New Internationalist

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Issue 139

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NEW BOOKS

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Do Christian priests work for or against the poor? This month we review an investigation into the Christian Churches’ political involvement in eight Latin American countries. And we discover a child’s guide to the politics of hunger.

Editor: Anuradha Vittachi

Priests for the poor

A Vision of Hope
by Trevor Beeson and Jenny Pearce
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Fount (pbk) £2.95
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Che Guevara once forecast that if Christians in Latin America ever became revolutionaries, the revolution would be unstoppable. The murder of priests in El Salvador and Guatemala - including that of Archbishop Oscar Romero, gunned down while saying mass - has become a symbol of the Christian Church’s solidarity with the poor of Latin America.

But not everywhere are priests protesting. In Nicaragua, many clergy are involved with the highest levels of the government - although as the recent expulsion of churchmen from the country shows, it is not easy to hold the reins of power at the altar and in government at the same time.

The complex issues involved have seen the rise of ‘liberation theology’, a brand of unashamedly political Christianity, rooted in Latin America but fast picking up supporters all over the world. Many clergy and laity, but particularly Roman Catholic priests, have offered themselves as voices for the poor. They will give Caesar his due but only after Caesar has negotiated an acceptable deal. Yet it is wrong to picture today’s Latin American churchmen and women as a new breed of dogcollared left-wing activists - they are as politically mixed there as anywhere else in the world. Many bishops in El Salvador strongly back the US. and there are clear rifts between Nicaraguan bishops and the churchmen who have taken seats in the new regime.

In November 1980 a film showing the involvement of Christians in the political struggles of El Salvador was seen at the Assembly of the British Council of Churches (BCC) in London. The stunned BCC immediately declared its ‘deep concern' and resolved that a study project be undertaken, leading to a policy document.

A Vision of Hope by Trevor Beeson and Jenny Pearce is part of the response to that resolution. Trevor Beeson is the Canon of Westminster Abbey and Chaplain to the speaker of the House of Commons; Jenny Pearce works at the Latin America Bureau in London, where she edits many of the Bureau’s publications. In this highly detailed work the authors give the historical and political background to the proW lems of eight representative Latin American countries, and show how the church offers hope to the poor in the most practical way possible by getting involved in the struggle on their behalf.

The book does us a service in showing how different the Latin American church can be from its Western counterpart. In the West, ‘church’ conjures up scenes of buildings with vases of flowers, where social cliques meet weekly. But in Latin America religion is a part of every man’s and every woman’s consciousness. In Argentina the Roman Catholic church alone has more than 25 million members. After the military coup in 1966 the new regime dedicated the country ‘to The Immaculate Heart and the Virgin Mary’.

Before the arrival of Spanish and Portuguese explorers, Amerindia was profoundly religious and mystical. Roman Catholic missionaries often built their churches on the sites of old temples and their faith with its saints, symbolism and mysteries perfectly fills the gap between the religions of the old and new worlds.

A Vision of Hope is a history of the relations of church and state in Latin America. Authors admit time and space prevented them including Bolivia, Colombia, Equador, among other countries. But they have provided a heavyweight (265 pages) overview of the history of Christians in a troubled region ‘where religion sometimes works with politics and sometimes clashes head on. What comes across is a picture of a vast and often violent area of land where voices are being raised in indignation: a glimpse of a vision of hope.

Gamini Pieris

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'Food First' for children

Food First Curriculum
by Laurie Rubin
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Available from IDAF, 1885 Mission
Street, San Francisco, CA 94103, USA.
Or: Third World Publications,
151 Stratford Road, Birmingham B11
1RD, UK.
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An intriguing thing happened when BBC TV’s first ‘Global Report’ documentary was being filmed. One of the programme s opening shots was of a hundred people, representing the human family, standing together on a grassy slope. The hundred had been selected by nationality so there were a lot of Chinese and not many Swedes. Everyone wore national costume and brought representative lunches: the small group of Americans had before them a sumptuous, meat-filled picnic, while the larger group of Indians beside them looked sadly on their meagre portions of boiled nce.

What happened? Spontaneous sharing. The Americans invited the Indians oven the response was natural and seemed inevitable. No explanations, no haranguing - because the sense of community was there, of being one family.

But how can this sense of community, together with the vivid sense that hunger is absurd in a world of plenty, be apprehended by the larger human family of four billion people? Can what works in microcosm also work in macrocosm?

That a change of vision can come about is a belief held vigorously by the Institute for Food and Developmental Policy. Their best-known effort to break down the feeling of impotence was the classic Food First. But not all their books are so heavyweight Their new Food First Curriculum should be welcomed by teachers who need imaginative and galvanising resource material for younger pupils aged 9 to 12.

The Curriculum is not exactly a book -it’s a collection of separate file pages, holes ready-punched. And there are two other important differences between this and some other development packs now so frequently produced: one is the high standard of presentation. Often packs contain thoughtful material but are - understandably, for economy’s sake - so poorly printed or roughly illustrated that the psychological barriers against learning about poverty are more likely to be reinforced than breached. And two, the Curriculum avoids playing on the children’s feelings of guilt - which can, in the long run, be paralysing. Instead it builds on positive experiences.

So, in the very first unit, the Curriculum explores methods of problem-solving (cooperation, appreciating diversity) before it dives into the details of food production in Unit Two and food processing and packaging Unit Three. When the children have all these ideas and knowledge under their belts, Unit Four helps them take the step out into looking at the same issues at a global level. The same political analysis is presented here as in all their publications: people are hungry not because there is too little food or too many people, but because people who are poor and powerless have no access to land or jobs.

Unit Five proves the message in terms of the West: who goes hungry in America? The elderly, women, children, minorities. The common denominator, clearly, is powerlessness. The sixth and final unit brings the children back to the part they can each play in changing these realities. The punchline is that ordinary people can end hunger by working together: so a ‘oneworld’ vision and hope are the first of the ingredients needed to bring about a more just life for all.

Anna Clark


CLASSICS

Among the Believers
...being the book that looked through
the Islamic world without seeing into it.

V.S. Naipaul’s imagination was cap tured by the Islamic puzzle as he watched Iranians trying to explain their revolution on American television. The idea of visiting Islamic countries and interpreting their upheavals for the confused and apprehensive Western audience was a bold one, but Naipaul’s credentials are exceptional. Born in Trinidad of Hindu Indian parents, Naipaul moved to England at eighteen and has since travelled widely, producing novels and commentaries with Caribbean, Latin American, African and Indian settings. His writing, always engaging, always serious, has won him international acclaim and there is no one now writing in English who can command more attention for the Third World themes he explores. For many of his readers, Among the Believers will be the most they will ever learn about Islam.

The effect of the book is fascination and frustration inequal measure. Fascination, because Naipaul is incapable of being dull; frustration, because, for all his perception, he never penetrates the Islamic world, and we never come to know it.

He quickly discovers he does not like what he finds and abandons the attempt at understanding in favour of a spirited defence of his own adopted European values. He argues for the primacy of logical argument, individuality and the liberal institutions of the rich capitalist countries in the face of the infuriatingly complacent rejection of all of these by the Moslem faithful. He leaves us with the impression that the Islamic movements are merely self-delusion and hypocrisy on a grand scale.

It is the same, personal partisanship that makes the book fascinating even as the author stands between us and understanding. There is drama in his encounters with leaders, poets, taxi drivers and passers-by, and he records them brilliantly. On the first page his Iranian driver arrives at the hotel:

‘I didn’t like him. I saw him as a man of simple origins, simply educated, but with a great sneering pride, deferential but resentful, not liking himself for what he was doing. He was the kind of man who, without political doctrine, only with resentments, had made the Iranian revolution.’ As we read this we are appalled by Naipaul’s snobbish summary judgement, yet we see the driver and are immediately excited by the tension of the meeting. Most importantly, we are permitted to know our guide - that he is a fallible man, emotional, difficult, troubled. For this rigorous honesty much can be forgiven.

The Islamic journey starts in Iran and during six months progresses through Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia - an odd itinerary, which omits all Arab and African countries. As we progress, Naipaul’s complaints gradually add up to a theme:

Moslems are dependent on the West or what he prefers to call ‘the universal civilissation it leads’, even as they are rejecting it In Iran he finds revolutionary idleness relies on oil revenues from the industrial countries. In Pakistan devout Moslems quietly plan for Western educations and highly paid overseas jobs. In Malaysia and Indonesia he also discovers ‘the fantasy... that the world goes on, runs itself, has only to be inherited.’ He seems to tell the Moslems that if they want the benefits of industrial technology, they should also be prepared to swallow the culture that spawned it

This will not do. It is intermittently clear that the Islamic movements he considers derive their force from the widespread support of ordinary, often rural, people - the people who have gained little or nothing from contact with the West. We can speculate that for these people Islam offers a hope, dignity and social cohesion, which might seem attractive compared to the individualism, government power and disruptive technological change that has come with Western colonialism and influence. We can only speculate because Naipaul rarely talks to those of ‘simple origins, simply educated’. By the nature of his journey and personal preference he comes best to know educated, urban men, who do indeed sit uncomfortably between their exclusive faith and their enjoyment of Western-sponsored privilege.

Among the Believers is an opportunity missed. The West’s puzzlement at the events of Islam contain the most fundamental questions, as important to the rich industrial countries as to the poor. The tensions between spiritual satisfaction, material desires and social organization exist everywhere and are nowhere resolved. We needed an imaginative leap across cultural prejudices; instead we get an entertaining book which suggests that fundamentalist Islam has no validity as either a social movement, a political response or a spiritual quest. Not surprisingly the book has been well received by its Western readership. Writing in the Observer, Martin Amis called Naipaul ‘our most exhiliarating explorer’. We can only wish that he was less determinedly ours

Roger King

Among the Believers
by VS Naipaul (1981)
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Pengnin (pbk) £3.50
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