March 1987

Love in a Fearful Land: A Guatemalan Story.  By Henri J.M. Nouwen. Ave Maria Press. 116 pages. $5.95.

Breaking Faith: The Sandinista Revolution and Its Impact on Freedom and Christian Faith in Nicaragua.  By Humberto Belli. Crossway. 271 pages. $8.95.

The City of Joy.  By Dominique Lapierre. Doublebay. 464 pages. $8.95.

Love in a Fearful Land recounts the story of two missionary priests in Guatemala: Fr. Stanley Rother, who was murdered in his parish, and Fr. John Vessey, who took his place. Through Rother's letters, conversations with Vessey, and anecdotes gathered during a 10-day visit to Guatemala (with photographer Peter Weiskel), Henri Nouwen illuminates the sacrifice required of Christians who choose to live their faith in dangerous surroundings. Nouwen's emphasis on the actual people involved gives power to Love in a Fearful Land.

Humberto Belli's book on Nicaragua details the relationship between the Sandinistas and the Catholic Church, a relationship that gradually soured after the revolutionaries assumed power.

The "alliance" between the Church and the revolution was always an uneasy one, created only by their common opposition to the Somoza regime. When forced to deal with each other as central players, the Church and the Sandinistas recognized each other as threats. They agreed on one point, however: orthodox Christianity and orthodox Marxism do not mix.

Nevertheless, the revolutionary government tried to persuade Catholics that their faith, when "properly understood," led to the Sandinista ideology. The correct blend, in the Sandinistas' view, would create a "Sandinista Christianity." When this approach met with obstacles, the government turned to intimidation. It is a story that sends a clear message to Christians: Beware of Caesar.

Dominique Lapierre's The City of Joy, presents a different angle on persecution. The subject of his book - from which it takes its title - is the most destitute slum in Calcutta: Anand Nagar, "The City of Joy." Lapierre shows that social and economic conditions can persecute the human spirit as effectively as any government.

Lapierre focuses on three people: Fr. Stephan Kovalski (a Polish missionary priest); the head of the Pal family (rural immigrants to Calcutta); and Dr. Max Loeb (a doctor who was attracted to Kovalski's ministry through a magazine article he happened upon). Through their experiences, Lapierre conducts one on a tour of suffering. He exposes the agony of a leper colony and the horror of abortion. He lays bare the frustration of rural immigrants who lack the skills for well-paying jobs and must settle for drudge work of long hours and little pay.

But the main character is the slum itself. Its name is not meant ironically. Anand Nagar truly is a community where one finds happiness more than sadness, friendship more than enmity. By our narrow standards in the "First World," the people of Anand Nagar have no reason to be joyful. They live in squalor; their sum features the highest population density on the planet, serious malnutrition, scant medics care, and extreme privation.

How can so many people who suffer so much get along so well? Anand Nagar forces them to. The inhabitants of the City of Joy form a community of misfortune, and their common suffering binds them together. As one reads this book, he realizes a subtle conversion in himself and in those who are its subject. As Kovalski wrote in his diary, God uses their "suffering to help others endure theirs...[it] is like that of Christ on the Cross; it is constructive and redemptive. It is full of hope."

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The Four Last Things: Death, Judgement, Hell, Heaven.  By George William Rutler. Credo House. 199 pages. $8.95.

In an age of constant change and fluctuating convictions, talk of those unavoidable constants - death, Judgment, Hell, and Heaven - often evokes nervous irritation. But as Fr. George William Rutler says, "To be a Catholic, to be a Christian, let us say to be human, one has to consider how to die a holy Death, how to pass Judgement, how to avoid Hell, and how to attain Heaven. They proclaim themselves the Four Last Things...and are properly that since they are not only the things that come last but the things that do last."

These are the realities all men must face. Those who have come to delight in Rutler's prose will not be disappointed with this book. He brings both linguistic playfulness and theological sobriety to a subject all too many wish to avoid - at their own peril.

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If I Should Die Before I Wake.  By Jerry Falwell. Thomas Nelson. 219 pages. $12.95.

Jerry Falwell's detractors should take note of this book, for it reveals a compassionate Christian who understands the frailty of those meshed in the web of circumstance. Liberty Godparent Ministries grew from a seed planted by a reporter's question: "Is it enough to take a stand against abortion when you aren't doing anything to help the girls who have no other way?" The question startled Falwell, forced him to contemplate his own shortcomings, and compelled him to conclude that "we must hear and feel the plight of the woman carrying the unborn baby as much as we hear and feel the plight of that unborn child."

This insight led him to establish a nationwide network that offers crisis counseling, maternity homes, and adoption services to pregnant teenage girls. One of these girls, "Jennifer Simpson," recounts, in chapters that alternate with Falwell's, how the program spared her the horrors of a second abortion. Jerry Falwell may be a man of grave flaws, but he is something else as well: a servant of God who has rescued hundreds of the "little ones."

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Sovieticus: American Perceptions and Soviet Realities (Expanded to Cover the Gorbachev Period).  By Stephen F. Cohen. Norton. 187 pages. $7.95.

Since 1982 Stephen F. Cohen, professor of Soviet politics and history at Princeton, has written a regular column on Soviet affairs for The Nation magazine called "Sovieticus." The book under review here - a collection of most of those columns - was originally published in 1985, but was expanded in 1986 to cover the accession of Mikhail Gorbachev to power.

Those who still bemoan The Nation as a "Stalinoid" periodical obviously do not read its "Sovieticus" column. If Cohen is a Stalinist or a pro-Soviet apologist, you'd never know it from this book. If anything, Cohen is an ardent anti-Stalinist, as evidenced by this book, by his earlier Rethinking the Soviet Experience, and by his sympathetic book (Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution) on Nikolai Bukharin, who was executed by Stalin in 1938.

Cohen writes as a liberal, non-Marxist Western academic keen to explore the possibilities for change in the Soviet system. Since there are no realistic prospects for internal revolution or overthrow from abroad, the only hope for change rests with Soviet reformers. And Cohen finds that their prospects for success rest heavily with the foreign policies of Western governments, especially the U.S.

Central to Soviet reform is detente. Cohen finds that "on at least five critical occasions since 1917, proponents of more liberal domestic policy suffered major defeats inside Soviet officialdom. At each turning point, the Soviet Union felt threatened in its relations with the West." By a "more liberal" domestic policy, Cohen means something like what is taking place today in China: market socialism. Just as President Nixon's overtures to China prepared the way for de-Maoization in 1978, so Cohen believes a return to detente will allow the USSR to follow its own course toward economic and social liberalization. The key factor holding back such a course of events, argues Cohen throughout this book, is not a scarcity of reformers inside the USSR (especially now under the more reasonable Gorbachev leadership), but rather, exaggerated fears of the Soviet threat which fuel hostile U.S. foreign policies.

The only way reformers can have their way in the Soviet Union is if they are able to divert investment away from the military and feel secure enough to experiment with economic decentralization and social liberalization. But hostility from the West plays right into the hands of the Soviet "conservatives" who want a huge military budget and no "risky" experiments at home.

Cohen's view of Soviet-American relations is rare, sane, and a source of hope. But while Cohen gives ample treatment to the plight of Soviet Jews and liberal dissenters, he overlooks the plight of Soviet Christians. Soviet mistreatment of Christians feeds the demonological views of the USSR so prevalent among Main Street Americans, and so deplored by Cohen. But that mistreatment is not just a right-wing bogey - it is a reality which worries many a Christian who has no truck with the Rambo Right.

If only for the sake of the credibility of the realistic outlook Cohen urges upon his fellow Americans, it is to be hoped that he will devote some of his future columns in The Nation to the way Christians debate the Soviet experience. And what's more, readers of The Nation - a strongly secular magazine - might learn a thing or two.

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