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CENTRAL AMERICA [image, unknown] Book reviews

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This month we look at the World Council of Churches' Conference on racism and at a theologian's controversial approach to spiritual independence. And we review an analysis of the women's movement in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Editor: Anuradha Vittachi

Our kingdom come

Race: No Peace Without Justice
by Barbara Rogers
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WCC (pbk) US: $5.75/UK: £2.50/ Switz SFr 9.90
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Taking Leave of God
by Don Cupitt
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UK: SCM Press (pbk) £4.95 US: Crossroad Publishing Co.
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Barbara Rogers' book is written as a defence of the World Council of Churches' Programme to Combat Racism. Intense criticism has been aroused by the grants to groups engaged in a violent struggle for liberation, especially in Zimbabwe, Namibia and the Republic of South Africa

Race:No Peace Without Justice reports on the W.C.C.'s response to the outraged reactions from some Western countries. Regional meetings in various continents culminated in an International Consultation in 1980 held in the Netherlands.

Dispossesion and death: racism takes its toll. The scape from the Ogaden was too strenuous for this little child. She was dead before her mother reached the refugee camp. Photo: Arild Vollan/UNICEF
Dispossesion and death: racism takes its toll. The scape from the Ogaden was too strenuous for this little child. She was dead before her mother reached the refugee camp.
Photo: Arild Vollan/UNICEF

The consultation process identified racism as a geiger counter picks up radiation. The untouchables of India are oppressed by their fellow countrymen who are racially different from them. Palestinians are the victims of the Jews. Indians in the Americas, Aborigines in Australia, migrant workers almost worldwide, provide further instances. 'The enormous variety of situations presented. . . made it impossible to see the flaw as located anywhere other than in human nature itself.' One group is always ready to use its power to exploit a weaker section of the human family: an ugly thing wherever it occurs.

Miss Rogers is quick to identify and to condemn. But inducing guilt is seldom an adequate remedy. Having reported the facts as they emerge from round the world, her final indignation is reserved for the Western participants in the Netherland congress. She feels that they both mystified and alienated the delegates from the developing countries by introducing into the discussion dimensions of the Soviet-West tension. Having gone some considerable way to acknowledging the past failures of the colonial powers, they wanted an equally critical look to be taken at the record of Russia. (Clearly the shadow of Afghanistan loomed over the conferences.)

Immediately Miss Rogers is hostile. And her book is likely to lose its apologetic force precisely because she lets her prejudices take over. The fundamental issue is how we can listen to one another, making dialogue possible. It is the dilemma of the dedicated prophet. Denunciation comes so easily. Yet a radical change of consciousness is achieved only when people learn things for themselves, not when they are driven into them.

The same dilemma underlies Taking Leave of God. Don Cupitt too is arguing for liberation. The individual must find his own way of life, coming clear not only of subservience to a tradition but also of dependence on God. When the worshippers are the 'fans' and God is the 'star', all good is projected outwards onto the cult figures and the support group opt out of the real engagement with living. We have got to be godlike, he argues, not abandon everything to a supposed almighty saviour who will rescue us in our helplessness.

People should live without fear of death, not because they believe that there is a God who will put things right but because they accept they will die, and they can live with that truth. Don Cupitt wants to kick away the crutches of dependent religious belief so that people can stand on their own feet. That, he believes, is what they want to do.

His argument is a serious one, well worth considering, although cries of protest have already greeted his book. Both books have important things to say. The tone of voice in which they say them will close many ears and that is itself evidence of the fundamental antagonism which needs to be overcome if the human race is to turn from powerstruggle to co-operation.

Michael Hare Duke

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Machismo rules

Slaves of Slaves
by the Latin American & Caribbean Women's Collective
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Zed Press (pbk) UK: £4.50/US: $8.50
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What course should the women's movement take in those countries where even the men are slaves? That's the question posed in Slaves of Slaves, an analysis of the special character and purpose of the women's movement in Latin America and the Caribbean. Part One offers a general introduction to its history and current position. Part Two consists of 14 essays which rely heavily on first-person accounts of women's experiences.

It is here that the book really comes alive. A typical day in a peasant woman's life in El Salvador is described here by a doctor. 'The woman gets up at 3.30 or 4 in the morning to light the fire for cooking the maize. Then she pounds it on a stone, feeds the animals, prepares the meal and washes the clothes. At midday she takes most of the meal to her husband, and while he eats she ploughs the fields or wields a scythe and generally carries on with whatever her husband was doing. Afterwards she goes home, feeds the children and eats what little is left. She is probably beaten, frequently pregnant and suffers many miscarriages.'

Latin American woman is a victim of poverty and of machismo 'an expression - sometimes at the level of caricature - of the patriarchal system'. And, if politically active, she is a target for manipulation, repression and torture. Even in Cuba, 15 years after the revolution, very few women stand for or are elected to political office. And when a cross-section of Cuban men were asked why they avoided doing their share of the housework, they replied that it was women's work. At the other end of the scale there is the well-publicised but everchilling evidence of rape and torture in countries such as Chile and Uruguay.

The authors are wary of attempts to graft Western feminist attitudes and approaches onto their movement, which have evolved differently. The 'wages for housework' campaign, for example, is seen as irrelevant or even profoundly reactionary in a Latin American context. If successful, they argue, such a campaign would merely reinforce the patriarchal family and accentuate the commercialization of all relationships which occurs under capitalist regimes.

The book's authors come from a wide range of backgrounds, but share a common theoretical approach. They address themselves to the perennial dilemma of radical feminism - which matters most. sisterhood or the class struggle - and they plump firmly for the latter. Working men and women have to fight together for their conditions to improve.

Susan Spindler.


The Prophet
... being the book that proved a word is worth a thousand pictures

A PRIEST asked, What is Fate, Master?
And he answered
It is that which gives the beast of burden its reason for existence.
It is that which men informer times had to bear upon their backs. . .
It is that which has caused great fleets of ships to ply the Seven Seas wherever the wind blows.
And is that Fate? said the priest. Fate ... ? I thought you said Freight responded the Master.

That's from my favourite parody of The Prophet. Kahlil Gibran's style is so distinctive, a lyrical blend of Blake, Nietzsche and the Sermon on the Mount, that it invites imitations. But to dismiss Gibran's work cynically would be a mistake. In a world full of disparate and indigestible bits of knowledge, Gibran provides a rarer commodity: understanding. Calm and sensitive, he touches the heart of a problem, and confusion falls away.

The central paradox in Freire's turgid Pedagogy of the Oppressed, for instance, is far more lucidly expressed in Gibran's 'Counsel' on Freedom:

And if it is a despot you would dethrone, see first that his throne erected within you is destroyed.

Gibran's curiously mixed background may explain why The Prophet speaks to idealists of both East and West. He was born into poverty, in the Lebanese village of Bsherri in 1883. According to Virginia Hilu (editor of Gibran's letters), his father was a drunken farmer who beat him if he was found drawing. But his mother, the daughter of a Maronite priest, was so intent on providing a better life for her children that she took the enormous risk of emigrating with them to America. Unable to speak English and illiterate even in her own language, she worked as a seamstress to send Kahlil to school. He lived up to her academic expectations, both in Boston and at the Institute of Wisdom in Beirut By 1903, he had his first literary essays published in an Arab emigre newspaper in Boston, and soon after, was discovered as an artist and poet by his lifelong benefactress, Mary Haskell. But personal tragedy accompanied public success: within months of each other, his sister, brother and mother wasted away of TB and cancer.

Gibran himself was never strong. In Lebanon, his early death in 1931 made important news, and a museum was built in his memory. Forty years later, The Prophet was selling at the rate of nearly half a million copies per year in America alone.

It stands out among Gibran's writings as the finest expression of his beliefs. In other works he focused on the relationship between man and God, or between lovers. Here he explored the relationship between man and society, reconciling the necessary aloneness of each individual with his equally necessary responsibility to the greater whole. The principle of the interdependence of independent beings is most evident in his counsel on Marriage:

Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone. Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.

In the counsel on Crime and Punishment, he added:

And when one of you falls down he falls for those behind him, a caution against the stumbling stone.
Ay, and he falls for those ahead of him, who, though faster and surer of foot, yet removed not the stumbling stone.

Other counsels of particular relevance for today are those on Work, Self-knowledge, Children and Giving. The counsel on Self knowledge calls for religious tolerance:

Say not 'I have found the path of the soul'. Say rather, 'I have met the soul walking upon my path.'

The last throws the politics of charity into focus:

You often say, 'I would give, but only to the deserving.'
The trees in your orchard say not so, nor the flocks in your pasture. . .
Surely he who is worthy to receive his days and his nights is worthy of all else from you. . .
For in truth it is life that gives unto life- while you, who deem yourself a giver, are but a witness.

Anuradha Vittachi

The Prophet (1923)
by Kahlil Gibran
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UK: Heinemann £2.95 US: Alfred A. Knopf.
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