Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Lessons Learned...or Forgotten?

My readers know that I love taking trips down memory lane. But not all such trips are filled with nostalgia and happy memories. Some are reminders of terrible moments and hard lessons. That's where I am today. You may not like this post very much...

Sometime in the early 1990's I read a book entitled And the Band Played On. Written by Randy Shilts and published in 1987, the book is a graphic look at the Gay culture of the late 70s and early 80s and the first days of what would become the AIDS epidemic. Shilts (who would eventually die from complications due to AIDS) attacks the story head on, tracing the origins of the HIV virus, tracking it to the US, and exploring how even as it was killing thousands by 1984 it was still being treated as a "Gay plague." The politics involved in our nation's response to HIV/AIDS were stunning and had tragic consequences. The unwillingness of the Gay community at that time to give up newly won freedoms- even if those freedoms were killing them- was a reminder of how selfish we all can be when it comes to protecting what is important to us. The book was very moving and very eye-opening to me in many ways. I re-read the book in 2007 and had the same gut-wrenching reaction, and was left to wonder if the lessons of our failures had been learned...or forgotten.

Then this week all of that was brought rushing back to my mind as I watched two movies for the first time. On Sunday we watched Dallas Buyers Club, and then Monday I saw The Normal Heart. While they are not directly connected, in some way I watched them out of order. The Normal Heart was a film made by HBO based on a play written by Larry Kramer in the 80s. Kramer was one of the first Gay men in NYC to try to alert both the Gay community and political leaders to the horrors of the coming epidemic- and he was ostracized by both groups for his efforts. The film is his story, and it is an amazing (albeit tragic) piece of history. There was so much that could have been done in the early years of the crisis- and so little that was done. The overwhelming response of medical community was to be afraid of what was happening to these Gay men, Haitians and intravenous drug users. Research for either a cause or a cure moved at a snails pace because there was no money pumped into either. Gay men refused to believe it was sexually transmitted until it had killed many of their friends. President Reagan did not say the word AIDS in public until 4 years after people started dying. It took the death of a gay movie star- Rock Hudson- to make us see that the crisis was real and we were all at risk. Once that happened. the money began to flow- a full 5 years after the first deaths. It is a horrific story in many ways, but it also a love story about caring for loved ones in the depths of misery and despair. The actors- Mark Ruffalo, Julia Roberts, Jim Parsons, Alfred Molina, Taylor Kitsch- are simply amazing. And the story it tells should not be forgotten.

The Dallas Buyers Club won OSCARS this year for Matthew McConnaughey and Jared Leto, and it chronicles the HIV/AIDS crisis in the mid to late 80s. As the worldwide medical community rushed to find treatments that would improve the quality of life for patients- remember, in those days a diagnosis was a death sentence- our government refused to approve many medicines because they were "unsafe." Believing that nothing is risky when you are dying, a straight, homophobic AIDS patient named Ron Woodroof begins to find ways to bring illegal medicines to Dallas to help people he was certain he hated. The government fought him at every turn, but he persevered until his death in 1992. Another amazing movie, another crushing story.

Earlier I mentioned lessons learned or forgotten. What are the lessons for me?  First, we are all connected in this world and what happens to any human being has an impact on us all. There were people in power during the early years of AIDS who thought that it was a disease for "those people." They were horribly wrong. We tend to be so selfish. Ebola has killed thousands in Africa, but it didn't really matter to us until a man in Texas was diagnosed. We share a planet, and we must learn that God has commanded us to care for everyone on it. The second lesson is that no freedom- no matter how dear we hold it or how significant it feels to us- is more important than the life of another human being. True freedom comes from Jesus. And every life is important to him. Thirdly, we as a nation must think hard about our priorities. In 1985 one month of our military budget was three times the total amount spent on HIV/AIDS research and development in the first 4 years of the crisis. Could our doctors and scientists have cured cancer or diabetes by now if we funded them with the same passion with which we build bombers? And finally I am left to wonder where the church was in the midst of that crisis- and where we are in the midst of such crisis today. Do we reject people based on our personal beliefs and opinions, or do we love as Jesus taught us to love- everyone no matter who they are.

History wouldn't repeat itself so often if we would just listen the first time. Read the book. See the movies. If you are even slightly homophobic then get ready to be overwhelmed with an inside look at a culture you despise. If you view the politics of the 1980s through rose colored glasses, you will be disappointed and stunned. Sometimes a trip down memory lane reminds us we still have miles to go to be the people God has called us to be. My prayer is that our hearts and minds will be open to learning the lessons of the past.

Because of Jesus,

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous10/25/2014

    Brilliantly written and thought provoking. In nearly every crisis we encounter in life, there is much to be learned from history. Thank you.
    -Martin Silverman, San Francisco


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