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Silence is Death

An interview with Reverend Eugene Rivers III.

Eva Thorne

Thorne: You attended the World Council of Churches in order to discuss violence-prevention programs in the United States. How did the issue of AIDS in Africa come up?

Rivers: Before the meeting, we were approached by a reporter from the Boston Globe named Kurt Shillinger, based in Johannesburg, South Africa. At the WCC general assembly, Shillinger asked whether the WCC was going to take any significant positions on pressing local and regional issues. In the context of that conversation, he raised the issue of the AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa, specifically in the southern region. The numbers are horrifying: two-thirds of the AIDS cases in the world are now in sub-Saharan Africa. One adult in 14 there now has HIV/AIDS, and women represent half the cases. In Zimbabwe, fully a quarter of the adult population is now affected. The result is that a century of gains in life expectancy are now being wiped out. In the past five years-according to a US Census Bureau report-life expectancy in Zimbabwe has dropped from 61 years to 39 years; in Botswana, it has fallen back from 60 to 40, and in Kenya the story is pretty much the same. What's really unbelievable is that things are only getting worse. A survey of pre-natal clinics in one southern province in Zimbabwe indicated that a 67 percent infection rate for the women there. In Francistown, Botswana, some 43 percent of pregnant women tested HIV positive in 1997. In some villages in Zambia, there are communities of only the elderly and the very young; the rest have been obliterated. We even see the AIDS epidemic contributing to the deforestation of significant areas-because of coffin construction. All this means that in southern Africa we are witnessing the creation of a virtual biological underclass: that is the terrifying result of the AIDS epidemic.

Thorne: How is this happening? How is the virus being transmitted?

Rivers: In Africa (as in Southeast Asia), AIDS is in the main heterosexually transmitted. Let me be very blunt: the heterosexual transmission of AIDS is, in Africa, a function of truly pathological promiscuity. So this is really a violence issue-not the same violence we deal with in Boston, where teenagers stab and shoot each other, but the violence of African men who are killing themselves, and killing African women and children, with pathological promiscuity. So we attempted to connect the kind of violence-prevention work that we're doing through the National Ten Point Coalition, which is usually around violent crimes, and sexual promiscuity, which is male-generated and functions as a form of violence against women and children. For us there were theological, cultural, and political connections between the various catastrophic consequences of certain forms of male sexual behavior.

Thorne: How did the African delegates respond?

Rivers: Many of the church leaders were ambivalent-even after we raised questions about the responsibility of churches and the faith community in general. There was something politically sensitive about criticizing Africans for their sexual behavior because of the concerns that some had that one might be starting down the slippery slope of racial stereotyping.

Thorne: What do you do with that ambivalence?

Rivers: We insist on the obvious: stereotypes or not, certain behaviors by African men, associated with certain types of cultural norms-misogynist, amoral norms-are killing people.

Thorne: When you talk about "cultural norms," do you have in mind a traditional patriarchal culture?

Rivers: Patriarchs are fathers. Fathers don't kill women and children. But the real point is not about where the norms come from. The real point is that they are no longer defensible-if they ever were. They are seriously dysfunctional. The cultural norms about sexual behavior are now producing untold suffering by spreading a lethal disease among women, resulting in premature, horrible death for those infected. And death not simply for consenting adults. These norms are resulting in large numbers of HIV-infected babies: in 1997 more than 500,000 babies were born in sub-Saharan Africa to mothers with HIV. A whole generation of children is being born with these sexually transmitted diseases. They are a biological underclass of infants, left at the mercy of shelter systems that are, even in the best of circumstances, under-equipped to deal with conventional diseases, much less a pandemic for which we have no cure. You can't get more dysfunctional than that.

Thorne: But many people-and not just Africans-don't respond well to a critique of "cultural norms." What do you say to them?

Rivers: In the 1960s in our inner cities we assumed naively-and, as history has suggested, incorrectly-that certain behaviors were, in some essentialist form, "African." And so we became relativists. Philosophically, that meant elevating cultural relativism to a sacred principle, never to be questioned. Practically, it simply provided a license for all kinds of destructive, anti-social, anti-human behavior. We played that game because we didn't know the results of the behaviors, and because we didn't want to give our enemies weapons that would be used against us. Now, thirty years later, we are no longer so innocent; liberal ideological platitudes-the ones that endorse cultural relativism, and say that we are simply acting out certain African behaviors, culturally imbedded in us-no longer work. We are acting like our own enemies.

If we take the argument that the sexual promiscuity of African men should be understood an expression of some "African essence," and then empirically evaluate the effect of this so-called essence, we must conclude that it is pathological. Certainly, it has catastrophic consequences. So if your line of defense for such pathological behavior is that it expresses a cultural essence, a primordial something about being African-well then the African has a pathological problem. But the argument is stupid. We should fight the behavior, not make up fancy excuses for it.

Thorne: But you'll have to admit that the argument is frequently made.

Rivers: It is, remarkably, an argument which is frequently made by people who, under other circumstances, seem to be intelligent.

Thorne: Are there other reasons- outside of stereotyping-that the African church leaders would be wary of discussing this subject?

Rivers: AIDS creates political problems. There are the worries I mentioned before, about giving weapons to enemies: "We don't want to slander black men because it's a racist white world and we must spare the ever-sensitive Africans from the Euro-centric critics who malign their ever-sacred norms and values and assumptions." In addition, there are political problems, because people who raise the issue of AIDS challenge the political status quo.

Thorne: How so?

Rivers: Much of the reason that AIDS in Africa has not received the public attention that it merits is that African political leaders are in a perpetual state of denial. They don't want to talk about this as a political problem that requires concerted action. Also, they don't want to make any of the concessions that are needed to address the problem. They need to allocate resources to the health sector-funds that are currently being directed to the Swiss bank accounts of the "African leadership." You have hundreds of millions of dollars hidden away, which in a decent society would be directed toward the infrastructure of a health care system. So the political impact, the impact in human terms, and the impact on society and culture all get ignored. Because otherwise, the political actors and leaders in the states would have a responsibility redirect their domestic policies.

The result is a conspiracy of silence. Where exactly is the All-African Council of Churches? Where exactly is Nelson Mandela on this issue? While Mandela is justifiably a figure of epic stature, it's far from clear how that stature has translated into meaningful policy prescriptions in a country being devastated by a virtual holocaust. Where's Desmond Tutu? The leadership of the Organization of African Unity has not done anything forward-looking. Where are the brand-name political celebrities?

An additional point is that raising a ruckus around this issue-like raising a ruckus around any human rights issue-gets you thrown in jail. And African jails are not places you want to spend lots of time. People have a way of disappearing.

Thorne: So what can churches such as yours, or other black churches in the United States, do that might be of any help?

Rivers: Number one, there is a considerable amount of good work being done by very courageous activists in Zimbabwe, in South Africa, in Kampala, Uganda. They, and their work, need and deserve our moral, spiritual, and material support. We also need to confront the political and cultural issue squarely, by challenging the cultural norms that rationalize and justify male promiscuity.

Thorne: But what can churches do specifically? You've suggested that the African church is in a precarious position because of these contextual political factors. I'm wondering about the role, for example, of black churches in the United States. What can they do?

Rivers: I see three main tasks: public education, political advocacy, and humanitarian assistance. On education: The black church in the United States has the legitimacy, the political clout, the access to information, and access to the levers of power that are needed to educate the government about this issue. In addition, black churches have the status and power to begin educating public opinion about how we are witnessing the virtual destruction of a people as a result of a plague that is as horrible as anything we have known in modern history.

On political advocacy: The black church in the United States is in a unique position as a political actor to influence American foreign, economic, and development policy by working as advocates. Because of their prominence and legitimacy in the most powerful country in the world, black churches are uniquely positioned to serve as advocates for the needs and interests of millions of orphans-for an entire sub-Saharan region of a continent where we have extraordinarily high infection rates. Churches should advocate on behalf of these women, these children, this region of the world: Not just inform government and the American people, but develop and promote constructive political solutions.

But education and advocacy will take time, and while they go forward more people will die and a generation of kids will be orphaned. So, right away black churches can provide direct support: food, clothing, medicine and other forms of limited technical assistance. And they can develop bilateral relationships between various faith communities to help deal with this issue. We need mission schools. We need a comprehensive strategy for how we can help faith communities in Africa absorb this massive strain upon their educational, cultural, and health systems. And then, at another level, we need to initiate discussions with African churches about how they-working in collaboration with the World Bank, the IMF, and the European community-might think through the future of business and the economy of a society that has been torn apart by this disease.

Thorne: Are those conversations already happening-for example between business leaders, who are themselves so adversely affected by this AIDS epidemic, and churches-or is that a conversation that needs to start?

Rivers: It's not clear to me what the length, the breadth, or depth of the conversations are. But if we use the WCC, which is supposed to be a global body, as a barometer to determine the depth and quality of the discourse, that we've got a problem. Because it was not clear that anyone at that meeting was very concerned with even addressing this issue, much less according it the kind of priority and emphasis that it deserves, given the human cost.

Thorne: Why is that? I understand the reasons for the African churches being in a difficult position. But why do you think the WCC has been reluctant to take the lead?

Rivers: There are two reasons. The WCC is based in Geneva, and would have to take its cues, as a function of protocol and politics, from the All-African Council of Churches. And the All-African Council would have to be willing to take a prophetic and politically costly position in challenging the political leadership of African countries. But in this respect, the AIDS epidemic is not terribly different from what's going on, for example, in Sudan, where we see the enslavement of Christians and animists in Southern Sudan. We were informed by African officials, who are in the executive branch of the WCC, that the Sudanese council of churches was not willing to challenge the political leadership in their country about the issue of slavery in northern Africa. If the WCC is going to meddle in local affairs, it would have to take its lead from the African Council of Churches. So if the African Council of Churches is not willing to raise the political and cultural issues, the behavioral issues, of the AIDS epidemic and how we begin to think about this absolutely catastrophic dilemma, then we've got a big problem.

Thorne: What else needs to happen?

Rivers: I think that this discussion also needs to be forced on the black press. It is remarkable how little the black press has done on this.

Thorne: Why is that?

Rivers: It is hard to understand. They have the resources, the intelligence, the capacity. But they are doing nothing. I think Emerge is a great magazine, and I think it's great if you can do cover stories on Louis Farrakhan and the Million Man March and Clarence Thomas-there are worse things to spend time on than skewering Clarence Thomas for his ideological and political stances. But I imagine that the devastation of the entire sub-Saharan continent should merit at least one cover story. Never mind the two cover stories they did in the case of Farrakhan. Maybe that's too much to ask. But at least one. When you're talking about millions of people being infected. When you're talking about life expectancy less than forty. When you're talking about a biological underclass. That must be as important as Farrakhan's latest ravings. So one would hope that Emerge magazine or Upscale would willing to do something. How can these "black" magazines simply stand by and watch this human devastation occur and not devote attention to it? It is beyond me.

Thorne: So you would push the press-

Rivers: Absolutely. Black press, news, radio programs. And the churches really have to take this on. It's an issue for our children. Suppose our kids see this massive human tragedy occurring, as a result of a disease transmitted by men, and are told: "Well, they were just being black." That is disgraceful. We have a moral responsibility to fight that message. And we can't discharge that moral responsibility by passing out contraceptives. Contraceptives have been circulating all over Uganda, and it is not clear how many people are using the things. The best contraceptive in this case is abstinence.

Thorne: That's a line that a lot of people don't want to hear.

Rivers: Let me say a word about abstinence, so we're clear. I think it is amazing, given all the forests that have been sacrificed to produce all those volumes of political and cultural theory-the ones that win the awards for bad writing-that nobody is exploring the cultural politics of abstinence in a case of suicidal promiscuity. What are the emancipatory or theoretical or ideological implications of men being encouraged to modify their behavior? Could there be something emancipatory and revolutionary about abstinence-like that it helps people to stay alive? That's a revolutionary thought, right? Abstinence, chastity, virginity-yes, they are ancient words-may be revolutionary, a way to strike a blow for life.

Thorne: Is abstinence the only solution?

Rivers: This is a serious issue, and there's no point being dogmatic. If there are other solutions, let's hear about them and do something with them. If drug companies want to make AZT available so that people in Zimbabwe can afford it, let's talk about how to distribute it. But honestly, I don't expect that to happen. If George Soros wants to give tens of billions to subsidize treatments, let's figure out how to set up the programs. But I don't expect that to happen soon.

I am making two points. First, we are facing a true human disaster, but there is conspiracy of silence surrounding it. So let's cut through the relativist nonsense, and start having some serious discussions about what to do. Second, I think there are behavioral issues here, and ultimately they revolve around promiscuity and abstinence. When people had norms and values, they praised chastity and virginity; now we're too modern to discuss such things. I have to live with that, even if I don't like it. But people in Africa literally can't live with it. Some problems are real: like mass death from a disease transmitted by a bunch of guys out there running around having too much sex. If the personal is political-as feminists have argued for the last 30 years-then you have to ask: What are the political implications of this horribly destructive personal behavior? n

Originally published in the April/May 1999 issue of Boston Review


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