The Word, according to the Christian tradition, becomes flesh and connects human experience with the sacred. And all the different indigenous languages of Brazil express innumerable cosmovisions. They are indispensable for the practice of rites, for the transmission of cultures inherited from ancestors, and for seeking advice and guidance from the diverse sacred beings that populate our land from north to south.
For a long time, Brazil was known as the largest Christian country in the world. Initially it was a Roman Catholic country, and during the colonial period the Roman Catholic Church was the official religion of the country. It was not until the proclamation of the Republic, in 1889, that Brazil incorporated the principle of separation of church and state into its constitution and recognized other Christian denominations. It is important to note that the principle of the secularity of the State applied only to the different Christian denominations that were present in the territory of the State. Other religions, Kardecs spiritualism, Afro-Brazilian and indigenous religious expressions were associated with occultism and witchcraft and therefore criminalized. Despite these persecutions, the diversity of spirits, orixás, caboclos, and other entities survived in the suburbs, coasts, and forests. For various religions in Brazil, the sacred is revealed in the rivers, the earth, the air and the trees.
Beginning in the 1980s, a process of transformation in Brazilian religious identity began. Brazil increasingly became a protestant-evangelical country. Data from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, which is responsible for conducting the census, has shown this change over the years. Its projection is that by 2023, the number of people who identify themselves as evangelical will be greater than the number of people who identify themselves as Roman Catholic.
Is the love of Christ directed only to other Christians?
Numbers aside, it should not be forgotten that Christianity shapes the nation’s self-understanding because the country is still majority Roman Catholic and Protestant. This characterization has led the Brazilian ecumenical movement to prioritize unity in diversity and reconciliation between the various Christian denominations for many years. At best, it has managed a certain rapprochement with the Jewish tradition due to the struggle for democratic openness.
Today it is no longer possible to think of the love of Christ that moves the world toward unity and reconciliation without considering the religious and cultural diversity that characterizes us. Is the love of Christ directed only to Christians? Or is the love of Christ beyond our understanding and a grace that manifests itself in all creation and claims the right to exist for all living beings on the planet?
But we live a dichotomy in our country. We find it difficult to break with the image of a hegemonic Christian country. Our hegemonic religious view contributes to the marginalization and invisibility of a multitude of experiences of the sacred. When we emphasize that the possibility of dialogue is exclusively between Christians, we contribute to diversity becoming a ground for social fragmentation, prejudice, and discrimination. The prospect of an exclusionary dialogue cannot contribute to unity and social reconciliation.
Many challenges for living ecumenism
Despite the uncertainty about the number of indigenous peoples living in Brazil in the 1500s, their number fluctuated between three and eight million people, divided among many peoples, with different religious traditions and languages. The colonialist project decimated the number of these people dramatically. There is no reliable data to quantify the genocide of indigenous people during the colonial period. It has continued through the centuries, and in the 21st century colonial rule is being replaced by the rule of mining companies, large landowners, and forest clearing projects.
The same practice was repeated with the Africans brought as slaves to Brazil. The first thing that was done with the African people who set foot on Brazilian soil was to baptize them so that they would “become human” in the first place. Because neither indigenous people nor Africans had souls. Only baptism could make them “human and civilized.” Lilia Moritz Schwarcz points out that 40 percent, approximately 3.8 million of the people brought from Africa to work in the agricultural colonies of Portuguese America were forcibly brought to Brazil. Today, 60 percent of Brazil’s population is made up of people with black or brown skin. Thus, according to her, Brazil can be considered the second largest country with African people in terms of population, after Nigeria.
Given this diversity of peoples, cultures and ways of holiness in Brazil, there are many challenges for ecumenical practice. We also need to break down the walls that sometimes unconsciously establish a hierarchy of who you can and cannot talk to.
Brazil’s religious diversity challenges us as churches to be self-critical of our theologies and diaconal practices that have in the past legitimized racism and violence against indigenous peoples.
When what is sacred survives, so do the people
In the Brazilian National Council of Churches, we strive for an ecumenical witness that encourages churches and their communities to dialogue with and encounter these myriad forms of lived spirituality in our country. By promoting dialogue as a path to unity and reconciliation, we also promote listening to the silenced voices. We can only recognize others by hearing their stories and learning about their understanding of the world. They are our neighbors, too, and it is important to hear what they think about us. This is not always an easy exercise, but ecumenical engagement demands it. Therefore, we renew ecumenical practice by following a methodology of listening, dialogue, transformation, reconciliation and unity in diversity.
We can share two experiences that we have had as the National Brazilian Council of Churches: The first was the Ecumenical Mission of Support and Solidarity with the Guarani-Kaiowa people in Mato Grosso do Sul. They are an indigenous people who are being fiercely attacked by big soy farmers. One of the main characteristics of this people is their spirituality, expressed in music and rites with many circular dances. By destroying their Casas de Reza (houses of worship), a sacred place in the village, the large landowners weaken the indigenous communities. The destruction provokes an existential emptiness and the feeling that their spiritual beings had abandoned them. In the Ecumenical Campaign for Fraternity 2016, together with the Ecumenical Forum in Brazil and with the support of the Ecumenical Solidarity Fund, we supported the reconstruction of the destroyed Casas de Reza. We understand that to overcome racism, it is necessary to welcome the different forms of spirituality and allow them to survive. When the sacred survives, so do the people.
We had another experience in a discussion group with the motto: “Dialog: Commitment of Love.” We invited members of different expressions of faith to share how their religious tradition contributes to a world of justice and peace. It was a breathtaking experience, as it was one of the launch events for the Ecumenical Campaign for Fraternity 2021. It was a moment of affirmation that religions can contribute to peace as long as they recognize themselves as contributors and as one of the possible paths to a society of the good life that is without violence, anti-racist, respectful of human rights and an invitation to diversity.
Romi Marcía Bencke for the EMW-Themenheft 2021
About the author
Romi Marcía Bencke is a Lutheran pastor, general secretary of the Brazilian National Council of Churches and board member of the Ecumenical Forum in Brazil, which organizes and promotes cooperation between ACT Alliance member organizations and international ecumenical partners.