I believe social justice activism is part and parcel of discipleship and living our faith -- we must apply lessons learned from previous social movements while also developing new tools and strategies to be effective change agents today. In my life and those of others, I've seen how we are called to build God's kingdom, motivated by "burning bush" moments when God commands our greatest attention and stretches our sense of what’s possible.
In July 2000, after a month of working alongside Zambian youth to strengthen HIV prevention programs, I arrived in Durban, South Africa, for the International AIDS Conference, which every two years helps to focus the world’s attention on the epidemic. The conference was taking place at the epicenter of the pandemic in South Africa's KwaZulu-Natal province.
During the opening plenary, Edwin Cameron gave an electrifying speech that felt like a "burning bush" moment. Cameron was a white South African judge who had gone public with his HIV-positive status at great risk to his career. He described to an audience of more than 10,000 researchers, doctors, public health workers, and activists how, less than three years prior to the conference, he had been on his deathbed. His voice ratcheted up a notch as he said, "My presence here embodies the injustice of AIDS because, on a continent in which 290 million Africans survive on less than $1 U.S. a day, I can afford medication costs of about $400 per month." Because of his wealth, skin color, and status, he could purchase antiretroviral drugs that literally brought him from the brink of death back to life. But AIDS still represented a brutal death sentence for the vast majority of the world, including the majority of his black South African brothers and sisters living with the virus. The moral failure of our increasingly globalized world hung in the air like a suffocating fog.
The conference was a turning point in the global movement to fight HIV/AIDS, shining a spotlight on pharmaceutical greed, political denial, societal stigma, and a global failure to adequately address the single greatest health crisis in human history. Conventional political and public health wisdom argued that AIDS drugs were simply too expensive, that African countries lacked the health infrastructure to deliver the drugs safely and effectively, and that prolonging lives with expensive treatments wasn’t cost-effective or sustainable. After the conference I decided to join a committed minority of nonconformists who refused to accept these arguments.
I returned to Boston for my second year at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government on a mission to share my experience with as many people as would listen. Working closely with Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, then-director of the Center for International Development at Harvard, I received a seed grant to start a nonprofit organization to educate and mobilize college students around issues of global economic and social justice. Our first campaign focused on ending the AIDS pandemic through the Student Global AIDS Campaign (SGAC). SGAC joined a burgeoning movement of people living with HIV, public health advocates, and many faith leaders working to generate public pressure and to sound the alarm for Congress and the Clinton and then Bush administrations to wake up to the crisis and provide bolder leadership.
When I try to see the HIV/AIDS crisis through God’s eyes, the acronym Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) takes on a dramatically different meaning and becomes an opportunity to "Heal the International Village." Stopping the AIDS epidemic requires nothing less than overcoming our fears around otherness and addressing the very root causes of people's vulnerability and marginalization. Whom do I mean by the "other"? In ancient Israel the "other" would refer to the leper, the sex worker, the sick, and the poor. In today’s age of AIDS, the other is too often the IV drug user, the sex worker, or the gay man or woman. But God has given us the tools to fight HIV/AIDS and, in the process, heal a great deal of the world's brokenness.
In both 2001 and 2005, I had the privilege of spending time with leaders of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) in South Africa. The campaign was founded in order "to ensure that every person living with HIV has access to quality, comprehensive prevention and treatment services to live a healthy life."
TAC has mobilized the most effective social movement since the freedom struggle that overturned apartheid. The organization has mobilized thousands of people living with HIV and given them a platform to affirm their dignity and demand their rights. The campaign has remixed many of the anti-apartheid movement songs as a way to claim the AIDS struggle as a continuation of the freedom struggle. As of 2008, with more than 16,000 members, 267 branches, and 72 full-time staff members, TAC has become the leading civil society force fighting for comprehensive health-care services for people living with HIV and AIDS in South Africa. Since 1998, TAC has held the South African government accountable for health-care-service delivery, campaigned against the denialism of the South African government, challenged the world's leading pharmaceutical companies to make treatment more affordable, and cultivated community leadership on HIV/AIDS. Their efforts have resulted in many life-saving interventions, including the implementation of a countrywide mother-to-child transmission prevention program and a countrywide antiretroviral treatment program, which required overcoming the intransigence of the South African government.
TAC has been effective in overcoming so much of the hopelessness that surrounds the AIDS crisis in South Africa by giving people living with HIV the will to live with dignity and by transforming the disease from a death sentence into a manageable disease. For years during the height of the AIDS struggle, Zackie Achmat, TAC's founder, refused to accept antiretroviral treatment until all South Africans were granted access. As a way of showing visible solidarity with those who are shunned and persecuted because of HIV/ AIDS, TAC began producing what have now become iconic T-shirts with the simple phrase "HIV Positive" emblazoned on the front.
I distinctly remember returning from a trip to South Africa and rather absentmindedly wearing one of these T-shirts into my Bally’s gym. I started noticing shocked and disapproving stares from other people working out. It took me a while to realize that people were reacting to my T-shirt. Even in a country in which HIV has become a manageable disease for so many people and is more socially accepted, wearing the T-shirt still represented a brazen act. The T-shirt demonstrates the beauty and essence of pragmatic solidarity, which echoes the apostle Paul’s comparison of the church to a human body in 1 Corinthians. Whether you are living with HIV or not, wearing the T-shirt sends a provocative and transformative message that if one person is infected with HIV, then we are all affected.
To effectively combat the AIDS epidemic, TAC had to reawaken the power of hope in people’s lives. Many people living with HIV across the world suffer a social death that precedes their physical death, and which serves as a powerful force in driving the disease underground, undermining prevention efforts. TAC started anonymous clubs for people living with HIV to teach treatment literacy and help people better manage their disease. These clubs created bonds of encouragement, fellowship, and empowerment for people living with HIV, helping them learn to love themselves again and overcome the shame and fear so often associated with infection.
Through my work with youth HIV prevention in Zambia during the summer of 2000, I realized that prevention programs would ultimately fail without unlocking the power of hope. Without access to life-prolonging treatment, the disease remained a death sentence, leaving people with little to no incentive for getting tested. Access to treatment had the power of unleashing hope and changing public perception around the disease. Young people who lacked hope for their future made more risky and self-destructive decisions. The risk associated with a disease that isn’t fatal for another five to 10 years after infection is less urgent than meeting more basic and pressing needs such as access to food. Hope is critical to changing behavior, giving people more to live for.
In Jesus and the Disinherited, Howard Thurman captures the indispensable power of hope. Thurman writes, "[Christ] recognized fully that out of the heart are the issues of life and that no external force, however great and overwhelming, can at long last destroy a people if it does not first win the victory of the spirit against them ... [Jesus] announced the good news that fear, hypocrisy, and hatred, the three hounds of hell that track the trail of the disinherited, need have no dominion over them."
Hope enables people to withstand incredible adversity and hold on even in the midst of persecution or seemingly impossible odds. Hope fuels and shapes our vision of a preferred future. The fight against HIV/AIDS in South Africa demonstrates the indispensable role of pragmatic solidarity and hope in fueling social and political change.
Adam Taylor is the author of Mobilizing Hope: Faith-Inspired Activism for a Post-Civil Rights Generation (© 2010, Adam Taylor and used by permission of InterVarsity Press, www.ivpress.com), from which this article is adapted. Taylor, former senior political director at Sojourners, recently finished a White House Fellowship.