Urbana 2006 and Mission through the Lens of AIDS

9:43 pm | Uncategorized

This week I am at the Urbana 2006 Mission Conference, being held this year in St. Louis Missouri. It has been an interesting time to meet students from around the world and talk with them about their missional intentions that will have a major impact upon the direction of their lives. Many different tracks with seminars being held all over the St. Louis area - most of which are downtown and within walking distance of each other. Earlier today I attended a lecture by Chad Thompson to a standing room only crowd on the subject of “Loving Homosexuals as Jesus Would” - which is great because as much as I have talked about his work, I’ve never actually heard him speak. A couple of years ago I had preordered a copy of his book “Loving Homosexuals as Jesus Would” as we were planning a major campus based outreach to the LGBT community at the University.

Even the dinners have been specially themed to emphasize certain things from the conference - tonight’s dinner was a simple bowl of food resembling oatmeal - a corn-soy blend - that represents all the food that someone living at the subsistence level in Africa and suffering from AIDS might be fortunate to have. A small card told the story of Ndondana in Zimbabwe, who cannot adequately work his land due to the advance of AIDS in his body, even with the help of the children in his family. This emphasizes one of the tracks of the conference - Mission Through the Lens of AIDS - and money saved through the meal is being contributed to the Urbana Offering Fund.

This is not a new development unique to Urbana. One of the recent journalistic treatments of growing interest in AIDS by Christians is Nina Shapiro’s article in the Seattle Weekly, “The AIDS Evangelists”, which focuses attention on the efforts of Rich Stearns, head of World Visions American division, in his efforts of “waking Christians to the fight against AIDS.” Other programs, such as drawing attention of Christian to World AIDS Day this past December 1st, and large scale awareness programs of the ONE Campaign are mentioned as well.

However, this newfound interest of Christians with the AIDS epidemic (with the vast majority of attention being given to AIDS on the African continent) is troubling to me for a number of reasons. It appears that this new effort against AIDS is part of a crusading mentality in the Christian church. Responding to a crisis, Christians are seeking to tackle AIDS by their own strength rather than relying upon the gospel - and doing great harm in the process.

The first matter to contend with is the use of James 1:27 as a proof-text for Christian AIDS support. Most Christians are familiar with this passage where James makes clear in no uncertain terms: “Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their misfortune.” Often missed is that the passage continues: “and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” While it is true that AIDS has caused tremendous suffering to widows and orphans, are those touched by the AIDS epidemic more deserving of God’s grace than those that are widowed and orphaned by war, genocide, famine, and other diseases? AIDS is a politically charged disease, without a doubt, and its importance is magnified not so much by the damage it has inflicted, but by the political priorities of our day. By allowing ourselves to make priorities on who we should serve, we as Christians have become stained by the world in this matter, and should go back to ministering to the widow and orphan without making special exception for a politically charged disease. Christians should not allow politics to determine their mission. Despite protests to the contrary, this is exactly what has happened.

The fact is that AIDS should not be the first priority of the Christian missionary - obviously, the gospel should be. But beyond that, it seems that it does not deserve second priority, either, as AIDS is only one of the many problems being faced by the African continent, and its scope has been overstated:

How AIDS in Africa Was Overstated: Reliance on Data From Urban Prenatal Clinics Skewed Early Projections

Kigali, Rwanda - Researchers said nearly two decades ago that this tiny country was part of an AIDS Belt stretching across the midsection of Africa, a place so infected with a new, incurable disease that, in the hardest-hit places, one in three working-age adults were already doomed to die of it.

But AIDS deaths on the predicted scale never arrived here, government health officials say. A new national study illustrates why: The rate of HIV infection among Rwandans ages 15 to 49 is 3 percent, according to the study, enough to qualify as a major health problem but not nearly the national catastrophe once predicted.

The new data suggest the rate never reached the 30 percent estimated by some early researchers, nor the nearly 13 percent given by the United Nations in 1998.


Years of HIV overestimates, researchers say, flowed from the long-held assumption that the extent of infection among pregnant women who attended prenatal clinics provided a rough proxy for the rate among all working-age adults in a country. Working age was usually defined as 15 to 49. These rates also were among the only nationwide data available for many years, especially in Africa, where health tracking was generally rudimentary.

The new studies show, however, that these earlier estimates were skewed in favor of young, sexually active women in the urban areas that had prenatal clinics. Researchers now know that the HIV rate among these women tends to be higher than among the general population.

On matters of AIDS prevention, trench lines have already been dug between those favoring safe sex approaches (such as condoms) and those who will not tolerate mixed messages and want only abstinence taught. A middle ground position that has developed is the ABC approach, emphasizing Abstinence, Being Faithful, and Condoms, and attempts to appease those on different sides of the debate. However all three positions have a fatal flaw. Air dropping condoms into Africa will not cure AIDS. But neither will teaching them the ABCs or scaring Africans into abstinence with the fear of disease. The reason is simple: Neither approach adequately addresses the epidemiology of AIDS. HIV is not spread primarily by sexual contact.

For many people, to argue that HIV does not spread primarily through sexual intercourse represents a major paradigm shift. People recoil in shock and horror at the suggestion that the transmission of HIV could have other causes. Such a conclusion flies in the face of conventional wisdom, and begs that we soberly consider the case:

Michael Fumento Why is HIV so prevalent in Africa?
Fumento points out the following:

“The chief reason it’s so hard to spread HIV vaginally is that, as biopsies of vaginal and cervical tissue show, the virus is unable to penetrate or infect healthy vaginal or cervical tissue. Various sexually transmitted diseases allow vaginal HIV infection, but even those appear to increase the risk only by about 2-4 times.”

Fumento asks “[I]f vaginal intercourse can’t explain the awful African epidemic, what can?” After discussing several possible vectors for the spread of HIV, Fumento notes the following:

Yet almost certainly greater – and more controllable – contributors to the African epidemic are “contaminated punctures from such sources as medical injections, dental injections, surgical procedures, drawing as well as injecting blood, and rehydration through IV tubes,” says Brody.

You don’t even need to go to a clinic to be injected with HIV: Almost two-thirds of 360 homes visited in sub-Saharan Africa had medical injection equipment that was apparently shared by family members. This, says Brody, can explain why both a husband and wife will be infected.

For those who care to look, there are many indicators that punctures play a huge role in the spread of disease. For example, during the 1990s HIV increased in Zimbabwe at approximately 12 percent annually, even as condom use increased and sexually transmitted infections rapidly fell.

Or consider that in a review of nine African studies, HIV prevalence in inpatient children ranged from 8.2% to 63% – as many as three times the prevalence in women who’d given birth. If the kids didn’t get the virus from their mothers or from sex, whence its origin? Investigations of large clinical outbreaks in Russia, Romania, and Libya demonstrate HIV can be readily transmitted through pediatric health care.

Lacking adequate aseptic techniques, the most obvious means to prevent the transmission of HIV is to make readily available single use sterile needles to clinics throughout Africa in large enough numbers that their use will be widely adopted. Such needles - already inexpensive in the West - are designed to be used once only. After an injection the needle will not function and can be treated as medical waste. Otherwise, needles will continue to be “recycled” but improperly sterilized, and HIV spread will continue unabated. Lacking this and other proper aseptic techniques, HIV transmission and AIDS cases will continue no matter how much effort is put in educating people in the ABC’s.

None can doubt the sincerity and determination of the many Evangelicals who have championed the cause against AIDS, from Rich Stearns to Bono to Rick and Kay Warren. But sincerity and determination, while admirable traits in themselves, can never achieve the wisdom necessary to properly direct effort. To put it simply, Evangelicals have started caring about AIDS in Africa with all their hearts and all their strength, but have left their minds out of it - and this does nothing to glorify God.

World Vision will bear much responsibility in not taking the epidemiological issues in AIDS spread seriously enough, and thereby diverting essential resources into wasteful programs that will prove ineffective. It is a burden that has been further complicated by donations by the Gates and Buffets that will further perpetuate the situation for many years to come. For myself, the scandal of Evangelicalism’s treatment of AIDS will be in how that despite their great effort, they will fall far short of their goals, and possibly make the tragedy of AIDS in Africa far worse for their good intentions.




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