March 7, 2013
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's Death Prompts Theological Debates
Can Christians rejoice over his death? Did God use his cancer? Was he reconciled to God?
When Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez died Tuesday afternoon, he left "behind a bitterly divided nation," The New York Times reported. Now, it appears his death is dividing Christian opinion as well.
Writer Jonathan Merritt notes that some Christians celebrated Chavez's death, taking to Twitter in jubilation. He particularly takes aim at Todd Starnes, a Fox News Radio commentator who previously worked at Baptist Press. (Merritt is, like Starnes, a Southern Baptist.)
Hell is burning a little bit brighter tonight.— toddstarnes (@toddstarnes) March 5, 2013
Hugo dead. The good news is now Saddam, Osama and Adolf have a fourth for Canasta.— toddstarnes (@toddstarnes) March 5, 2013
But Merritt says the polarizing socialist leader's death is no cause for celebration, writing:
Jesus-followers cannot rejoice over news that Hugo Chavez has passed away. We exhale, perhaps, but do not rejoice. Instead, we pray that God will bless Venezuela & its people. We hope that freedom will begin to burst forth in this country even as they mourn the death of their leader.
Somewhat uncharacteristically, the Institute on Religion and Democracy's Mark Tooley agrees with Merritt, saying his "points, from the standpoint of God’s holy standards, are not wholly illegitimate."
Meanwhile, Jim Denison, another Southern Baptist writer who recently served as pastor of Park Cities Baptist Church, a Dallas megachurch, says Chavez's cancer brought the president closer to God. Chavez had denounced Catholic leaders, expelled missionaries, and was criticized by the pope.
"However, when Mr. Chavez returned home after his last cancer treatment in Cuba, he made an impassioned plea to God for help," Denison writes. "Standing in front of an image of Jesus with the Crucifix, he prayed on national television, 'Give me your crown, Jesus. Give me your cross, your thorns so that I may bleed. But give me life, because I have more to do for this country and these people. Do not take me yet.' ... God deals with us as gently as he can or as harshly as he must. I'm not claiming that the Lord caused Hugo Chavez's cancer, but he at least allowed it and is working to redeem it."
That sentiment is echoed by Catholic leaders cited by Catholic News Agency. One unnamed "reliable source" says Chavez died "in the bosom of the church" and received spiritual direction and the sacraments. Bishop Jesus Gonzalez de Zarate, head of Venezuela's bishops' conference, suggested that Chavez had passed into "a life of complete happiness, at the side of God our Father."
Others found lessons for Christian leadership in Chavez's life and death.
See writer Donald Miller:
Hugo Chavez died today. Another egotistical world leader who held power by helping some but bullying most.— Donald Miller (@donaldmiller) March 5, 2013
And similar sentiments from Willow Creek Association CFO Michael Gogis:
Elsewhere, blogger Richard Bartholomew looked at the political overtones of the condolence message from Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill.
Meanwhile, even Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had spiritual lessons to draw from his friend's death. "Hugo Chavez is alive to justice, love and freedom," he said. "I have no doubt that he will come again, with all the righteous and the Prophet Jesus as the perfect man comes to establish peace, justice, kindness, and integrity in human society." (This is apparently a reference to this Shia apocalyptic figure known as the the Mahdi or Twelfth Imam.)
CT previously explored the question of whether or not Christians should celebrate the deaths of oppressive figures when al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed in a Navy SEAL attack in 2011. A column from Warren Larson exhorted Christians not to "gloat" and suggested alternate reactions, including prayer.