Christians have been debating this contention for a while -- it's nothing new. But from the mouth of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, during the week that George W. Bush is visiting Latin America, "Jesus is a Socialist" is, well, "fightin' words...."
President Hugo Chavez calls Jesus a guiding light for his self-styled socialist revolution. But his relationship with the Roman Catholic Church is complicated and sometimes strained. Even as the leftist leader has invited Catholic priests to share their ideas on transforming Venezuela into a socialist state, he has clashed with some priests who are critical of him - and in one case declared that a Venezuelan archbishop is bound for hell.So far, it doesn't sound so controversial. At the risk of sounding heretical (but not blasphemous), I've felt that way about certain priests and Bishops myself during my lifetime. Chavez made his particular remark about Monsignor Roberto Luckert, an archbishop who recently said that Venezuela was headed down the road to Communism, a charge Chavez rejects. His idea of "21st Century Socialism" is, to hear him tell it, true Christianity.
But many in the Church disagree with Chavez that Jesus's mission on earth was to rid the world of poverty and injustice. In a recent interview, Luis Ugalde, president of Andrés Bello Catholic University said the idea that Christ was a Socialist was "absolute nonsense."
Jesus Christ was not a socialist because socialism, if embraced seriously, is not a mere denunciation against man's oppression (this is a Christian denunciation), but the search of a fairer society in which equal opportunities reign supreme.But many Catholics agree with Chavez, at least to the point of seeing that government has a role to play in protecting citizens from the gratuitous inequities of free-market capitalism, and to giving Chavez's motivations the benefit of the doubt.
Meanwhile, US President George W. Bush is in Colombia -- our only real ally in Latin America -- to show his concern for the poor. Most likely, he will do this by promising more money to fight Colombia's "war on drugs," which will actually go to fight left-wing guerillas, who are themselves fighting right-wing drug lords. You call this foreign policy, Howie?
Meanwhile, some priests have increasingly been speaking up in favor of Chavez’s ideals.
Monsignor Edgar Doria said he thinks Chavez shares Christian principles like social justice and equality, and that the church can be a key ally in social programs for the poor.
Bishop Mario Moronta wrote in a recent letter, widely published in Venezuelan media, that the church has a role to play in discussing the "21st Century Socialism" espoused by Chavez. "We are called to participate in just efforts to overcome poverty," Moronta wrote. "Every Catholic and person of good will has much to contribute."
At the same time, McClatchey Newspapers just published report -- based on US Census data -- that indicates poverty in America is reaching epidemic proportions.
Okay. Fine. So Jesus was not a Socialist. I can accept that, and in fact I always have. No problem, and no argument. His mission was the forgiveness of our sins and the redemption of our souls, not to rid the world of poverty.
The percentage of poor Americans who are living in severe poverty has reached a 32-year high, millions of working Americans are falling closer to the poverty line and the gulf between the nation's "haves" and "have-nots" continues to widen.
A McClatchy Newspapers analysis of 2005 census figures, the latest available, found that nearly 16 million Americans are living in deep or severe poverty...
The McClatchy analysis found that the number of severely poor Americans grew by 26 percent from 2000 to 2005. That's 56 percent faster than the overall poverty population grew in the same period.
But Jesus was not a free-market capitalist, either. And redemption is not cheap. Our souls are not saved by empty words -- "I accept Jesus as my personal Savior" -- we have to save our souls ourselves, by our actions. We are not saved if we turn our heads at the sight of homelessness, hunger, inequality, and poverty. No matter what we tell ourselves.