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Commentary: What would Wesley do about global AIDS?


NOTE: This may be used as a sidebar to UMNS story #498. A photograph is available

By Donald Messer*

Countless Christians ask every day: "What would Jesus do?"

In light of the unprecedented global HIV/AIDS pandemic that the United Nations has declared "a global emergency," United Methodists might ask not only "what would Jesus do?" but also "what would John Wesley do?"

Of course, it is impossible to prescribe or describe what the founder of Methodism would do in the face of the worst health crisis in 700 years, but we can draw some insightful clues from his practical theology and his practice of ministry in relation to issues of medicine, health, illness, suffering and death.

Despite the plea of the United Nations for "faith-based" organizations to get deeply involved, to date, the efforts of Christian congregations and denominations-with few exceptions--have been minimal. More than 20 years into the global pandemic, only a few have even allocated a miniscule portion of funds to a mission and ministry of healing directed at the global HIV/AIDS crisis.

Worse yet, in many places and times, people of faith contribute to the stigma and discrimination that adds to the suffering, encouraging greater silence, and, therefore, furthering the prevalence of the deadly HIV virus.

The global statistics are overwhelming: 40 million people are infected worldwide; 7,000 people die daily, 1,600 people each day are infected. Some 26 million people have already died. Devastating personal, political and societal consequences are escalating.
Therefore, the United Nations calls on every segment of society to come to the rescue, specifically mentioning faith-based groups as essential to the global effort.

Conservative Newsweek columnist George F. Will asserted several years ago that what the world desperately needs is a new John Wesley, actually "a lot of Wesleys." Reflecting on the global AIDS crisis and Wesley in a Jan. 10, 2000, column, Wills wrote: "In 18th-century England, rapid modernization and urbanization brought social disintegration that was exacerbated by a chemical plague, of sorts, a product by the new science of distilling ... gin. Traveling 250,000 miles on horseback to deliver 30,000 sermons to largely illiterate audiences, Wesley enkindled a broad cultural, meaning behavioral, reform."

The image that Wesley and his followers continue to portray to the George Wills of this is one of compassionate, evangelical folk who care about the bodies and souls of human beings, especially the poor, the sick and the marginalized. To understand why, we need to re-examine our own distinct and dynamic theology and practice, mission and ministry, heritage and hopes.

More people probably "act" their way into new ways of thinking than "think" their ways into new ways of acting. Wesley's understanding of Christian faith and life was imbedded in the real-life issues of health and illness, life and death.

Wesley was so moved by widespread illness and suffering among the poor people of England, that by 1746 he even decided to practice medicine himself. He opened dispensaries, where every Friday he diagnosed and treated patients.

Wesley incorporated into his mission and ministry the best knowledge available in his time about medical care. In 1747, he published Primitive Physick: An Easy and Natural Way of Curing Most Diseases. Wesley urged its distribution along with devotional tracts, declaring, "If you love the souls or bodies of men, recommend, everywhere, the Primitive Physick and the small tracts." Obviously, Methodist people took this injunction to heart as the volume went through 23 editions during Wesley's lifetime.

Wesley could not have imagined a continent like Africa with potentially 40 million orphans. His heart, however, was broken by the plight of orphans, and early Methodists established in 1740 an orphanage near Savannah, Ga.

The precedent of Wesley, following the pattern of Jesus, going everywhere to preach, teach and heal the sick has been a powerful motif for Methodists over the centuries. Why hasn't our slogan, "the world is my parish," translated into an aggressive and compassionate program against global AIDS?

Seven lessons from the life and ministry of John Wesley are instructive as we face the global AIDS crisis.

First, shunning and stigmatizing the sick was not John Wesley's way. Wesley did not discriminate among the sick, helping some and ignoring others. In his sermon, he defined the sick as "all such as are in a state of affliction, whether of mind or body; and that whether they are good or bad, whether they fear God or not."

Second, Wesley denounced indifference and demanded involvement. He was appalled that the rich in his society were so unconcerned about the horrendous health conditions of the poor. Further, Wesley was adamant that visiting and caring for the sick was of the essence of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In his famous sermon "On Visiting the Sick" he cited Jesus in Matthew 25:36: "I was sick and ye visited me." Such a work of mercy was "a means of grace" and "necessary to salvation."

Third, Wesley stressed compassion, not condemnation, of persons who were ill. Lack of compassion and inaction in the Christian community to the global AIDS crisis stems in large part because of the church's negative attitudes toward homosexual persons. Now HIV/AIDS has become an "equal opportunity" disease, and is transmitted primarily among heterosexuals. Married women in the "two-third's world" are now the most vulnerable to contracting HIV/AIDS. Still Methodists show few signs of organized compassion and care.

Fourth, Wesley believed love was the way of salvation. Wesley spoke of love as "the medicine of life." People struggling with HIV/AIDS look to faith communities to offer prayer and care, hope and health and spiritual strength to deal with the ugly stigma and discrimination inflicted by an uncaring world. What the world needs is Wesley's "therapeutic grace," emphasizing the healing power of love for body and soul.

Fifth, Wesley was a champion of social justice, but did not wait for the political authorities to act. Wesley did not hesitate to chastise governments and society for their failures. For him ministering to the poor and their needs was included in the job description of every Methodist. If that is the Methodist mandate, why have not Methodists everywhere formed action agencies designed to reach out in healing ministries to persons living with HIV/AIDS? Why are programs specifically focused on global AIDS still the exception rather than the rule?

Sixth, Wesley sparked a major movement of behavioral change among the people called Methodists. Just as people must change their behavior in order to prevent and eliminate AIDS, church leaders also must change their own behavior: no more stigma and discrimination, compassion must replace condemnation, and involvement must triumph over indifference. General Conference 2004 must commit money to fight global AIDS, not just write another resolution calling on others to act. Both the official, churchwide General Board of Global Ministries and the unofficial Mission Society for United Methodist have declared that AIDS education, prevention, treatment and care must become a priority agenda in the church's mission.

Seventh, Wesley's understanding of Christian perfection prompted him to expect Methodists to be deeply involved in the world. Perfection did not mean fleeing from conflict or controversy, but to be in the forefront of the struggle for life over death, healing over illness, comfort over pain. In A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, Methodists can find a summons for engaging constructively in combating global AIDS. Wesley wrote: "Beware of sins of omission; lose no opportunity of doing good in any kind. Be zealous of good works; willingly omit no work, either of piety or mercy. Do all the good you possibly can to the bodies and souls of men."

The church of John Wesley is very late in getting involved, but for the sake of its own salvation, now is better than never. As an African proverb suggests, "The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The next best time is today."

The penultimate questions are "What would Jesus do?" and "What would John Wesley do? and "what should United Methodists do?" The ultimate spiritual question, however, is "what will I do?"

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*Messer is the Henry White Warren Professor of Practical Theology and director of the Center for Global Parish Ministry at Iliff School of Theology in Denver. He is also president emeritus of Iliff. He can be reached at

Commentaries provided by United Methodist News Service do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of UMNS or the United Methodist Church.

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