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the plank that is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First, remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck that is in your brother’s eye.” Luke 6:42

Martin Luther King Jr. is the United States’ most famous civil rights leader, having advanced equality for racial minorities by using nonviolent civil disobedience based on his Christian beliefs.

That method of protest inspired countless others to join him in seeking equality for all in America, including numerous faith leaders. The movement, perhaps unlike the United States at the time, did not discriminate based on color or creed.

King was assassinated in 1968, but the many people he inspired during his ministry continued to espouse his message of peace and justice.

Archbishop Iakovos of North and South America, who was one of the faith leaders who joined King at the March on Selma, later reflected on how the civil rights movement was not over and how it continued to be a driving force in his own life.

“I know that civil rights and human rights continue to be the most thorny social issues in our nation,” he said. “But I will stand for both rights for as long as I live.”

Decades after Archbishop Iakovos’s remarks, civil rights and human rights are still at the forefront of a national conversation—and in many ways still are “the most thorny social issues in our nation.” 2016 was undoubtedly a year of racial tension in America.

Despite statistical evidence of discrimination against African Americans in law enforcement, in housing and in employment, many people refuse to listen to the people in our communities who face that discrimination every day.

In light of King’s inspiring legacy, it is perhaps even more unfortunate that people deride contemporary civil rights organizations for their work in bringing an end to said discrimination.

The criticisms of the Black Lives Matter movement today, for example, eerily resemble those of Martin Luther King Jr.’s movement 50 years ago.

In a rebuke of the civil rights movement’s critique of white violence against blacks, one person in a 1966 telegram anonymously asked King, “what about the violence by blacks in these cities?”

“Hang your head in shame,” another wrote to King. “You are responsible for all of these riots and havoc in this country today.”

Still another wrote, “you don’t point out any faults at all of your own people, just the whites.”

Sound familiar?

Such an unwillingness to listen is in contradiction to the scriptures, in which God instructs us to “incline your ear to wisdom and apply your heart to understanding” (Proverbs 2:2).

As Christians, we are called to look inward and to improve upon ourselves instead of pointing out the flaws in others. It is based in the act of repentance, the recurring stage of salvation in which we turn away from sin.

How might you discriminate in your life? At the very least, it’s worth some thought.

Do you subconsciously put your hands in your pockets when you pass a black person on the street? Did you not consider a babysitting applicant because her name sounded like she might be black or Hispanic?

These days, it’s easy to deny being racist and to generally support the civil rights movement of Martin Luther King Jr.’s era. After all, you’re probably not lynching people or forcing them to drink from a different water fountain.

But how might racism still manifest itself in your life? How can you bring an end to racism in yourself?

Martin Luther King Jr. and Archbishop Iakovos knew that, as icons of Christ in the world, they were called to challenge the institutional inequalities in our country that unnecessarily pitted one group of people against another. Many others feel that they are called to similar work today.

For us, perhaps we ought to start simply with the person in the mirror.

Andrew Romanov is a Fellow at the U.N. 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 (ECOSOC). It has been actively working at the United Nations for 30 years.

Honoring Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Remembering the Christian Origins of Nonviolent Resistance and Civil Disobedience

Every January, since its first federal observance in 1986, the national holiday honoring the life and legacy of the great civil rights leader and humanitarian, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., reminds us of the seminal role and moral good of nonviolent, peaceful resistance, protest, and civil disobedience in the struggle against injustice.  Rev. King rightly represents the most enduring figure in American history to be associated with these principles and practices.  Indeed, he and his life’s work are inseparable from both the history of the African-American Civil Rights Movement and from the enshrinement of nonviolent resistance and peaceful civil disobedience in the body politic and culture of postwar America. 

Yet, despite his popularized, current depiction, Martin Luther King, Jr. was not merely a political activist or community organizer who gained national influence through his eventual leadership of the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s.  Rev. King was a devout Baptist minister, for whom Christian faith, philosophy, and principles were the cornerstones for how he understood life and society.  Indeed, Rev. King’s recognition of, and responses to, racial and social injustice, including his articulation and use of nonviolent civil disobedience to tackle injustice, were based entirely on his Christian beliefs.  In 1967, Rev. King famously stated: “Before I was a civil rights leader, I was a preacher of the Gospel.  This was my first calling and it still remains my greatest commitment.  You know, actually all that I do in civil rights I do because I consider it a part of my ministry.” 

The public statements that Rev. King made about the centrality of Christianity in his engagement with civil rights were reinforced in his writings.  In one of the most famous and important documents of the Civil Rights Movement, the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written in April 1963 after his arrest and harsh detention following a nonviolent protest against racism and segregation in Birmingham, Alabama, Rev. King wrote to his “fellow Christian brothers” in an open letter that would be widely published: “of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience…It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face the lions and the excruciating pain of the chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire.”               

History before Christianity does not provide us with any examples of peaceful social resistance.  Several religions which predate Christianity—Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism—may all have espoused the virtues of peace, but none, not even Indian Jainism, which regards nonviolence as the most fundamental practice of its faith, articulated a coherent philosophy of peaceful, nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience.  In this sense, the life of Christ and the early history of Christianity are instructive for understanding the origins, and establishment for the first time in human history, of the philosophy and practice of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience.

Through his preaching and example, Jesus Christ—God Incarnate—presented mankind with an example of how to respond to injustice and evil with nonviolent resistance.  Unlike the Zealots and other Jewish contemporaries of Jesus who used violence in their national struggle against Roman rule, Christ embodied a more revolutionary means and message to overcome injustice, conflict, and division in the world—love.  In His “Sermon on the Mount,” the main source for the philosophy of nonviolent resistance and peaceful civil disobedience, Christ tells us to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).  This moral lesson and tenet of faith sustained the Early Church and contributed decisively to its survival and growth during its first few centuries, a time when Christians were violently harassed and persecuted first by Jews and then by the full force and power of the Roman state.  Nonviolent resistance to injustice and abuse did not end with the Christianization of the Roman/Byzantine Empire beginning in the fourth century.  Indeed, Christian mass civil disobedience, whether to heretical emperors or Iconoclasts in power, arguably acquired its most overt qualities through the repeated episodes of Orthodox resistance to corrupt or errant political and ecclesiastical authority in the Byzantine Empire. 

Reflecting on its long history, the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese priest and prolific theologian, Fr. Philip LeMasters, notes “nonviolent resistance has been present in the Church from its earliest days until the present.  Martyrs and confessors, both ancient and contemporary, have disobeyed laws and other directives that they discerned to be contrary to their faith and conscience.  Some have done so when governments commanded them to commit idolatry or embrace heresy.  Others have refused to obey unjust laws by protecting the innocent or calling for social and political change, rejecting passivity or submission in the face of evil.  These are examples of deliberate acts of resistance and refusal to allow corrupt worldly powers to control the conscience and actions of Christians.”

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, deliberate act of nonviolent resistance against the lingering, morally corrupting racist structures rooted in America’s shameful history of slavery was anchored in Christ’s tenet of love for all men.  Again, Fr. LeMasters makes it clear that such nonviolent resistance, like Rev. King’s civil disobedience, was a direct reflection of Christian philosophy: “These examples do not present nonviolent resistance as a merely prudential tactic to achieve a political goal that might also be accomplished by violent means.  Instead, these types of nonviolent action grow from the heart of the Christian faith: the selfless, suffering, forgiving love of God in Jesus Christ whereby we reconciled to Him and to one another, even our enemies.  Christ spoke and acted prophetically, denouncing evil and challenging social and religious structures that were contrary to God’s will for human beings.  Orthodox nonviolent resistance to evil follows Christ’s example.” 

This Christian view of the fullness in purpose of nonviolent resistance against evil and injustice is what accounted for Rev. King’s understanding of his civil rights mission as a religious ministry rather than as a campaign in political activism.  Consequently, when American society and state honor the memory of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., they also acknowledge, albeit unwittingly, a debt to Christ, whose message of love and forgiveness—of which we are all beneficiaries—resonated through Rev. King’s own life and martyrdom.            

Dr. Alexandros K. Kyrou is Professor of History at Salem State University, where he teaches on the Balkans, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire.

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