October 20, 2014 / Theology
Peter J. Leithart. Shining Glory: Theological Reflections on Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Eugene, …
TOJ: What is your take on the G8 conference this past summer? Was it successful? What are some positive results of the conference and what are your critiques of the conference?
BW: Yeah, well in general I believe it was a positive outcome. Two things that we need to keep in mind, anytime you get together very senior leaders making pronouncements and agreeing to give money, whether it’s for AIDS or for developmental relief, whatever it is, it takes time for that money to work its way through the pipeline.
Each national structure has their own grids they have to go through, their own national structures, and their own bureaucracy. To get this money out to people, that will be a longer process, to see this money and these resources to come through the pipeline.
It will take time and it won’t be as much as they always promise it will be.
What I did like was the awareness that is being built among so many people around the world, both with the politicians and the media, the entertainment groups. Generally you saw the youth gravitate towards this which I think this is a very good sign—they are a bit more oriented towards recognizing injustices of this world, and they want to take action against those. I was encouraged by that, but it has to continue to materialize. As you know we all grow up and start to think about things like our future and our bank accounts, as we move away from the university and our educational settings. Building awareness is always important; that awareness pays dividends in the long run.
But the G8 was a good conference. I think the interesting piece is that you had a lot of the critics out there saying that this money will be filtered, it will be going in the wrong directions, it will be not achieving the goals that we have set out, we’ve invested a lot in the past, etc…
But I think here the critics didn’t have their way. People recognized that something important was being addressed. The critics were up against some pretty strong numbers as well. The critics are raising some critical and good questions, however, they cannot take away the intent of what the G8 is trying to do here, that is, to provide assistance to those that are literally suffering and dying everyday.
You can say what you want about the mechanisms, about past history, but is the past a good predictor of the future in this respect? I think the African leaders themselves have started to come to the table, they have felt pressure from both the critics and of the initiatives, and leadership all around is starting to stand up.
Now the U.S. has not come out with a lot of concrete commitments, just more debt relief, which is fascinating. But I think the U.S., well I won’t get political there because I used to work in Washington, I’ll stop myself, but I do think the U.S. has to do more in more concrete ways. We are doing some.
Our giving per capita is absolutely horrible, it is very low. You know, we’re at the bottom of the list of 22 countries here, 21st of 22, so we need to move that up. If the US moves that up, you always lead by example, and that’s why Blair is actually showing the way on this.
TOJ: You have said in regards to the AIDS crisis in Africa that “We’ll pay for it now or we’ll pay for it later,” while reminding us that the AIDS crisis is the biggest health pandemic in all of human history and the biggest since the black plague. Could you talk a little bit about the severity of the AIDS crisis and what you mean by your warning that we’ll have to pay either now or later?
BW: Now the black plague, if you look at it from a historical persuasion, it actually established the credibility of the church to meet the needs of the poor and the oppressed. Whereas now, religion isn’t necessarily associated with helping people at household and grassroots levels. So I think there could be an awakening to that aspect of the call that Christ called us to do, which is heal the sick, help the oppressed, and we have a chance to do that.
In the 1300’s…, well I went to Trinity Hall in Cambridge, which was established in the response to the black plague. And I think there will be a lot of responses that will be very positive to this crisis when history looks back on this time, if we mobilize.
But if we do not mobilize, then you go to the pay later. And the price tag in paying later will be enormous. Look at what is happening in any of the countries in Africa, in anywhere in the world that are in a hostile environment. Whether it be political reasons, economic reasons, or other. It accrues huge costs to the global society.
And right now we have the resources to combat the AIDS crisis, but if we don’t apply those resources now we will be paying immense, immense, immense sums of money [in the future], just to maintain some sense of stability in this world. And as you know, borders are very porous these days, porous borders and infectious diseases are now one of the highest national security threats at the NSC, and if we’re not containing the passages of HIV and AIDS, we doing a disfavor to our children.
So yeah we can pay now or we can pay later, and I don’t want the pay now to be some forced, contrived thing, I think it has to come from commitment and I think you will have to see sacrifice. So many people want the trickle-down economics of the 90’s to help the poor; it’s not going to happen that way.
As you know, democracies are risk-averse. Democracies do not allow leaders to get out and take very strong leads on very specific issues, it’s always moderation, it’s always finding the middle of the road and that basically is usually a good response when it comes to economics, etc…. but we’re faced with a global pandemic, we’re faced with something the magnitude of the Black Plague times three.
And here we are letting democracies, these major global players, to set the tone to dealing with this pandemic, and these democracies are risk averse. What leader is going to stand out and convince his constituency to make a huge investment in this, unless they do that together, unless they find the moral backbone? This is what I believe it comes back to: this is something that they believe in as leaders or they will not take those risks, nor will their parties nor will their structures allow them to take those risks, unless there really is a strong moral conviction.
You start to see Blair, you start to see Bush, they are both in the twilight of their careers, and they are sort of setting out their legacies here. And they’re finally starting to get it, let’s do something here, not just talk about it. So there is some hope there, but I think that civil society groups, whether it’s the entertainment world, or NGO’s or other charitable organizations, we all have to work with them and hold them accountable. But they are not the only solutions, individuals have to start finding means to give, it doesn’t have to be financially necessarily but it can also be helping to create awareness about this.
That is why the youth are so important. When the youth are given a cause and are given something that is worth fighting for, they will do it. With Jeffrey Sach’s Making Poverty History, they get that message. Even though it is a very complex world out there, so what, let them jump in.
TOJ: In Bill McKibben’s article this month in Harper’s called “The Christian Paradox,” he says, “Taking seriously the actual message of Jesus though, should serve at least to moderate the greed and violence that mark this culture, it’s hard to imagine a con much more audacious than making Christ the front man for a program of tax cuts for the rich or a war in Iraq. If some modest part of the 85% of us who are Christian woke up to that fact, then the world might change.” What do you think of that quote, that angle in calling Christians to wake up to how they are living and social awareness?
BW: I mean, tax cuts for the rich and more funding for the war in Iraq, you know those are the hot button issues of course on the political agenda. I mean, yeah, I would associate myself with a guy (who) was thinking along those lines, but I think that Jesus’ message penetrates deeper in that we take individual responsibility and family responsibility and faith communities… Jesus’ message is that transformation happens on the inside out, and then that transformation on the inside produces impact on the wider society.
I’m still one who says: Yes, if people are really Christian, if they have had that transformation…look I need to give more to my neighbor, love others as I love myself. I think they are getting closer to something that could connect their faith with these issues.
I was very interested in the Jubilee movement; it was not a hugely publicized movement except for in faith communities. People resonating with the message, and thought that this is the right thing to do. It really resonated deeply with people who were really committed and they took it forward and it had a lot of impact.
I wouldn’t appeal to the “85% majority Christian,” I think it could start as a subset of that group, of actually committed people. And others will be the “early adopters,” you know in social behavioral change, and it will move forward.
I’m just reading a book about Paul Farmer, the Harvard Medical Doctor, who spends 10 months of the year in Haiti. Here he is from a secular point of view, really pointing out basically the same issues. It’s called Mountains beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder.
That kind of quote from my perspective is really aiming itself at the political elites and of those in power. I really think that we need to start aiming our messaging for turning the tide on HIV/AIDS and poverty in Africa, and poverty in this world, at individual responsibility. And that is a hard message that is a tough message. It has to be delivered with a lot of nuance, not just beat them over the head with this message. People need their personal responsibility in front of them, and how you do that has been the big question. I think that happens from the inside out and it think that’s with leadership from the church and country needs to take to heart.
Here’s a very interesting example. Basically, 6 years ago you had people saying that we could only cover 5% of the world’s population with Anti-retroviral drugs (ARV’s). That was conventional wisdom at the time, that that’s all we can do. But all of a sudden, some advocates start saying that if we really cared wouldn’t we want to cover 100% of the world’s AIDS population so they can share the future with their children, so they can live a better life.
So now we’re saying that we should be providing 100%, at least that might be our goal, we might not get there but we should be on the pathway to get there. So there has been a quantum shift in people’s mental image. This is where “making poverty history” has some potential of shifting people’s thinking, why do we have to live in a world that is so unjust?
There are those who have some ability to do something about that, to make that connection. It’s not just about those who have the financial resources; you have to connect the wealthy, the educated, and the people who are living in poverty. So it has to be a movement, it can’t just be a political agenda or a religious agenda, it has to be a social movement.
If you get a social movement going, where people actually align themselves with this kind of thinking, it changes their mental image. First you have people with money saying here are poor people we need to help, and that realization is “blown up.” Then, secondly, you have the poor saying I’m in such a vicious cycle that nothing I do will get me out of this cycle of poverty, they need to “blow up” that mental image of theirs.
There needs to be a positive reinforcing message that affirms we can do something together. I’m starting to sound like a preacher here. For me, I think you have to move to a social movement, and the sort of writings I’m seeing these days that are motivated by a political agenda or an economic agenda don’t quite muster change, they don’t produce change in people’s lives.
What does produce change is moral persuasion, actually pitching to people’s conscious that there is an obligation here to take personal responsibility. It has to be done well, it has to be refined, and I encourage people along that pathway. But that’s the real way to change, the real way to social movement.
TOJ: Can you talk a little bit about Fukayama’s notion of social capital, and how that might help us better understand the devastating effects of poverty in the third world? Why might that notion be important in understanding social issues and also why poverty is so vicious?
BW: Yeah, as you know, Fukayama posits that if you have a society that has a high trust quotient, social capital, that society trusts each other more, they are able to do more together, they are willing to make sacrifices, they trust people that work with them to make change possible. Therefore, you can look at this from a crime perspective, from an economic perspective, from a social perspective, if people can trust each other they will actually do the right thing, therefore the collective well-being of the society improves.
If you get into a very very poor community, it’s incredible to see the degradation of trust that actually is resident there, especially in the more urban environments. When you get in the more traditional, ethnic environments, they still preserve that sort of societal trust, and that’s one of the things that have made them more resilient to the AIDS crisis right now, in the rural areas.
But what you see in the urban context is this huge erosion of trust; in America you also see this erosion of trust. The media in one respect actually does not help promote that trust, there is a fear factor there and politicians build on the fear factor. So you start to see that erosion of “can I really trust others?”
In the G8, and you know in the Live 8 everyone was saying “can we trust them?” And that’s why they didn’t go to raising money this time, because last time they did raise money and there was a lot of accusations that it wasn’t used very well, so how could we trust them again to be the stewards of donated resources, ‘cause they really are more of a group of entertainers, entertainment moguls, as opposed to charitable foundations.
So if you scale this down to the local level, to people who are living in Zambia. If you find that there is trust in households, that my brother would take care of our parents, my sister would care for my children, and you can be assured of that, you actually start to invest your resources with these people, and those types of things. You actually trust them with the little resources you have to help them better their lives because in case I’m ill and I know I’m going to pass on in this life, then I can pass that on. So this happens on a very rudimentary level. It could be seen in a community planting a community garden, where the benefits actually go to help HIV affected people, whether they are orphans or vulnerable children or those actually infected.
Then you take to a national level, and the whole national level donor scene is that if the donor monies are going to be allocated to the right places, then you have people more willing and a momentum that builds like the one you saw in Uganda, in terms of moving the infection rates down. They actually changed their mental image of what HIV/AIDS is, they trusted each other that they could make a difference together, and they moved forward.
But you have other countries that the skeptics say they’ll never get out of this vicious cycle of HIV/AIDS, and the message is repeated and repeated, and show them statistics that things are deteriorating.
Well guess what? Words make Worlds! And it actually spirals down because of this talk. So you need a change of people’s perspectives, which is why leadership is so important, religious leadership, political leadership, traditional leadership, to actually get on message, a positive message, one that builds trust within a community, and then I think this creates an environment for change. There needs to be a huge reversal here with HIV/AIDS. The trends are: I don’t trust my partner because he’s out playing around, I don’t trust my boyfriend or girlfriend because I know they have had previous sexual relationships, I don’t trust my brother because I know he’s not going to take care of my children; he’s going to take care of his own and I’m dying. It just gets compounded.
TOJ: So the evangelical world is getting involved with this issue, different leaders are getting involved, what do you like about what the evangelicals are doing and where are evangelicals missing the boat a bit?
BW: Yeah, well, I think it’s great that Evangelical leaders are trying to lead out in this area.
But its late, let me tell you, it’s VERY late.
But it is good change is coming.
There are a lot of simplistic messages out there in the Evangelical community, moving towards solutions for HIV/AIDS. That is the down side, they need to correct that. There is a lot of stigma being created by the church in North America that flows into Africa that basically this is a community that has the highest infection rate, and there are a lot of questions of morality, and commitment, and there is a lack of commitment to need to follow basic tenants of the Bible.
But there are many women; there are many children who are infected absolutely through means where they had absolutely no choice in the matter. So they send a condemning message. There needs to be a softening of that. Because what we need from the Church in Africa is to reduce to stigma related to HIV/AIDS and talk openly about sexually transmitted diseases, because if not, it continues to take place in the church and the church has an absolutely no different HIV/AIDS infection rate than the general public. So it just shows you that the church is not a leading advocate in the prevention strategy. Therefore, for me, again we don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past, and have a judgmental message or a condemning message. We want a message that actually resonates hope for people.
What if African pastors would go to their congregation and say “let us, everyone, go get tested for HIV, let’s all know our status”… say they come out and lead the way to finding out their status, and they don’t have to reveal their status, but show their congregation that they are doing that, once you know your status you take appropriate measures and you actually mitigate against the impact of HIV in their own personal lives and then that can feed into the communities?
There are some churches which are actually shining lights in that. The church in Uganda rallied and the leadership in Uganda rallied, there are certain other areas like in South Africa, they are now really trying to move in the church community.
So what we want the west to do, what we want the evangelical leaders in the west to do, is to actually come along side in compassion and care, demonstrating the love of Christ, as opposed to the judgment side of this equation.
What I want the Evangelical people to do though is FOLLOW THROUGH. Everyone is sort of awed by the immensity of this tragedy, this huge pandemic. But what they need to do is translate this into very concrete actions. It can be as little as giving a little bit of financial resource, it can be encouraging pastors in Africa to deal with this thing straight up, and it can be of influence in political leadership in the U.S. to give public funding for things.
There are so many ways Christians can be mobilized and I think there have been, I think it’s starting to happen more. They just had that meeting, where Clinton brought the Hybils and the whole gang down there, in Arkansas. This was basically a lot of Evangelical leadership here, and it was an excellent opportunity. There was a link from the church, to the business world, to the political world.
But basically in America, in World Vision we did a survey 4 or 4 1/2 years ago, basically it was a survey for Christians and they were asked to give for AIDS/HIV causes, what would be the likelihood of their giving? It only ranked at 4%! When they were asked to give for relief initiatives, like tsunami relief, it went up to 18-20%. What’s happened is that we have moved the needle, where the response is at 8 or 9 percent, so it’s moving up quickly, and that is very encouraging, it is good. People are getting concerned.
But again, how many trips back and forth can people make? I think they are helpful, although sometimes not the best use of resources. But you went over to Africa; you saw, came back and wanted to make a difference. And I think getting evangelical leadership and pastors into this environment is really helpful, seeing how African pastors are dealing with this and the complexity of this issue is really helpful, ‘cause then they come back with a different perspective. And this is something the church is going to have to stay with long term, because you can’t have the quick fix, there are no immediate quick fix options. There has to be a long-term commitment, and the church has to take the lead.
TOJ: When you talked about simplistic messages, are some of those around the condom issues…
BW: Yeah it is, there is too much insistence on talking about condoms, and it is such a social hot point here in North America. Let me tell you what, there are women in Africa who need to be protected by a condom in Africa because they don’t know where their husband has been. And are you going to tell me that condoms are not to be used? That’s absolutely nonsense!
If people are HIV positive themselves, you can re-transmit the disease quite easily; they need to be protected during sex. There are so many ways that condoms can be appropriately used not violating the premises of scripture. And then to make general statements about the effectiveness of condoms, it just isn’t helpful. Not to say that there isn’t some substance in their message, but why are they using this issue as a keystone? It’s not the big issue.
The big issue is what do people believe and think about HIV/AIDS and taking their own individual responsibility for stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS. That is where the Christian message actually resonates. Condoms is a sidebar, yeah there is some validity to some of the messaging being put out there, because condoms are 100% safe, that’s for sure and condoms in every context could encourage earlier sexual activity, but the key here is that condoms are minor issue of what the overall Christian message should be. And Christians keep majoring on the minor.
The issue really needs to be: what can the church do to provide love, care, and support and how to arrest the infection rate. As we know, there are still over 5 million people being infected every year and 3 million people dying. We are not at all winning the battle of HIV and AIDS. If the church was mobilized, we would be a lot better.
TOJ: You’ve talked about the need for a social revolution, what does that evolution tangibly look like in Zambia?
BW: There needs to be messaging from leadership, political and religious, traditional leadership in Zambia. The first point is key messaging to the people. Secondly, what needs to happen is a greater flow of resources, less payment on arrears, and then we need to invest that into education and healthcare.
I would love to see the church in Zambia more proactive in caring for the poor in their community. That would be a huge step forward. There are a lot of people that are doing a lot, but there could be more done. And then I think that we really have to continue to invest in the research that demonstrates evidence of major change; we have to know what makes the difference in HIV/AIDS.
Still, I believe, Zambia’s rates dropped in the late 90’s, then stabilized, and now increasingly a little bit, and no one can explain it. Again, Uganda is going to face some serious changes in the future.
To be honest, you have to get a message of hope to the people, a practical demonstration of how life can be better. Just before I left [for my trip to the U.S.] we had a distribution of blankets because it’s the winter time down there, its cool, real cold out. And just taking blankets to the households where people were living with HIV/AIDS, actually getting sacks with food to the households so people can actually have something to eat; it was a huge, huge encouragement. We then distributed seeds so they can get out and plant because it is the dry season right now, they could go plant seeds in their gardens for vegetables. It was a huge, huge, encouragement for the people.
If they see tangible hope from a care volunteer coming, we call them “orphans and vulnerable children caregivers,” or there are home based caregivers for people who live with HIV and AIDS. They actually come to the homes and see what is going on, give them counsel and advice, that if they do things this way they will reduce the suffering they are currently experiencing. Your children will be alive longer if you improve your nutrition, if you take these kinds of drugs then you’ll do better. They can then do so much more.
Actually protrimoxidal, it’s actually a low grade anti-biotic, one of the most mildest anti-biotics, if everyone who was living with HIV/AIDS went on the that drug, we would actually have a reduced infection rate, it would also help these people stay alive longer. There are a lot of tangible, simple things that can bring hope. If they don’t see any assistance coming, they give up.
Poverty is grinding and the suffering is immense, so they will give up. So what you have to do is have very tangible things going in there, distribution of gifts-in-kind, things like shoes and clothes to the caregiver to distribute to the children. These make wonderful encouragement to everyone; these are the kinds of things that actually make a difference in the big landscape of policy change, and national issues. You have got to bring hope to a household level. That’s where organizations such as World Vision and others who are out there are absolutely brilliant in doing such things, and change starts at that level.
Bruce Wilkinson (formerly the senior vice president for international programs at World Vision) is the director of “RAPIDS” in Zambia, which stands for “Reaching HIV/AIDS Affected People with Integrated Development and Support.” RAPIDS works in an integrated fashion with other HIV/AIDS projects funded by the U.S. government as well as with the GRZ and with communities. The RAPIDS program is a consortium of five NGO partners: Africare, Catholic Relief Services (CRS), Expanded Church Response (ECR), Salvation Army and World Vision.
Chris Keller is Founding Editor of The Other Journal and a psychotherapist in Seattle, Washington.