WASHINGTON, Feb. 20 (UPI) -- A seemingly double image of the church has emerged during the Rev. Franklin Graham's impressive International Christian Conference on HIV/AIDS in Washington.
On one hand, self-righteousness seems to have contributed to American evangelicals' slow response to the global catastrophe, although Graham, 49, avoids saying this lest he sound condemnatory.
In an interview with United Press International, Billy Graham's son attributed this "shameful" phenomenon to a lack of information about "what is going on outside this country." In other words, U.S. evangelicals are primarily focused on a society where "one is considered poor if one does not have a color television set or two cars."
On the other hand, there is the permissive mainline churches' caginess in speaking out against the promiscuity that causes this disease, which has afflicted 40 million people worldwide.
Clearly, from a theologian's point of view, the proper balance between law and Gospel has been upset here. Liberal Christianity tends to unilaterally void God's law -- the violation of which has brought about this greatest health crisis in human history.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer called this kind of mind-set "cheap grace" because it foolishly assumes that the Gospel, e.g., the liberating message of man's justification before God by grace through faith in Christ alone, has rendered the law obsolete.
Cheap grace is the delusion that one is righteous just by believing, without acting accordingly. If moral behavior is the fruit of faith, then its absence indicates a barren belief.
But as Franklin Graham rightly says, one must not be judgmental. So let's leave the ethical minefield of the permissive church that is easy on the law and heavy on the Gospel.
Let's concentrate instead on the wing of the church that is at times too heavy on the law -- in the sense of self-righteousness -- and therefore perhaps too light on the Gospel.
This can lead to an absence of the fruits of faith, in the present case the absence of compassion irrespective of the kind of sin that is at the root of the AIDS catastrophe.
As Franklin Graham said, "We are all sinners. I am a sinner. When Jesus healed he never asked about the causes of a disease. He healed and said, 'Sin no more.'"
The Washington conference, called Prescription for Hope, was really about discipleship in precisely this sense. The Rev. Angelo D'Agostino, who runs an orphanage in Kenya for children whose parents have died of AIDS, illustrated this basic Christian approach beautifully.
He told UPI about an interfaith conference on HIV/AIDS in Kenya where he stressed the believer's duty to help -- without judging the sick or their children.
"After me, a Muslim cleric spoke and said the exact opposite. AIDS was the result of sin, so why bother?"
But as always in the diffuse realm of religion, a rule of thumb such as Christians help even sinners, Muslims don't, does not necessarily apply.
Annie Saakje, a Dutch missionary who runs a home for AIDS babies in Malawi, told this columnist how during Islam's holy month of Ramadan Muslims bring her abundant amounts of food.
"Hindus, too, come with gifts. But guess what? Christians don't," she said.
"We have had the same experience in South Africa," concurred the Rev. Christo Greyling, a Dutch Reformed pastor from Stellenbosch, who is HIV-positive as a result of a blood transfusion. Greyling is a hemophiliac.
Greyling spoke angrily of the self-righteous attitude of fellow church members. "It makes me furious when they tell me, 'Of course we have compassion for you but not with those others have brought this upon themselves.' "
"This way of thinking is the very opposite of what Christ is saying. He teaches unconditional love, such as he practiced it himself."
In this sense, Graham's conference, most of whose 919 attendees from 87 countries are conservative Christians, has doubtless given the church a jolt.
The conference made it clear that no international or national bureaucracy will be able to combat the global HIV/AIDS crisis.
"The church must take lead," Graham said. "We need a new army of men and women who are prepared to go around the world, to help in this battle."
There were plenty of men and women in the Washington Hilton whose lead these new Christian combatants could follow.
There was Greyling who, sick with AIDS due to a blood medical error, has dedicated the remaining years of his life to fellow AIDS sufferers.
There was Annie Saakje, once a woman of wealth who now lives in one of the world's poorest countries surrounded by children dying of the dreaded disease in one of the world's poorest countries.
There was the Jesuit priest and psychiatrist, Angelo D'Agostino, who at age 76 is starting a brilliant new venture -- a "City of Hope," where the elderly will raise their dead children's children because the young adults have all vanished in the AIDS pandemic.
There were Roy and Avis Rideout, missionaries who have built a home for 100 HIV-infected children in Thailand and adopted kids like Nikki, a 10-year old girl with full-blown AIDS who, when she is particularly sick, sleeps between them in their bed.
There was Sen. Bill Frist, R.-Tenn., a surgeon who in his spare time flies to Africa to operate in a hospital run by Graham's Samaritan's Purse organization. He promised to introduce legislation that would allow Americans to do what the Rideouts have done -- adopt HIV-infected children from overseas.
The conference, Prescription for Hope, might well turn out to be the cradle of a vibrant new church that differs from the permissive church of cheap grace and self-righteous church shirking from the stigma of sin attached to the worst plague in the history of mankind.
This new, interdenominational church will actually be the oldest ever. For it will follow Christ who said, "Judge not lest ye be judged" -- the Christ who healed first and only then admonished humans: "Sin no more."