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Book Reviews

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REAL AID [image, unknown] Book reviews

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This month we look at two critically different approaches to helping the Third World’s poor taken by churches in the West; and at Nicaragua’s attempts to achieve food self-sufficiency and political freedom after the revolution.

Editor: Anuradha Vittachi

The poor as liberators

Poor, Yet Making Many Rich
by Richard D. N. Dickinson
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WCC (pbk) £5.75/$7.50
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Christians and the Third World
by David Edgington
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Paternoster Press (pbk) £4.00

Photo: Claude Sauvageot. In the medieval church everybody knew that you ought to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, harbour the stranger, visit the sick, minister to prisoners, bury the dead. These were ‘the seven corporal works of mercy’, read off from Matthew Chapter 25. So when Christians of the 20th century are confronted with the problems of the Third World, they have a long tradition upon which to rely. For some people, however, that tradition of giving charity has now become questionable. Just how far contemporary theology has moved is made explicit in Richard Dickinson’s hook.

He sets out to review the ideas on ‘development, liberation and global justice issues’ that have evolved in secular society and in the thinking of the World Council of Churches over the last two decades.

The ‘works of mercy’ approach assumes that the rich should give to the poor: it says nothing about how the two groups arrived at their relative positions. Once development moves behind economics to questions of justice, it becomes a much more explosive subject than the advocates of ’charity’ ever realised. The rich are soon unmasked as the source of the injustice. Changes in the patterns of power and liberation are then on the agenda.

‘Development is essentially a people’s struggle in which the poor and oppressed should be the main protagonists, the active agents and immediate beneficiaries. Therefore the development process must be seen from the point of view of the poor and oppressed masses who are the subjects and not the objects of development. The role of the churches and Christian communities everywhere should be essentially supportive.’ (1977 report of the Commission on the Churches’ participation in development — our emphasis.)

In such an understanding, the poor then become the educators and sometimes the liberators of the rich , giving them what they cannot acquire for themselves, a vision of the way forward,

This approach which has slowly developed in the WCC, is approved by Dickinson. He backs it up with practical case-studies of working alongside the poor. Yet he is no starry-eyed idealist. He recognises that there is a need for a tough look at the jargon of development: ‘solidarity with the poor’, ‘participation’. He argues for a study of power. to see how the churches exercise influence within political power structures and how they can confront the secular claims of militarism and national security which seem to lie at the heart of all international dilemmas,

This important and profound book takes the debate on to the question of what makes the church. Does it exist on the basis of a set of theological beliefs or is it a society validated by its Christ-like involvement in the needs of the world and its theologically-informed lifestyle and use of power?

By contrast, David Edgington’s book stands more traditionally within the assumptions of the church-based missionary enterprise.

There would be plenty of disagreement over fundamentals between the two authors. When Edgington talks of learning from the Third World, the example he gives is the participation of Lois Palau, the ‘Argentinian Evangelist’, on a British. ‘Youth for Christ’ platform. He fails to recognise that Palau, whatever his origins, is a product of Western culture and theology. This book has emerged from an area of church thinking which has traditionally dealt in certainties about doctrines and attitudes which it believed it should, as its missionary task, convey to others.

Michael Hare Duke

Michael Hare Duke is the Bishop of St. Andrews, Scotland

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Food first in Nicaragua

What Difference Could a Revolution Make?
by Joseph Collins with Francis Moore Lappé and Nick Allen
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US: Institute for Food and Development Policy (pbk) $4.95
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UK: Distributed by Third World Publications £4.50
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Now We Can Speak: A Journey through the New Nicaragua
by Frances Moore Lappé and Joseph Collins
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US: IFDP (pbk) $4.95
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UK: TWP £3.95
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When the Somoza dictatorship fell, on July 19th 1979, the Sandinistas inherited a country in which 1,600 people owned almost half the land and infant malnutrition was running at 60 per cent.

What Difference Could a Revolution Make? is the story of how this cruel legacy is being transformed in a ‘new Nicaragua’, in which ‘the logic of the majority’ means equitable land distribution and an adequate diet for everyone.

Co-author of the classic Food First Beyond the Myth of Scarcity, Joseph Collins invites us to look at the Sandinista achievement through ‘food glasses’. What we see is very different from the popular image of revolutionaries. In place of gun-waving ideologues, we find conscientious government officials and hard-working campesinos dedicated to achieving food self-sufficiency and to ridding Nicaragua of the crippling $1.6 billion foreign debt which Somoza bequeathed.

The new government courageously resisted the simplistic doctrine of ‘land to the people’, realising that a cash-crop economy cannot be dismantled overnight. Instead, it saw increased export-earnings as the best way to buy time for the development of a ‘basic foods programme’. So, the slogan was pragmatically modified to ‘land to whomever works it’ — a policy which still leaves a surprising 66 per cent of arable land in the private sector,

Achievements have been dramatic. Since 1978, the production and consumption — of maize, beans and rice has soared; infant mortality has declined by 30 per cent and exports of coffee and sugar are up by 10 and 20 per cent respectively.

But it’s not all a success story, Private landowners have been largely uncooperative — using cheap government loans to line their own pockets and allowing farm land to lie idle. And attacks from Honduras by ex-National Guardsmen both foster a nervous siege mentality and divert scarce resources from the agricultural sector.

The balance of pluralism is a delicate one. And Collins shows how it may yet tip under the pressure of propaganda from Washington a hostility which threatens daily to become a military reality.

If What Difference . . .7 gives us ‘food glasses’, the companion volume Now We Can Speak tries to give us the vision of the new Nicaragua. As the title suggests, the text is a lively patchwork of conversations with women and men from all walks of life —peasants, politicians and priests. Photographs eloquently portray the mixture of determination and excitement which characterises the new-found voices. Asuncion, a cooperative leader, says, ‘I began to understand what human rights are all about. There are no limits on what human beings can do once you understand what human rights are all about.’

Both books present refreshingly humane accounts of post-revolutionary Nicaragua. And the society they describe is striking for its principled lack of political dogmatism. In the words of a former brigadista: ‘In Nicaragua today I don’t believe in anyone simply because they expound this or that philosophy. I look at what he or she is doing.’

Deborah Fade


Jane Eyre
...being the book that showed women
and children how to challenge authority

FORTUNATELY, no-one shovelled Jane Eyre down my throat at school: I was lucky enough not to be educated out of this marvellous treat. By the time I read it of my own accord, as an adult, I was ready to catch some of its quality: the precise psychological truth with which Charlotte Brontë suffuses the story of an intelligent and spirited young woman battling to gain her independence against the authority-figures of her day, the head of the family. the clergy, the employer and the husband.

Published in 1847, the novel deliberately flouted contemporary images of the idealised woman. Heroines were china dolls, whose virtues consisted of beauty, naivet6 and docility, for which they were rewarded by a high-born man condescending to marry them.

Charlotte Brontë emphasises that her heroine is a puny plain Jane whose tongue is as sharp as her mind, and that what she wants is not to slide into the arms of a father-protector, but to be a powerful protector herself. Towards the end of the book, Jane says: ‘It was my time to assume ascendancy. My powers were in play and in force... He obeyed at once. Where there is energy to command well enough, obedience never fails.’ She sounds more like Mrs Thatcher than an early Victorian heroine.

The novel demonstrates the steps Jane takes to gain her ‘ascendancy’. At the beginning, Jane is perfect victim-material, a penniless orphan who is treated sadistically by her foster family. And Jane’s first response to being victimised is to behave like a classic victim. She cowers, thinking herself as wicked as she is told she is; tries constantly to please and is bewildered when her efforts are inevitably misjudged; asks what she has done wrong and is punished for insubordination; is filled with dread, and evokes rejection by her frightened eyes.

But stung beyond endurance one day, Jane turns on her persecutors like an animal whipped once too often. She switches in a flash from victim to rebel, and as rebel her anger is released white-hot and laser-like, without a trace of a victim’s withholding or apology. It is Jane’s first experience of owning her power and she emerges the clear winner in the battle for authority.

The next round of Jane’s fight is set at Lowood, the bleak, typhus-trap boarding school, where Charlotte Brontë makes her heroine explore the subtler difficulties of contending with institutionalised injustice. How do you fight a fog? It’s too diffuse to overturn with a single blast of anger. And theological questions complicate the issue.

Should one fight at all? Is it wordly selfishness to go for what you want in life Jane’s craving to experience ‘more vivid forms of goodness’ — when you ‘should’ accept your lot in life and endure it with grace until you are comforted in heaven?

Charlotte Brontë’s response is unambiguous. Those clergymen in the novel who mislead impressionable girls into starving their hearts and their bodies in the name of Christ, are lacerated as hypocrites who impose a coldblooded, life-denying egotism on warm and natural beings.

Jane has her hardest battle to fight when she confronts not frost but flame. At eighteen, in her first post as governess, she falls in love with her Byronic master. Rochester is dark and fiery, massive, overwhelming. Is the petite Jane swept off her feet? No chance. She is not about to enter into a relationship where she is in a position of weakness on all counts: she is poor, alone, plain, female, twenty years younger, an employee. . . Throughout the courtship, Jane is superficially pliant but never sacrifices her integrity.

Rochester is captivated by his brave, child-woman fianceé’s resolution — and so is the reader meant to be. On the face of it, Charlotte Brontë seems to be suggesting, a century ahead of the Women’s Movement, that there could be a new kind of relationship between men and women: a relationship based on mutual need and acceptance, where the woman is an active, passionate and decisive partner. But this is where, for me, uneasiness sets in. Until this point Jane has had all my sympathies: her story is deeply affecting. Now Charlotte Brontës feminism begins to reveal a bias that is. I suspect, as unconscious as it is negative.

Jane gets everything she wants not by rising to freedom and equality but through Rochester diminishing to the state of slave and cripple. Even at their first meeting, Rochester twists his ankle and has to lean on Jane to get safely home. During their courtship Rochester calls Jane his ‘tyrant’, in sexually-inflamed exasperation— and the epithet is not necessarily unfair. Though she meekly calls him ‘sir’, one begins to wonder who is the servant and who the master. By the end of the novel. Rochester’s grand house has been burned to a cinder, and he is a blind, grief-stricken shadow of his former self, totally dependent on Jane. Her triumph is complete.

Anuradha Vittachi

Jane Eyre (1847)
by Charlotte Brontë
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Penguin (pbk) Aus: $2.75/Can: $2.25 UK: 95p/US: $2.25
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New Internationalist issue 126 magazine cover This article is from the August 1983 issue of New Internationalist.
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