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Here's Why I Love the Che Guevara Jesus Poster

10/18/2013 04:53 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014
Paul N. Alexander

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 causes and liberation he believed in deeply. 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 other 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 taught to remain engaged in the situation by offering the cheek of dignity, equality, and respect. When violently insulted, one's natural reactions are fight or flight - violence or passivity -- but Jesus taught to stand one's ground and offer an alternative future.

One has to stay within arm's length of an enemy to turn the left cheek and challenge their exploitive, abusive violence. One has to stay within arm's length of an enemy to carry the pack of the occupation soldier who is abusing your people. Machiavelli said "keep your friends close and your enemies closer." Jesus taught how to keep your 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.

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, Peter the Zealot for instance). I see in this red and black picture of Jesus 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 and 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 tend too often either toward 1) passively ignoring real problems -- let's face it, the world is in messed up shape and it gets exhausting trying to fix huge broken systems where people starve when there's an abundance of food, or 2) getting angry and thinking how it makes sense that some might want to attack the leaders of a chemical company that's polluting their rivers and land and killing people for profit.

Although I used to have firearms I don't any more, 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 more than $500) -- 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.