Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

On the day after World AIDS Day, the displays that blocked the way into the main door of the student center lie on their sides, somewhat torn and soiled, ready for disposal. I read the names and brief biographies of some of the very many who have died with the dread disease. The last line in each biography is the most carefully phrased. It refers to a way the particular victim will be remembered: Arthur Ashe’s wife still plays tennis . . . Robert Reed can yet be seen in reruns of the Brady Bunch . . . Cleve Jones, a San Francisco gay activist, will live in perpetuity on the “name quilt” that apparently was his idea. These are the saints of AIDS, whom, we were told with great fervency, we cannot forget, even as now they lie awaiting campus clean-up.

Ours is a Catholic institution of higher learning, Jesuit Catholic. Our students are perhaps too familiar with the symbols of their church to recognize their pattern elsewhere. The saints of AIDS, the symbols of our AIDS awareness (ribbons, red ones of course), proclamation of the news about AIDS, the recitations of the creeds of AIDS, whereby we confess our belief in the saving power of medical research and the efficacy of the knowledge of infection control, and, dare I say it, the distribution of the sacrament of AIDS, offered freely to all comers: wafer-sized, yes, but not to be consumed but unrolled and applied for protection.

Should I worry about the consuming effect the zeal of AIDS might have on a campus such as ours? I’m quite sure we’ve been spared the real zeal that burst out on many other campuses better known for their PC fervor. I suspect our university joins in these events primarily because we want desperately not to be left behind. Scranton’s is a real campus, we’re hoping, even if it is in Scranton and governed by a Jesuit who almost always wears his collar. Mind you, for myself, I was just as glad that I had no scheduled classes on AIDS day, and so escaped the scrutiny of those on the lookout for red ribbons. But there have been thought police before, and they will come again. Those of us who feel as aliens amid the solemnity of a World AIDS Day may wish for a more comfortable space where our own rituals predominate, as we suppose they once did. But if we are true to these rituals we will know that they do not teach us to rule others as others might rule us, but rather to witness to the truth even as we know it will be rejected, by thought police and many others, of any generation.

No, what is most unsettling about World AIDS Day is not the threat it poses to those of us whose sensibilities hold us back from full participation. It lies rather in the shallowness of AIDS symbols themselves, and of the generation that fixes upon them with such desperation. To return to the latex wafer, one might observe that the protection it affords witnesses clearly enough to the fact that the point of AIDS awareness is not to follow after young Cleve Jones, brave soul that he may have been, but rather to avoid his sad fate. We honor Cleve at the same time that we endeavor to teach others how to be unlike him, even if only by being one step more careful in their acts of communion with others, keeping their fluids to themselves.

The saints of AIDS are united in nothing but their mode of death, a point Arthur Ashe saw, and objected to. As such, they fail to offer us any corporate wisdom about how to live. Their remembrance becomes, therefore, completely sentimental: we wish they hadn’t gotten AIDS and died, we hope we won’t get it, and we demand more funds for a cure for those suffering souls who fall in the empty space, between us and the saints. World AIDS as such cannot change our lives. As a day, and no more, it reminds us first to protect ourselves from AIDS, and from communing too closely with others in the process, while at the same time it assuages our guilt at being one of the lucky ones by encouraging us to “remember” the saints of AIDS, about whom we know almost nothing but that they had it.

It is required of Christian saints that they die as they lived. With Jesus, their death bears witness to the power and truth of their lives, and, also like Jesus, remembering them requires of Christians that they recognize that following the saints in life may well mean following them in death. But as Christians also claim, only such a death can bring true life, for it does not teach us that we should live protected from others whom we fear might cause our death, but rather in communion with them, even if this might kill us.

This is a lesson far more difficult to learn. I read recently of a Christian, Dale Recinella, who has learned it. A graduate of Notre Dame Law School, Dale quit his job as a securities lawyer in Tallahassee after the “Holy Spirit fell upon him like a ton of bricks” to help out at the Good News Ministries. There encountering his first AIDS sufferers, he was gripped by “a tremendous revulsion,” for he felt he had to “protect his family from them.” Now he works with people with AIDS daily, seeing more than one through to their deaths. Others besides Dale, not all Christian and not all heterosexual, also have learned this lesson, perhaps as they cared for the likes of Cleve Jones, quite unaware of his AIDS sainthood. Yet with all due respect to the power of the saints and the efficacy of the sacrament, I suspect precious few of us, on this campus or any other, learned anything like what we really need to know about AIDS on World AIDS Day.

Charles Pinches teaches in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Scranton.