Arthur Ammann, M.D., is a pediatric immunologist and advocate known for his research on HIV transmission in women and children and his role in the development of the first successful vaccine to prevent pneumococcal infection. Dr. Ammann is the founder of Global Strategies and is the author of three books. He’s here today to talk about his latest book, (in)Visible, which is about “how Jesus leads us to discover people who are of value to Him so that they might be transformed as better for having met us.”
In (in)Visible you write, “Christians, in particular, when confronted with issues of justice and equity, must ask themselves two questions: “For what purpose have I achieved my position of power?” and, “Could it be that the wealth I have achieved was not just for me but so others can have the same opportunities as I’ve had?”
Of course, most of us don’t perceive ourselves as “powerful” or “wealthy, ” yet we are all confronted with issues of justice and equity. How might those of us who see ourselves as everyday folks use our lives to discover and transform those around us?
How we perceive our own value depends on whether we accept a definition that is imposed on us or one that is defined by God and accepted by us. Influences that come from the outside—the media, the corporate world, education, and even religion—put before us images that would have us believe there are only a small set of individuals to address issues of justice and equity. They are the wealthy and use their wealth to invoke change or urge others to invoke them; they are the powerful and address issues of justice by means of political solutions; or they are famous and use their fame to call attention to issues of justice and equity. Individuals—“ordinary people”—are left out or made to feel that issues such as equity and justice are best left to the experts and the technocrats. The teachings of Jesus tell us otherwise. They are counterintuitive. The Beatitudes talk about weakness, mercy, peacemaking and compassion—these are the characteristics of those to whom “the earth belongs.”
The Gospels provide us with examples of individuals in the shadows, some of whom were deemed not valuable, yet they brought about change. Jesus focused on individuals because it is within an individual that the sense of justice must begin—even within ordinary individuals. There are issues of justice and equity in our everyday life, within our families and our communities, and we have the power to change them. Love, compassion, and forgiveness are not characteristic of governments or social organizations, but they are the characteristics that individuals can use to transform those who surround them. We encounter issues of justice and equity every day and see the pain and suffering that can result from the seeming indifference. We can bring about justice and equity whether it’s paying a higher wage to a day worker; going deeper into a conversation with someone who is neglected, overlooked, ignored, or trivialized; or helping someone who is facing the barriers of gender, race, education, or poverty.
You have traveled throughout the world, witnessing the sickness and even death of those suffering from illnesses that would be medically treated in the United States. How has this impacted your faith and led you to view your own role as an individual in a position of relative power?
Much of what has guided me is reading about the life of Jesus and how he responded to the issues that he encountered. Certainly, at the time he journeyed through Israel, he saw the great pain and suffering of disease, political oppression, the impact of misguided religious zeal, the judgment of the arrogant against the poor, and extensive religious and gender discrimination. While he healed many, there must have been thousands he did not heal. When we see overwhelming evil, injustice, and oppression, or when we encounter diseases that destroy individuals, families, and even communities, our first reaction may be to ask why or even, as is so common today, to question the existence of God. That has not been my reaction. The very existence of disease and injustice argues for God, not against Him. God has given us the intellect, the ability, and the vision to overcome evil and bring about justice. It is we who have chosen differently.
Just as Jesus did not cure every illness or respond to every problem, I do not believe that we are called on to resolve all of the issues of injustice in equity but we are called upon to respond to those who enter our path. As I travel through some of the poorest parts of the world what I hear most is that individuals do not believe that there are others who are concerned about them. They have encountered reformers and alleged transformers, but their everyday life remains unchanged. Providing health care, food, and shelter is a part of what we can do. The other part is responding with compassion and love that is visible and that is derived from the love within us. I see so many of the interventions of large international organizations ultimately fail because they promise cures but instead bring programs that are materially and technically based. While they may solve some of the immediate problems, they do not provide long-term solutions that are sustainable. Often they do not even involve the people who are most affected. If we are to truly help people, their opinions must be respected and they must be given the dignity that conveys the concept of respect that goes beyond a disease and into the very heart of what people desire—dignity and respect that are coupled with love and compassion.
Some religious beliefs foster superior and inferior roles—and thus devaluation of certain individuals—especially along gender lines, using religious texts for justification. What is your response to that interpretation and teaching?
It is discouraging to see how quickly individuals deviate from the teachings of Jesus. One cannot read the Gospels without concluding that Jesus included women in almost everything that he did. He often pointed out how women were selective recipients of discrimination by self-righteous religious leaders. Jesus could have spoken in more general terms about gender and differing religious beliefs but he did not. He deliberately pointed out the virtues of women and allowed them to be an integral part of his ministry. If one digs deeply into most religious teachings, it is difficult to find support for the suppression and devaluation of women. The tragedy is that Christianity should have led and should be leading now to protect women from social, economic, political, physical, and sexual oppression. But it has not. Christianity is not alone in suppressing the rights of women and denying them their dignity. It is also acted out in other religions that deviate from their traditional teachings. It can be changed if Christian leaders lead the change, not by tokenism, but by real believable change that provides examples within Christianity.
You write that, “those who find their value or identity in power, wealth, or fame without addressing issues of justice and equity are doomed to leave their own value undiscovered.” What do you mean by this?
There is sadness about many of those who are powerful, wealthy, or famous who are blinded about the issues of injustice and inequity that surround them. Uneasy about what they have, they drive even harder to get more but continue to remain aloof and indifferent to issues that could bring them greater satisfaction. Individuals who ignore issues of justice and equity, but have the capacity to change them, are dismissing the value of others. Discovering the value of self is like looking at a reflection of others and seeing ourselves—if we do not see sufficient value in others to address injustices we will not see our own value. In the end, when we lose material things we regain our real purpose and meaning.
Can you recount a personal experience of being transformed for the better by someone traditionally labeled as “without value?”
Perhaps one of the most enduring experiences, one which is recounted in my book, is that of a poor and elderly South African woman who lived in a Cape Town Township. A Township is where poor people live and in this country we would call it a slum. I had met her briefly during a program that had been established for widows to help them earn money for self-support. With the skills that she had been taught she was able to generate a small amount of income and had been saving for years for one thing: to buy the land needed to build a home of her own.
During the program administered by a group from a church in California, I watched the women participate in training and make items that could be sold to provide them with greater independence. At the end of the program we sang with them and prayed, thanking God for all that he had done. As we began to leave the building, she asked if we would like to accompany her into the Township to see her new home. The Township was not an area that you would normally enter without some assurance of safety, but I somehow felt that she would provide the safety needed and so we walked through the dusty streets and past the debris surrounding collapsing shacks cluttering the landscape. As we walked arm in arm, I glanced at her smiling face, which conveyed confidence and pride.
We arrived at her “home, ” entered through a rudimentary door and stood in the middle of the room from which we could see a sofa and a few pieces of furniture. Our host planted both feet firmly in the middle of the room, and still holding my arm, she proudly announced, “This is my home and God gave it to me.” I will never forget that experience. It was the least likely place and perhaps the least likely person to teach me what a home really was. It was a place of shelter and safety where you could even invite strangers to share what little you had. I recount in my book how the vision of that poor elderly South African woman flashes before me whenever I drive past a gated community or announce my arrival at a home and watch a massive gate open before me, before I can even get near the front door. If there were signs on doors, hers might say, “Come in – welcome.” What I learned from her was the importance of sharing what we have. It is not waiting until what we have to share is perfect, or the best, or the most extravagant, before we let people into our lives.