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May 11, 1986|Margaret E. Crahan | Crahan is Henry R. Luce professor of religion, power and political process at Occidental College. and

Both of these books concern the role of religion in revolutionary political and ideological struggle. Both are also intended to be weapons in that struggle and consequently are highly political. Humberto Belli is aware of this, but Andrew J. Zwerneman appears not to be. The authors are lay Catholic activists who are profoundly anti-Marxist. In Belli's case, this springs partly from his experiences in Nicaragua in the late 1970s and early 1980s and in Zwerneman's from his roots in a charismatic religious movement in the United States.

Belli is a Nicaraguan lawyer and sociologist who joined the Sandinista revolutionary movement in the early 1970s and left it in 1975. Two years later, he became active in the Catholic Church and in 1980 joined the anti-Sandinista newspaper La Prensa as head of the editorial page. This move was in large measure prompted by the identification of La Prensa with elements within the Catholic Church that were critical of the Sandinista government. Belli left Nicaragua in 1982 and founded the Puebla Institute in Michigan, which has been active in generating anti-Sandinista sentiment in the United States.

Zwerneman is a journalist who was sent to Grenada in 1984 by the People of Praise, a predominantly Catholic group dedicated to charismatic religious renewal in the United States and abroad. Having initiated missionary activities in the Caribbean in the 1970s, the People of Praise were preoccupied by the growth of leftist revolutionary movements in the area, such as the New Jewel Movement of Maurice Bishop, prime minister of Grenada from 1979 to 1983. The objective of the book is to make Caribbean leaders in commerce, government and the churches, as well as the general public in the United States, aware of what the People of Praise perceive to be the threat of Marxist infiltration of the churches. Hence Zwerneman, whose first stop on the island was the offices of the United States Information Agency, emphasizes what he categorizes as the manipulation of the churches, particularly their youth groups, by the New Jewel Movement. Belli ascribes similar tactics to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.

Both authors correctly point out that revolutionary movements, such as the New Jewel Movement and the Sandinista, tend to compete with religion for the ultimate loyalty of individuals. As Zwerneman phrases it, "The revolution's forcefulness lay, in great part, in its demand for total dedication, its appeal for commitment. It was a call as total as the Christian call to lay down one's life for Christ and give all to the Kingdom of God." Since Zwerneman and Belli both apparently believe that one's total loyalty must be to one's faith, neither accepts the possibility that Christians can be faithful to both church and revolution. Both regard efforts to involve Christians in revolutionary struggle as a tactical move during the initial stages that ultimately will be abandoned once a revolution is consolidated.

The authors allege that in Grenada and Nicaragua, the objective of the revolutionary leadership was to control the churches, particularly the Catholic Church, which incorporates more than 60% of Grenadans and more than 80% of Nicaraguans. In Zwerneman's case, the evidence he adduces is largely the personal experiences of Grenadan churchpeople who were against the New Jewel Movement. Belli undertakes a more broad-based analysis of Sandinista ideology and policies focusing on the Sandinista government's consolidation of political and economic power, reaction to dissent and general human rights record. His portrayal of Nicaragua under the Sandinistas is particularly bleak, leading to his conclusion that the only solution is the overthrow of the Nicaraguan government. For his part, Zwerneman applauds the elimination of the remnants of the revolutionary government in Grenada in October, 1983, via U.S. intervention. He agrees with the island's Governor-General, Sir Paul Scoon, and many Grenadans, that it was God's will.

What Belli's and Zwerneman's books do not satisfactorily explain is the participation of Grenadan and Nicaraguan Christians in their respective revolutions. Both imply that such individuals have been duped by the revolutionary leadership or are betraying their churches. Neither grants any legitimacy to Marxist-Christian dialogue, calling rather for a strengthening of anti-Marxist sentiment within the churches.

Nor do Belli and Zwerneman allow for much political and religious heterodoxy. They argue that there is a corpus of religious truth that indicates what is politically correct. The increasing debate within churches concerning the nature of their insertion into the world and how best to exercise moral leadership in contemporary political and socioeconomic issues is regarded by the authors as a threat to religion.

Belli and Zwerneman are passionate defenders of their vision of the Catholic Church and the role of religion in society. It is quite clear, however, that there are other individuals within that church who just as passionately disagree with them. That helps explain why political and ideological struggle in revolutionary Grenada and Nicaragua has focused so much on the churches and involved church-people in such ardent debate. As these two books demonstrate, the traditional claim of most churches and church-people that they are politically neutral and nonpartisan has faded as more and more religious activists struggle to establish their vision of church and society as the correct one. Both these books reflect the intensity of that struggle and the passions it has aroused. Neither resolves it.

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