Jonathan Merritt, the sometimes liberal Baptist columnist, has written with concern about celebrants of Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez’s death. He cites a few lesser known Christians who tweeted quips about Chavez and his eternal destiny. Merritt’s points, from the standpoint of God’s holy standards, are not wholly illegitimate. Although in our current age of irony, such quips are typically intended unseriously. Likely the persons he cites, if asked seriously, would agree that the death of even the wicked is better cause for sober reflection than celebration.
More scandalously, liberal Baptist Jimmy Carter praised Chavez in a news release. “We came to know a man who expressed a vision to bring profound changes to his country to benefit especially those people who had felt neglected and marginalized,” Carter absurdly gushed. “Although we have not agreed with all of the methods followed by his government, we have never doubted Hugo Chavez’s commitment to improving the lives of millions of his fellow countrymen.” Really?
Carter, who is an outspoken Christian and humanitarian, was almost effusive: “President Chavez will be remembered for his bold assertion of autonomy and independence for Latin American governments and for his formidable communication skills and personal connection with supporters in his country and abroad to whom he gave hope and empowerment.”
In truth, Chavez was a shameless demagogue and hate-monger who got rich by exploiting his people and aligning himself with heinous dictators and plutocrats globally. He first tried to seize power by military coup, and later retained power by corruption and coercion.
Sadly, Carter has devoted decades to praise of and apologies for anti American dictators who brutalize their people and imperil the world’s peace. His policies as president accommodated and gave rise to many of these dictatorships, for which the world still reaps the consequences. Poor Carter, like many liberal religionists, likely means well. But his delusions, and their delusions, fueled by a faulty theology, facilitate much harm, sometimes even disaster.
Carter aside, how best to react to the demise of miscreants, tyrants, and monsters? As a college student I recall trying to buy a cake to celebrate the decease of Soviet chief Yuri Andropov, the former KGB thug with gallons of blood dripping from his sticky fingers. My attitude maybe wasn’t very Methodist, but my reaction was visceral.
My own lifetime has witnessed some of history’s most murderous rulers. I still recall the headline about Mao’s death. He likely killed tens of millions of fellow Chinese, though it wasn’t then fashionable to recall. Devoted Maoist Pol Pot, at that very time, was murdering up to two million Cambodians. He was overthrown but later died peacefully, never held to account for his vast crimes. Uganda’s hideous Idi Amin, who sometimes cannibalized his victims, had decades of peaceful retirement in a Saudi hotel. Fellow cannibal Emperor Bokassa of the Central African Republic also died peacefully years after his horrendous crimes. Even the French got fed up and removed him after he began shooting school children who refused to wear uniforms the empress had designed. Mengistu, the Ethiopian communist dictator who killed a million or so of his people mostly starting during the Carter presidency, has lived peacefully for years in Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe, himself a disastrous dictator whose ascension to power President Carter facilitated, pushing aside Methodist Bishop Abel Muzorewa, whom I once had the pleasure to meet. The Ethiopian salesman from whom I buy suits often refers to Mengistu as “The Devil,” and rightly so, having murdered some of this man’s relatives, among so many others.
Of course Hugo Chavez’s best buddy, Fidel Castro, Cuba’s longtime jailer-in-chief, has outlived nearly all his contemporaries and likely will quit this world never facing his countless victims or the bar of justice. We now know that Castro favored nuclear war during the 1962 missile crisis that he helped precipitate, which even blustery and blood soaked Nikita Khrushchev was unwilling to risk. Castro is still mindlessly celebrated by some, even in our churches, as a friend to the poor. In fact, he tragically perpetuated poverty, which sadly was among the least of his crimes.
Occasionally murderous dictators get justice. Saddam Hussein killed hundreds of thousands of fellow Iraqis, maybe more than a million, not to mention his countless other atrocities of mass torture and rape, amid atrocious thievery. His trial and execution came none too soon.
The last century’s greatest criminals, still directly recalled by a few oldsters yet alive, were Hitler and Stalin. Hitler of course escaped earthly justice by killing himself in his fetid bunker, but at least he died knowing that his entire empire of evil was utterly smashed. Stalin died appropriately alone in his dacha, servants, aides, doctors and even Politburo members understandably too fearful to approach. Supposedly he left this world while pathetically stammering about wolves. He perhaps was seeing the gates of Hell themselves. The Bible never directly names anyone in Hell, except the “rich man” in Jesus’ parable, so we too should be reluctant. But sometimes it’s tempting.
There are so many horrors in the world that tweeted quips about a despot’s death probably don’t rank very high on the sin ladder. But Merritt is at least right in his column to remind us to reflect on our own “depravity,” remembering that only God’s grace separates us from the beastly rulers and their minions who too often plague humanity.