In the summer of 2009, I spent two months as a missionary overseas in a country with beautiful yet dying people. AIDS has taken over Swaziland, making it the most AIDS infected country in the world with over 44.2% that are HIV+. The population fell from 1.1 million two years ago than less than a million this year – which means the people are dying faster than they’re being born. Having been back from the country for quite some time now, I have had much time to meditate on the disease and the consequences for the Church as it goes out with the Gospel. In this blog, I will seek to explain the what, where, when, how, and why of the disease known as AIDS and it’s implication for global Missions. I will end this blog with a brief proposed solution for the Church as it seeks to minister to those affected by this great crisis.
The acronym “AIDS” is a common feature of our culture. We see it on TV, hear it taught about in the public schools, and many people are threatened with the possibility of it if they indulge in premarital sex within the Church. What does it actually mean? AIDS stands for Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome. Acquired means that the disease is not hereditary but is contracted from coming in contact with the disease-causing agent (HIV). Immunodeficiency refers to the nature of the virus and where it attacks (the body’s immune system). Syndrome refers to a list of symptoms which characterize the disease. There are currently 39.5 million people worldwide infected with the deadly disease. AIDS has already killed 25 million people since it’s discovery. The crisis has infected more people than the second world war killed thus deserving the distressful title of a pandemic.
It is important to have an adequate understanding of the origin of the disease nationally and internationally in order for the Church to sufficiently address the pandemic. In June of 1981, the CDC treated five homosexual men in Los Angeles with a rare form of pneumonia (Pneumocystis Carinii or PCP). Two months later, the CDC reported over 100 cases of this rare PCP or a special cancer (Kaposi’s sarcoma aka KS). By November 1982, over 600 new cases were reported. The epidemic began doubling every six months. The disease went by two names: acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) and gay-related immunodeficiency (GRID). No one knew what caused the disease or where it came from. At first, the newly discovered disease seemed to only be affecting homosexuals, drug users, and prostitutes. The government began to pour large amounts of money into the research of this new disease once other constituencies began to become infected. In 1983, it was revealed that AIDS was caused by Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). It was soon discovered to be affecting not only the U.S. but most of the world, especially the Global South. Researchers scrambled to find out the exact location of where this deadly disease first began.
In early 1983, seventy-seven monkeys that shared a cage at the California Primate Research Center in Davis, California developed AIDS-like symptoms. All the monkeys died as-well-as sixty other monkeys at Harvard’s New England Regional Primate Research Center. They traced the locale of where the primates were taken from leading them to West Africa. Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV) or African Green Monkey Disease was soon discovered in a large population of the primates. The virus is a few mutations away from the newly discovered HIV. Someone likely ingested monkey meat that wasn’t fully cooked that was infected with HIV. SIV mutated into HIV. As early as the 1950s, HIV was discovered to kill a small number of people in Central Africa (Rwanda, Uganda, Zambia, Burundi, Congo, Kenya, and Tanzania). The disease spread like wildfire through the Sub-Saharan region of Africa and eventually spread to other parts of the world. The Sub-Saharan region of Africa currently has a little over 28 million infected people.
HIV is one of the most complex viruses to be discovered in the modern era. HIV is in the family of viruses known as lentiviruses, or slow viruses. Once the host is infected, the HIV attacks T4 lymphocyte cells, Helper T cells. Helper T cells are your target cells of the immune system. When the immune system is compromised, your body sends out Helper T cells to combat the foreign agent within your body. The HIV virus bonds with proteins within the Helper T cells called CD4 proteins. The HIV replicates the RNA with itself replacing the original with the virus. The newly created DNA, which now carries the genetic code for the virus, is then incorporated into the host cell’s own DNA, where it begins the process of creating new viruses. When a disease or virus attacks the body, the Helper T cells multiply and spread the HIV virus all over the body. As cells divide to defend the body, the HIV is destroying the body. This process takes up to ten years if the immune system is fully functional because the body’s infected cells do not outweigh the number of uninfected cells. There is presently no cure for the virus.
Antiretroviral drugs (ARVS) are medications for the treatment of infection by retroviruses, primarily HIV. ARVS slow the process of protein binding preventing the virus from replicating itself. The virus eventually becomes immune to the antibodies found in the drugs. The virus is spread through contact with mucus membranes and bodily secretions: semen, vaginal secretions, blood, and breast milk. The virus spreads rapidly due to sexual promiscuity, drug use, blood transfusions, and inadequate methods of medical help. The effects on the society are utterly deafening. The virus completely wipes out the worker population of a country or region. It also physically, emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically destroys entire families, communities, and even generations. What is the Church’s response to such a mass global crisis?
I propose that the Church do seven things to address the global problem of AIDS. The first thing the Church should do is repent. The Church should repent over how it views this crisis. The Church must see that the story of AIDS is not about epidemiology, economics, or statistics. Rather it is the story of pain, anguish, fear, and neglect. The Church should repent of its widespread apathy. It’s neither the government’s role to show God’s love nor the secular agencies and rock bands. Bono, the leader of the rock band U2, has done more for AIDS globally than the Church. Apathy is not an option when God’s glory and people’s souls are at stake. Lastly, the Church should repent of the arrogance concerning God’s will and judgment concerning this disease. When the disease first broke out in the early 1980s, many fundamentalist Christians immediately made a direct link of the epidemic with God’s judgment upon sin. Some still persist in this line of thinking. I will admit that there is sometimes a direct link between God’s judgment and human sinfulness found within Scripture (Luke 13:1-5; minor prophets). But, there are also times in Scripture when sicknesses and diseases are not caused by the personal sins of a man or woman (John 9:1-5; story of Job). It is true that, biblically, sometimes, people do die because of their sin. However, it is always true that people die because of sin. If the Church is to be effective as it focuses on AIDS, it must repent of it’s past sins.
The second admonishment is the Church must go to these people and spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ to them. AIDS victims should be protected as-much-as possible from the deadly effects of the disease but should be even more protected from God’s wrath towards their sin. The Gospel is the answer to man’s ultimate problem of sin. The Gospel has the power to heal spiritually, physically, emotionally, and psychologically those wounded by AIDS. A program the Church adopts to address AIDS that doesn’t offer the hope God offers in His Son will not ultimately prosper. The Church has the greatest and only solution to brokenness, diseases, and pain…the Gospel message of Jesus Christ.
The third suggestion is the Church must support mass education concerning the diseases and it’s causes. We should actively debunk the various lies about AIDS found even in our culture: you can contract HIV from sitting on a toilet seat, you can get HIV from a water fountain and someone’s saliva, only homosexuals and drug users get AIDS, and you can tell by looking at someone if they have AIDS are all false. Education is a necessity because ignorance breeds a quicker death. An example of this is the African potato debacle. A prominent African leader told his country that the African potato would cure AIDS without any scientific basis whatsoever. Unfortunately, the African potato actually lowers a person’s Helper T cell count within the body making the disease spread quicker. Ignorance also breeds more sin. A very popular myth circulating around Africa says that if one has sex with a virgin, he will be cured of AIDS. Clearly, this does nothing but spread the disease and cause the rape of thousands of more women and young girls. Education is vital in this fight.
A fourth proposal in the fight against global AIDS is the Church’s duty to help remove the stigmatism of the disease. Once someone is infected with AIDS, the person is immediately ostracized from his or her family, friends, and community. It’s also viewed as God’s judgment or always their fault for contracting the disease. From personal interaction with AIDS victims in Swaziland, I want to adamantly assert that it is not always the victim’s fault when it comes to contracting AIDS. How can someone say it is the infected person’s fault when the victim is a faithful wife to an adulterous husband who brought the disease back into their marriage bed? Who’s fault is it when a child is born with AIDS because of an infected mother? Who’s fault is it when a child contracts AIDS from the breast milk of a mother who has to feed her child the only food she has? Who’s fault is it when a young girl is forced into sexual promiscuity because of a lack of the basic resources of life such a food, shelter, and water? I would also want to ask whether or not fault mattered to Christ? He healed demonized people without condemning them of their sinfulness (Mark 5:1-20; Luke 8:26-39). He healed men and women afflicted with leprosy (Mark 1:40-45; Luke 17:11-19). He healed people bowed down with all kinds of sins, diseases, and afflictions without harsh condemnation. The Church should remember that we were all once victims in this world as well. As one Christian passionately said:
In this world you are an orphan, eagerly anticipating your adoption as God’s child. In this world you are a widow, longing for reunion with your Bridegroom. In this world you are a stranger, a pilgrim waiting to become a citizen of heaven. And in this world, God has called you to care for the orphan, the widow, and the stranger.
The stigmatism must be removed if the Church is to respond to this crisis.
Fifthly, I admonish the Church to pray and fast for victims of HIV/AIDS. Our hope is never in the craftiness of our programs or proposals, but in our sovereign God who controls, sustains, and preserves all things (Col. 1:13-21; Heb. 1:1-3). We can speak about AIDS, but if we refuse to pray, fast, and weep for the victims of this calamity, what real heavenly worth do we have? Who or what are we trusting in? Before we go to the nations, we must hit our knees as we labor against this deadly disease.
The last two admonishments are to continue to speak/act on behalf of AIDS victims and creatively care for the widow and orphan. Staying silent is not an option as this pandemic claims the lives of millions of people made in the image of God. Dietrich Bonheoffer once said “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” May we act accordingly to the Gospel call of undefiled religion that consists of caring for the orphan and widow while keeping ourselves pure (Jas. 1:27). The Church must advance in personal holiness and social justice. A divorce of personal piety and social justice is a divorce from the Christian life Christ has called us to.
Hopefully, these seven proposed admonishments add light to the solution to the problem of global AIDS as it concerns Missions. The pandemic of AIDS matters because, ultimately, people matter. We are called to go make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:18-20). Disciple-making becomes difficult when the possible disciples are wasting away from a horrendous evil. Let us continually remind ourselves that when we take care of the “least of these,” we are actually taking care of Christ (Matt. 25:31-46). The Church must act. As Bono once said “History will judge us on how we respond to the AIDS emergency…whether we stood around with watering cans and watched while a whole continent burst into flames….or not.” God give us the strength to fight this!
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