In an interview, team members of the evangelical magazine ‘Ultimato’ analyse the burning issues of the largest country of South America. “The organic approach to church during confinement could change our ecclesiology”.
With almost 2 million people infected, Brazil continues to be the epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic in South America.
But the second most hit country in the world (after the United States) not only experiences a health crisis, it is also going through heavy social tensions which have strong repercussions on the evangelical churches.
How are Christian communities responding in the face of suffering? Do all evangelicals support the decisions of President Jair Bolsonaro? What should Brazilian believers prioritise in the present a context of uncertainty and despair?
Evangelical Focus asked these questions to the editorial team of Ultimato, a Brazilian magazine led by director Klênia Fassoni. Ultimato reports on current issues from an evangelical perspective since 1968, and is one of the oldest evangelical media projects of its kind.
[photo_footer]Covers of the latest numbers of the Ultimato magazine. The evangelical media project started in 1968. / Ultimato online
Question. Latin America has become the world’s most affected region. How would you describe the coronavirus situation in Brazil?
Answer. On 7 July [the day we answered to these questions] the figures said that there were 1,674,655 people diagnosed with Covid-19 and 66,868 deceased. It is very sad to follow these daily statistics. The scenarios in the cemeteries are shocking. There are many who have lost more than one member of their family. The contagion rate continues to be very high in the big cities, and is growing in the cities of the inland.
The structural inequalities in our country are evident. Part of the population cannot comply with basic measures of personal hygiene and social distancing, because they do not have access to basic services of sanitation and do not live in adequate buildings. As everywhere else in the world, normal life has been interrupted. ‘Informal workers’ have lost their income, students lost school, or have been forced to continue the academic year without the needed technological conditions to do so. Businesses have closed or been restricted, companies have been hit hard, and unemployment has reached alarming levels.
And if the effects of the illness were not enough, Brazil unfortunately is becoming famous globally for having had one of the worst governmental responses to the crisis. We are living a political exploitation of the pandemic: the denial of some by some, and the media exploitation by others. The denunciation of corruption and bad use of resources in the fight against Covid-19 causes indignation.
A couple of weeks ago, the International Monetary Fund reduced its expectations about Brazil. According to the experts, the reduction of the GDP will be of at least 9%. We were coming from a deep economic crisis that now accentuates. The perspectives for the next years are dismal. Unemployment figures will remain high and the young generation of today has worse expectations than the previous generations.
Q. In the midst of this dramatic context, what good examples of evangelical churches responding to the Covid-19 have you seen?
A. Brazil is a very big country, and there are many evangelical denominations, it is not easy to follow all churches. Nevertheless, it is possible to enumerate a series of good practices that we have seen from one end to the other. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Ultimato committed to report about what churches in Brazil, Latin America, and other continents were doing as they faced local challenges.
The Brazilian church is similar to the global church in initiatives such as the confection of face masks by volunteers or the distribution of food and hygiene products.
[destacate]“The scenarios in the cemeteries are shocking. There are many who have lost more than one member of their family”
Beyond that, kilometres of rivers have been crossed to assist indigenous and riverside traditional communities, to give bread to homeless people, to create a service to register and connect unemployed people and employers, among other initiatives. It is true that the churches with larger membership and more resources stand out in some practical actions, but the initiatives of small congregations serving people in their nearest environment should not go unnoticed.
A part from the churches, Brazilian Christian organisation are being very creative as they mobilise people and resources. The Vocare movement gathered young volunteers, World Vision created a fund to support initiatives of child protection, the Bible Society of Brazil launched the “Defeating Fear” campaign to bring hope through God’s Word, the Brazilian Association of Trans-cultural Missions (AMTB) brought together representatives of organisations and mission agencies to pray every week for the challenges of mission work, the network Mãos Dadas gathered resources for families and tutors of children and teenagers. More recently, in association with World Vision and Tearfund, our editorial, Editora Ultimato, is holding online conversations called “Dialogues of hope: the church and the (post) pandemic” which are moments of reflection about the times we are living and the challenges that they bring to the church.
Q. President Bolsonaro is often portrayed as a kind of “South American Trump”. Is this a fair comparison? How are they similar to each other and how not?
A. Perhaps the most correct would be saying that the Brazilian President tries to imitate the US President. In a certain way, Bolsonaro re-inaugurates an old idea of the ambassador and former chancellor Juracy Magalhães, at the beginning of the military dictatorship in 1964. He said: “What is good for the United States is good for Brazil”.
Either way, Trump and Bolsonaro both denied, at different stages, the gravity of the pandemic. Both feed populistic politics and often point at the press, among other alleged enemies, as responsible for the problems of their own administration.
But, of course, it is not possible to compare the two countries nor the communication ability of President Bolsonaro and President Trump. Furthermore, the biography and the political history of the two mandataries are very different as well.
Q. In Europe, the media often say that evangelicals are key supporters of Bolsonaro. But the Brazilian Evangelical Alliance had very strong words for the President, asking him not to “divide the country” with his actions. What sectors of the evangelical population does this more critical position of the Brazilian Evangelical Alliance represent?
A. There is no doubt that there are many evangelical leaders aligned with the government of Bolsonaro. Social sciences researchers say that the vote of evangelicals was key for his victory.
The majority of the evangelical representatives who support the current government are members of neo-Pentecostal churches. But there also Pentecostal and evangelical churches of the historic Reformed wing that support him. A part from those who have voted for Bolsonaro or publicly supported him, there are also evangelicals who have gained positions in different levels of his government.
But evangelicals were divided during the elections and continue to be divided today. Some have criticised the pronouncements and the programmes of this government from the beginning.
Some attitudes of the President which were visibly against the spirit and the principles of democracy, led to the Evangelical Christian Alliance public statement on 19 April. The Alliance represents important segments of evangelicals in Brazil and its composition is mainly of churches that have a historic Protestant background. In terms of the number of affiliated churches, it is fair to say that the Alliance is not so representative of all churches.
[photo_footer]A view of Sao Paulo, Brazil. / Segio Souza, Unsplash, CC0
Q. Has the debate among evangelicals about Bolsonaro been in Biblical and theological terms? Or has it been a confrontation between Christians on the right and Christians on the left?
A. It is not possible to speak about “evangelicals” as a homogeneous group. Nevertheless, before the 2018 election, and even today, it is easy to perceive the association of the evangelical church with the Bolsonaro government. The research of Datafolha and the support of the Confederation of Pastors of Brazil (which brings together the main neo-Pentecostal groups), even in the first round of the election, leave no room for doubt.
Even when this support has decreased, the calling to a National Day of Fasting in April 2020, with the support of the “biggest evangelical leaders of the country” in response to the “holy proclamation made by the supreme head of the nation”, as well as the recurring attempt of neo-Pentecostal pastors to minimise the pandemic, can help us respond to this question.
Another element that helps us understand the situation is the spending of the government of more than 30 million Brazilian reals (10% of all the spending of the Secretary of Communication of the present government) towards evangelical broadcasters that had prayed with the President.
In general terms, the proposals of the President found a great approval among large sectors of the Brazilian church, mainly due to his commitment with a conservative agenda, in issues such as sexual identity, abortion and same-sex marriage. This position reinforced his image as the “only representative of authentic Christians”.
[destacate]“Some attitudes of President Bolsonaro were visibly against the spirit and the principles of democracy”
At the same time, other evangelical sectors denounced (and do so still today) the creation of a dangerous “messianic” aura around the President, which would be even damaging the evangelical witness to the Brazilian society.
We have come to situation of polarisation, in which dialogue has been severely obstructed. Both parts of this clash support Biblically and theologically beliefs that are considered orthodox, but radically disagree about the support of the evangelical church to Bolsonaro’s government. The most conservative see an opportunity to strengthen the Christian principles whereas the more progressive see a threat to the cause of the Gospel.
There are attempts to build a qualified debate based on theological and Biblical aspects, but the polarisation and the open wounds often make it impossible to build bridges that would help a dialogue that leads to more moderate positions.
We, at Ultimato, continue investing in the search for dialogue, giving the benefit of the doubt, with benevolence. We dream about a church that expresses a non-negotiable commitment with the Scriptures and a conscious responsibility with the Brazilian society.
Q. What are some of the other challenges that Brazil is facing? Are churches addressing these as well?
A. The structural inequality is the deepest social challenge. We have to include here the racial issues: following almost all parameters, being black in Brazil is standing in disadvantage. An example is that the figures of infected and deceased due to the Covid-19 are higher among the black population.
The environmental problem is also serious and it has grown to new dimensions with this government.
Corruption, through which resources are diverted, causing deaths, is also a pandemic.
Another challenge, related to the churches, is the lack of unity. Evangelicals have probably never been as divided as they are now, and this division is strongly amplified in the social media.
There are churches with different denominational orientations and embedded in specific social contexts which work with some of these challenges in mind, but the majority of them only act in their nearest context. Other Christian communities act with a more integral approach.
Among the organisations and networks, we could mention Rede Mãos Dadas e Renas (the National Evangelical Network of Social Action). They coordinate and encourage initiatives in urgent causes of our time, such as familiar fostering, the adoption of children, the defence of human rights, environmental awareness, anti-corruption platforms, among other issues.
P. In particular, how does Ultimato encourage the involvement of evangelical Christians in society?
A. We try to remember and spread “the whole gospel to all people” every day, this was one of the distinctive marks of the 1974 Lausanne Congress. This means that we have to ask questions and seek to find answers, while pointing to Christian best practices in the different spheres of culture.
In brief, Ultimato wants to bring the Biblical erudition to a Sunday school language and, in the words of John Stott, read the Bible to find Jesus. We want to help our readers to “love what God commands and desire what he promises”, as the English theologian and writer N.T. Wright said recently. This is the opposite of what has become common in the last years in many Brazilian churches, where they have prayed that “God commands what we already love and promise what we already desire”.
Q. How will the evangelical churches in Brazil look like in 10 years time? What emphases should be made now to train a young generation that makes a positive impact in the country?
A. This exercise of “projection” for the next decade is not easy. In fact, it is quite complex to do. The rhythm of growth of the number of evangelicals in the country will probably suffer a significant deceleration, after the expressive vigour of the last three decades. We already see signs of this change of trend.
The task that should have followed the numerical growth from the beginning, the formation of new disciples, continues to be an unreached aim.
[destacate]“We need a discipleship that allows the youngest to build an integral worldview, in which every vocation and profession is valued as a call from God”
In this sense, the quarantine gave a “providential impulse”, because the social isolation reinforced the importance of the witness of the “common Christians”. The church spread to the homes and the neighbourhoods of the cities. Christians who are professionals in the marketplace joined the missionaries and the evangelists, and re-discovered their role in the witness of Christ. This more organic, creative and active experience can bring a continued learning and an irreversible change in our ecclesiology, in our way of being church.
Therefore, an important emphasis that needs to be adopted now is the investment of leaders and “older brothers” in the Biblical-theological training of the new generations. We are talking about the good and old discipleship, a kind of training that abandons for once all those false dichotomies, the artificial fragmentation between the “sacred” and “secular” sectors of life. A discipleship that allows the youngest to build a more harmonious and integral worldview, in which every vocation and profession is valued as a call from God that is as sacred and spiritual as the traditional “missionary” and “pastoral” calls.
Starting with that holistic understanding, themes like the use of technology, environmental responsibility, participation in politics, economic, racial and sexual inequalities, xenophobia, among other themes…, will all be addressed with the same holiness as those issues that have to do with the interior spiritual life.
A non-divided discipleship, based on the holistic proposal of the Gospel, will surely have a great impact in the presence and witness of the church in today’s society, an impact that undoubtedly will reflect the glory of God.
P. Finally, how can Christians in other places of the world pray for Brazil?
A. Pray for the fight against the pandemic, the reduction of people infected by the coronavirus and the recovery of those who are ill.
We believe it is also important to pray for the leaders of the country.
It would be a relief for the population if we would not be facing these other crises in Brazil happening in the area of politics, economy and the environment. There is a need for the church to be strengthened, walking in unity and admitting its role in denouncing injustice, inequality, abandonment, exploitation and corruption.
The practice of mercy and a simple lifestyle also depend on the church.
Finally, we also want to be thankful. Christian organisations as the mentioned above are an example, among others, of those who serve in practical ways and offer help to the poorest and most vulnerable. May God be praised for each of these initiatives!
These answers were provided by Klênia Fassoni (director of Ultimato), Marcos Bontempo (editorial director of Ultimato), Ariane Gomes (coordinator of contents of UltimatoOnline) and Reinaldo Percinoto Jr (UltimatoOnline contributor).