Honor him by working to fight AIDS

January 20, 2003|By Raphael G. Warnock

IF THE Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, no single problem would demand more of his attention than the HIV/AIDS crisis.

Though Dr. King died well over a decade before we heard of AIDS and though people promoting every human cause and every political persuasion enlist him freely for their version of what is best for America, this preventable virus is one of the greatest moral challenges of our times. His own words help to make the case:

"As long as there is poverty in the world I can never be rich, even if I have a billion dollars. As long as diseases are rampant and millions of people in this world cannot expect to live more than 28 or 30 years, I can never be totally healthy. ... I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. ... No individual or nation can stand out boasting of being independent. We are interdependent."

The truth of those words is more apparent than it was when Dr. King first uttered them. For we are faced with a human plague that does not respect race, gender, class, age, sexual orientation or any of the boundaries that divide the human family.

In a shrinking global village where an estimated 40 million people are infected and, for the first time, half of them are women, HIV/AIDS poses a greater and more immediate threat to our prosperity and security than terrorism. Entire economies and, more importantly, human lives are at stake. Already, we are engaged in a kind of biological warfare, just without the benefit of a visible enemy. All of us must do more.

Because AIDS passes easily through Customs and airport security, the United States and other wealthy nations ought to contribute much more than they have to the grossly underfunded U.N. Global AIDS Fund. President Bush's proposed $200 million contribution for this fiscal year falls pitifully short of the $1 billion investment requested of the United States by the United Nations. And it bespeaks a crisis in moral vision, particularly in the wake of a war in Afghanistan that cost $1 billion per month.

Even now, massive numbers of troops are being deployed against an enemy because of the potential of biological warfare and the use of other weapons of mass destruction. One can almost hear Dr. King's voice thundering from the crypt: "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."

Baltimore's recent declaration of a state of emergency is a step in the right direction. What is needed now is a fiscal and programmatic response from the public and private sectors that will extend and expand the recently reported success of decreasing incidences of HIV/AIDS in areas of the city that have received intense intervention. This is especially the case in Baltimore's black community, where 89 percent of all HIV/AIDS cases and 95 percent of the pediatric cases are to be found.

All of us have a role to play in building what Dr. King called the "beloved community," and what I like to call a "culture of compassion," by resisting the unholy trinity of silence, shame and stigma as it aids and abets the havoc that the virus is wreaking in our community.

Clergy, public servants, teachers and other opinion-shapers should consider going in mass numbers to get tested, both as a way of encouraging others to do the same and as a means of countering the misinformation and social stigma that can be as deadly as the virus.

By resisting prejudice and putting our bodies in the struggle, we embrace the very heart of the King legacy and appropriately honor a life captured well in the title of a sermon he once preached. It was simply called "Standing by the Best in an Evil Time."

The Rev. Raphael G. Warnock is pastor of the Douglas Memorial Community Church and co-chair of the Baltimore Affiliate of the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS.

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