Two weeks before “Evangelical Christianity and Social Change in Brazil” began, massive demonstrations about a hike in public transit fares and frustration with the mass transit system rocked the metropolis of Rio De Janeiro. Eventually, over a million demonstrators came out to express a deeper frustration—with politics and public leaders more generally. The talented group of scholars from the USA and Brazil began their deliberations July 9 by discussing the protests. The Brazilian members had a spirited debate over the “secularity” of the protests. Did this mean that churches had succeeded in forming constructive citizens, or did it mean that the churches had been silent and passive? Why do evangelicals in particular have so little proactive engagement with politics? Was it because they have no tradition of Christian political thinking? Why did they tend, by default, to be supporters of the status quo? Testing these assumptions over against the people we met in active ministry became a central theme for the seminar.
Half of the seminar’s time was spent in and near Rio de Janeiro, and focused on issues of violence and poverty. Participants met with remarkable ministry leaders in the urban favelas (slums) of Rio, and in an agricultural community. While in downtown Rio, a panel of four activists dealt with the topic of violence and racism in the city. Mobilizing churches and civic groups against violence had been effective initially, but violence was rising again. The activists expressed frustration with evangelicals, who wanted to pray and evangelize, but while praying, lives were being snuffed out. Police pacification units had moved into the favelas, but they addressed crime militarily, and many innocent people were caught in the crossfire and harmed by the curfews. Evangelicals needed a relevant theology to address racism, poverty and violence.
The theme of religion and politics was taken up in the city of Brasilia, the capital city of Brazil. Through group meetings with various evangelical politicians and leaders who shared a fundamental regard for the poor and for combatting social injustice, the group heard very different views of how to do just that. According to Brazilian colleagues, their politics and parties run a very wide spectrum, from military fascism on the far right to communism on the far left. The tension between but also complementary nature of fighting for rights and for just policies at the macro level and ministering directly to those in need at the micro level continued and pushed the discussion.
The final days of the seminar were spent in the Amazonia region. A three-day, four-stop visit to riverbank villages began on a riverboat operated by World Vision. Environmental sustainability framed the conversations along the Rio Negro, and participants saw that the worldwide push to “save the rainforests prompted new conservation efforts that adversely affected the “little people” but did not seem to deter the larger businesses.
A book project with two editions, one in English and published in the United States and one in Portuguese and published in Brazil is underway. Participants Eric Miller and Gustavo Gilson de Oliveira will serve as co-editors.