Monday, April 20, 2009

Jesus Weighs In on Hugo Chavez Controversy

The United States is one of the few advanced countries where Jesus means something. Few people stop and consider the importance of Jesus in American life because we're saturated with things Jesus. There's a massive and diverse set of organizations that promote Christianity ranging from national church bureaucracies, television networks, big voluntary organizations like the Salvation Army, and local churches in your home town and mine. Christian social and political views are such a powerful force in American life that secular organizations routinely give into various kinds of pressure to promote Christianity. The fact that the specific influence of religious conservatives has dipped recently doesn't mean that Christianity is going away. If anything the election of Barack Obama as president means that African-American Christianity might become more nationally prominent and influential than it used to be.

Of course, Jesus doesn't have much to say about many of the controversies surrounding the functioning of government. Even though Jesus condemned wealthy people ("But woe to you who are rich/for you have received your consolation"--Luke 6:24), it's tough to figure out what Jesus would have to say about the bank bailout, the federal deficit, or other financial issues. Jesus liked weddings and alcohol, but it would be hard to apply his various sayings to issues like marijuana legalization, pornography, abortion rights, or gay rights.

But there are some issues where Jesus speaks clearly, authoritatively, and with some depth.

And one of those issues is how to treat one's enemies.

The question of how to treat your enemies has come up in relation to President Obama's conversation with Hugo Chavez at the Summit of the America's last weekend. Despite the fact that Chavez is a well-known opponent of American interests, Obama shook hands with the Venezuelan president, smiled while conversing briefly, and accepted a book from him. It was all very polite, cordial, even friendly in an official kind of way. Obama had let it be known during his campaign that he would treat American opponents very differently from George Bush and his attitude toward Hugo Chavez seemed to fulfill that relatively minor campaign promise.

Nevertheless, President Obama caught a lot of criticism from the Republicans concerning his general friendliness to the Venezuelan leader. Newt Gingrich was especially harsh in his criticism.

Gingrich argued, for example, that President Obama's decision to shake hands with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at the Summit of the Americans will be seen as proof that Chavez "is legitimate . . . ."

Meredith Vieira followed by asking about the value in mending U.S. relationships with other world leaders. Gingrich responded, "How do you mend relationships with somebody who hates your country? Who actively calls for the destruction of your country? And who wants to undermine you?" When Vieira noted U.S. talks in the past with Russia and China, Gingrich said, "We didn't rush over, smile, and greet Russian dictators."

Newt Gingrich has been heavily criticized by the Daily Kos and other sources for ignoring the fact that American presidents did "rush over, smile, and greet Russian dictators."

And, of course, the critics are right.

But I want to focus on the fact that Gingrich is a recent convert to Catholicism and could thus be expected to be particularly mindful as what Jesus has to say about how to treat your enemies.

According to Matthew 5:43-48 (New Oxford Annotated Bible):
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you great only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
But what if your enemies are really bad? Jesus actually gets more insistent about a person's obligations to those who are genuinely evil. He says in Matthew 5:38 "Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also."

The King James version is even more plain about the matter: "Resist not evil."

From the perspective of Jesus then, Barack Obama probably did not do enough to make Hugo Chavez his friend. Smiling, shaking hands, and accepting a gift from Chavez are all well and good, but Jesus demands that people are to "love" their enemies. As a result, following Jesus' prescription here would mean that Obama should have performed acts that would show a spirit of love toward the Venezuelan president. If Obama had Jesus in mind, he might have inquired after Chavez' family, asked about conditions in Venezuela, and perhaps inquired about how the United States could help Chavez in improving the conditions of the poor in Venezuela.

Newt Gingrich seems to think that showing consideration for one's enemies is a sign of weakness. To the contrary, Jesus viewed love for one's enemies as a sign of spiritual strength (the only strength that mattered). He emphasized that anyone could love their brothers, sisters, and friends. Even the lowest of the low--the tax collectors and publicans--could do that. Those who could be viewed as "children of heaven" needed to answer to a higher standard of loving their enemies.

And of course, for Jesus the highest form of love was the willingness to sacrifice one's life. But that's not a standard that poor humans like us (especially myself, being an atheist) should be expected to meet.

However, it's pretty clear from the biblical text that Jesus would have expected Obama to show more love toward Hugo Chavez not less.

Perhaps Newt Gingrich should be mindful of that.

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