Our church is well-known for its carefully researched and nuanced policy statements. Over the 29 years of our existence as a church, Churchwide Assemblies have commissioned and adopted 13 Social Statements on major social issues. Producing a Social Statement is a multi-year proposition, with drafts, hearings, rewrites. Ultimately it is a Churchwide Assembly that approves it and places it into our body of Social Statements. You can find all of the ELCA Social Statements at www.elca.org/socialstatements, along with study guides. In addition, you can find my reflections on these Social Statements at www.montanasynod.org.
In addition to the Social Statements, the ELCA Church Council (the governing body between Churchwide Assemblies) adopts Social Messages from time to time. Social messages are shorter than Social Statements, and are put together more quickly. The 13 Social Messages adopted by our Church Council began in 1988, with a Message on AIDS. In 2016 the Church Council adopted a Social Message on Gender-Based Violence. Other Messages have addressed:Israeli/Palestinian Conflict; Homelessness; End of Life Decisions; Community Violence; Sexuality; Immigration; Suicide Prevention; Commercial Sexual Exploitation; Terrorism; People Living with Disabilities; Mental Illness. All are available at www.elca.org.
Just as I spent the last half year addressing the Social Statements chronologically, I'll spend this next half year addressing the Social Messages chronologically. They won't be every week, but they will come out several times each month. And they will be archived at www.montanasynod.org.
The ELCA's first Social Message was on "AIDS and the Church's Ministry of Caring." In 1988, AIDS was still a fairly edgy topic. AIDS awareness in the US really began in the 1980's, and in 1988 there was still a stigma around AIDS. The ELCA Church Council, in choosing AIDS as its first Social Message, aimed to lessen the stigma. The Message, which is only a page long, first thanks the people who care for people with AIDS, and urges church members not only to support this ministry, but also to do so with respect and compassion.
The Message suggests that AIDS "calls us to remember our common humanity" and our vulnerability. At the time this was written there were no drugs that could slow down the progress of HIV/AIDS. It was a death sentence. And although it was known how the disease was spread, the Message does not talk about prevention. Rather it suggests that we be informed about AIDS (using a Surgeon General's brochure). And it suggests that congregations include discussion of AIDS in their educational programs. The focus is care for the sick and dying and their families, and education to remove prejudice.
Since 1988, society has come a long way with HIV/AIDS. Educational campaigns to prevent transmission of HIV/AIDS, early testing, and medical advances have changed how we look at HIV/AIDS. But AIDS is still devastating communities outside the developed world, particularly in Africa. A whole new class of "AIDS Orphans" is growing up without parents. The ELCA had a project in the early 2000's to raise money for AIDS prevention and treatment in Africa.
A Christian group, promoting compassion and awareness, puts it this way: "The Body of Christ has AIDS." If anyone suffers from AIDS, then we are all accountable. We do not separate into "us" and "them." HIV/AIDS is a global issue. It is a justice issue. It is a compassion issue. It is not partisan. Former President George W. Bush made it a priority to address AIDS across the globe.
HIV/AIDS can be transmitted sexually; it can be transmitted by blood transfusion, by other fluids. It can be transmitted in utero. It does not discriminate by race, gender, sexual orientation, age, lifestyle, income, nationality, geography, climate or political party. In an effort to reduce the stigma and encourage testing, many world leaders have had themselves tested publicly, to encourage others. The ELCA Bishops, myself included, did so several years ago, as a way to be in solidarity with global church leaders. For many years now, December 1 has been World AIDS day. It is a time when we can learn and lament, advocate and celebrate.
The 1988 Social Message on AIDS was simple. And even though the landscape about HIV/AIDS has changed significantly since then, it still has value in its twofold focus: providing care and eliminating prejudice.
Jessica Crist, Bishop
Bishop Jessica Crist
Bishop of the Montana Synod of the ELCA