Sunday, August 5, 2012

Christian AIDS Conference at Georgetown University, Part II

The Summit on the Role of the Christian Faith Community in Global Health and HIV/AIDS took place on July 25th at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. As mentioned in part I, the summit was sponsored by several prominent Christian charities and took place alongside 2012 International AIDS Conference in Washington D.C. A video of the summit is available here.

The summit webcast left me with conflicted feelings. On one hand, I was moved by the genuine compassion many speakers had for those devastated by the HIV pandemic. Their attention to HIV's forgotten victims, calls for collaboration, and pragmatic observations were all powerful and authentic. However, I was troubled by the right-wing messages that crept into some of the speeches, particularly the anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric of Joshua Banda.

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Kent Hill, senior vice president of World Vision's international programs group, moderated an HIV expert panel that featured Eric Goosby, Bruce Wilkinson, Christo Greyling, Elioda Tumwesigye, and Kazadi Mwayabo. Hill asserted that no organization or government has the networking capacity of faith-based community, stressing the importance of involving faith communities in HIV work. Also, Hill stated that no other entity has the power to change values and circumstances, inspire people, or motivate behavioral change quite like faith communities.

The panelists spoke warmly of the faith community's efforts toward HIV prevention. One of the most positive comments came from Christo Greyling, World Vision director for HIV and Infectious Diseases. At the 57:14 mark, Greyling urged service providers to put aside doctrinal differences and affirm the worth of every person.
"As people of faith, we might differ on what is right and what is wrong, what's acceptable or not, what is sin or not, but what we cannot disagree on is about the worth of every human being, young and old, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, believer or nonbeliever, heterosexual or gay, drug user or coffee drinker. In that, we agree that all people, all of us have the basic right to life, to treatment, to acceptance, and to support, the right to be free of stigma and discrimination, free of judgement. To achieve this as [a] faith community, we need to do this together with people living with HIV, together with decision-makers so that we can set aside our differences and renew our commitments to work together."
The panel devoted much discussion to the importance of "behavior change" alongside medical treatment, including abstinence promotion, monogamy promotion, and delaying sexual debut.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) delivered a speech on the importance of foreign aid and HIV efforts in Africa from a pragmatic perspective. He spoke positively of U.S. foreign aid and private philanthropy in Africa, including that of faith-based organizations, asking listeners, "If it's okay for your church, why isn't it okay for your government?" Sen. Graham praised former President George W. Bush as a "political hero" for creating PEPFAR. Unconventionally, Sen. Graham encouraged HIV efforts in Africa as a means of resisting radical Islam at the 1:21:01 mark.
"Radical Islam is on the move. We need to kill these bastards before they kill us, but you can't kill 'em all, so the best way you can affect al-Qaeda and these other groups that are roaming around in Africa is to give the population some resources and hope so they can say no. So from a national security perspective, an effective foreign policy program that has a foreign aid component can do more good than a brigade or a whole division if you spend your money right. So what I want to do is deny the enemy, radical Islam, a foothold on the continent that is very much in play."
At the 1:21:45 mark, he also encouraged foreign aid and HIV efforts in Africa as a means of U.S. opposition to Chinese economic hegemony.
"Don't give the entire continent over to the communist Chinese ... They're raping the land. They're bringing in Chinese workers to do jobs that the people of Africa should be doing. They're using corrupt government officials to steal the resources of the next generation. Wouldn't it be nice for America to have a footprint in Africa, and when you power Africa, American companies are doing it? There's a tremendous business opportunity in the continent of Africa, and the only way you'll be successful is to show up and fly the flag."
More political leaders addressed the audience, including Arizona Senator Trent Franks (R-2nd District) and former President George W. Bush via video. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-Louisiana) spoke of the importance of family and the care of children as they relate to HIV. She emphasized the need to provide care for orphans created by the HIV pandemic, which has decimated families in Africa and India.

A second panel featured prominent governmental and faith leaders, including USAID director Raj Shah, Global Health Initiative executive director Lois Quam, Food for the Hungry president David Evans, and Saddleback Church founder Rick Warren.

Warren claimed that the Christian church contains more toleration than other groups, in that divergent parties can successfully collaborate on important projects without being in "lock-step". He asserted that to end AIDS, service providers must go through local churches because churches are the only thing one finds in every village in the world. The Christian church, he insisted, is the largest organization in the world, and it can address the HIV pandemic much cheaper and faster than any other entity.

Unfortunately, Rick Warren also succumbed to the persecution rhetoric that is all too common among some evangelical Christians. He stated that while he is not a feminist and does not agree with secularists and Muslims, he is willing to work with those groups on common issues. At the 2:28:41 mark, Warren complained that other groups do not want to work with Christians, even though Christians are willing to work with them.
"What I don't understand is, I'm as a Christian far more willing to work with other people then they are willing to work with me. What I find is the government wants to force me to change my beliefs. I'm not asking anybody else to change theirs. I'm saying, 'I can work with you on this issue. Why can't you work with me without insisting that I stop being pro-life or whatever my position happens to be?' So I really think you have to find areas of agreement and say, 'let's work on this even though we don't agree on this.' That's the issue."
The problem is, many conservative Christian organizations aren't willing to work with other groups, particularly LGBTQ and pro-choice groups, at least not in a respectful manner. Conversely, LGBTQ persons and pro-choice voices may be loathe to collaborate with conservative Christian organizations because said organizations oppose their rights. This is the uncomfortable answer to Warren's conundrum.

The last and most controversial member of the second panel was Joshua Banta, senior pastor of Northmead Assembly of God church in Lusaka, Zambia and chairman of Zambia's National AIDS Council. Banta's strident anti-abortion rhetoric is what drew my attention, as well as the attention of the Washington Post. At the 2:19:14 mark, he had this to say.
"With the much money that we have benefited as Africa from taxpayers in America, Europe, and elsewhere, there's been a downside. Some of that money is still on the continent. Some of that money now is being targeted towards the adolescents that others talked about here, but targeted in a slanted manner to push our adolescents towards what is being called empowerment for them to make a choice, but really causing our adolescents to make choices that take away their lives rather than build them. It is the clash of our faith with a purely medical and purely health science approach toward sexual/reproductive health rights. I stand for sexual/reproductive health, but not in the manner that says to my daughter, 'when you're pregnant and you've made a mistake, go ahead and make the choice to throw away the baby.' That money is destroying Africa, and I stand here to say that as faith leaders, we should not apologize for the wholesome approach that we take towards prevention in promoting abstinence, promoting secondary abstinence, and promoting faithfulness."
Banda encouraged a strong anti-abortion stance for African HIV efforts, adding that "Jesus is supporting this cause." The fact that many African girls and women might benefit from access to safe abortions, and may even require them as life-saving necessities in some cases, was not considered. Nor did Banda consider the dangerous impact that underground abortions are having on African women in countries where abortion is illegal.

At the 2:30:07 mark, he also condemned calls for African countries to repeal laws that criminalize homosexuality, insisting that such calls for LGBTQ rights are "disrespectful."
"The requirement by your government to force us, for instance, in Zambia, in a predominantly Christian nation which has even declared itself Christian, to change our laws in order for us to reach for instance the LGBTI. I am a bishop. I have sat at the table with gay people. Because of my being a policymaker in the AIDS area, I conversate with them without even throwing my religious tag at all, because everyone needs to be listened to. People are people, period. But, in order for me to express this, it is incorrect, almost disrespectful, for your government to insist that we change the laws in our country."
Banda argued that the HIV epidemic in Africa is mostly among heterosexuals, not gays. I'm not sure what Banda's point in saying this was, as the demographics of HIV do not erase the injustice of homophobic laws.
"The science is simple. The epidemic has to be understood. Most of Europe as well as America had had a largely ... homosexual epidemic. Most of Africa, including Zambia, has had a largely heterosexual epidemic. There are some things we can do on both ends in terms of interventions, behavioral change ... [which] can work in heterosexual arrangement because that's the same principle. But to insist that Zambia, which has the law in terms of homosexuality as a criminal offense, must change that law in order for it to say that they are reaching the minorities in that sexual orientation, is wrong."
In short, Banda branded calls for LGBTQ rights across the globe as "disrespectful" impingements on African autonomy and as somehow irrelevant to the struggle against HIV. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Laws that criminalize consensual adult same-sex sexual behavior are not only unjust, but obstructive to HIV activism. For example, in July, the Global Commission on HIV and the Law released a report slamming anti-LGBTQ laws for driving vulnerable populations underground, away from critical health services. Discriminatory, homophobic laws benefit no one, and certainly do not benefit the struggle to end HIV.

The Summit on the Role of the Christian Faith Community in Global Health and HIV/AIDS was a revealing look into faith-based advocacy and the HIV pandemic. The summit offered a glimpse into the passion, resourcefulness, and determination of Christian charities and policymakers. Unfortunately, it unwittingly revealed obstacles to fighting HIV, such as the homophobia and anti-abortion sentiments of some African faith leaders. These strengths and liabilities must be taken into account by service providers as they tackle HIV and serve its many victims worldwide.


  1. Your dedication to bringing us first hand reporting on these events is simply awesome. You are someone I look up to Ahab.


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