Archive - November, 2007

Cooking AIDS Data

The news that U.N. estimates of AIDS-affected persons have been grossly over-stated is dangerous because it calls into question other assessments and puts at risk continuing support to curb the disease. Those who face exposure to diseases, especially the diseases of poverty, can easily be harmed by skepticism that results in less funding for vaccinations, medicines and health services.

First reports (as the front page story in yesterday’s Washington Post) said the overstatement wasn’t the result of inaccurate record keeping, inadequate reporting or poor surveys. According to early reports it was willful mis-statement. After second thought, UN officials began to refute this claim, but the impression was already made, the damage done.

Apart from questions of ethical behavior, this is a bad idea. Inflated figures undermine the credibility of all UN health figures. To the general public (who don’t distinguish between disease-specific programs) and donors of substance, intentional deception undermines support period. Anyone who doesn’t understand the importance of transparency and integrity in donor relations hasn’t been paying attention the least several years.

Inflated figures and over-stated claims about the menace of HIV/AIDS were hardly necessary anyway. By any measure the toll of this disease is horrific. To pump it with hyperbole is simply short-sighted. Whatever was gained can easily be lost when people lose confidence in reporting agencies. And loss of support will appear not as statistical corrections on sheets of paper. It will appear as loss of lives.

The urgency of attacking HIV/AIDS that is obvious today wasn’t so obvious a few years ago. Pumping the figures and exaggerating the progress of the disease might have seemed necessary in the past to step up response but in hindsight it will seem very unwise if it results in less support, fewer advocates for funding, research, treatment and staff, or for governments who can say, “You fooled us once, who’s to say you’re telling the truth now?”

Because fewer individuals actually have the disease is no reason to ease up on aggressive prevention, treatment and research. But the integrity of UNAIDS is certainly blemished and it will deserve the critical and skeptical eyes of those in the scientific, medical and civic communities in the future to assure the integrity of reporting and accuracy of statistics. All of us, but most especially those with this terrible disease, should expect nothing less.

Eradicate Malaria

Eradicating malaria remains a topic of discussion. Specifically, is it possible? The Houston Chronicle this morning raised the possibility as it notes the efforts of Exxon and The United Methodist Church to provide bednets to children in malarial regions of the world through Nothing But Nets. The Chronicle makes an interesting point: the region that is now Houston was once considered uninhabitable because of malaria. But the effort to rid the humid, wet region of malaria was successful and modern-day Houston exists in large part as a result.

The Center for Global Development recounts the current conversation about eradication. It’s not without controversy. The effort to eradicate in the 1930s came close but as progress was made funds were cut and abatement programs slowed. The parasite re-grouped and roared back stronger than before. We live with the result today; a drug resistant parasite that’s extraordinarily adaptable.

The British journal Lancet discusses the risks if the world isn’t successful–an even more resilient foe, wasted resources, a demoralized public health sector and, worst of all, more deaths. If the effort is successful however–and it will take years–it could result in stronger national health systems, more effective treatment of related, interconnected diseases and a reduction in sick people and fatalities. The Lancet says the challenge issued by Bill and Melinda Gates at the Malaria Forum sponsored by their foundation last month was a risky, courageous act. But, as Melinda Gates said, it is ethically unacceptable anyone should die of malaria in today’s world.

Eradication will require new partnerships of scale to cover whole nations with nets as well as to support residual spraying, better water management, vaccines and treatment. But, the potential for these partnerships to form and achieve success has never been better. And given the tragic toll of suffering and lost lives, it seems irresponsible, if not morally repugnant to do less.

Empowered Individualism and God

We live in the time of empowered individuals. Commercial messages in the U.S. reinforce the idea that individual fulfillment is the defining feature of both our culture and existence. This hyper-individualism creates expectations and desires that are very difficult to fulfill and that evaporate like mist on a lake when the sun rises because it’s expressed in material things and not spiritual connection.

All we have in life is life,” writes Sister Joan Chittister in Illuminated Life. “Things–the cars, the houses, the educations, the jobs, the money–come and go, turn to dust between our fingers, change and disappear.”

Viewed through this lens, a spiritual lens, hyper-individualism wounds as often as it empowers. In his small book, Three Simple Rules: A Wesleyan Way of Living, Bishop Ruben Job says this wound can be healed through relationship to others and to God. Through spiritual disciplines and in relationship to others, we find the healing that is more fulfilling and meaningful than the vapid promises of materialism.

I believe the tone of the public dialogue in recent years has been affected by this cultural influence. Hyper-individualism is alienating and diminishing and the harsh rhetoric and verbal put-downs so familiar to us are easier to speak in a fractured culture that disconnects us. Individualism of this extreme kind drains collective voice and influence. It takes community organizing to re-gain that influence and to achieve consensus about how we relate to each other respectfully. And this comes only with a recognition that we are connected. Our behavior affects others and we have a responsibility to each other.

The decline in support for public education, the privatization of public functions and the strangling of government all reflect a distorted view of individual rights that, in their sum, diminish us by weakening our sense of shared responsibility.

In the Christian tradition in which I live and work, faith is a call to serve and a personal source of strength. But one is not more or less important than the other. It’s a tradition that understands personal holiness is interconnected with social holiness and the together the two add up to a faithful response to a gracious love that we believe is shown by the life of Jesus. Someone this week called it “evangelical liberalism.”

However it is characterized, it is counter-cultural if the majority culture is about materialism and individualism. It calls us to love others, and that requires a relationship of a different magnitude than a commercial exchange for services. And it calls for service, to care for others through outward, specific acts of support, encouragement or responsibility. These are not seen as expressions of strength in a culture that doesn’t value community and that reveres individualism.

But it’s clear throughout scripture that “to be in harmony with something larger than ourselves and larger than that which the world values,” (Three Simple Rules, p. 54) is the way of faith in this tradition–Methodism.

And living this way results in a focus and direction that results in connection, not alienation; engagement, not isolation. In the most profound way, staying in love with God means being connected to the source of our strength and to those with whom we share the earth. It is this source that empowers us individually, but we are empowered to serve and to live in connection, responsible to and for each other, especially those who are disempowered and left out because they lack the resources and voice to be heard–the poor, the vulnerable and those wounded by an uncaring and hard-hearted culture of exclusion.

To be empowered is to live in the belief that we are created for community and to know that in our deepest self we are dependent on a source of strength that is beyond ourselves, a source that some of us call God.

Do no harm. Do good. Stay in love with God.

Doing Good, Living Radically

(I’m writing on three phrases that are called General Rules in the Methodist movement. These three are known historically as “marks” of a Methodist. My reflections arise from conversations I’ve had recently with folks who are facing challenges attempting to do good.)

No good deed goes unpunished. That axiom is more true than I want to admit. Strangely, doing good is hard. Sometimes we make it hard by putting obstacles in the way.

It’s not just that we trivialize doing good by derisively calling people “do-gooders.” We put obstacles in the path of those who would do good when we fight turf battles over who is supposed to do what, or we disagree on the most appropriate action to take or we get jealous over who gets credit.

Such behaviors can be discouraging, but doing good isn’t for the faint of heart. And it’s not optional if you’re trying to live a life of faith in the Christian tradition.

Consider this: “Whoever does good is from God.” John 3:11.

The writer of Acts says Jesus “went about doing good.” Acts 10:38.

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Luke 6:27-28.

So it’s not enough to claim that doing good isn’t optional. It’s a commandment! Even when doing good is mocked and the deed is rejected, Jesus said to continue to do good.

This is the polar opposite of the diminishing characterization of do-gooders as weak and naive that I wrote about in the previous post. In fact, doing good in a cynical, abusive world such as ours takes strength, endurance and commitment.

In a society that elevates individualism, it requires putting the good of the larger community ahead of personal agenda. It requires healing those who are broken rather than exploiting the politics of self-interest. It calls for compassion and not judgmentalism. And it calls us to use words that heal and to speak of others with respect rather than to speak words that diminish and divide.

Doing no harm precedes doing good, but doing good is proactive. It’s counter-cultural and courageous, maybe even radical.