The worst epidemic in the history of the human race is presently taking place, and hardly anyone seems to notice—at least not anyone in this country. I refer to the AIDS pandemic, recently highlighted by U. S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s visit to Africa.
The statistics are frightening. It is estimated that sixteen million Africans have already died from Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, and that some twenty-five million more are dying right now. Nearly four million new cases are reported each year. Unlike America, where AIDS mainly infects drug addicts and homosexual men, the majority of people infected in Africa are women and children. The worst is yet to come. It is estimated that over the next ten years the disease will claim more than seventy million lives, or one quarter of the continent’s population. It is not hard to see why Nelson Mandela has described AIDS as “a threat that puts in the balance the future of nations.”
It was twenty years ago that Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome was first properly identified. Over the last two decades it has spread rapidly, to the point where it is now one of the world’s leading causes of death. Almost everyone is aware of AIDS, but there is still a question as to why the African epidemic has received so little attention to date. Part of the answer may be that for many Americans, African lives don’t seem to count as much, especially if the Africans in question happen to be black. But whatever the reason for this neglect, it is important for Christians to know what is happening in God’s world.
The big question, of course, is what to do about it. One of the striking things about most of the solutions that have been proposed is that they all deal with the symptoms of the problem, rather than with its fundamental causes. Few commentators seem willing to consider AIDS as a moral problem.
Everyone recognizes that the African epidemic is a health problem. As the true extent of the disease has become known, people have also said that it is more than a health problem. The U. S. considers it a political problem. The threat of social and political instability—especially in South Africa—could potentially threaten our strategic interests. This is one of the main reasons why Colin Powell went to Africa this week and announced some $50 million in U. S. aid. The African nations themselves consider AIDS to be an economic problem. The loss of skilled workers threatens the quality of their education, the productivity of their agriculture, the preparedness of their military, and of course the capacity of their healthcare system. AIDS is also a social problem. In coming years it will produce tens of millions of orphans. This will lead to malnutrition, illness, poverty, abuse, and—most tragically of all—sexual exploitation.
What is essential to add to all this is that AIDS is also a moral problem. With relatively few exceptions, it is spread through sexual intercourse outside the sacred bonds of marriage. Many African men leave home for extended periods of time seeking employment; sexual relations with prostitutes are common. The connection between AIDS and sexuality has led many Christians to wonder whether the disease is a form of divine judgment. Perhaps it is, or perhaps it is simply the natural consequence of sin, which always proves to be self-destructive. But in any case, the African epidemic is partly a moral problem.
This means that non-moral solutions will fail to provide the total answer. Drug companies are trying to develop an AIDS vaccine, but it is not certain when—or even if—a pharmaceutical cure will be available. In the meantime, medical treatments that help control the symptoms of AIDS are prohibitively expensive. The effectiveness of education and prevention programs is also limited. The hundreds of millions of dollars the U. S. has spent to help the African nations—supplying two billion contraceptive devices, for example—seems to have done little good. This is because the available solutions treat the symptoms of the problem without ever addressing its moral cause.
The best solution is good, old-fashioned chastity. This can be seen in Uganda, the one African nation that has had marked success in battling AIDS. Significantly, Uganda is also one of Africa’s most Christian nations, and church leaders there have been active in promoting the simple message of abstinence outside of marriage and fidelity within it. They have broken the taboo of silence surrounding AIDS by teaching sexual purity in a God-honoring way. If unmarried persons would refrain from sexual intercourse, and if married persons would remain committed to one partner for life, the problem would virtually disappear. The President of South Africa (Thabo Mbeki) was right when he said, “Nothing can prevent infection except our own behavior.”
The recognition that AIDS is partly a moral problem ought to strengthen our resolve to evangelize Africa. In recent decades more and more Africans have turned to Christ. Now they need to be discipled. When Jesus gave us our mission to the world, he said, “go and make disciples of all nations… teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19a, 20a). “Everything” obviously includes sexual ethics, instilling a sense of personal responsibility before God for what we do with our bodies.
My main purpose is to make you aware of the great suffering in Africa. Frankly, there is not much that we can do about it, but at the very least, we ought to be concerned. At Tenth Church we have begun talking about making the African epidemic part of next year’s Easter Sacrificial Offering. Certainly we can mourn the loss of life. We can also do what we always do when the world’s problems are too big for us to handle, and that is to pray, especially for the church. Nothing can give more lasting hope to Africa than the spread of the gospel.
[Information for this Window on the World comes from policy papers published by the Family Research Council, and from various information sites on the Internet, especially a series of articles posted on CNN Interactive]
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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Phil Ryken. © 2021 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org