World Aids Day Address

Joseph Stalin famously claimed that, while a single death was a tragedy, a million deaths were a statistic. No doubt, after sanctioning the extensive slaughter of his fellow countrymen, it offered some consolation, even to such a conscienceless man, to be responsible for ten statistics rather than ten million tragedies. But, as all of us in this church tonight know, Stalin was wrong. Since the beginning of the AIDS pandemic, over eight million men, women and children worldwide have died and over twenty million more have been infected with HIV. To help us to come to terms with the statistic, I can only say that that figure represents nearly twice the population of the Netherlands and three times that of Belgium. But how can any of us come to terms with the tragedy… the millions of individual tragedies, some of them too young to know their own names?

Tonight, we have gathered together to remember, to celebrate and to mourn… both the friends whom we’ve lost and our own lost innocence. But what do we do tomorrow? How are we to live in a world where, as one American writer told me ‘AIDS is your filofax’? How, after more than fifteen years of hospital visits and obituaries and attacks from the gutter press (the HIV virus may not discriminate, but tabloid editors certainly do), can we retain our strength, our spirit and even our sanity? Do we stitch one more panel onto a quilt which is now so vast that it can never be fully unfolded? Do we live for today in fear of tomorrow? Do we try to sweep death under the carpet, albeit a carpet of flowers?

It will come as no surprise that, from the vantage of this pulpit, my perspective is somewhat different… although I should say that I stand here with none of the special knowledge of a health worker nor the authority of a priest. It seems to me that the only way that all of us – whether infected or affected by the virus – can survive this epidemic is to set it in a broader spiritual context. To which end, I would like to share with you the model that I find most helpful…. I’ve been criticised in the past for posing an analogy between AIDS and Auschwitz. It’s one, however, which I remain ready to defend, not in the simplistic sense of the Third Term/Third Reich graffiti which greeted the re-election of Mrs Thatcher, but as a recognition that AIDS poses the same problem to people of my own generation that Auschwitz did to that of my parents, namely how to reconcile the evidence of appalling and indiscriminate suffering with the existence of a benevolent God.

In one sense, both AIDS and Auschwitz are subordinate to the basic problem of how a benevolent God can sanction suffering at all. I’m aware that there may be people here tonight who find it impossible to accept the existence of any God, let alone a benevolent one. I can only ask them to bear with me and perhaps find a parallel, if not a pattern, for their grief…. I believe that God created the universe and that He did so, not out of chaos or darkness but out of Himself. Nevertheless, the moment that He moved from eternity to time, the moment that He moved from spirit to matter, there was bound to be a dilution: a diminution: an imperfection. And, out of the imperfection of the natural world, have come the earthquakes, the droughts, the fires and the diseases, just as out of the imperfection of human nature have come the tyrannies, the violence, the cruelties and the crimes.

And yet, paradoxical as it may seem, it’ s these same imperfections (and, tonight, I’m thinking above all of the diseases) which constitute God’s greatest gift: human autonomy. Without them, we’d be living in a perfect world, one without conflicts or distinctions, in which free will would be reduced to nothing more than choosing between two flavours of toothpaste. (It’s here that the Eden myth breaks down, for the truth is not that we misused our free will and fell from paradise, but that our separation from paradise is a prerequisite of our free will). Freedom brings suffering, but – and this is what we must always remember – suffering also brings freedom. Suffering is the essence of the human condition not because life is meaningless and death arbitrary but because life is meaningful and death temporary. To ring yet another change on Descartes’ familiar axiom: I suffer therefore I am.

Moreover – and more importantly – I suffer therefore I grow. It’s through exposure to suffering that humanity, both as individuals and as a species, fulfils its full potential. I’m sure that everyone here tonight has been inspired by examples of courage and selflessness in the face of debilitating disease. I’m equally sure that we would all wish to have encountered these qualities in another – in any other – way. But that would be to ignore human nature: people don’t change their lives on account of an in-growing toenail. So we too must rise above our suffering and accept that even AIDS allows us something to celebrate. For, through their struggle and their legacy, our friends and relatives have left their mark on all of us. They’ve shown us new and better ways both of living and dying… and, if that’s not the definition of a saint, I don’t know what is.

And it’s just as important – although it may be more painful – to celebrate their dying as their living. To do otherwise is to deny the reality both of their illness and of our own grief. It’s imperative that we don’t endorse the mentality of our materialistic world which appears to regard all death as an affront and early death as a failure. Nowadays, we readily accept the concept that time is relative and yet, when it comes to the moment of death, we adopt a clockwork chronology. Too soon, we cry, not selfishly but humanly, at anyone who fails to live out his biblical span. But the value of a life bears no relation to the length of it. The litany of the great men and women who died young is almost embarrassing in its richness, but it pales beside the list of the lesser-known – but no less remarkable – men and women who’ve enriched all our lives.

There’ s one man in particular whom I’d like to mention: someone I’ve refrained from mentioning until now, even though we’re gathered in his church. But it may help to remember that Christ also died young, at the age of thirty-three, in a manner which was as stigmatised in his own day as AIDS is in ours. At his death, he was of no more consequence than the two thieves who were crucified alongside him. There was no reason to suppose that his teachings would last longer than those of any other itinerant preacher. But his friends kept his memory alive just as we shall keep alive those of the people we remember today. So let’s not mourn for lives prematurely lost but celebrate those fully lived, which will remain to help and to hearten us forever. Thank you.