Star Power and Spiritual Activism

Bono greets fans outside the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh, Scotland on his way to meet with the leader of the G-8. Photo by Steve Beard.

By Steve Beard

September/October 2005, Good News Magazine

“Listen, I know what this looks like, rock star standing up here, shouting imperatives others have to fulfill. But that’s what we do, rock stars. Rock stars get to wave flags, shout at the barricades, and escape to the South of France. We’re unaccountable. We behave accordingly. But not you. You can’t. See, we’re counting on you.”
-Bono speaking at the 2004 Labour Party Conference

Leave it to the rock stars. They are equipped with an overdose of charisma, hair gel, and an uncanny lack of humility. Last year, Bono was haranguing British politicians to do something radical and substantial for Africa. This year he has been harping on the leaders of the G8 – the eight wealthiest nations – to do something for the ravished continent.

I don’t like getting berated by Barbara Streisand, Bianca Jagger, or other over-indulgent, spoiled celebrities any more than the next guy. Superstar opinion is no more profound than that of a short order cook, taxi cab driver, or investment banker. Causes use celebrities to draw publicity, not to rely upon as a braintrust. It is what it is.

However, when it comes to the issue of Africa, Irish rockers Bono and Bob Geldof have proven that they are worth listening to. For the past twenty years, they have immersed themselves into the minutia of mind-numbing economic studies and are capable of speaking coherently on the way that agricultural trade subsidies in the United States, Europe, and Japan ($350 billion a year – 16 times what the developed world gives in aid for Africa) devastate the ability of African farmers to compete on the world market.

The situation in Africa is not a crisis; it is a full-fledged emergency. President Bush has called it genocide. While there are poor nations found all over the globe, this is an entire continent consumed by war, starvation, disease, and poverty. For example, 26 million men, women, and children in sub-Saharan Africa are living with the HIV virus – the equivalent of the populations of Florida and Michigan combined. Additionally, Africa’s share of global trade has shrunk from 6 percent in 1980 to a measly 2 percent in 2002, according to the British government’s Africa Commission.

Perhaps it is too obvious, but let me restate it plainly: Africa needs an entire transformation of its governmental, legal, education, and financial institutions. There can be no replacement for a vibrant spiritual awakening that would engender honesty, virtue, sexual restraint, compassion, and entrepreneurial creativity. Africa is rich with natural resources, but corrupt autocratic leaders (and greedy opportunists) have squandered billions of dollars in aid over the last 40 years and killed millions of people through neglect, starvation, and war. It is manifestly evident that something more dramatic than government-to-government aid or loans is needed to enhance the economic well-being of Africa. Ultimately, Africans themselves are going to have to struggle for democratic reforms, human rights, institutional integrity, and peaceful solutions to tribal warfare in order for hope to arise on the continent.

Having said all that, I stand with Bono. There are things that the government, the Church, and humanitarian groups can and must do to help Africa.

“This is our moment”
Through some wild and fortuitous circumstances I found myself in Edinburgh, Scotland, during the gathering of the G8 leaders. Courtesy of Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin Atlantic, I flew there with a few dozen media types and more than 100 activists associated with the One Campaign on the day after the ten Live 8 concerts were held in cities such as Philadelphia, Tokyo, Rome, Paris, Berlin, and Moscow. While the concerts were going on, 225,000 activists peacefully took to the streets of Edinburgh to call on the G8 leaders to show mercy and justice to Africa.

The One Campaign is an alliance of humanitarian and relief groups attempting to fight global AIDS and extreme poverty such as Bread for the World, CARE, DATA, International Medical Corps, International Rescue Committee, Mercy Corps, Oxfam America, Plan USA, Save the Children US, World Concern, and World Vision.

DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa) was co-founded by Bono, the lead singer of U2. For my generation, he is the one that has put this issue on the map. More than any other celebrity, preacher, or politician, Bono is the guy who continues to winsomely keep Africa’s heartbreaking poverty and AIDS pandemic front and center – whether he is on “The O’Reilly Factor,” lobbying Sen. Jesse Helms, lunching with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, or mugging with the president (much to the chagrin of his bandmates).

“This is our moment, this is our time, this is our chance to stand up for what is right,” Bono told the massive crowd at Hyde Park in London. “We are not looking for charity, we are looking for justice.”

“We cannot fix everything, but the ones we can we must. Three thousand Africans, mostly children, die every day of a mosquito bite. We can fix that,” he said, referring to malaria. “Nine thousand people dying everyday of a preventable, treatable disease like AIDS. We have got the drugs. We can help them. Dirty water, death by dirty water. Well, we can dig wells.”

Say what you will about whether or not rock ‘n’ roll can really change the world, the logistical administration of pulling off Live 8 is nothing short of miraculous. Something like 5.5 billion people were able to watch or listen on the Internet or on the 180 TV stations and 2,000 radio stations. Broadcast in more than 140 nations, 85 percent of the world was apparently able to watch the shows.

“To die of want in a world of surplus is intellectually absurd and morally repulsive,” Bob Geldof told USA Today. Of course, Geldof was the man behind Live Aid twenty years ago in order to raise money for famine relief in Africa. He is no Johnny-come-lately to cause-inspired rock. The former lead singer of the Boomtown Rats has spent the last twenty years doing the work of a saint by attempting to ease African poverty and suffering.

Most of the commentaries leading up to the Live 8 mega-concerts asked if these kinds of endeavors make any difference. Great question. Nevertheless, I think it is impossible to argue with the assessment of former Eurythmics singer Annie Lennox: “Up to the time when people like Bono and Bob (Geldof) started coming to the table, what was being done by the politicians? Absolutely nothing. What I feel we’re doing is giving focus and voice to those people who have nothing.”

Commentators can snicker at the bleeding hearts for railing on about Africa, but what kind of awareness of this poverty and suffering would we have without the scruffy rock stars with a heart?

At the show in London, Geldof showed film footage of a starving little girl in Ethiopia from the 1980s. Dramatically, he brought this same girl –now a radiant college student – up on stage. “She had 10 minutes to live 20 years ago,” Geldof said. “Don’t let them tell you this stuff doesn’t work.”

Rock and religion
There is a strange convergence going on when religious leaders and rock stars are lining up on the same side to squeeze politicians. Who would have imagined Madonna and Pat Robertson, as well as The Purpose Driven Life author Rick Warren and Snoop Dogg, could find an issue to agree upon?

In its special G8 issue, the venerable Economist magazine pointed out: “If the European campaign for aid for Africa is dominated by bleeding-heart liberals, poring over the Guardianand L’Humanité, the American campaign is dominated by Bible-believing Christians, poring over their copies of Christianity Today and discussing abstinence pledges.”

The entire endeavor makes for some strange and refreshing alliances. Actor George Clooney and Pat Robertson were on “Nightline” making a pitch for the same issue. Clooney was in Edinburgh and stopped by to give a pep talk to the One campaigners. I actually overheard him ask Robertson’s granddaughter (a producer with CBN) how her grandfather was. That was a nice touch. He told the group that he would be doing a segment with CBN for the “700 Club” after our session and noted the irony by saying that “my parents will laugh.”

During a briefing with Richard Curtis, the screenwriter of Notting Hill and Love Actually, as well as one of the brainstormers behind the Live 8 concerts, he elaborated on how so many religious leaders had come on board. Curtis related a conversation with artist Charlie Mackesy who mentioned that his pastor Nicky Gumbel, author of the Alpha Course, had written a pamphlet on why Christians should support the One Campaign. Apparently, Nicky’s pamphlet was sent to British evangelical statesman John Stott, who in turn signed on and sent it to gain support from Billy Graham and Rick Warren.

Those names carry weight. Warren pastors a 20,000-member church and has e-mailed 140,000 pastors in the United States about the One Campaign. “I’ve never been involved in partisan politics and don’t intend to now,” he said. “But global poverty is an issue that rises far above mere politics. It is a moral issue, a compassion issue, and because Jesus commanded us to help the poor, it is an obedience issue.”

Warren was even backstage at the Live 8 concert in Philadelphia. When asked by Assist News why he was there, he said, “If Christians ought to be anywhere, they ought to be where people are talking about poverty. So I felt like Christians ought to show up big and strong, because if we don’t, the world looks up and says, ‘Where are the Christians when we talk about poverty?’“

The widespread support by Christian leaders included Rich Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals, Jim Wallis of Sojourners Magazine, Pope Benedict XVI, Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action, the United Methodist Council of Bishops, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Joel Edwards of the Evangelical Alliance UK, Geoff Tunnicliffe of the World Evangelical Alliance, David Beckmann of Bread for the World, and Rich Stearns of World Vision.

“Pandemics, poverty, and ecological degradation are everyone’s business, and there is no escape-pod reserved for those who are comfortable and prosperous just at the moment,” Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams said in London. “Suddenly, the question ‘Who is my neighbor?’ has a very clear answer: My neighbor is the person who lives next door, is the suffering stranger in Africa or southeast Asia or wherever poverty, disease, and disaster are found.”

The denigration of corruption
The Academy Award-nominated actor Djimon Hounsou (Gladiator, Amistad) was on our plane and participated in a press conference before we took off from New York City. Being from the African nation of Benin, he places a very big emphasis on the problem of corruption. This should be no surprise. Government corruption denigrates and humiliates the poorest of the poor when children starve and fat cat dictators amass fortunes in Swiss bank accounts.

“So many countries in Africa have not really had great leaders because of corruption, so I’m working with Bono in trying to find ways to get African scholars and African artists together to find solutions to end corruption in some of the places,” Hounsou has said.

“We do need to end corruption..We need help, but more than anything, Africa needs to be able to trade with the West. That’s the only way we can be self-sufficient.”

He just concluded a recent fact-finding tour of Mali with Oxfam’s Make Trade Fair Campaign. “You know something is wrong when the world’s wealthiest countries and the world’s poorest countries are competing against each other in the same world market, and yet the rich countries won’t play by the same rules that they themselves set,” he observed.

When we landed in London, we were joined by Australian singer Natalie Imbruglia and Bob Geldof – actually Sir Bob Geldof. He’s a spectacle. He looked as if he had just rolled out of bed and wandered over to the airport. It appeared that he was wearing some kind of hemp-woven Chairman Mao pajamas. His hair looks as though he has been stranded with Robinson Crusoe, and I am fairly confident he was wearing his house slippers. You have to love him. Despite the fact that he looks like he crawled out of an alley, he has been one of the most steadfast and committed celebrities to the cause of the suffering – even serving on Tony Blair’s Commission on Africa.

Delegation of the lost cause
When we arrived in Edinburgh, the streets were packed with protesters-anarchists, anti-capitalists, and malcontents. One of the protesters told The Scotsman, “We are all eponymous individuals, we are here on our own. This event is about fun and music, but I don’t have any problem with damaging property. I am here today because I am against oppression, hierarchy, and money.” Huh?

On the other hand, the One campaigners are wonderfully committed and engaging – not at all the kind of dour, pinched-faced zealotry that you sometimes encounter when hanging out with social crusaders. Many of them are young Christians and others are old-school political activists.

“I fully expected to be traveling with others like me. By that, I mean liberal, socially aware, and necessarily Democrat,” Janelle Browning, a volunteer with Mercy Corp from Boston, told me. “I didn’t expect that this young group would be Christians, or that their faith would be their reason for involvement. Easily what impressed me most on this trip is the incredible range of interests, belief systems, faith backgrounds, and ages among this group of people who managed to agree to speak with one voice. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Browning could have easily been referring to Shayne Moore. She is one of the more unlikely candidates to be hanging out with the One Campaign in Edinburgh. After all, she is a stay-at-home mom with three kids who gets her double lattes at Starbucks and shops at Target. Her husband is an investment banker who likes to hunt and fish (he’s even a member of the NRA).

Shayne attends a conservative evangelical church in suburban Chicago, right down the street from her alma mater, Wheaton College. She had no background in political activism, and no knowledge of the stark realities of death and poverty in Africa – that is, until she heard Bono speaking at Wheaton two years ago.

“I absolutely went to see Bono because I was a U2 fan, not because I cared anything about what he had to say,” she confesses. “It was Bono, period.” While Bono’s star power drew her that night, it was a presentation on the ravishing spread of AIDS around the world from Dr. Jim Kim of the World Health Organization that changed her life.

Her 1-year-old was on her hip. “I just couldn’t fathom children having to go through life without a parent, or having to watch their parent die from this disease that’s preventable,” she told me. “And that’s what just kept getting to me – this is preventable.”

She began working with World Vision and a local AIDS action network in order to lobby legislators, including Henry Hyde, her Republican congressman. She feels a sense of responsibility to do whatever she can to fight for this cause. Bono is frequently heard saying, “History will judge this generation.” He has also reminded Christians that God is a much tougher judge than history.

The further she steps into her advocacy role, the more out-of-place she sometimes feels. Those from a more liberal political perspective “have Jim Wallis and Sojourners,” she said. “I have no one to look to. I don’t have a Jim Wallis. I have definitely felt like a lone ranger.”

She has been startled to find out how far out of touch some segments of the evangelical church are on issues such as AIDS and extreme poverty. At the same time, she has heard people grumbling about why Christians are looking to a less-than-perfect rock star like Bono. Her response is pointed: “Well, are you saying anything? Because there’s no one to follow. And so I’m following this rock star.”

Despite her moments of frustration, she still believes that evangelicals can make a huge difference in this battle. “If you look at demographics, we are the most generous with our time, our volunteerism, and our money. And I truly believe that if people are informed and educated, they will act.” Not only will they act, they will pray. “We believe in a personal relationship with the Creator of the universe. We believe it, so let’s act like it. Let’s inform ourselves of what’s going on in the world and then let’s pray about it. In the Lord’s Prayer, we say, ‘God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.’ Well, HIV and AIDS and extreme poverty are not in heaven.”

Not long ago, Shayne was with a fact-finding team of doctors and Christians who were investigating the AIDS situation in Honduras. While they were in the office of the Vice Minister of Health who is responsible for distributing funds in the nation from the Global Fund for HIV and AIDS, he referred to them as the “delegation of the lost cause.”

That stuck with Shayne. Perhaps he was right. “I’m just a delegation of a lost cause,” she sometimes thinks. “When you put yourself out there to be a voice for the voiceless, it’s not sexy work. It’s not glorious. It can be really depressing and really discouraging. We might be the delegation of the lost cause, but as Christians we have hope that we have the final victory. And so that is why I am in political advocacy. Because you don’t just sit back and let evil win.”

Red state warrior for the hungry
Elaine VanCleave was a teenager when the Vietnam War was winding down. Her high school in Macon, Georgia, was newly integrated. Black and white children were going to school together for the first time. That is when she became passionate about social justice issues. If you would have asked her, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” She would have replied, “I want to change the world.”

Instead of changing the world, Elaine went to college, earned a degree in interior design, got married, and became a yuppie.

Elaine, her husband (the president of a coalition of independent record stores), and her three young children settled in Birmingham, Alabama. About ten years ago, her women’s study group at church began reading ‘Tis A Gift To Be Simple and she felt as though there was something missing from her life. She took to heart one of the suggestions in the book to work compassionately to make the world a better place.

“I started working on hunger issues; because as a mother, I felt like hunger is the most basic of human needs,” she told me in Edinburgh. “At the time, the statistic was 35,000 children die every day from hunger. Now it’s down to 30,000. You know, that’s still an unacceptable number. I’m going to keep working on hunger issues so not one mom has to watch her child die because of a preventable disease like diarrhea, or because she doesn’t have enough food to give her child, or from a mosquito bite.”

Elaine’s passion for social justice got her involved with Bread for the World – one of the major coalition partners of the One Campaign. Her work with the group is strenuously non-partisan. When she lobbies or talks to a group, she tells them, “We’re an anti-hunger organization. You’re not going to have somebody coming in next week to give you the pro-hunger version. There’s nobody that’s for hunger.” That works well in a red state such as Alabama.

Back in 1999, there was a world-wide initiative called the Jubilee Campaign (taken from the Old Testament) asking wealthy nations to forgive the debts of poverty stricken nations. Pope John Paul II and Bono were major instigators behind the effort.

Through her work with Bread for the World, Elaine got acquainted with her congressman, Spencer Bachus (R-AL) – one of the most conservative members of the House of Representatives. Ironically, he had just been named as chair of a key banking committee in the House.

Elaine and a handful of her friends from her Presbyterian congregation went to Washington, D.C., to lobby the congressman for debt relief. “There were guys in suits, pen and paper in hand, looking at us. And I’d never done anything like this before in my life,” Elaine recalls.

“I told him that 35,000 children were dying every day. As a mother, that kills me. And I didn’t think there was anything I could do about it, but I wanted to come and talk to him because I knew that there was a lot he could do about it. And that if he sponsored this legislation, he could save millions of lives.”

After the meeting, Backus told the group, “I think I can do this.” Not only did he sponsor this legislation, but he became a real champion for debt relief. “He won over a lot of Republicans in the House speaking passionately about the issue,” Elaine reports. “It’s an ongoing thing with him. And he says that it comes from his faith. He believes that this is something he needs to do. He has said that it’s not going to win him any votes, but he doesn’t care. He believes in this, and it’s the right thing to do.”

Elaine knows where he is coming from. When she is invited to speak to church groups, she is quick to remind them: “If you read the Bible, it’s pretty clear. You know, Matthew 25: ‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat..’ If you read that passage and you’re not working on these issues, then you’re kind of missing the boat. Because that whole story is about how you get to heaven.”

Hold the elevator
The media room for the One Campaign was in the prestigious Balmoral Hotel. When writer Charmaine Yoest and I were headed downstairs, we shouted for someone to hold the elevator. When we got on, there was Bob Geldof – scrubbed up in pinstripes for his meeting in a few hours with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and President George Bush.

We went outside of the hotel and were greeted by hundreds of fans. Of course, they were not there for us, but word had gotten out that Geldof was in the house. When he emerged a few seconds after us, the crowd erupted with applause. He waved and was whisked away. Bono emerged a few moments later to the gasps and sighs of the tenderhearted female fans.

The final Live 8 show was held at the Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh. “We’re all here,” Sir Geldof told the audience of 60,000. “We finally got here, the gathering of the clans, from all over the world, from all over Scotland, from all over the UK. We told them we’d come. We came.” He and Bono had just met with Blair and Bush.

The evening included a very moving video presentation from 86-year-old Nelson Mandela. “Sometimes, it falls upon a generation to be great,” he said. “You can be that generation. You have that opportunity.”

Running more than 90 minutes over the planned schedule, the show was closed out by, who else but the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. I don’t know how the man does it in his 70s, but he was mesmerizing.

Our group was in the Edinburgh airport the next morning when we heard about the terrorist attacks on the buses and tube station in London. We paid close attention because that was our destination. The news of the four bombings eclipsed the announcement of the G8 leaders regarding their pledge to spend about $25 billion more a year on Africa and double total aid for all developing countries, boosting it by about $50 billion a year by 2010.

“We speak today in the shadow of terrorism, but it will not obscure what we came here to achieve,” British Prime Minister Tony Blair said. Blair has been the point man for the aid package for Africa. Although disappointed that he did not get everything that he had hoped, Blair maintained that it was real progress.

“We came here in solidarity with the continent of Africa, and we have come here to announce a plan for action in partnership with Africa,” Blair stated. “It isn’t the end of poverty in Africa, but it is hope that it can be ended. It isn’t all that everyone wanted, but it is progress, real and achievable progress.”

Of course, Bono stated the sentiments with much more dash and sparkle by commenting, “If an Irish rock star can quote Churchill, this is not the end of extreme poverty, but it is the beginning of the end,” he said.

Live 8 mastermind Sir Bob Geldof called the summit a “qualified triumph.” He furthered: “Time will only tell if this has been historic or not. What is true is that never before have so many people forced a change of policy onto the global agenda and today that policy has been forcefully addressed.” He had a point. God bless him.

“The world spoke out, and the politicians listened,” Bono said. “Now, if the world keeps an eye out, they will keep their promises.”

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.


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