El chavismo y la memoria subversiva de Jesús / Armando Rojas Guardia

Chavismo and the Subversive Memory of Jesus

In light of the efforts to transform Chavismo into a new type of religion, utilizing and instrumentalizing Christian elements and content, it is a moral imperative for me to distinguish this type of unusual religious expression from genuine Christianity, at least in the manner that many men and women in our country and our time understand it and attempt to live it.


The first thing I need to say is that, as a radio listener and TV-watcher, as a reader of newspapers and an Internet user, for weeks I’ve been feeling a deep nostalgia for modernity and for the critical spirit of Enlightenment thought. The excess of religion, of ritual manifestations, of sacred ceremonies and devotedly homiletic speeches that has abounded in Venezuelan public life for months now turns out to be incompatible with one of the most indispensable conquests of the modern world: the secular State, the total laicism of public affairs. That laicism, which has been an essential characteristic of our life as a republic since 1830 and which therefore has decisively permeated our entire historical character as a nation, is being violently assaulted to a degree none of us could have expected by an avalanche of religious symbology mixed in an indisoluble manner with excrescences of magical thinking. I think that, with the exception of a few Islamic theocracies, this isn’t happening in any other country in the world. The symbolic sobriety and austerity that the modern secularization of public affairs imposes when it comes to approaching the religious fact, has come to be exactly that in Venezuela: a nostalgia.

But the fact is the ethical proposal of Jesus of Nazareth is itself incompatible with religion. An historically indisputable phrase by Christ is: “But go and learn what this means: I desire compassion, and not sacrifice” (Mt 9,13-12,7). There, in that phrase, a devastating critique of religion (sacrifice, worship) is suggested in order to privilege, as an anthropological alternative, solidarity, compassion and human fraternity. The religious project finds its reason for being in “the sacred” (a space, a time, a few utensils, a few rites, a few norms), and in “the sacred” as a counterpoint to “the profane,” to the lay and secular. On the other hand, Jesus’s project operates a radical displacement: the way to access God is not through the sacred, but rather through the profane aspect of our relation with fellow man, the ethical relation of service for others to the point of devotion and forgetting oneself. Christ not only showed us, but he incarnated a way —another one—, unprecedented, of living human religiosity. We know of his critical distancing from the two religious instances that mediated, for the men and women of his time and country, the relation to God: the Temple and the Law. Regarding the first, the gospels never mention that Jesus went to the Temple to pray or to participate in any liturgical ceremony. His conduct was never ritualistic: he didn’t find the Father in the sacred space of the Temple nor in the sacred time of religious worship. He went to the Temple because that’s where people gathered and it was to them he directed his message. Jesus Christ spoke with the Father and of the Father in profane, secular time and spaces of life itself, the daily life of the city and countryside. The only violent action Jesus realized was the one he performed in the Temple (Mk 11,15-19; Mt 21,12-17; Lc 19,45-48; Jn 2,13-22) and his contemporaries judged that action as an “attack” against the Temple itself and everything it represented in the Israelite life of his time. In the Gospel of John (4,20-24) we’re told, as a teaching emanated from Christ himself, that neither sacred space, nor the religious ceremonies that are celebrated within it, constitute the adequate place to find God. He is found when one invokes Him “in spirit and in truth” throughout the concrete secularity of existence. And, with regards to Jesus’s conflict with the Law, he gave no importance to the norms of ritual purity (Mk 7,1-17), to prohibitions about food (Mk 7,18-23), to what is stipulated about fasting (Mk 2,18-22), to the social rejection, also legislated, that fell upon public sinners, who were his friends and shared the table with him (Mk 2,15-17), and upon prostitutes (Mt 21,4-31s); he also dispensed with norms regarding the treatment of and cohabitation with women, a group of whom accompanied him permanently (Lc. 8,1-3), some of them having a bad reputation (Lc 8,2). Finally, Christ’s axiom regarding the Law is the following: man is not made for the law but rather the law is made for man (Mk 2,27).

So, this national waterfall of rituals and political speeches that intend to employ Christian symbolism understood in a “religious” manner, not only attempts against the sane laicism of our life as a republic, that we should do everything possible for it to be the most modern (or postmodern) possible, it’s one of the pivots of what Christianity projects for us as anthropology.


I think nothing and no one is less Christian than the rule of a caudillo and a caudillo. Both probably function in Venezuela and in countries neighboring ours as a funest Hispano-Arab inheritance, although other latitudes have known and also know the political dominance of a supposedly providencial man who presents himself as the galvanizer of a collective mobilization. There are very serious exegetes and theologians who affirm that this was the core of one of the great temptations of Jesus; this seems to be the meaning of one of the tests —the third and decisive one— that he faced in the desert during the preamble of his public activity (Mk 1,12s; Mt 4,8-10; Lc 4,1-13): these texts regarding the temptations constitute a tale, not a historical one, but rather a redactional and symbolic one, that wants to illustrate for us what stalked as the possibility of Jesus’s own consciousness going astray throughout his life. I’m speaking of the temptation of power. But with this crucial characteristic: the temptation of power in order to accomplish good deeds. It’s well-known that Israel awaited a political messiah, a warrior who was going to completely do away with the opprobrium and secular oppression of the country and its culture. The four canonical gospels explicitly indicate to us that all of Jesus’s close disciples thought, and they continued to believe it until the very moment of the passion, that Christ incarnated that political messianism, based on power and on the human triumph. After the miracle of the multiplication of bread (Mt 14,13-23; Mk 6,30-46; Jn 6,1-15), the enthusiastic multitude thought that Jesus was the awaited political messiah (Jn 6,4) and, in consequence, they wanted to proclaim him king. Jesus then retires “once again to the mountain, alone” (Jn 6,15). The disciples who identified with the popular enthusiasm didn’t want to lose the occasion for Christ to be proclaimed a political king. This is why both Matthew and Mark point out that Jesus had to “force them” (anagkáso) to get on the boat to leave that place (Mt 14,22; Mk 6,45).

That was the temptation I was referring to: the temptation of power. And it’s a temptation that, as I’ve said, can be clothed in a false consciousness: it is power, yes, but in order to transform it into a factor that multiplies good. And Jesus rejects that specific temptation from an impregnable conviction that he never ceased to explain to his closes followers, those he thought were particularly apt to understand it: the path to power and privilege leads one to keep a “reasonable” coexistence with the agents and factors that organize in this world the suffering and oppression of mankind. Society is not transformed from above (from power and fame) but rather from below (from the unarmed solidarity with those crucified throughout history) (Cf. Mt 16,22; Mk 8,33). From this conviction emerges an implacable denunciation of political power: “You know (...) that those who hold sway as rulers dominate nations as though they were their owners and the powerful impose their authority. This will not be the case amongst you, but rather if any of you want to grow you should become a servant to others” (Mk 10,42-43). And what also emerges is an enormous freedom facing him, facing power: when Jesus is told that Herod —who was the king of Galilee and thus the political chief of the region of Israel to which Jesus belonged— wanted to kill him (Lc 13,31) he tells them: “Go and tell that fox (...) that there is no room for a prophet to die outside Jerusalem” (Lc 13,32). In the Jewish culture of that time the “fox” was considered the animal that didn’t represent anything. Thus, it was as though he were saying: “Go and tell nobody...” And this was the king!

I’m not going to waste my possible reader’s time abounding the obvious: just as Jesus was a layman, not a priest or a professional theologian (as the so-called “lettered men” and scribes were) he didn’t want to be a caudillo. Despite his ascendance among the most impoverished masses of Israel he didn’t want to instrumentalize them with a political objective because for him God was not mediated by power, not any type of power, only by love (that prostituted but essential word). We all know what finally happened: he was assassinated as a “blasphemer” and “political criminal” by the civilian, military and religious authorities of his time. The masses he didn’t want to instrumentalize left him on his own. Completely alone, this man of unpronounceable innocence, tortured and executed as though he were a criminal and a dangerous revolutionary by institutional power, by the intellectual orthodoxy and their henchmen, had already warned his followers one day —those back then and those today—: “See how I’m sending you out as sheep among wolves: therefore be as cautious as snakes and as innocent as doves. But be careful with people, because they will take you to court, they will whip you in the synagogue and they will lead you in front of governors and kings for my cause; thus they will give testimony...” (Mt 10,16-18). Jesus did not live for the cross; when the dynamics of reality imposed it on him, he accepted it and assumed it, transforming it into an option of love, that is, an affirmation of life. This execution, this assassination carried out for religious and political reasons, that infamously crowned a life consumed by disinterested service to others, was left forever transformed into a forceful requisition, in the deepest and most intimate denunciation of any type of power, no matter how much it might try to be canonized.

From the Gospel we Christians inherit a radical suspicion regarding the pretensions of leadership, of important positions, of the supposedly majestic, dazzling aura that seems to surround political and social triumph. If anyone had any doubts whether president Chávez was a caudillo of the most rancid and sad Latin American lineage, observe what they want to do with his passage through history: Chávez ascending into the sky, Chávez enthroned in the altar of a chapel in the 23 de Enero zone of Caracas (called the “Chapel of San Hugo Chávez”), Chávez multiplied in stamps sold at the entrance of churches and plaster busts that, it’s been said, people seek out so they can pray to him in the intimacy of their home, Chávez the second Simón Bolívar, Chávez the new liberator, Chávez the Redeemer, Chávez the “Christ of the poor.” All this would be amusing if it weren’t tragic. Because it’s a matter of an inextricable mixture of magical credulousness and naiveté for many with a deification, a mythologizing, a sacralization orchestrated by those in power. Biblically speaking, it is simply said, an idolatry. From the Christian point of view, it doesn’t make sense. We Christians believe that there has only been, only is and only will be a single messiah. And a crucified messiah. And crucified means that the “utopian” (in the sense Ernst Bloch uses) radical brotherhood of human relations, which is the central tenet of Christianity, can only be realized from the “utopia” of the cross: the total failure implied by the last scream of Jesus’s agony, abandoned by one and all, and which expresses God’s solidarity with history’s humiliated and offended, not from the majesty of power that uses the poor as instruments in order to dominate them —turning them into objects of political marketing— but rather from a solidarity that is defenseless, forsaken and left out in the open air alongside them. The failure of the cross is a counterweight to the heroic-promethean image that we create of the messiah. It doesn’t display any epic traits. The death of Jesus was not that of Socrates, parsimoniously drinking hemlock, accompanied by disciples and friends. His was wrapped in signs of a profound fright: an authentic sense of being horrified by suffering, torture, solitude and death itself which inevitably also seemed to him like the cause and mission of his life.

That identification of Chávez and Christ, being an idolatry and not making sense, was propitiated in more than one aspect by Chávez himself. He never tired of proclaiming that he obeyed the “first and greatest socialist in history.” In vain people responded that this affirmation contained an unforgivable anachronism: Jesus was not a socialist just like he wasn’t an aviator: socialism implies a theory of political, social and economic organization dating from the 19th century, that is, a considerable temporal distance from Christ’s life. It was useless. Until the end of his existence Chávez continued to believe and proclaim this nonsense. As it’s also nonsense, but this time it’s an absurdity that is dangerous because of its political consequences, to affirm —as is being done now by the supposed emulator of the deceased president— that “socialism is the kingdom of God on earth.” Regarding this statement, the following precisions turns out to be necessary: that “utopian” dream (in the worst sense, the etymological one, of the word: “there is no such place”) is found in its own way in Plato’s Republic, in the visionaries of the Fifth Monarchy, in the Medieval apocalyptics, in the anabaptists, in the Puritan theocrats, in the religious sectors of the anarchist movement: all those who have not believed and don’t believe —I’m citing George Steiner almost from memory— in the constitutive fallibility of man, in the permanent imperfection of the mechanisms of power, in the presence of inhumanity and evil within man’s existential condition and his historical achievements. They have believed and believe that the “civitas Dei” should be built now on earth and that a certain fanatical rigor at the service of the revolutionary ideal is indispensable: from there to sustaining that the ends justify the means and that some dose of political terror becomes necessary to obtain the edenic objective of the suppression of all oppression, there’s no more than a step or two.

The Kingdom of God, considered biblically, is a reality whose plenitude is meta and transhistorical, when God, as Paul of Tarsus says,“is in all things.” It is the responsibility of us human beings to progressively and always partially or in an unfinished manner draw closer to that plenitude, organizing the dynamics of history in such a manner that it reach closer to it. Someone might not like the appellative Kingdom of God. Many years ago a friend told me that we Christians should speak, not of the Kingdom but of the Republic of God. To make things clear, I invite the reader to remember that the first poetry collection by Ramón Palomares is titled El reino [The Kingdom]. And the Kingdom of God is a mythopoetic designation to allude to a goal —the sovereignty of God as a fraternal house of human abandonment, a definitive house that is he himself made presence among us— and that indeed we should make an effort to begin constructing here and now, always and at every moment under the threat of those powers that, according to the Gospel of Lucas (22,25), “take away liberty and make themselves be called benefactors” and which are money and the political and religious powers. From the future that goal acts as a constant critical instance that interpolates and questions our always limited and partial achievements, impeding the history and society we build from not remaining open, convening us for the ontological appointment to which we have been called at birth: “It will dry the tears from your eyes. There will no longer be death nor shame nor weeping nor pain. All the ancient things have passed” (Ap 21,4).

To pretend that this ontological convocation will be realized by socialism constitutes, to say the least, a senseless act: “The Kingdom of God should be understood as the Kingdom of Man: this is the theology of totalitarian utopias.” (George Steiner)

Armando Rojas Guardia Venezuelan poet, critic and essayist who played a fundamental role in the foundation of the literary group Tráfico, and who has published numerous collections of poetry and essays, among them Del mismo amor ardiendo (1979), Yo que supe de la vieja herida (1985), Poemas de Quebrada de la Virgen (1985), Hacia la noche viva (1989), "La nada vigilante" (1994) and El esplendor y la espera (2000).

Translator’s note: Armando Rojas Guardia lived at the poet and priest Ernesto Cardenal’s spiritual community Solentiname in Nicaragua during the 1970s.

{ Armando Rojas Guardia, Prodavinci, 2 April 2013 }

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