The sight of Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela, crying, clutching a cross and praying for his life both angered and interested me. I thought that it was another case of “foxhole Christianity.”
In case you don’t understand the concept, that’s where you develop an instant belief in a higher power when things get perilous. It’s a very understandable and common occurrence. Of course, when the imminent danger has passed, sometimes, the devout dedication passes as well.
The movie “The End” typifies both phenomena. The main character, portrayed by Burt Reynolds, has been diagnosed with a terminal illness and, not wanting to live waiting for his ultimate death, he decides to take his own life. In one scene, he has chosen to swim into the ocean as far as he can and when he is totally unable to swim further, he will drown in exhaustion. As luck would have it, when he reaches the point of utter physical failure, he decides not to die and embark on a nearly impossible swim back to shore.
Since the swim back is almost unreachable, he starts to bargain with his God for the strength to get back to dry land. He makes the most outlandish promises if only he’d be saved. At one point, he pledges 50 percent of his income and adds, “that’s gross income, not net, Lord.” Once, however, he is in sight of the beach, he immediately begins to modify his promises and, when actually on the shore, he has reneged on all of his pledges and actually complains, “I know you are the one who saved me, Lord; but you also are the one who made me sick.”
That’s typical human behavior. Right? So what if Hugo Chavez has developed a case of the Burt Reynolds syndrome? Charles Caleb Colton says it best when he describes the whole dynamic with this, “The three great apostles of practical atheism that makes converts ... are wealth, health and power.” When any of these three is in jeopardy, most of us lose our commitment to a belief in nothing.
Christopher Hitchens, the well-known author, is an exception to this rule. To his death he maintained a devout atheism. Even he softened though, and “gladly accepted” the prayers of many of his Christian critics.
Now I don’t know if Chavez was a religious man before his illness. I do know that socialism (he would proudly call himself a socialist) does not preclude a strong belief in Christianity. What might be the case (here again I’m not sure) is that when it is convenient, he practices his religion and when not, he practices his politics. Chavez, like most of us, compartmentalizes his religion and enters that area when it suits him.
I also know that strong feelings of nationalism — Chavez rants incessantly about the “fatherland” — can run very conveniently with an equally fervent belief in the power of God. It’s no wonder that every nation in a war honestly believes that God is on their side, and that belief motivates them to fight on and continue the unholy act of killing another. All those things said, how are we to react to Hugo Chavez’s act of faith?
We might say, “What a phony. When things were good, he wasn’t crying on his crucifix.” Of course we might, but, and here’s the big caveat, we all know that someday we could very well be in his position. As Christians, we should be happy that someone has seen the possibility of divine intervention and, more importantly, of divine redemption.
Now, I don’t know that God intervenes in this life for anyone; or if he will cure Hugo Chavez, but I firmly believe that it is the asking for help that validates God’s presence and the possibility of some sort of salvation.
Even for a buffoon like Hugo Chavez or perhaps you or me. That’s all any of us can hope for.
DeSantis is a Meadville resident.