Africa’s AIDS Orphans

At last month's World Bank and International Monetary Fund meeting in Washington, delegates addressed the impact of AIDS on sub-Saharan Africa. Citing the economic impact of the crisis, the World Bank pledged more money to help countries cope with the epidemic. Well, that's a start, but it won't be enough. The scope of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa boggles the mind. In 1998, 2.2 million people in the region died from the disease. It's estimated that between 12 and 25 percent of all people between the ages of 15 and 49 are HIV-positive. Even sadder is the impact of the epidemic on what are known as "AIDS orphans." An estimated 10.4 million African children lost both parents to AIDS during the 1990s. That number is expected to double or triple by 2010. When their parents die, the fortunate ones get to live in an orphanage, like the Salvation Army's House in Johannesburg, South Africa. It shelters thirty-eight children under the age of five, all of them AIDS orphans, and all of them HIV-positive themselves. Those who don't live in orphanages end up living on the streets. The unfolding tragedy in Africa cries out for a Christian response—a response that tells the truth about the causes of the tragedy (that's crucial) and a response that reflects Christian compassion. Reverend Eugene Rivers of the Azusa Christian Community in Boston has formulated such a response. As he told Books & Culture, the AIDS epidemic in Africa, and the millions of orphans it has produced is a "sexual holocaust" that threatens to create "a biological underclass of children who are born HIV-infected." Unlike some American activists who downplay, if not deny, the link between sexual mores and AIDS, Rivers places "promiscuity... infidelity, and rape" at the heart of this epidemic. Any solution to the problem, he says, must include a "biblical vision of human sexuality and behavior and responsibility." As he notes, the pandemic is a "powerful argument" for the biblical view. That's not politically correct, but Rivers is right on target. But this is still not enough. In addition to leading a "public discussion around behavior," Christians also need to become active in helping African nations cope with the crisis. Rivers cites issues of debt forgiveness and development assistance. He also points to the need for oversight to make sure that any assistance reaches the people—a reference to the corruption that has plagued post-colonial Africa. In Matthew 25, Jesus asks lots of questions about how we cared for "the least of these," His brethren, but not a single question about anything else. The message is inescapable: Our response to those who are suffering will, to a large degree, determine God's response to us. If we turn our backs on this tragedy, we in effect turn our backs on Him. On the other hand, if Christians respond to Eugene Rivers's challenge, it will be a powerful reminder to our neighbors about why the world needs Christianity. Christianity not only motivates people to alleviate the suffering caused by human sin and folly, it can also prevent that suffering in the first place. And that's something the world needs more than money.


Chuck Colson


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