Black Spirituality Religion : Religious Dilemma in Modern Day Brazil, By Paul Jeffrey

Discussion in 'Black Spirituality / Religion - General Discussion' started by Sekhemu, Apr 5, 2006.

  1. Sekhemu

    Sekhemu Well-Known Member MEMBER

    Jul 9, 2003
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    The candomble ceremony went on for more than three hours. When I finally emerged from the Terreiro into the late night air, my body still pulsed with the rhythmic drumming that had encouraged participants to let the spirits mount their bodies. Then the neighbors started to yell. "Only the blood of Christ saves!" a group of fervant evangelicals shouted from the roof of the house across the street. In response the candomble participants began to chant "Olourum! Olurum!" the name of the Supreme deity of their Afro-Brazilian religion. The evangelicals then switched to the simpler "Jesus Christ! Jesus Christ!" That's when I noticed a neigbhoring house had a for sale sign out front.

    This confrontation between different religious expressions took place in a poor neighborhood of Salvador, the capital of the state of Bahia in Brazil's northeast. It illustrates the changing nature of religion in Brazil.

    Challenged by liberation-oriented Catholics on the left. by Pentecostals on the right, and by a frontal assault from Afro-Brazilian religions, chief among them Candomble, the traditional hegemony of the Catholic Church is waning. The most capable of Catholic leaders have had their wings clipped in recent years by the late Pope John Paul ll. Creative thinkers like feminist theologian Ivone Gebara and Sao Paulo Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns offered pastoral visions for women and city dwellers in this nation which has the largest Catholic population. But the Vatican purged the freethinkers and installed a new crop of bishops who-- with a few notable exceptions-- are more interested in hierarchical allegiance than in reaching out in new ways to the mass of people excluded from Brazil's economy. Pentecostal and neo-Pentecostal movements have taken advantage of the Catholic hierarchy's short-sightedness and are growing by leaps and bounds. Recent surveys put the number of Catholics in Brazil at 60 million, with evangelicals closing the gap with at least 25 million.

    Certainly the most notorious of the neo-Pentecostal groups is the Universal Church of the Reign of God (IURD), founded in 1978. This church, which teaches a variation of the increasingly popular "theology of prosperity" and has been widely criticized for corruption, claims 3.5 million members in Brazil and missions in 35 other countries. Throughout Central America, for example, the IURD has set the trend among neo-Pentecostals by converting old movie theaters into worship centers. In Brazil the church owns a television network, dozens of radio stations, and a weekly newspaper that publishes 700,000 copies. The Catholics still win the media race with 183 radio stations and a television network with 225 repeaters, but the IURD's mounting challenge is apparent. That challeng was graphically symobolized when the IURD's founder, Sergio Von Helder, destroyed a statue of the Virgin Mary during a 1995 television show. The action not only outraged Brazilian Catholics but also illustrated how the media have become a crucial tool in the war for the soul of Brazil.

    Paulo Ayres Mattos, the Methodist bishop of Recife, says the way new religious movements like the IURD use the media illustrates how "the religion of the market is triumphing." Ayres claims that defining neo-Pentecostalism in Brazil is "to talk about something that's as much a media phenomenon as religious phenomenon. It's a product of the media, of marketing of religious business appealing to 30 million evangelical consumers. They're not necessarily church members, but they are religious consumers, and churches have to compet over them for market share." Ayres argues that this "idolatry of the market" will end some day "when people realize that the market isn't resolving our problems. For now, though, it's seen as a panacea that resolves every problem."

    For Ayres and many other observers, a significant element of evangelical church growth is Brazil reflects the conversion of religion into a commodity. "Those pastors who are successful today," Ayres said "are those who imitate and reproduce what evangelical media are producing on television and radio. The market is distorting the religious practice of Protestants throughout Brazil." Ayers says this development has helped create a "crisis of paradigms...We're living in a postdenominational world, where it doesn't matter if you're Methodist, Baptist, Presbytarian or Catholic. The churches today are just ecclesiatical bureaucracies.

    Afro-Brazilian religious expressions are not experiencing the same crisis. In contrast to its Christian counterparts, for example, Candomble doesn't have an official hierarchy. Nor does it have a newspaper, television station or web site. Yet somehow it's surviving and in fact is thriving throughout Brazil and the African diaspora.

    Candomble was persecuted in some regions well into the 1970s. This repression was a holdover frome the early years of slavery, when portuguese masters tried to prohibit black religious expression in their quest to WEAKEN AFRICN IDENTITY AND UNITY. Slaves were forced to become Catholics; often they were baptized collectively by priests who threw water on them as they were unloaded on the quay in Salvador, the country's principla slave port. Yet they faith that survived the middle passage proved resilient, and the slaves craftily learned expression. Devotion to African Orixas was camouflaged as worship of Catholic saints.

    Orixas play an important role in Candomble. The drumming, dancing and trances of Candomble are means of communicating with Orixas; they are vehicles to keep alive the connection to Africa. That Candomble is alive and well today--and often practiced by Afro-Brazilians who are also Catholic or Protestant--is testimony to the spiritual resistance of oppressed Africans.

    It's clear that you don't have to be one or the other. Several evangelical pastors in black communities, acknowledging the deep roots of Afro-Brazilian traditions, admitted to me that the difficulty of drawing a hard-and-fast line between Protestant orthodoxy and what the bible institutes term pagan beliefs. Many black Catholics go both to mass and to the Terreiro, and some elements of the Catholic leadership are encouraging this interreligious explorationg through their program of Agentes de Pastoral Negro. Encouraged by Brazil's budding black consciousness movement, Afro-Brazilian religious expression is coming out of the closet.

    Candomble also offers black women a level of participation they've never experienced in other religious traditions. Most terreiros, the humble buildings where Candomble ceremonies take place, are headed by a Mae do Santo, , a "saint mother," a woman who directs the ceremony's rhythmic drumming and repetitive dancing and who interprets the possession of dancers by certain orixas.

    Just as race is an important element in understanding the tensions in Brazil's religious scene, so is gender. In many of the Christian churches women are tired of discrimination and are speaking out. Ayres himself experienced this personally a year ago when he tried to preach the opening sermon at a World Council of Churches conference on evangelism in Salvador. A group of women interrupted the service, accusing Ayres of being both racist and sexist.

    Many Methodist women in Brazil voice pessimism over the possibility of their denomination's opening up to greater participation of women in leadership and ministry. "The church has women well under control," says Rosangela Soares de Oliveira. Ordained in 1980, Soares was one of the first woman pastors of the Methodist Church in Brazil. She says one of the ways women are kept "under control" is by keeping their energies inside the church (I wonder why). "The ecclesiastical institution doesn't help eomwn confront their own reality, doesn't permit them to advance," she says. "It keeps up continuous propaganda against the feminist movement, against abortion, against everything connected with the women's movement, and so women in the church who particpate in these movements outside the church suffer the consequences inside the church."

    According to Keila Da Silva Guimaraes, an Afro-Brazilian Methodist activist in Rio de Janeiro, black women in the church are in a double bind. "Black women hold the church together," (no surprise there) reports da Silva, a professor of media studies. "They can do everything that's necessary. They can clean, they can organized things, but they can't take charge of things, because the men are always the ones who are in charge. If there's a paying position somewhere in the church, a black woman is never good enough for it. But if it's volunteer work, then she's OK. It's difficult for Black women pastors to have one of the big churches. Instead, they're always stuck pastoring ond of those churches that way out in the middle of nowhere, where they have to prove themselves all the time."