One of the most urgent issues for faith communities during the 1980s was the contra war in Nicaragua. Seeking to make the Sandinista government a whipping post for its anti-communist fervor, the Reagan administration sponsored a guerrilla army that was little more than organized terror against the Nicaraguan people. The war brutalized the country, drained the revolution of scarce resources, demoralized the population, and led to the end of the Sandinistas in the 1990 elections.
Jennifer Atlee-Loudon's Red Thread is a jolting recollection of those times and those struggles. Atlee-Loudon was in Nicaragua for the better part of 10 years as a member of Witness for Peace, a faith-based group organized to provide a nonviolent presence for communities ravaged by war. Her first-hand diary provides graphic accounts of the physical, psychological, and ultimately political effects of the U.S. policy on people she came to know and love. It is tough reading: You can feel the palpable fear of villagers awaiting an imminent contra attack, the grief and rage of victims in the aftermath of violence, the slow burn of fading hope as the war wreaks devastation on the fragile revolutionary experiment.
Atlee-Loudon also recounts with overwhelming eloquence her own soul-wrenching spiritual crisis of confronting brutality and death. At times, Atlee-Loudon sounds like a biblical prophet railing against the madness and inhumanity around her. At other times, she is a modern Job shaking fists at divine impotence in the midst of innocent suffering. With a searing honesty, she labels the U.S. policy evil. But she also believes in grace and hope and humanity that defiantly stir in the midst of that evil.
Red Thread is an important document of a brutal episode in U.S. foreign policy which, lamentably, has faded from our consciousness. Perhaps (with prayerful respect for the man's personal suffering and that of his family) former President Reagan's Alzheimer's condition is symbolic: The nation as a whole has forgotten those wrenching days; the evil has been swept under the rug, and an inhumane policy has been given the historical imprimatur of "defense of freedom." (Unlike truth commissions in South Africa and El Salvador, the bloody seasons in Nicaragua have never been exposed to public scrutiny.)
But Atlee-Loudon's work is more than a political memoir. It is a remarkable spiritual testimony of what she calls "remembering, mourning, healing, reconstructing, re-empowerment, and ultimately resurrection." To read this book is to grapple with the costs of discipleship, with what it means to compassionately share in suffering humanity, with the urgency of confronting evil. But we are also invited on that powerful and poignant journey toward resurrection. This is a challenge and an invitation at the very heart of the gospeland we should be grateful to Atlee-Loudon for such a powerful witness.
William O'Brien is coordinator of the Alternative Seminary in Philadelphia.