Monday, December 29, 2008

Why I am Sickened by Obama's Rick Warren Choice: The Meaning to Africa: One Anthropologist Strikes Back

First let me disclose that I have close and beloved friends who were "married" here in Houston by a renegade Catholic priest in the back room of a restaurant in the "gay" part of town. They were married there, not in a church because, as you have guessed, they are gay. In ways that every anthropologist can understand, we who loved and honored them came together as a community and witnessed their joining. I was honored to serve as "best woman" to my dear friend of many, many years. The marriage is not recognized by the church or the state, here in Texas.

A few years ago, I joined them at Houston city hall in an act of protest. Gay couple after couple entered the city hall and attempted to apply for a marriage license. I waited below on the sidewalk with other friends and family and the press and the haters. In my naivete, I did not anticipate the hatred and virulence of the opposition to our protest. I had brought my daughter who must have been about 14 at the time. At one point, it was necessary for me to shield her with my body from a wall of profanities and spittle aimed at us by those bearing signs with biblical verses scrawled with angry red markers. But it was worse for my dear friend.

I remember my cell phone ringing and opening the cover to hear a good, mature, supremely-controlled man face his breaking point. This dear friend was a man who had worked for ten years teaching special needs kids; a man who in that capacity was used to being spat on, kicked at, cursed out, and who was able to talk coherently on his cell phone about the cost to his new Banana Republic pants while vaulting up the school bleachers to talk a child down from jumping off them:"Girl, I need to call you back...damn, not my new pants, I just got these at the Banana..I've got to get this kid down.". But when I answered the phone this time all I heard was sobbing. When he finally made it back outside, his mother, my daughter, and I held him close as years of socially-induced shame and denial racked his body. As the clerk in the license office read the prepared statement denying him the right to marry, he was lost; less than human; not fully whole.

Barack Obama: Rick Warren is not sitting at the table with you. You are not meeting with him. You have asked him to pray for us. You have asked him to be the one to mediate our relationship with the sacred. This does not carry the same meaning as sharing the cooking pot. Prayer is not food. And in Rick Warren's eyes, we are all not equal.

But, I am not done. This is a long post.

We are to honor Rick Warren for his AIDS work in Africa. Not me. I don't sleep at night thinking about his work in Africa. I sleep less thinking about the meaning of Barack Obama's choice of Rick Warren to the people of east Africa.

I am condensing, but, in a nutshell, while giving superficial lip service to condom usage in prevention programs, Rick Warren and his wife, Kay, are heavily embedded in abstinence-based teaching. Here is a quick summary (given by Kay) of their philosophy. Virginity. *sigh*. And here is Rick Warren's "spin" on the empire-building potential of the church complete with some seriously twisted assumptions about human behavior--so, all you men out there would be cheating but for your faith, huh? First: TMI alert....Eeeuwww. Second, oh never mind, typing statements defending male integrity is just too stupid, even for a blog.

As the postmortems of Bush are piling in, the general consensus is that he should be commended for his fight against AIDS in Africa. If you have followed the details, however, you will know that in 2005, evangelical Christians, were able to direct the funding formula for AIDS money to include a couple of key provisions: about one third of funds were to go to abstinence-based initiatives and any organization receiving U.S. aid money must condemn prostitution, (Brazil, notably, said thanks but no thanks to these terms.) Really. Honest.

Somehow, they have managed to control this message so tightly that you find arguments like this one, in the Catholic Education Resource Center. (Read it carefully, abstinence is not "real" in Brazil but a remarkable success in Uganda.) Those of you who follow these issues will be familiar with the work of Edward C. Green who was hired by USAID to confirm these beliefs. Most of the debate about his work is not freely available online but you can get a flavor of it here, in a synopsis of his work followed by a gentle but effective critique by Paul Farmer. A further critique would push this blog post into the book category, so I will defer that delight to a future rant.

Having spent months in Tanzania in 1994 developing a research strategy, hiring a team, collecting the data, and writing up the results for a "rapid assessment" of AIDS orphans in the country, I feel I have the experiential and moral authority (yes, Kay Warren, I have spent many months crying myself to sleep for the horrors I witnessed--when I could feel, again) to say that these views are not only factually incorrect but seriously damaging and delusional.

In 1994, first I went to Dodoma. The seroprevalence rates there were thought to be low. The population densities there were so low and people so poor there wasn't much "business" of any kind going on. HIV/AIDS was not yet on their radar screen. On to Morogoro, back to my favorite village of my 1986/87 dissertation research. I hardly recognized it. Rubies had been discovered in my beloved mountains and throughout the village young girls had been sweet-talked by young men with dirty red pebbles in their pockets, quick sex on their minds, and no condoms in the market kiosks. The young girls died alone. Stigmatized by the disease, no one would care for them. They were bad girls. At these early stages and in areas of low seroprevalence, stigmitazation was common.
Once the seroprevalence rose in a region, that all changed. We learned that from Uganda. We learned that from America.

USAID put me in a fancy Toyota Land Cruiser, sign of Tanzanian opulence and whiteness (I am very white) and sent me out to the Kilombero Sugar Estates. I had never seen anything like that place and in the years since then, nothing else has compared. Shanty towns for miles. 12-13 different types of home-brewed beer in 55 gallon oil drums, brewed by women (most kicked out of their homes for unwanted pregnancies), men gathered around drinking in the fire light. For miles. And miles. I drove out among them and made the driver stop. I went to the kiosks and saw the condoms hanging in their foil chains here and there. Do they want them, I asked the kiosk owners? Do they pay for them? Oh yes, I was told, we can't get them. We are running out. Can you get us more, we will pay. The men who were purchasing the condoms knew AIDS and didn't want it--right or wrong. You see, they all knew someone who had died from that behavior.

Give them what they want. They will pay for it with money. Don't make them pay with their lives. Did all men have sex in those conditions? Of course not. I knew many Tanzanian men who did not. Many men in those shanty towns did not. They all made choices. For themselves. Let people make their own moral decisions with all the options that we possess. Let, God, sort them out, Rick Warren--if you must attach a spiritual lesson--let, God, sort it out. At some undetermined time, in some undetermined future. You haven't got it right. You haven't got the right.

Ask yourself the question: is this what we do in America? Why do we treat them differently than ourselves? Anthropologists ask those questions.
On the eve of 2009, the policy decisions of 2005 are being felt. Read this report from Uganda. Because, you know what, those of us who were and are on the ground in Africa, talking to real people, dealing with an objective reality, know that the condom message works and is essential. People have sex. Provide them with the opportunity to protect, themselves when they do so. Get the morality out of the message.

And, you, Barack Obama, do you realize what your elevation of this man will mean to the people of East Africa, where they took to the street ululating in celebration of your election and happily naming their babies for this historic event, as they once did for JFK? Do you intend to solidify Rick Warren's spiritual empire? Because you have, assuredly, done so. Rwanda is on-board as the first Purpose-Driven Nation, Uganda is coming on board and his eye is next on Kenya. Is this what you want for your father's homeland. A complex father, an absent father, a less than father-father but is this what you want for his home?

In honor of those young girls raised with good values who died alone in their beds seduced by visions of rubies and to the young men celebrating their first pay packet with a beer and the assertion of their masculinity, teach your students what it means to be human, to make mistakes. Tell them they should not have to pay with their lives for such mistakes. We don't have to and we make mistakes every day. As do our students. As does our President-elect. Let's all learn from those mistakes. And let's teach students to think, critically, about these issues.

It occurs to me in editing that "mistake" may not be the best of terms here. An act of sex is not necessarily a "mistake". I think in the free-form flow of blogging, my brain was still reacting to the reading I had been doing. I am leaving the term up as a cautionary tale. The more you read the judgment, the more easily you make the judgment. Interesting, huh?

Updated on 31st December to add a link to another blogger at RH Reality Check a blog with "Information and Analysis for Reproductive Health who is, also, concerned with Rick Warren's presence in Africa. Its highly recommended. Check it out.


Maximilian C. Forte said...

Obama seems to reach a new bottom with every passing the time he is inaugurated he should be fully Bushed. Seriously, I now wonder on what basis people claim he is a "liberal", assuming anyone can agree on what that bit of conceptual fog contains.

I was very sorry to read about what your friend suffered.

Pamthropologist said...

I had always been wary of his support of faith-based initiative and vouchers in education. I am back to my basic philosophy--all politicians are narcissistic and are easily seduced by visions of power and adulation. He is no different.

For five years, my friend has been threatening to immigrate to Canada. He is well-researched in the process. Maybe some day, you will meet him. That would be good for you and bad for me. *smile*

larry c wilson said...

To paraphrase both Epicurus and Lucretius, the gods, being perfect, have no interest in us.

Anonymous said...

You are only beginning to get what is going on in churches all over the world. Rick's church is appearing today to be much more like a sect than traditional Christianity. Many Christians do not believe that Purpose Driven Church/Life is biblical.

Check out this link:

This is the stuff that is going on in Kenya where the village Kitale is a Purpose Driven Community complete with church, school and all kinds of Purpose Driven ministries. Google it.

I understand why liberals don't like Rick, but I don't get why more Christians don't think this plan for world nation domination "talk" isn't a bit weird or scary.

Thanks for your post.....

larry c wilson said...

Having followed the link provided by Anonymus, I must say they are all more than a little mad as the Hatter.

However, arguing about religious beliefs is an absolute waste of time and energy.

Pamthropologist said...

I wasn't particularly surprised by the information contained in "Anonymous"'s post. When scanning the internet for Warren quotes, I saw quite a bit of opposition to Warren from the Christian community--it is a "second coming", evangelical movement, after all--not a perspective embraced by many American churches. He is not theologically "deep", if you will--so he seems to anger both biblical purists and more liberal and erudite religious traditions.

Well, let's face it. He is a self-aggrandizing empire-builder with more than a little whiff of mothball hypocrisy clinging to his hipster-wanna-be goatee. Doesn't take too much to suss that one out. (There goes my New Year's resolution to be less snarky and more earth-mother positive.)

And as you can see in the link, it does play out differently in an African context. I, actually, have a draft blog on the issue. I should post it in a day or two.

I really enjoy the different perspectives you get when writing a blog.

Anonymous said...

Please post it, because I think that this topic of Rick's infatuation with building theocratic communities or countries should concern everyone, not only liberals but Christians as well. He is saying a lot of things which should be of concern to Christians as well and I think they are slow to speak about him for fear of his power in the Christian community and the liberals of course are not afraid to criticize him, but if these two groups could get together and question some of what he really says and is actually doing, then people would see his real agenda. Does that make sense?

Pamthropologist said...

Anonymous, I'm afraid this forum isn't the place for that kind of agenda.