The Justification of Rock Hudson
AIDS has a dual message for Christians.
If the Star or National Enquirer had broken the story people would only have smirked as they passed through supermarket check-outs. But there it was on TV: Rock Hudson had a gay disease (he died Oct. 2). The tall, dark, and absurdly handsome star of such late fifties cream puffs as Pillow Talk was frighteningly sick with the leprosy of the eighties. The leading man who, by the time the credits rolled, always got Doris Day had gotten AIDS.
TV newscasters in Southern California simultaneously drooled and looked concerned. Some offered edifying speculations: Would Dynasty’s Linda Evans sue Rock for putting her at risk with TV kisses? Others tried to make news of their own lickerishness for Hudson tidbits: Had they sufficiently respected his privacy? Virtually all telecasters assumed the familiar posture of trading on a stigma while lamenting it.
Major news magazine accounts of the Hudson AIDS disclosure have shown a similar approach/avoidance conflict. Most accounts report—and then criticize as cruel or paranoid—the suggestion that AIDS may be God’s judgment on homosexual promiscuity. Such suggestions are called “homophobic.” On the other hand, all reports concede that AIDS really is something to fear. For one thing, the number of cases is doubling every ten months. For another, the scourge’s victims include not only gaunt, scabby refugees from San Francisco bathhouses but also bewildered hemophiliacs infected by contaminated blood. Some are children. Several tainted youngsters have been denied admission to schools. They are, after all, unclean.
Here is an awkward situation for secularists. Pop humanism follows Bertrand Russell in assuming that all fear is bad and that the notion of sin, like religion generally, is one of the products of fear. Both are gauche, tacky, irrational. One gay advocate, author William Hoffman, suggests that an alarmed public think of AIDS as “just a disease, not a moral affliction.” Still, because this menace is ravaging the gay community and raging beyond, scientists must be mobilized, money spent, war declared. Once more, technology must be trusted to clean up after the party.
The paradox is revealing. Humanists retain their poise; humans are scared to death. Hence the media treatment of the big Hollywood story of the summer of ’85 amounts to a lite justification of Rock Hudson: tragedy without tragic flaw; hopes for remission of disease but no prayers for remission of sin; fear without phobia; danger without wrongdoing; poised alarm; no-fault scandal; technological sanctification.
What does one make of it?
Perhaps two things. First, serious Christians are reminded by the AIDS phenomenon that God is not mocked. When someone sins, someone pays. A seed wrongly sown may yield a bitter harvest. Happy heterosexuals who ignore their spouses and children cannot hope for solid homes. Nicotine-stained souls should not be surprised by the dreaded report that one day comes back from a lab. We should all know by now that drunkenness yields hangovers and deaths, greed produces stress and enmity, promiscuity issues in disease. The notion that we shouldn’t bother our heads over private immorality (the kind that “doesn’t hurt anyone”) suddenly seems naïve and fantastic.
When misery follows hard after sin we are reminded that divine prohibitions and judgments are in fact a merciful early-warning system. None of us—gays included—can hope to live as we want without taking sin’s wages. It is not in the nature of the universe. Thus the sprightly beer commercial asks a question veteran Christians can answer: “Who says you can’t have it all?” God.
In a recent article, psychologist Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen reminds those who will not listen to the voice of God in Scripture that there is the more muted, but often devastating, voice of God in history and nature. Special revelation warns against drunkenness, greed, and adulterous discarding of faithful spouses—but so does general revelation. The Bible condemns sexual promiscuity. So does AIDS. Indeed, in a remarkable altering of lifestyle, street-wise gays have concluded that promiscuity is life in the wrong lane.
Fertilizer For Smugness
Second, the current furor is a nutrient for growing Christian smugness. Journalists traffic in scandal, but so do we all. And once again God is not mocked. If there is divine judgment on unrighteousness, we may take God’s word for it that there is also, perhaps more severe, judgment on self-righteousness. For those of us not tormented by the appetite for promiscuous sex, a more sinister temptation gleams—the desire to toss and gore public offenders until the last rag of their humanity has been shredded. The need to be warmed and comforted by the sins of others puts us at final risk with God as surely as if we traveled the fast track on the streets of San Francisco.
In fact, our risk is likely to be greater. Self-loathing, ostracism, and the fear of death may turn a trembling AIDS victim toward the tender mercies of Jesus Christ. But those who are robustly hetero-monogamous have no need of a physician.
The misery that comes from human fallenness typically evoked not Jesus’ condemnation but his compassion. He asked for the chance to eat with sinners. Nobody else did. He touched lepers. Nobody else did.
True, Jesus also warned against sexual wrongdoing. To the woman caught in adultery he said, “Go now and leave your life of sin.” She had been doing wrong. Jesus told her to stop.
But to the teachers of the law who had snared this squirming sinner in order to inspect and discuss her, Jesus turned with penetrating irony. Look at your own hands, he said in effect. Are they clean?
It is a grave mistake to underestimate sin and strive for no-fault moralities. Lite justification is yuppie style-over-substance ethics: to explain is to excuse.
But it is an even greater mistake to underestimate and regret the reach of divine compassion. Sin is not acceptable to God; repentant sinners are. The word for accepting sinners is justification, a health benefit of the painful work of our Lord. Tainted people come clean by faith and the transfusion of Christ’s blood.
The terrible irony in all this is worth pondering. God has justification for the ungodly who cling to Christ. He has none for the self-righteous.
CORNELIUS PLANTINGA, JR.Dr. Plantinga teaches at Calvin Theological Seminary.
In 1976, Erika Earnhart’s number came up. Her lottery number, that is. And with it came $1 million, providing an annual income of $50,000 after taxes. Her heart-breaking story since then includes two divorces, a child-custody dispute, alimony payments, and debts piled on debts. She often borrows from the bank in anticipation of her next lottery check. Had she known the future, she says, “I’d have torn up that ticket, or put it in someone else’s name.” She still plays the lottery, hoping to win and catch up financially.
A lottery may be fun for some players, but government-sponsored lotteries are not wise public policy. Nor are they moral. Lotteries prey on the public, creating false expectations and manipulating those who cannot afford it to waste their substance. Lotteries are not created just for those who already want to play. They are promoted and advertised in a frantic effort to attract more and more customers. Says Pennsylvania lottery spokesman Ray Shaffer, “If you don’t add a new product, sales would … fall. That’s why we’re not in [the original lottery game] anymore. You have to upgrade or add.”
The irony in all this is that while some government agencies spend time and money to promote the work ethic, another part of government deludes citizens with the dream of being an “instant millionaire.”
Sociologist Mark Abrahamson explains: “The same state that urged people to stay in school, seek job training, and persevere through hard work and sacrifice also encouraged the fatalistic belief that people’s lives could change dramatically if their numbers came up in the lottery. The state was selling one message with its right hand and another with its left.”
More irony. Gambling addiction has mounted in states with legalized gambling while the government is often called on to treat victims. The New Jersey State Lottery Commission has made a $75,000 grant to research the nature of compulsive gambling.
The major argument in favor of a state lottery is that it provides a relatively painless way for government to raise money. But it is actually an expensive way to tax. Only 40 percent of the revenue goes into something other than the lottery, the rest paying for prizes, administration, and advertising.
Another factor is the unknown but undoubtedly high cost of gambling addiction. Victims sometimes turn to crime to support their schemes, writing bad checks and abandoning their families.
Proponents of legalized gambling claim that it helps reduce illegal gambling and the related influence of organized crime. But in their study of Atlantic City’s gambling operations, authors George Sternlieb and James W. Hughes conclude: “Gambling of any kind encourages more gambling. Far from feeling the sting of competition, illegal operations find more clients.”
Lotteries may look harmless, but on close examination they turn out to be injurious to both government goals and private well-being.
“Everyone’s a winner,” the Illinois lottery advertises. But even the winners don’t necessarily live happily ever after. Ask Erika Earnhart.
RUSS PULLIAMMr. Pulliam writes editorials for the Indianapolis News.
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