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A silent church = death: a critical look at the church's response to HIV/AIDS.

The HIV/AIDS epidemic in the world is rapidly escalating, especially among the countries that designate themselves as Christian. For almost two decades, HIV/AIDS control and prevention in the world have focused on programs that evaluate how individual actions conform to scientific guidelines for HIV transmission. For example, in Kenya, following the first documented case of HIV/AIDS in 1984, health education programs aimed at enhancing public knowledge of the risks of HIV infection and promoting safer sex practices were put in place. Information on the nature of HIV/AIDS, including the major modes of transmission of the deadly virus, was disseminated through posters, pamphlets, mass media, and the electronic media.

There are a few faith-based organizations--Map International and Association of Evangelicals in Africa as well as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kenya--that have attempted to deal with the HIV/AIDS epidemic concretely. However, on a larger scale, the church in Kenya is engaged in leadership squabbles, nepotism, and primarily preaching to convert people to their denominational strands of life.

The church's response to the epidemic continues to be characterized by fear of contagion and ostracism of the infected and affected, and much less by protecting people from infection. Fear of contagion has led the church's ministry, once aimed at prevention, to the creation of exclusivist congregations. For example, in response to the myths surrounding HIV transmission, most congregations continue to change the sacrament of Holy Communion by substituting individual cups for a common chalice in the distribution of the wine in order to protect people from virus carriers. In some cases, the church offers false security by treating the ostracized "risk groups" (homosexual men, intravenous drug users, and prostitutes) as the only ones affected by HIV/AIDS.

The church's response to HIV/AIDS has been slow and mostly coupled with judgmental and exclusivist spirits. In fact, with a few exceptions of either congregational ministrations or individual Christian undertakings, we may talk about "the absence of the Church in the AIDS crisis." (1) Even in cases where the church has tried to respond, it has portrayed the epidemic as just another public health crisis likely to pass away once a vaccine or a cure is found.
Probably a change of heart will come eventually when the desert
community at the grassroots level realizes the destructive nature of the
HIV/AIDS pandemic and takes appropriate remedial steps. The solution
will come not from outside but from within the community. We outsiders
may point the way to solutions, but we cannot impose them from outside.
Hopefully, when they are ready, so will we. (2)

While the church may be coming to terms with the impact the epidemic is creating among the infected and the affected, it will take a long time to restore well-being among those affected. The church has been reluctant to be at the forefront in forging a compassionate response to those infected and affected, because HIV/AIDS is categorized as a sexual disease. This has meant that churches react in different ways. In Kenya, a few Christians are providing compassionate responses; others lag uncompromisingly behind. Most churches have committed themselves to education on safer sex, while others openly oppose condom use or even the discussion of sexual practices that are associated with the spread of the virus.

A silent church = death

As we critically evaluate the church's prevention and care ministries, it is important to remember that "the powers of evil are very great, and silence is its voice." (3) To choose to remain silent is almost declaring that the church is part of the epidemic. Even when the church has spoken or acted in some contexts, often it has humiliated the suffering neighbor more.

Churches that proclaim the word must not be lost for words in the face of HIV/AIDS. Why do they remain silent? The church in Kenya remains hesitant to tackle challenges raised by the epidemic such as cultural and sexual practices that require public discourse by the religious community and African traditional communities. At the same time, the church continues to embrace a self-righteous attitude that this epidemic does not exist in the church. The infection rate and devastation that the epidemic is causing in Kenya, however, should cause the church to worry more than any other organization or institution.

The church must fight to overcome the spirit of silence. However uncomfortable it may be, it must wake up from slumber and take its role in AIDS prevention and care. Because the church's belief has been that HIV/AIDS affects only the so-called risk groups, any attempt to respond to the crisis has been seen as affirmation that a Western lifestyle is being practiced among the African peoples. In the beginning of the epidemic, the church chose silence. It was unwilling to reopen the debates surrounding sex, disease, and conversion. The first victims of the epidemic were outcasts of the communities--homosexual men and persons of color (Haitians and Africans). Church leaders around the globe issued inflammatory sermons, speeches, and publications condemning promiscuous groups of people. However, the World Council of Churches sensed danger as the HIV/AIDS spread throughout the world, observing that "the AIDS crisis challenges us profoundly to be the church in deed and in truth; to be the church as a healing community." (4) The WCC identified pastoral care, preventive education, and social ministry as immediate effective responses.

However, the world church body failed to detail how the response was to be achieved among member denominations and especially within local congregations. Thus, prevention, care, and treatment were sought only for women and children. Because men were the ones designing relevant strategies against the epidemic, there was a conspiracy of silence, a refusal to see HIV/AIDS as an issue among men. This may be the reason behind the concerted efforts and programmes by most African governments to prevent HIV/AIDS among women and children but not among men. Officials from the Kenyan government's Ministry of Health advised the government not to attempt to attend to the men whose infection may have resulted from engaging in homosexual practices.
The Ministry of Health does not intend to allocate resources to HIV/AIDS
interventions for men who have sex with men.... The only Kenyan men who
engage in homosexuality are those who are in special circumstances which
drive them to have sex with other men. Men having sex with a man occurs
in schools, prisons and other institutions where the men have no access
to the opposite sex. It is not really a sexual preference for Kenyan
men. We have other, far more pressing areas which affect the majority of
our people and therefore need urgent attention. (5)

There is a clear indication of how the church has responded to the correlation that has existed between sex, disease, and conversion. The correlation is found in the way HIV/AIDS has struck many communities in Kenya, whereby illegal sex would lead to disease and conversion become the only healing way provided by the church. The correlation between sex, disease, and conversion has resulted in many victims. The assumption is that if one was a member of a given congregation, he/she is exempt from HIV, since this virus is transmitted only in those involved in illegal sex, which could not involve church members. The nineteenth- and twentieth-century missionary stereotype images of African people continue to be heard in the twenty-first-century church's response to the epidemic as analyzed by a Roman Catholic missionary in Kenya:
Much ignorance still exists, especially among the nomads, concerning the
origin and spread of HIV/AIDS. Widespread addiction to local alcoholic
brews makes the problem even more intractable. Many drinking sessions
are but the preliminary steps to irresponsible sexual encounters in
which the fear of HIV/AIDS ceases to be an effective deterrent. (6)

However, to assume that HIV/AIDS is targeting only those who have not become Christians is an abuse of theology. The history of the church in Kenya reflects its unwillingness to confront the subjects of sex and spirituality before HIV/AIDS struck. Hence, the tragic consequences the AIDS epidemic is causing not only in individual lives but also in communities and churches is just the tip of the iceberg in a future that may find populations decimated.

As the church throughout the world was soul searching as to how to respond, the WCC in 1994 commissioned a comprehensive study to be done by a Consultative Group on AIDS. For the first time, the Consultative Group of the world church body focused on theological and ethical issues raised by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. (7) A decade later, the WCC reported reluctance and discrimination by the body's member denominations. Indeed, the church did not stand with the victims but rather ostracized them.
As the WCC executive committee noted in 1987, "through their silence,
many churches share responsibility for the fear that has swept our world
more quickly than the virus itself." Sometimes churches have hampered
the spread of accurate information, or created barriers to open
discussion and understanding. Sometimes [churches] have reinforced
racist attitudes by neglecting issues of HIV/AIDS because it occurs
predominantly among certain ethnic or racial groups, who may be unjustly
stigmatized as the most likely carriers of the infection. (8)

The fact that churches have not been willing to do battle against the HIV/AIDS epidemic raises major concerns about the church's theological and ethical beliefs. The churches cannot claim ignorance on the epidemic. History reveals that wherever an epidemic has arisen among the disadvantaged of society, churches have not been at the forefront to champion prevention and care. In most cases, unless "those that matter" within church circles are infected and affected, the church starts to raise eyebrows. The churches have not remained faithful to the gospel in taking the lead in articulating the best possible preventative measures against HIV/AIDS. Even after twenty years of this epidemic, churches are still silent, and when they have spoken they often have shared in the promotion of negative, judgmental, and condemnatory attitudes portraying HIV/AIDS as a disease of sinners. Indeed, HIV/AIDS has become a spotlight that exposes many iniquitous conditions that have shrouded the church in history, especially issues of human sexuality.

The negative-oriented approach to sex in the history of the church means to some denominations that the appearance of HIV/AIDS is God's judgment against promiscuous living upon all humankind. Indeed, the negative theological imaging of sex meant that churches were not ready to reconstruct its victim theology. However, it seems that even the WCC affirms that as early as 1982 in Africa, AIDS was known to be transmitted by having many sexual partners, regardless of gender, and contact with blood--hence the negative belief that "patterns of sexual networking in Africa are also different, and more dangerous, than in other places." (9) In fact, the presence of HIV/AIDS calls us to look and discern our identity as people of God and reminds us not to throw stones at others.

The diversity of the church in Kenya has come about because of the different denominations and nations that planted the church. Colonial missionary evangelistic boundaries created in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries continue to hamper Christian unity. In the HIV/AIDS era, the divisions and differences have marred coordinated and concerted efforts in responding to the epidemic. The response of the church in Kenya sometimes has been with a helping hand, other times with a closed fist. Because of this, those infected and affected would not seek help from the church or let the rest of the faithful know, because they stopped going to church.

The silent church is the church that issues negative responses toward the epidemic and those affected by it. In a spirit of self-righteousness and a belief that monogamous marriages would withstand the waves of the epidemic, the church's message distorted the truth as the virus spread unabated. Because the church from the beginning condemned polygamous marriages and consecrated monogamy as one with monotheism, many polygamous families felt threatened as churches targeted them for conversion as the only strategy against the spread of HIV/AIDS. This is well illustrated by the Methodist Church in Kenya's spokesperson, whose approach in dealing with those affected would remain a thorn in the denomination in the future.
For now, we can only encourage our people to be practical in their
Christian living i.e., for couples to maintain the principle of one man,
one wife. Christians who break this holy vow cause concern to the Church
and to the society they serve. They should not be surprised if the
Church also takes steps to discipline them to save both their physical
body and soul from eternal fire. (10)

While this spokesperson for the Methodists in Kenya seems concerned about "Christian" polygamists, there is no call to repentance for the church's strategies that undermine the dignity of all people. The Methodists and other like-minded churches are misdirected in using the nineteenth- and twentieth-century colonial missionary declaration against polygamy. They forget that AIDS is sounding an emergency call to face society's ills--bridge the gap between the haves and have-nots, thrash victim-oriented curriculums in theological institutions, and confront conditions that foster migrant labor, drug abuse, gender imbalance, prostitution, and other crime.


The silent church has not provided opportunities to infected and affected persons to air their voices. As the vulnerable seek answers about the ravaging epidemic, many are turning to other alternatives. There has been a resurgence of the practice of African magic and witchcraft in a number of Kenyan communities. Many deaths associated with the epidemic have either been declared a natural punishment from God or said to be the outcome of witchcraft. (11) The reappearance of magic and witchcraft results from the failure to concretely deal with questions of the origin and cure of HIV/AIDS.

When the AIDS epidemic started, patients seeking information or treatment for AIDS-related ailments faced health professionals in church-run hospitals and health centers. AIDS information at the time was not clearly articulated, and these church-related institutions remained silent with regard to the looming crisis. Many in the health profession did not know how to respond to those who were affected. For a long period, the policy "do not ask, do not tell" seems to have controlled many church-related health institutions.

The church continues to display ignorance by publicly denouncing some of the strategies used to prevent HIV/AIDS. While most of the strategies are scientifically articulated, many religious leaders block whatever does not seem to fit with each denomination's doctrinal standards on sex, disease, and conversion. One major issue that has remained controversial is the safety and use of condoms. The role and place of condoms in an era of HIV/AIDS continues to haunt the church in Kenya. Indeed, Roman Catholics and Presbyterians in Kenya have openly taken a stand against the use of condoms. The Methodists are yet to make their stand known, though they have opposed polygamists. (12)

Pastoral response through the collaboration of Northern and Southern Hemispheres

Here are some ways that we in the church can respond effectively to the crisis.

1. Church leaders must face the reality of stigma and discrimination in the churches. Paul's letter to the Galatians (3:28) deals clearly with identity marks that were dividing the church. Some thought that to be a Jew or a Gentile was something to pride themselves with. Paul argued that in Christ those identity marks were of no great use. HIV/AIDS has created stigma and discrimination in the churches. In many regions in Africa there are strong discriminative policies that continue to undermine those infected and affected by HIV/AIDS. The church in the northern hemisphere has a moral obligation to continue to implore the church in the southern hemisphere to deal with stigma and discrimination. In the United States, for example, there are well-stipulated individual liberties that safeguard persons affected by HIV/AIDS. In order to proclaim hope and life, the church must deal with the discrimination and stigmatization caused by this epidemic in church circles, which will end only when church leaders realize that HIV/AIDS is not just a homosexual epidemic. Indeed, the church needs to see that in the twenty-first century, in a number of regions in the world, to engage in sex is to engage in death.

Church leaders should be at the fore-front in championing debt relief for those countries affected by HIV/AIDS, so that they may turn their eyes to their people who urgently need health-care services.

2. Church leaders must take time to identify barriers to overcoming the current crisis. One major barrier is the association of HIV/AIDS with homosexuality. Most Africans hold the view that HIV/AIDS is a Western epidemic transmitted by homosexuals. However, when they are asked why it is that the epidemic is vigorously spreading among Africans who purport not to practice homosexuality, the answer is always ignorance. Ignorance remains another major challenge for the church in both hemispheres. Until all conditions that facilitate the transmission of HIV/AIDS in different contexts are tabulated clearly, the church will not accomplish its mission in the twenty-first century. I am convinced that church leaders can remain light and salt to the world only if we work to eliminate ignorance of any kind.

3. Church leaders must develop theological tools to respond to silence. HIV/AIDS raises tough theological and ethical issues. However, we have to admit that our theological and Bible schools are not well equipped to respond to the questions the epidemic is raising. HIV/AIDS is raising issues related to concepts of life and death, social injustice, poverty, sexual discrimination, and gender inequality. Many theological and Bible schools have not yet included courses related to HIV/AIDS, even when in contexts like Kenya more than seven hundred persons succumb to death daily because of HIV/AIDS-related illnesses. The necessary theological tools for the church include developing inclusive educational curriculums and creating social witness committees or groups that will respond to social justice issues, concretely addressing the issue of poverty and globalization and how to claim the holistic nature of well-being for both men and women as created in God's image.

4. Church leaders must provide opportunities to hear practical experiences. Most congregations have not had a chance to hear from someone who is infected or affected by HIV/AIDS. This can be a transforming experience when the congregation is well prepared to accommodate, listen to, and embrace the person sharing his or her experiences.

I can give you an example. The African Children's Choir is composed of many who are orphaned by HIV/AIDS. They travel around the world proclaiming the gospel and declaring their hope for a future when health can be restored. Congregation can team together to invite this children's choir to minister in your area. There also are numerous individuals involved in mission work around the globe, dealing with HIV/AIDS widows, widowers, and orphaned children. If you are interested in having someone visit your parish and educate your parishioners about the possibility of participating in reaching the suffering neighbor, please--contact me.

5. Be willing to respond to the cry of the suffering neighbor. The danger that faces twenty-first-century Christians is to live in denial. The response to terrorism has been at the forefront of all political leaders in the greater part of the world. HIV/AIDS has not received such a response. Yet, I believe that this deadly virus is the greatest threat. Those in power continue to deny this.

Wherever you are as a church leader or as a Christian, you have a moral obligation to respond to your suffering neighbor. Who is your neighbor? All those that God has created and placed around you, wherever you are, are your neighbors. Indeed, all human beings live as neighbors.

The HIV/AIDS epidemic continues to haunt countries in Africa, and we have to come together as church leaders to respond to this crisis in this continent. The pain of the orphaned children and the dark future in a number of those countries in Africa should create in us the urge to respond quickly and concretely. As Christians we have an obligation to discern the signs of the time and respond candidly and boldly to this crisis with hope that God will turn it into a kairos for the church's mission in this century.


The church can no longer remain on the periphery of the AIDS epidemic or simply pretend to campaign for HIV/AIDS prevention while at the same time remaining opposed to basic essential preventive measures such as sex education, condom use, and inculcating an ethic of faithfulness. The church has to overcome religious exclusivist tendencies by understanding that HIV/AIDS epidemic summons all people to reformulate our covenants of life and the interdependency of our existence. In this way, the church can provide a holistic response to the epidemic. Therefore, the church should repent of its failure to come to the aid of those who need the physician most and of remaining an obstacle in opening doors for advocacy, prevention, and care. The church must abide in faithfulness by not fleeing the struggles or be lured to offer simple misinformed answers to the questions the epidemic raises. Indeed, the church should be at the forefront of leadership in challenging those who do nothing and encouraging those who can do more.

1. William Henry Barcus III, "The Gospel Imperative," in The Gospel Imperative in the Midst of AIDS, ed., Robert H. Iles (Wilton, Ct.: Morehouse, 1989), 11.

2. James Good, "HIV/AIDS among Desert Nomads in Kenya," in Catholic Ethicists on HIV/AIDS Prevention, ed., James F. Keenan (London/New York: Continuum, 2000), 96.

3. Barcus, "The Gospel Imperative," 12.

4. "AIDS and the Church as Healing Community." Central Committee of the World Council of Churches: Minutes of the Thirty-Eighth Meeting (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1987), Appendix VI, 33.

5. Wanjira Kiama, "Men who have Sex with Men in Kenya," in AIDS and Men (London: The Panos Institute and Zed Books, 1999), 124.

6. Good, "HIV/AIDS among Desert Nomads," 95. Good's description of the nomadic peoples of Kenya as ignorant, dirty, and alcoholic resembles the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century colonial evangelists whose intentions were not so much to win souls for Christ or transform the lives of the local people as to enhance imperial Western civilization in the name of Christianity. It seems that Good is using the same notions to justify the HIV/AIDS epidemic among the nomadic peoples of Kenya.

7. Central Committee of the World Council of Churches: Minutes of the Forty-Fifth Meeting (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1994), 45-49, 102-3.

8. World Council of Churches. Facing AIDS: The Challenge, the Churches' Response (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1997), 5.

9. Emma Guest, Children of AIDS: Africa's Orphan Crisis (London-Sterling Virginia/Pietermarizburg: Pluto Press/University of Natal Press, 2001), 4.

10. Ministry of Health, Report of Ministry of Health/Faith Based Organizations Workshops to Foster Close Collaboration in the Management of HIV/AIDS Programmes in Kenya (Nairobi: Ministry of Health, 23-28 March 2003), 74. See also numerous teachings by Christians that argue that HIV/AIDS is a failure in some sense among individuals whose destiny is as a result of their behaviors. They ignore the way needles, syringes, and mother-to-child transmission have contributed to the spread of HIV/AIDS. Churches need to be helped to see HIV/AIDS beyond sexuality.

11. See the following on the role of witchcraft in and among African communities: Samuel Ikwaras Okware, "Epidemic of AIDS in Uganda," in AIDS and Associated Cancers in Africa, ed. G. Giraldo and others (Basel/London/New York/New Delhi/Tokyo: Karger, 1988), 25; Bawa C. Yamba, "Cosmologies in Turmoil: Witchfinding and AIDS in Chiawa, Zambia," Africa 67/2 (1997): 201-22; Laurenti Magesa, "Taking Culture Seriously," in Catholic Ethicists on HIV/AIDS Prevention, ed. James F. Keenan (London/New York: Continuum, 2000), 76-84.

12. For detailed accounts on the church and condom use in Kenya, see Toni Sittoni, "Issues Obscured by Condoms Debate," Daily Nation (April 7, 2003); Magesha Ngwiri, "Condoms: Clerics Misleading Us?" Sunday Nation (March 30, 2003).

Peter Mageto

Director, Mapema Center for Ethics and Leadership

Evansville, Indiana, and Nairobi, Kenya


Aldersgate and Methodist Temple United Methodist Churches

Evansville, Indiana

Adjunct Professor, World Cultures Program, University of Evansville
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Author:Mageto, Peter
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Date:Aug 1, 2005
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