The Che Guevara Jesus
by Paul Alexander (image courtesy of ChurchAds.net)
I love this picture. I’ve been showing it in my classes for more than a decade. But why in the world would I—an activist committed to consistent nonviolence—appreciate a portrayal of Jesus that is blended with Che Guevara? Che was a violent revolutionary who killed people for the causes and liberation he believed in. He fought for what he perceived to be economic justice, and he was willing to fight, kill, and even die at the hands of his enemies. He was not passive in the face of social problems; he was violent.
The Jesus of Matthew’s story taught his followers to “love your enemies.” But this was definitely not an invitation to passivity or non-action. “Turning the left cheek” is often misunderstood as a passive response to abuse, but it’s not. Passivity is walking away and ignoring the problem. Violence is hitting back or ripping out the attacker’s jugular vein. Jesus taught a third way that was strong and that stayed present to the conflict. Jesus’ clear message to his followers was to remain engaged in the situation by offering the cheek of dignity, equality, and respect.
When we are violently insulted, our natural reactions are either fight or flight—violence or passivity—but Jesus taught us to stand our ground and offer an alternative future. We have to stay within arm’s length of an enemy to turn the left cheek and challenge his or her exploitative, abusive violence. We have to stay within arm’s length of an enemy to carry the pack of the occupation soldier who is abusing our people. Machiavelli said, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” Jesus taught how to keep our enemies close with love and power in order to transform all of us as well as the situation, rather than destroying them or ourselves with violence or ignoring them passively. Enemies rarely become friends through passivity or violence, but enemies can become friends—and systemic injustices can be changed—through loving, engaged action.
Do you support fighting and killing others for your people? If so, then you may be more like Che than like Jesus. On the other hand, if you’re passive and not into changing systems and structures but letting the status quo continue to oppress people—that’s not very much like Jesus either.
What’s often missing from Christians’ understanding of Jesus is the revolutionary way he took on unjust systems. Yet he didn’t do it with violence (although he had violent revolutionaries as followers—Simon the Zealot, for instance). What stands out to me in this red and black picture of Jesus are the determined gaze, the strength of love in the midst of conflict, and the crown of thorns. The crown of thorns in this picture is the symbol of commitment to nonviolence—he’s not holding a gun like Che, but he’s wearing the mocking crown of torturous death that is sometimes bestowed on the nonviolent, way-too-loving, and way-too-threatening revolutionary. Che died loving his people and fighting violently. Jesus died loving all people and fighting nonviolently.
I have a question for Christians who don’t like this picture because of the association with Che: Do you support fighting and killing others for your people? If so, then you may be more like Che than like Jesus. On the other hand, if you’re passive and not into changing systems and structures but letting the status quo continue to oppress people—that’s not very much like Jesus either.
I like this picture of Jesus because I’m a lousy peacemaker and justice-seeker. I too often tend toward either passively ignoring real problems (let’s face it, the world is messed up, and it gets exhausting trying to fix huge broken systems where, for example, people starve when there’s an abundance of food) or getting angry and thinking how it makes sense that some might want, for example, to attack the leaders of a chemical company that’s polluting their rivers and land and killing people for profit.
Jesus taught his followers to “love your enemies.” But this was definitely not an invitation to passivity or non-action.
Although I used to have firearms, I don’t anymore, but I understand why suffering people want to kill their enemies in hopes it will make life better. Why shouldn’t farmers in Latin America or Africa whose land is being taken by North American fruit, coffee, tea, or mining companies pick up their weapons and start shooting? Wouldn’t you? Why shouldn’t Liberians whose raw rubber is taken by American companies, turned into valuable products abroad, and then sold back to Liberians at ridiculous prices (a tire in Liberia costs around $800)—pick up their weapons and fight? Killing the enemy makes so much sense, and everyone has enemies. Passively ignoring the enemy makes sense as well, if you have a nice enough life to get away with it or the perceived inability to do anything about the problem.
Love is both strong and patient, sometimes aggressive yet also gentle, speaking words of hope and truth even when they certainly will provoke retaliation. This picture of Jesus reminds me that it’s best if I’m not passive and it’s best if I’m not violent. It’s best if I can be determined, vocal, and loving, and in my weakness be made strong enough to continue to work for a transformed world.