As far back as the 1960s, the Marxist Sandinistas in Nicaragua began infusing their speeches and writings with religious terms, likening their namesake, Augusto Sandino, to Christ. Sergio Ramirez, a commandant in the Sandinista ruling junta in the 1980s, claimed that upon Sandino’s assassination in 1932 Sandino’s father exclaimed “those who become redeemers die crucified” and attested that the soldiers cast lots for his clothes. Even such bald attempts to claim Christ’s mantle appear nuanced in comparison to the massive campaign now underway in Venezuela, led by Nicolás Maduro, to proclaim his predecessor Hugo Chávez as Christ himself.
On the anniversary of Chávez’s death, the current Venezuelan president declared that “Christ the Redeemer became flesh, became spirit, became truth in Chávez” and was “the Christ of the poor, the Christ of the humble, he who came to protect those who have had nothing.”
The social unrest and economic privation that spilled out in protests in February 2014 were met by Venezuela’s leaders with redoubled proclamations of Chavista messianism. During the height of the protests, in a speech made March 5, 2014 at a military parade in Caracas marking the one year anniversary of Chávez’s death, Maduro proclaimed, Chávez “the Redeemer of the poor” and said that the poor were calling to Chávez the “Redeeming Christ of the 21st Century” to help them against the capitalist protestors attempting to undo all he had done for the poor.
Religion and politics are often familiar bedfellows. Regardless of the level of secularization in the society at large, political actors tend to conflate ideology and spirituality, frequently leading to a discourse that incorporates a particular religious perspective in an attempt to gain public support. Unsurprisingly, we see a high level of religiously toned political discourse in Latin American countries, where the majority of the population self-identifies as Catholic. In recent decades, however, there is an increasing tendency among the far-Left governments to depict deceased leaders, such as Chávez and Sandino, as messiah figures. Not only are these individuals lauded as being Christ-like, but they also are presented as Christ, as his embodiment on Earth.
In Venezuela, the conflation of politician and messiah have saturated the popular culture, as not only are the leftist political actors making statements exalting the deceased Chávez as Christ, the average citizens venerate the former president. Immediately after his passing in March 2013, public processions honoring Chávez included his supporters carrying posters of him and Jesus together. There were reports and pictures of widespread household altars to Chávez, with an effigy or image of him replacing Christ on the cross. Presenting Chávez as the messiah is not merely a convenient rhetorical trope for the ruling party. It is a sentiment that has been internalized and codified by those who supported him. What otherwise would be considered unorthodox, or at least heterodox, has become fully acceptable to a largely Catholic population.
The politicization of Christ and the possibility for political parties to hijack his role as messiah is due largely to the impact of liberation theology on Latin America. Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez, the father of liberation theology, advocated for the use of Marxist analysis to explore the historical structures of oppression in Latin American countries, to determine appropriate Christian praxis. Liberationists understand praxis as following the life of faith in a way that consciously accounts for the historical circumstances of oppression and seeks to correct those, in accordance with Christ’s own preaching. Although many liberationists, like Gutierrez, strictly separate Marxist analysis and Christian theology, nonetheless, many grassroots Christian movements in the 1960s and 1970s joined socialist parties fighting against oppressive governments. The joint political and social ventures of the liberationist and socialist groups established an enduring link between the two. This coalescing of the two movements led to similar discourses coming from both camps.
The current discourse on revolutionary Christs can be seen as an outgrowth of the Christology of liberationists, including Leonardo Boff, Jon Sobrino, and Juan Luis Segundo. Liberationist Christology focuses upon the “historical Jesus,” which privileges his humanity over his divinity. For Ronaldo Muñoz, a Chilean priest and liberation theologian, this is a “reverse schema” from traditional views of Christ, which “project (the) celestial personage (of God the Father) upon our image of Christ.” Reversing this view, according to Muñoz, “shows us the Reign of God as a dynamism of liberation and life, a dynamism among the poor.” Jesus’s humanity is considered a sign of solidarity with the poor and the disenfranchised. In his discussion of Jesus as the high priest, Jon Sobrino presents mankind’s relationship to Christ vis a vis his humanity as a sibling relationship with Jesus as humanity’s elder brother. This creates a relationship of loving responsibility between Christ and humanity, which requires that “all true humanity has to be in solidarity.”
For liberation theology, working to overcome oppression and poverty becomes the main aim of Christianity, eclipsing the importance of a life of faithful devotion and the salvific relationship to Christ. For Leonardo Boff, solidarity with the poor and disenfranchised is tantamount to solidarity with God. Boff contends that through opening oneself up “more and more to everything and everybody” we can experience the same communion with God the Father as Christ did, indeed in the same way that Christ did. It becomes our “identification with the infinite.” Christ opening himself up to the “least of these” and identifying with them was, for many liberationists, the act of self-sacrifice that fulfilled the historical Jesus’s indwelling by God the Father.
Deep communion with God is thus achieved through acting to liberate one’s brothers and sisters from situations of structural sin. Liberation is not understood as freeing the soul from the entrapment of sin. Instead, it is a socio-political liberation from the historical impacts of sin in the temporal world. As such, the structural sin of inequality and oppression provides the locus of salvation. Actions to bring about justice and reverse structural sin, rather than the messiah’s crucifixion and resurrection, enact the salvation Jesus came to give.
Crucifixion awaits all who labor for the liberation of the poor and oppressed. The Cross, from this perspective, is not chosen, but is necessitated by the existence of sin and is brought about by working to install the Kingdom of God on the Earth. Surprisingly, Jesus’s crucifixion was not the inevitable end of his corporeal existence. Rather, it became necessary due to the intractability of sin in this world.
Essential to this model of the Incarnation is the notion that Christ became the messiah through his work. Jesus’s own praxis, his concern for the poor and unvalued of society, was evidence of his ground-up faith that led him to become the incarnated Christ. If anyone chooses to follow Jesus’s example and work to establish the reign of God, then that person could be transformed as Jesus was. For, according to protestant liberation theologian Thomas Bohache, “if this happened to Jesus, it can happen to today’s poor and oppressed; by persistence in their daily lives and by emulating Jesus in their struggle for liberation from the worldly structures of sin and evil, they can triumph and become ‘Christ-ed’.”
This Christology creates a tantalizing opportunity for political co-optation. People who work to politically liberate others are given the mantle of Christ, particularly after their death. Cardinal Angelo Amato explains that in liberation theology the “Messiah is . . . he who brings about the liberation of the needy today.”
While Chávez was alive, he frequently referred to Simón Bolívar as, to use Bohache’s term, “Christ-ed.” In a speech in December 2006 proposing the creation of the Venezuelan United Socialist Party, Chávez recounted a conversation between himself and Fidel Castro in which Castro said “when I speak of Christ, it is just that I am looking for the roots, but just like I talk of Christ, I speak also of Bolívar. Bolívar, a pre-socialist thinker; as when Bolívar says that the foundation of our system ought to be established and practiced equality.” Thus Chávez linked Christ’s earthly ministry with the socialist agenda and with Bolívar’s legacy.
Similarly, Chávez linked Bolívar and the Marxist revolutionary leader, Che Guevara, to Christ in a speech at a Maundy Thursday Mass in 2012. He proclaimed “Christ the man, Christ the Revolutionary, ‘Christ, the highest step of the human species,’ Che Guevara would say centuries later. [Che] another christ (sic) who lived and died such a christ (sic); as Bolívar lived and died, Christly, not even Christianly, Christly!”
Maduro casts himself as humbly carrying out what his predecessor began. Maduro claimed at a May Day rally in 2014 that the political path the government has been forging, despite student-led protests, “is the correct path of the country. This is the path of Christ, of Bolívar, of Chávez; let us follow the path of the Revolution.” Maduro dismisses the protests as opposing the correct path, as dictated by Chávez, Bolívar, and Christ. There is no need to debate the merits of the opposition’s demands: Programs set up by Chávez are the only morally and politically correct option. Indeed, ahead of meetings held in April 2014 between the government and members of the opposition, Maduro said that negotiating any aspect of the government’s policies would make him a “traitor” for undoing the gains made by Chávez.
Though it fosters continued support for the movement, Chávez’s deification nonetheless hamstrings the current administration, eliminating the possibility of changing the course laid out by the “Christ, Redeemer of Latin America.” The political path is a black and white landscape. There is no alternative to continuing the policies enacted under Chávez, and any compromise is couched as an attack against the fallen leader and a betrayal of his sacrifice for the poor of the nation. Debate largely devolves into ad hominem defamation. Criticizing the current administration becomes akin to criticizing God and his commandments. Thus, the people are pitted against one another as Chavistas and capitalist “fascists and extreme right thugs,” as Maduro referred to the protesters in May 2014.
Unfortunately, the economic situation facing the average Venezuelan is increasingly dire. The escalating rate of inflation, estimated at about 70 percent on the black market, makes even basic necessities prohibitively expensive. For the government to change tack now, even to officially devalue the currency in order to rescue the country from the rampant inflation, would be an ideological breach. Stepping away from Chavista politics in response to market demands would signal a break with the rank and file of the PSUV and with Chávez’s legacy. For Maduro in particular, who enjoys his party’s support only insomuch as Chávez chose him as his successor, any move seen as a concession to the opposition and “capitalist enemies” would be political suicide.
For the Church, viewing Chávez as Christ creates equally pressing problems. The heterodox nature of many aspects of liberation theology has led the Vatican to distance the Church from such teachings. The unfortunate effect of this is that governments and more radical Catholic priests in turn claim that the Church does not care for the poor. Protesting the widespread depictions in the public arena of Chávez as Christ only deepens the poor’s suspicions that such allegations are true. The Church in Venezuela finds itself in a catch-22. Either it tacitly approves of Chávez’s deification through their silence, or it risks alienating the masses it seeks to serve by defaming the “Christ of Latin America.”
Indeed, the Catholic Church has not commented publicly on Maduro’s claim in March 2013 that Chávez influenced Christ to elect Pope Francis, nor on the widespread existence of household shrines to Chávez. The Vatican has sent an envoy to oversee the talks between the opposition and the government, in an effort to mediate a path for peace in the country and Pope Francis sent a letter encouraging both sides to continue down the difficult path towards peace and justice. However, conciliation alone will not solve the crisis in Venezuela. The Church’s silence about Venezuela’s political messianism leaves the faithful to the political deceptions of the government and robs the Church of its role as the moral and religious authority.
Hope can be found in Pope Francis’s rapprochement to the less radical proponents of liberation theology, as seen in his September 11, 2013 meeting with Gutierrez. Likewise, the pontiff’s growing body of comments about the global evils of rampant capitalism, though drawing criticism from some, has helped the Church reclaim its role as the protector of the poor. Coming as he does from a region where the Church’s validity among the poor has been damaged by the competition between the traditional hierarchy and the less-than-orthodox liberationists, the Pope’s concern is understandable.
Latin American political movements will continue to misuse religious doctrine and abuse sacred imagery to make their policies resonate with a Christian audience wary of the Church’s history of supporting authoritarian governments against Communist movements. In this context, Pope Francis’s rhetoric is an important first step in helping to reclaim Christ from the revolutionaries.
Lisa Carroll-Davis is adjunct professor of Spanish at Houston Baptist University.