El Che y El Salvador
Christ, I love you,
not because you descended from a star,
but because you revealed to me
man's anguish and tears,
and showed me the keys that open
the closed doors of light.
Yes, you taught me
that man is God, a poor God
crucified like you.
The one at your left,
at Golgotha-the worst thief-
he, too, is God.
A Startling Find
This poem was found in the backpack of Che Guevara after his execution by the Bolivian Army on October 9, 1967. That he was in possession of such a poem holds great surprise for the believer, as the reputation of Che Guevara is one that is traditionally one of a Marxist fighter who was free of faith in anything other than violence and revolution. This essay will explore the significance of Che Guevara's possession of the poem seen above. While opinions about Che Guevara are almost always solidly laudatory or solidly defamatory, this essay should be approached with objectivity and non-prejudice. It was the author's supreme effort to write it in this spirit.
Who was this holder of the poem, the one called "El Che"? Since Che Guevara is quickly fading from the popular consciousness, especially among young people and non-Cubans, a quick review on the details of his life is merited. While most mistake Che for a Cuban, he in fact was not from Cuba. Che Guevara was born in Argentina in 1928. He was from a comfortable middle-class family in the city of Cordoba. During his formative years he read many of the seminal works of western secular thought, especially Marx and Freud. He fought alongside Fidel Castro during the years of the Cuban revolution of the late 1950s which lead to the modern communist dictatorship in Cuba. His campaigns to provoke communist revolutions in the developing world are the stuff of legends, either infamous or admiring depending on one's perspective, and his efforts in the Congo and Bolivia are among the most visible and remembered campaigns of his life. In Bolivia, he was captured and killed by the Bolivian Army and the CIA, and it is reputed that his dismembered hands were sent to Castro after his execution, as both a warning and an insult. Che did not have a peasant's background and was raised in a relative degree of material comfort, thus his extreme dedication to the cause of the poor and dispossessed of the world should intrigue the interest of the Christian, and the presence of the above poem in his final backpack should cause us to pause and consider the evidence for a manifested faith in Che Guevara and its lessons for believing Christians today. Among many non-Christians, Che Guevara produced some of the highest compliments possible. As an example, Jean Paul Sartre said of Che after his death "Che was the most complete human being of our age." This essay will explore the possibility that Che Guevara had a faith in Christ, as well as seek to find aspects of his life that are useful to Christians today.
A brief disclaimer - this essay will not seek to answer the quality or orthodoxy of the theology in the poem itself. The believing Christian is struck by the references to humans as God, when the scriptural language of our faith ask of us that our behavior and lives be "godly", but not God. This is one among many aspects of the poem that deserve further discussion and analysis, but this essay will not be a forum for this or any other theological question on the poem. The poem serves our purpose here only in that it puts beyond contention that Che Guevara had a need that he filled with Jesus Christ, and our questions here are "To what degree?" and "How legitimately?".
The Hegelian Model of Che's Heart
One of the most obvious aspects of Che's life was his complete dedication to one particular paradigm, specifically Marxist communism. Communism's intellectual roots are deep, and often not well understood. Often referred to as "Marxism", communism is remembered as being started by Karl Marx (1818-1883) with the publishing of The Communist Manifesto in 1848. But the school of philosophy that gave impetus to Marx and communism was Hegelian dialectics. George Wilhelm Friederich Hegel (1770-1831) was a German theoretician who organized his particular philosophy around the idea that there were two predominant considerations in virtually all aspects of reality, and a third final consideration. In Hegelian thought there is first "the thesis" that predominates an aspect of reality, then there is "the antithesis" to the thesis, and from the dialectical tension between the two arises a third reality, "the synthesis". This way of organizing information, events and understanding plays a strong role in modern politics, economy, even religion. But what Marx did with this Hegelian model was to superimpose it upon the economic system of 19th century Europe. Marx offered that the thesis of the propertied class and their interests when juxtaposed against the antithesis of worker exploitation was the central dialectical tension of all human history. For Marx, it was the capitalists versus the workers, and all of human history revolved around the tension borne out of this dialectical relationship. Marx offered that armed revolution by the workers against the capitalists would result in a new synthesis of impulses called "communism". To Marx, the fruits of this armed communist revolution would resolve the tensions of inequity and this would give way to a paradisiacal order based upon equality. The forces that drove history would essentially cease to exist, thus the Marxist's reference to "the end of history" that communism would provide.
Che Guevara was one of the most ardent and die-hard advocates of the communist ideology. It was the way in which he made sense of the desperation borne of the inequities and suffering of the Latin America in which he was raised. The presence of the poem in Che's backpack is all the more remarkable because of what Marx explicitly declared about religion. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx referred to religion as having drug-like effects on the revolutionary impulses of the working classes. Specifically, Marx called religion "the opiate of the masses", developing an image of masses of people sidelining their desires to improve their material and social state because of a promised paradise to follow death. Marx's condemnation of religious thought, and the attack on religious freedom on erstwhile and present communist nations makes the presence of this poem in Che's backpack all the more intriguing, even curious. Why would one of history's most strong proponents of an atheistic, militaristic worldview hold among a meager set of belongings a poem that elevated Jesus Christ?
Within the communist revolution that Che sought to provoke worldwide, he had an especially strong affinity with one particular man, Fidel Castro. In his famed farewell letter to Castro written in 1965, Che used the following language; ".....I carry to new battlefronts the faith that you taught me, the revolutionary spirit of my people, the feeling of fulfilling the most sacred of duties: to fight against imperialism wherever one may be. This is a source of strength, and more than heals the deepest of wounds." This quasi-religious language evokes religious feelings, and clearly shows that he cast transcendent themes into descriptions of his efforts - "...faith...spirit...fulfilling...sacred duties...source of strength...heals the deepest of wounds". These words illustrate themes that are visibly religious in nature, and show how the Christian themes of the Argentina and Latin America of his youth infused Che Guevara's language and ideas. This wording, and the object of it, almost offer to the reader a feeling of a believer worshipping a figure of Messianic proportions. This desire to rest adoration in another, one that was a teacher and a source of undying faith, inform us tangentially that Che's needed to fill the void that is left by having no focus for admiration and adoration. From this letter and the presence of the poem in his backpack, we could even say that Che strongly felt the impulse to worship.
Che Guevara left a life of conformity and relative safety and comfort for a life of deprivation. He sought to change the fundamental rules of the entire world in the interest of establishing a new earth. He ultimately sacrificed his life for the cause he believed in. In these descriptions, we see one whose life was at least analogous to disciples of the Christ, both past and present. He journeyed into an area where concern for his own well-being was jeopardized in the battle against what he understood to be institutions based upon injustice and deceit. In this sense, Che Guevara followed a path that Christ Himself followed. While the results of Christian disciples and Christ Himself cannot and should not be compared with those of Che Guevara, it is important for the believer to note that Che's life provides a glimpse of selflessness and sacrifice that is also a necessary part of the Christian story.
The evidence of the poem, and the other aspects of his life analyzed in this essay point us to the fact that Che Guevara's life and actions are of extreme importance to the Christian. He illustrates the supremacy and strength of faith and faith-like impulses, and the journey to do battle in the interest of letting a new reality dawn in the world. But the most important lessons rest with the pitfalls he illustrates, and his depravity becomes evident in the final analysis. He felt the tug of dialectics, but chose the Marxian dialectic instead of the Christian dialectic. The Christian dialectic is the tension between our thesis of sin and God's antithesis of grace, which were reconciled in the synthesis of the cross of Christ. The Marxian dialectic now has been mostly discarded on the scrap heap of human invention, but the Christian dialectic continues to break forth new life in unexpected places. Che used religious prose to describe his feeling of commitment and adoration, but his actions were at times oriented around ambush, interrogation, even torture. His prose expressed imagery that called to the transcendent realm, but his actions produced death in the material realm. He exemplified extreme dedication to an ideology that produced Mao's "Great Leap Forward", where the highest estimates offer that as many as 30 million Chinese may have starved to death. These deaths, and the Stalinist purges of the 1940s and 1950s all transpired during Che's ascendancy to great power and influence within the communist movement, and it is highly unlikely that he was unaware of these events. Yet he kept the course as a Marxist communist. When Christ commanded believers to pick up their crosses and follow Him (Matthew 10:38, Luke 14:27), Che responded by taking up a gun. When the tension of the sin/grace dialectic offered the peace of the cross to Che in Matthew 11:28 - "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." - Che chose the Marxian dialectic, and neither he nor the world found peace or rest.
Che came to these crossroads and heard a voice. We can say we know that he came to these crossroads because he held this poem among his last belongings. Yet his response to the invitation was a "yes" to the ideas (dialectics, sacrifice, adoration), but a "no" to the substance and content (the cross of Christ, Christian discipleship, non-violence). He took the road too often traveled in this world - and it made all the difference. While to some he exemplifies faith and dedication, to the Christian he can be little more than a tragic caricature of these ideals.
Che Guevara's life should grip the imagination of Christians. We are called to leave our areas of comfort and work ceaselessly for the birth of a new order in the universe. We should travel far and wide for our goal, and we should seek to shatter evil where we find it. We may be called to give our lives, for in fact it is exactly that which is asked of us in Luke 14:27. But we are not to hear and respond to the voices of this world, but only to the One from whom all blessings flow. May we learn a great deal from Che Guevara's life and death.