Friday, July 24, 2020

Neo-Pentecostal Power in Brazil

Pastor prays with gang members. Rio de Janeiro (Unattributed)
Neo-Pentecostalism has made strange alliances in Brazil. Here's how I've come to understand the situation as it relates to criminal organizations in some impoverished urban areas there.

In 1997 I attended the National Missionary Convention in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Now known as the International Conference on Missions, this is an annual gathering of ministers, missionaries, church members, and students to explore topics related to global Christian mission work, particularly within the context of independent Christian Churches and Churches of Christ. While there I met a couple of Brazilian men from a church that was then meeting in Connecticut, and one of them told me a story that provides a window into the topic of today. 

One of these men told me about having attended a rousing Pentecostal church service in the city of São Paulo. So full of the spirit was he and he and one or two other friends that they marched directly from there right into the heart of a notoriously dangerous neighborhood. As he related it, they preached and sang as a crowd gathered, there were manifestations of the spirit (tongues, swooning, etcetera) and numerous 'conversions' as people cried out for salvation. 

It was an exciting story to hear as a young man preparing for mission work, but it's all-to-typical of the long tradition in evangelicalism and Pentecostalism of holding revivals and expecting them to be the solution to all problems. While there are very effective faith-based programs at work in under-resourced neighborhoods and rural areas throughout Brazil, there are also ministries that trade more on excitement and a belief in a quick fix to long-standing societal ills, based on individual religious experiences. The reality is that most such ministries, and even simply the otherwise innocuous local church doing its thing, depend on the permission of so-called drug lords to continue operations. 

During my mission internship in Brazil in 1997 I spent two of the weeks living in an impoverished neighborhood that was under the thumb of one such drug lord. The missionary related how, after he began working in the area, he was summoned to meet this fellow. They talked, and as I recall the missionary prayed with the man. He was then authorized to work so long as he didn't get in the way of operations. In all this, I don't see any wrong done. The missionary evidently offered no assistance in the crimes of the drug gang, and his focus on helping people live new lives, including without addiction, was not considered a direct threat to business. 

That missionary was fairly 'orthodox' at the time in terms of evangelical Christianity, and the church he served was of a more traditional Pentecostal variety. The problem arises when this is not the case, as we find in the increasingly prevalent Neo-Pentecostal movement in Brazil. This movement, which has been at work in Brazil for decades and which gathered steam in the 1990s, has as distinctives a strong emphasis on the prosperity gospel and spiritual warfare.

The prosperity gospel got its start in the United States through the ministries of televangelists like Oral Roberts. The fundamental concept is that God wants people to be healthy and wealthy, and so a 'seed of faith' needs to be planted through financial contributions to the ministry. Donate what you can easily afford, and results with be limited. Make a sacrificial offering, and miraculous things will happen in your life. The greater the sacrifice, the greater the blessing, because the believer is acting in faith.

As for spiritual warfare, this walks hand-in-hand with the prosperity gospel. Throughout the history of Christianity there has been a belief in supernatural powers that are not of God being at work in the world. These have been historically referred to as 'the devil' and 'demons.' This remains the case to some extent in Neo-Pentecostalism, although at times the language is a bit different. In the United States I've known Neo-Pentecostals to refer to 'spirits' that have specialties. There could be a 'spirit of deception,' a 'spirit of adultery,' or even a 'spirit of tobacco.' The possibilities are as endless as the range of trouble people can get themselves into through foolishness. These spirits or demons can not only influence someone, but even possess them. As I related some time back in this blog, a missionary once told me about an exorcism in which the possessed individual was blaspheming in perfect English, but once he was 'liberated' he couldn't speak a word of the language. Bizarre stories like these are commonplace in Neo-Pentecostalism.

These twin doctrines, when brought into an environment of drug violence, create a template for viewing the world that is potentially quite dangerous. They reinforce key aspects of gang culture, and motivate acts of violence against those not in competition for, or acting against, the drug trade.

Unfazed by their own demonic activities, the TCP and Jesus Gang have been carrying out a terrorist campaign against Umbanda and Candomble terreiros in the barrios under their control. In the prisons, where many narcos convert to Neo-Pentecostalism, pastors demonize Afro-Brazilian religions preaching that the Exus (liminal trickster spirits) of Umbanda, for example, are the cause of their suffering. Once out of prison, the new converts join the Jesus Gang and others that raid the terreiros with the goal of chasing them out of the barrios under their control. The Holy War against the priestesses and priests of Umbanda and Candomble isn’t only aimed at extirpating the ‘evil spirits’ from the barrio but also fortifying Pentecostal dominion by imposing their evangelical faith as the hegemonic one in the barrios under their control.1

The belief in prosperity as a blessing in return for acts of faith, along with the concept of spiritual warfare, mobilizes gangs to act aggressively towards members of their own communities, drawing lines where none existed before. This is, at its root, the fruit of monotheism, of which Neo-Pentecostalism is a part.

In ancient times there were believed to be many gods. Even the ancient Hebrews worshipped multiple deities until after the Babylonian captivity. These gods were of the nation, although there was borrowing between them, as among the Canaanites and between Greeks and Romans. Additionally, as territories were conquered by empires, many if not all of the local deities were either incorporated into the national pantheon, or identified with existing imperial deities. Worship was carried out in order to gain the favor of the gods, and sacrifices were commonplace. What people actually believed in detail was scarcely of concern, and narrative mythology was primary, with theology only in a rudimentary form. Then, Christianity came along, building on the Judaism of the Second Temple Period.

With Christianity the concern was centered on right belief. As the faith spread through the empire, multiple writing were produced and countless preachers took up the cause. Their messages often varied radically between them, and so discerning the correct way to believe became paramount. When Marcion published his list of canonical writings the rising consensus view was forced to respond, eventually pulling together the texts we now find in all New Testaments. As the empire Christianized, it became increasingly important to know who was correctly aligned with the state, and this could only be known by whether the the leaders espoused the official orthodoxy. That orthodoxy developed over time, defining in greater detail the nature of God, Jesus, and the path to salvation. The canon and creeds came together in a way that meant that the saints of one generation would have been considered heretics had they lived a generation later. 

The matter settled for the most part after a few hundred years from the time of Jesus, the church and state looked at foreign kingdoms, clans, and tribes with their many gods and spirits as living in darkness, under the power of demonic forces. And so, physical warfare became necessary for spiritual warfare. This continued through the ages, to the Inquisition and Crusades. The Protestants sharpened the focus on right belief, worship, and practice, relying on the printing press to disseminate their views to a wide audience, opposing papal power and lifting up a frequently nationalist fervor against foreign influence. National churches arose, and very often dissenters were persecuted and executed for their 'crimes' of incorrect belief.

In the early United States the established churches, such as they were, did not last long under the pressure of the democratic spirit. People from multiple European nations found their way to the North American continent, and many of them established churches that held to the beliefs of their home nations. Others came as religious refugees, particularly those that migrated to Pennsylvania, where they found the freedom to believe as they wished, alongside others with divergent ideas. The denominations, through traveling preachers, revivals, and publications competed for converts in a marketplace of faith. It was in this environment that, in the 20th century, Neo-Pentecostalism emerged.

Anywhere that one particular monotheistic view becomes dominant, all other viewpoints begin to be suppressed. While the monotheism of Utah Mormonism is debatable (it's really tritheism, but good luck convincing a Mormon of that), it can be seen in Utah and southern Idaho that it's easier to do business and live socially if one is Mormon. However, there hasn't to my knowledge been widespread systematic oppression of people holding other views since the early 20th century. It instead a matter of how well networked you will be living in such areas and thinking differently.

In Brazil, Neo-Pentecostalism is finding its way not only into the favelas, but also into the halls of power. While Roman Catholicism is still the majority religion, evangelicalism (of which Neo-Pentecostalism can be considered a part) has been on the increase for decades. When the powers, both official and de facto, are aligned in a particular monotheistic set of beliefs, everyone who thinks differently is in danger. This is especially true of practitioners of distinctively non-Christian beliefs. 

It seems to me that the progression of thought in societies as they develop is from animism to polytheism, polytheism to strong monotheism, and strong monotheism to weak monotheism, agnosticism, or non-theism. Strong monotheism demands homogeneity of belief, while weak monotheism takes a broader, more ecumenical and interfaith perspective. Within agnosticism, as I use it here, there is both the committed belief that no one can really know, and also the softer view that no one knows for sure but maybe something can be 'true' for individuals. In the United States we are experiencing the struggle between certainty of beliefs, and openness to the experiences of others. As for Brazil, the rising tide seems to be toward stronger monotheistic certainty.

Hopefully it's obvious by this point that it isn't just about what one believes about a god or gods. Instead, it's a matter of a rigid demand for conformity versus a cosmopolitan spirit that makes room for difference. Atheists, when they are anti-theists, can be just as dogmatic, exclusive, and mean-spirited as their strong monotheist counterparts. 

The only solution I see for this situation is evidence-based education and peace-building over the course of generations. There's no easy fix that will solve everything overnight, however much we might like to believe it possible to march into a favela and change hearts through songs and exhortation. It's really never that simple.