Jesus as Che
By George F. Will
Sunday, February 14, 1999 "Teach us to sit still."
T.S. Eliot, "Ash Wednesday"
Yes, please. Sit still, meaning not merely without motion but also without sound. From the talk of political clergy, let us be protected during this Lenten season, which begins Wednesday Ash Wednesday.
This plea wells up in response to those advanced thinkers, mostly in the rapidly evaporating Church of England, who, in their zeal to attract people to services this Easter, have turned to the craft of secular evangelizing, i.e. advertising. They have produced a poster that depicts Jesus as Che Guevara, Castro's communist sidekick, as he was portrayed on the famous 1960s poster. (Which portrayed Guevara as Christ-like. And around we go.)
The 5-foot-tall poster, which adorns bus shelters, train stations and, of course, churches, is of transatlantic interest. It is symptomatic of a silliness that respects no borders.
The poster is in the red and black of the Che poster that adorned many a dormitory wall of premed and business majors at pricey colleges. And the poster was a fixture in many a coffee "Those who perpetrated the poster say it will help society's convalescence from "a sentimental Sunday school" notion of Jesus."
bar where the overthrow of bourgeois society was planned by boys whose militancy consisted of smoking French cigarettes and girls who advanced the revolution by refusing to shave their legs. On today's poster, Jesus-Che wears a crown of thorns just like Che's beret. Beneath the image of Jesus-Che, this message, a bit of archaic trendiness, appears in large type:
"MEEK. MILD. AS IF." And below that:
"Discover the real Jesus. Church April 4."
An unenthralled Catholic monsignor notes that the poster neglects to mention Easter, and some people may think April 4 is Guevara's birthday. But if this poster produces an outpouring of the faithful, or even of persons merely curious to see what kind of institution can make such a ninny of itself, those who pour out will not have trouble finding places in the pews. Eamon Duffy of Cambridge University notes that the Church of England has stopped reporting attendance figures, and stopped counting those figures as among the "key indicators" of institutional health. As of 1990, Church of England services attracted just 2.5 percent of the population.
Which means that the Church of England is by now misnamed. The preposition is wrong. The church is in England. It is hardly the church of the nation. In London, the nation's political and cultural capital, more people attend services in mosques than in C. of E. churches.
Those who perpetrated the poster say it will help society's convalescence from "a sentimental Sunday school" notion of Jesus. One Anglican divine wants to banish "the wimpy Nordic figure in the white nightie" because "Jesus was more revolutionary than anyone in the 20th century."
In a sense, Jesus certainly was. But in what sense was Jesus, who said "My kingdom is not of this world," political? There have been, and still are, vast political repercussions from Jesus's postulate far more revolutionary than any idea of Guevara's guru, Marx that every individual is of equal worth. The United States is a repercussion of that postulate. But attempts to tickle particular political programs from scripture reduce religion to social work.
Recently, conservatives as well as liberals have been doing their reductionist work. But in America, conservative Christians came late to politics, provoked by liberal policies. Liberal clergy have long been with us, heaven-sent answers to the prayers of satirists.
The late Peter De Vries, whose novels are splendid satires of America in the second half of the 20th century, created the Reverend Mackerel of the People's Liberal Church in a posh Connecticut suburb. The Reverend spoke from a pulpit made of a "slab of marble set on four legs of delicately different fruitwoods, to symbolize the four Gospels, and their failure to harmonize." He offered this prayer during a flood: "Let us hope that a kind Providence will put a speedy end to the acts of God under which we have been laboring."
And while He is at it, He might end attempts to treat humanity's most sublime mysteries and persistent longings as products to be marketed with the crudities of popular culture. In 1996, the same group that has produced the Jesus-as-Che poster produced a Christmas poster. It was florescent orange and read: "Bad Hair Day?! You're a virgin, you've just given birth and now three kings have shown up." At the bottom, the poster read: "Find out the happy ending at a church near you." Of the displacement of dignity by merchandizing that trivializes, there is no end.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company