Jesus Christ, Revolutionary
Frei Betto: Now, I’d like to hear your views on somebody else, somebody much more important, much more universal, and also much more discussed and much more loved than the pope. What are your views on Jesus Christ the person?
Fidel Castro: Well, I’ve already told you the story of my education and my contacts with religion, with the church. Jesus Christ was one of the most familiar names to me, practically ever since I can remember — at home, at school, and throughout my childhood and adolescence. Since then, in my revolutionary life — even though, as I told you, I never really acquired religious faith — all my efforts, my attention, and my life have been devoted to the development of a political faith, which l reached through my own convictions. I couldn’t really develop a religious concept on my own, but I did develop political and revolutionary convictions in that way, and I never saw any contradiction in the political and revolutionary sphere between the ideas I upheld and the idea of that symbol, that extraordinary figure that had been so familiar to me ever since I could remember. Rather, I concentrated on the revolutionary aspects of Christian doctrine and Christ’s thinking. Throughout the years, I have had several opportunities to express the coherence that exists between Christian and revolutionary thought.
“I’ve cited many examples; sometimes I’ve used Christ’s words: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” I’ve heard various people, including a priest, say that Christ wasn’t referring to the small needle we know now, because it’s impossible for a camel to go through the eye of that kind of needle. Rather, it meant something else; it had to be interpreted differently.
Frei Betto: Some biblical scholars take, it to mean the narrow corners in Jerusalem, Palestine, and the heart of Beirut, for it was very difficult for the camels to turn those corners. Why doesn’t anybody question how difficult it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven? That’s unquestionable. Comandante, from the theological point of view, it doesn’t mean that Jesus discriminated against the rich; it means that Jesus opted for the poor. That is, in a society characterized by social inequalities, God decided to assume the likeness of Jesus; he could have been born in Rome, to a family of emperors; he could have been born to a Jewish landowner’s family; he could have been born to the middle strata of parishioners. Instead, he chose to be born among the poor, as the son of a carpenter — one who certainly worked on the construction of the Brasilia of his time, the city of Tiberias, built as a tribute to Emperor Tiberius Caesar in whose reign Jesus Lived. It’s interesting that Tiberias is on the banks of the Lake of Gennesaret, where Jesus spent most of his life and carried out most of his activities. In the Gospels, he doesn’t visit that city even once.
So, what do we say? We say that Jesus unconditionally opted for the poor. He spoke to everyone, both rich and poor, but from a specific social stand, from the social stand of the interests of the poor. He didn’t speak in a neutral, universalist, abstract way; rather, he reflected the interests of the oppressed strata of the times. If a rich man wanted to have a place next to Jesus, he had to opt for the poor. There isn’t a single example in all the Gospels of Jesus’ welcoming a rich man beside him without first making him commit himself to help the poor.
I can cite three examples: first, that of a rich young man who was a saint because he observed all the Commandments, but in the end Jesus said that the man had to do one more thing: go and sell what he had, and give to the poor before he could follow him. I believe that many priests today would say, “Look, If you observe all the Commandments, come with us; stay here next to us; and in time you’ll improve!” But since Jesus was a little more radical than we are, he told the man, “You go honor your commitment to the poor and then come.”
The second example is that of the rich man whose home Jesus visited. Jesus had no prejudices but he was consistent so he went to Zacchaeus’s home not to praise his ceramics, which may have come from Persia, or his Egyptian figurines, but rather to tell him that he was a thief because he’d stolen from the poor. And Zacchaeus, who wanted to be at peace with him, said, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” That is, the practice of justice was the basic requirement for following Jesus.
The third example is the preaching of John the Baptist, who prepared for Jesus’ coming. His preaching began with the practice of justice. The people who wanted to be converted didn’t ask what they should believe; they asked what they should do and John replied, “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.”
The universality of Jesus’ preaching must also be explained; it is a universality that derives from an option and a very specific social and political stand: the cause of the poor.
Fidel Castro: I’ve been listening to you with great interest, because there’s a lot of substance in what you’ve said, However, I could make a mathematical objection: a rich man could never give back four times what he’d stolen, because everything a rich man has must have been stolen. If he didn’t steal it himself, it must have been stolen by his parents or grandparents, so it’s impossible — if everything he has is stolen — for him to return fourfold what he’s stolen, for he’d probably have to steal four times as much again to keep that promise.
Frei Betto: You’re repeating something that St. Ambrose said in the early centuries.
Fidel Castro: I’m glad to have coincided with him. So what do I think? It may be a bad translation of the Bible; maybe the translators are to blame, because they didn’t take into account the meaning of the eye of a needle, I realize that many of the phrases in the Bible are related to that environment, to the society and customs of the times; but I don’t know how this could be proved in this case. Anyway, somebody well versed in religion, somebody well versed in languages, must have interpreted, with quite some grounds, that it was the eye of the needle that everybody knows about in our language, because we don’t know of any other, for the people in Spanish-speaking countries don’t knew the first thing about camels, even though we do have an idea of what camels are.
In any case I liked the interpretation that the translators gave to that phrase, as I understood it, and I also believe the interpretation is absolutely in keeping and is consistent with all the other things that Christ preached. First of all, as you said, Christ didn’t choose the rich to preach the doctrine; he chose 12 poor and ignorant workers — that is, he chose the proletariat of the times or modest self-employed workers, some of whom were fishermen. They were poor people, very poor, without exception, as you said.
At times I’ve referred to Christ’s miracles and have said, “Well, Christ multiplied the fish and loaves to feed the people. That is precisely what we want to do with the revolution and socialism: multiply the fish and the loaves to feed the people; multiply the schools, teachers, hospitals, and doctors; multiply the factories, the fields under cultivation, and the jobs; multiply industrial and agricultural productivity; and multiply the research centers and the number of scientific research projects for the same purpose.” At times I’ve referred to the parable of the rich man who employed several workers: he paid some of them one denarius for a full day’s work; to others he paid one denarius for half a day’s work; and to yet others he paid one denarius for half an afternoon’s work. The parable implies a criticism of those who didn’t agree with that distribution. I believe that it is precisely a communist formula; it goes beyond what we say in socialism, because in socialism each should be paid according to his capacity and work, while the communist formula is to give to each according to his needs. To pay a denarius to each one who worked that day implies a distribution more in keeping with needs, a typically communist formula.
Also, I believe that many of the passages of the preachings of Christ, such as the Sermon on the Mount, cannot be given any interpretation other than what you call the option for the poor. When Christ said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied,” it is obvious that Christ didn’t offer the kingdom of heaven to the rich; he really offered it to the poor, and I don’t think that the preaching of Christ is also a case of mistaken translation or interpretation. believe that Karl Marx could have subscribed to the Sermon on the Mount.
Frei Betto: In St. Luke’s version, not only are the poor blessed, but the rich are damned.
Fidel Castro: I don’t know if the phrase is in any of the versions of that preaching. You say that it’s St. Luke’s version. The one I recall doesn’t damn the rich.
Frei Betto: That’s the St. Matthew one, which is better known.
Fidel Castro: Maybe that’s the one that was more convenient at the time, to bring us up in a more conservative spirit. You said something profound: that the difficulty lies in understanding how a rich man can enter the kingdom of heaven, if you consider many of the things that go with the mentality of the rich: insensitivity, selfishness, lack of solidarity, and even the sins of the rich in all spheres. I really believe that what a rich man had to do to be a good Christian and reach the kingdom of heaven was expressed clearly. It was stated repeatedly in Christ’s preachings.
You should also take into consideration that we read many books of history and literature – some written by laymen and others by clergymen – that reflected the martyrdom of the Christians in the early centuries. Everybody’s had the opportunity to learn about those events, and I think that one of the things the church felt most proud of during the years when I was a student – I remember this clearly was the martyrology of the early years and throughout the history of the church.
Fidel & Religion: Conversations with Frei Betto on Marxism & Liberation Theology; Castro Talks on Religion and Revolution with Frei Betto. Introduction by Harvey Cox. Simon and Schuster (1987), pp. 267-271