Monday, March 25, 2013
Do the people who die of AIDS deserve the honor and respect given to, say, children who were victims of the Holocaust? Greg says no way.
by Gregory Koukl
This article is a transcript of the Stand to Reason radio show with Greg Koukl, and was originally posted on str.org in 1995. It can be viewed at http://www.str.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5364
Some of you know what yesterday was. You saw it in the paper. You saw things on the news pertaining to it. It was AIDS Awareness Day. I have spoken in the past, quite a number of times, about what happens when a culture becomes thoroughly relativistic in its morality. When morality is just a matter of individual opinion and people are demonized for drawing moral conclusions about other people’s behavior, more and more people, in general, become less and less capable of thinking in a morally coherent way. I’ve talked about how things just seem to be topsy-turvy. Those things which we deem right and have considered so in the past are now not only considered morally benign, but are considered wrong in themselves. Such that it is a greater moral faux pas, in the minds of many people, to make a moral judgment on sexual behavior than the aberrant sexual behavior itself. This is a bit of ethical confusion that doesn’t only limit itself to the notion of right and wrong, but to a subspecies of that moral category, that which is honorable and dishonorable.
When I was in Israel earlier this year, I had an opportunity to visit Vad Y’Shem which is the memorial in Jerusalem to those who were fallen as a result of the Nazi holocaust in the Second World War. I have been to a number of these kinds of memorials. The others that I’ve been to are actually on sites of former concentration camps in Germany and Poland. Auschwitz is one example. Midonick, in Poland, is another one. In this particular presentation in Jerusalem, you walk through a hall that is lit very cleverly so that it seems like you are surrounded by candle flames. There’s glass and reflections and mirrors and things. It just seems like there are these flickering flames all around you. These are to represent the lives of children snuffed out by the Nazi holocaust. You hear in the background the slow and solemn reading of the names of children, one after another after another, who lost their lives to Nazi gas chambers. It is a very touching moment, actually.
Yesterday I heard something similar. It was a group of people that had gathered together at a church as a part of AIDS Awareness Day. The names of those who had died of AIDS were spoken in the same fashion as those children’s names were spoken in Vad Y’Shem. They were spoken slowly, graciously, with weight, with pathos, one after another. The point was to honor those who have died of AIDS.
I was troubled by this and I’ll tell you why. Why do we attach honor to dying of AIDS? They said, We’re reciting these names in honor of those who have died of AIDS. I said, Why do we attach honor, nobility to the notion of dying of AIDS? Think about it for a minute. What kind of people do we honor when they die? Well, we honor people at their death for the manner of life that they lived in our midst. An honorable life, for example. That’s why we honor them in death. Like when we eulogize a great person. We also honor people for what they were doing when they died. The noble activity that brought about their death. Those who die in war, for example. People who were fighting for a noble cause and were willing to spill their blood and spend their life for that cause. We remember them and we honor them for the manner in which they died. And the manner in which they died was connected to a noble activity.
We sometimes honor people for the noble way in which they faced death. Generally this happens only when the people had a noble life to go with their noble death. Like godly martyrs who go the stake and the flames with equanimity, with peace of mind. We look at them and we see their holiness and we see what they stand for, and we realize that they’re dying for something good and great and wonderful. They know they can face death with calmness, and even a smile on their face and oftentimes with a song on their lips. We honor people like that.
Sometimes we even honor people who met death as unfortunate victims of other human depravity, as when we honor children who were victims of the holocaust as they do in Vad Y’Shem in Israel.
But ladies and gentlemen, remember we are talking about honor here and the issue is our moral confusion. Not just about right and wrong, but about honor and dishonor. When do we give honor to people simply because of the disease that killed them, especially when, with regards to AIDS, in most cases they are diseased due to freely chosen conduct? At this point I need to say, as a disclaimer, that it is inconsequential for my analysis whether you think the conduct moral or immoral. The key here is that it was their choice. Their freely chosen conduct actually led to the disease. They were willing accomplices in the process. Do we honor people like that? Do we take a moment and recall them because their choice led to their untimely death?
The issue of AIDS relates somewhat to the issue of homosexuality, but not solely to the issue of homosexuality. I want to clarify and point out and underscore this so it is understood that, in this analysis, I’m not making any commitments to the morality or immorality of homosexuality. We are setting that aside. Regardless of how you feel about that issue, the question I raise is, whenever do we honor a person for a disease as we honored people in many places around the country yesterday for AIDS Awareness Day? We haven’t just remembered them. We haven’t just taught about the disease so people are more aware of it and can avoid it, which are all valid and good things. But I’m talking specifically about those occasions like the one I listened to in part yesterday when we honor, give honor to those who have died of AIDS.
To make my point a little more obvious, would it seem natural to set aside time to honor drug addicts specifically because they died of drug overdoses? Or would it make sense to eulogize the nobility of alcoholism simple because somebody died of cirrhosis of the liver? Oh, that is bizarre, Koukl. I agree that it’s bizarre. But how is that different from what we did yesterday in many cases? Why not a day of mourning for the unfortunate and honorable chain smokers who became the unwitting victims of lung cancer? Or, more to the point, shall we honor Al Capone because the poor guy was cut down by syphilis in his prison cell? That is a sexually transmitted disease. There’s something wrong with each one of those suggestions that I’m sure you bristled at. We would never honor those things. Then why do we honor those who die of AIDS? I don’t get it.
There is no honor in dying of AIDS, regardless of how you got it. It was not honorable that Rock Hudson died of AIDS. Or acclaimed journalist Randy Schiltz, or photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Each was tremendously gifted and skilled. Each died as a result of his own vice, a self-inflicted wound as it were.
You know, Ernest Hemingway died like that. But his wasn’t the slow death of disease. He simply pulled the trigger and blew his brains out. We mourn the loss of this tremendous talent, a Randy Schiltz, a Robert Mapplethorpe, a Rock Hudson, and the seemingly endless line of names of people that had so much to offer the world and were so gifted and skilled by God, even if they didn’t acknowledge Him as the source of their gift or skill. All are gone now. All cut down in the prime of life because of AIDS. Do we give honor to that? Is that an honorable thing, or is that tragic? We mourn the loss of this tremendous talent. We mourn the loss of an Ernest Hemingway, too. But do we honor the man for the manner of his death? “We bow our heads as we read the names of our sainted fallen comrades who have blown their brains out. We honor you.” That’s silly.
When we honor a person in a situation like that, it shows that we are morally muddled, that we have lost our compass. We don’t know what honor is. There is no honor here for these people. Only shame and tragedy. Well, not everybody dies of AIDS because of homosexuality or illicit drug use. No, agreed. And what of them? What of the multitude of others? The gifted Arthur Ashes, the young Ryan Whites? Well, there’s no honor in these deaths either. There is no shame here like there ought to be in the others that I mentioned, but there is a sense of tragedy that is actually more intense.
The AIDS activists took a public health issue and they made it into a political issue, an issue of personal rights. And they have caused the rest of us to weep at the symptoms. To weep at the tragedy of death for the multitude of unfortunate people stricken with AIDS. It is tragic. But they cause us to weep at the symptoms and then applaud the disease. The behavior, whether it is homosexual or illicit drug use, that caused this parochial affliction, was limited to a small space for a time, to now become a national epidemic and concern. Again, we weep at the symptoms but we applaud the disease. I don’t mean the disease of AIDS. I mean the disease behind the disease of AIDS. You see, AIDS Awareness Day is not about AIDS. There are a host of other diseases that take more lives whose victims are due more honor. This is not about AIDS. This is about homosexuality. And I will not honor that, nor should you.