- Facing a Pandemic: The African Church and the Crisis of AIDS
It is widely acknowledged that the devastation caused by HIV/AIDS is worse in Africa than in other parts of the world. This has necessitated the launch of an all-out battle against the virus. In Facing a Pandemic, Elias K. Bongmba addresses the role of the African church in tackling what he calls "the crisis of AIDS." His main argument is theological—namely, that the Christian community has an obligation toward people living with HIV/AIDS because humanity is created in the image of God (Imago Dei). This theological paradigm invites compassion and care as well as providing justification for a broad-based program to fight the pandemic. Bongmba rightly observes that prevention campaigns, for instance, should not focus only on individual responsibilities (as espoused by past efforts such as the "Abstinence, Be faithful, use Condoms" [ABC] campaign) but also address larger social issues and conditions that propel the spread of the virus. While he presents a list of human virtues that could be harnessed to resist the continuing onslaught of HIV/AIDS, he also underscores the importance of community praxis in dealing with the pandemic.
Bongmba challenges with candor existing church positions and practices that inadvertently encourage the spread of the virus, such as the reluctance to promote condom use and continuing insensitivity to the vulnerability of women due to biblical patriarchy. His suggestions on steps to be taken by the church are wide-ranging—and again include both individual and communal responsibilities. Some of the more radical prescriptions include a "rereading" of the Bible in the light of HIV/AIDS to strengthen and bring succor to the sick and others affected by the virus much like what has been pioneered by the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians; the question is: how many churches in African are prepared for this? In addition, positive examples of proactive church groups like the Cameroon Baptist Convention Health Board and their various achievements are cited to encourage others to take similar steps. [End Page 209]
Despite the fact that the volume adopts a largely theological cum ethical perspective, it is also conversant with some of the other arguments in the general HIV/AIDS discourse—biomedical, economic, political, philosophical, and social. Another strong feature of the work is that it situates the African AIDS crisis within the global AIDS pandemic and shows what should constitute an appropriate response from the African Christian community to those global trends. Again, the sociopolitical context within which the church operates is discussed and the need for networking with others in the anti-AIDS arena emphasized. However, an underlying assumption in the volume, which is difficult to agree with, is that the African church is a monolithic bloc that would necessarily embrace the various recommendations made by the author with the same level of enthusiasm among all its disparate components. At the theological level this may be true, but at the practical level, where doctrine is translated to action, varieties of interpretations and historical factors make some church organizations stronger and more capable of coordinating certain responses than others.
All the same, though a largely prescriptive work, Facing a Pandemic will long remain relevant in the debate on the response of African churches to the AIDS crisis because of the many pertinent issues it raises. The image of God represented by the human species is being battered and ravaged by HIV/AIDS. The church thus has an obligation to rise up to the challenge, reform its internal structures, and join hands with other stakeholders to battle the unrelenting pandemic on the African continent. [End Page 210]