International Seminar “Brazilian Tragedy: Risk for the Common House?” discusses aspects of the conservative advance in Brazil

In recent years, Brazil has experienced numerous moments of political, economic and social instability.  The merging of conservative political and religious sectors shows no signs of retreating while authoritarian advances are increasing and becoming less timid.  The International Seminar “Brazilian Tragedy: Risk for the Common House?” provided a broad platform to analyse these circumstances. The Seminar was run by the Ecumenical Coordination of Service (Coordenadoria Ecumênica de Serviço: CESE) in partnership with ecumenical and civil society organizations from 4-6 May.

Six of the nineteen invitees led an in-depth debate about the movements – principally political – that have brought us to the point we are at today: with the intensification of the country’s rooted social inequalities.  In all, three roundtables were held by them: one to open; followed by “Temple and Democracy: the Risks for the Common House”; and “Temple and Market: the threat of converging fundamentalism”.

Olivier de Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights since May 2020, addressed the audience at the first roundtable. He criticised the Proposed Constitutional Amendment that froze expenditure for 20 years in areas such as education and public health. “It was a disproportionate response to an immediate crisis.  We now see how badly equipped hospitals are, how many gaps there are, during the pandemic”.

Olivier criticised the measure because, in addition to leading to increased unemployment and inequality, there were other ways to respond to the crisis.  “For example, the rural tax in Brazil is very small, while the subsidy is very large – so that only 9% of Brazilian ranchers retain 70% of the entire government subsidy.  Instead of freezing spending, they could have increased the tax on large fortunes or arable land.”

He noted that in 2016, tax evasion in Brazil cost the Brazilian government 80 billion dollars per year.  “There was no spending crisis, rather there was one of income.  The decision meant that the poor population paid even more for the government’s austerity measures,” he concluded.

Journalist and professor, Dr Rosane Borges and Reverend Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, Presiding Bishop of the Bishop’s Conference of the Church of Norway, participated in the second roundtable.  From the start, Rosane warned that her speech may seem negative. “But paraphrasing Antonio Gramsci: ‘it is necessary to be pessimistic in analysis and optimistic in action’.  Our situation is not good, but we need to gather possibilities to build civilizing parameters from them.”.

Rosane criticised the liberalism that prevails in Brazil, finding its explanation in the era of slavery.  “Our liberalism emerged with the slave owners.  To be liberal and to enslave in Brazil was not considered scandalous.  We need to think of liberalism as something that coexisted with and legitimized what is, in principle, a contradiction.   Today, liberalism only refers to the economic arena, responsible for burying ideas of freedom, individual autonomy, tolerance, diversity and plurality.”

She recalls the words of minister Paulo Guedes, which demonstrate this mentality, with its slaver and colonial roots. “He has complained of ‘domestic worker parties in Disney’ and blamed increased life expectancy in Brazil for the collapse of the health system, rather than COVID-19. You only question rights if you set out from the principle that some people are not human.  This slavery matrix, which has shaped us, tells us that there are people for whom the law should not exist”.

Rosane seeks a scenario of leadership by non-white people.  “When we talk about this, we are talking about the worldview of those who are on the margins and can see that things are falling apart.  At the limit of the democratic game, even we on the left think of them as the recipients of public policy.  The idea is to try to make these subjects new actors within the politics dynamic”.

Reverend Olav reflected on the work of the churches, given the anti-democratic scenarios that are creeping over Brazil and the world. He remembers the provocations he heard at a meeting of the World Health Organization (WHO), when he was Secretary General of the World Council of Churches.  “What is the role of the church at such times?   They emphasized that the church should be the voice of truth.  The scientific truth and of what must be done.”

“We need to prevent religion from being used for conspiracy, manipulation.  What are the political forces that take advantage of crises like this?  To increase power, domination, division, and the marginalization of certain populations?”  He also noted that the reach of the churches is strategic, something also mentioned by members of WHO at the meeting.

“The churches reach people, serve local communities, act on loneliness and isolation.  Many listen to them more than to political leaders.  We should act in situations of crisis, in the name of the love of God.  To do something, but also to say what not to do,” he concluded.

Journalist and researcher Dr Magali Cunha, Dr Fábio Py and Edgar Sanchez, Master in Sociology and Economics graduate, spoke at the second roundtable.  Magali talked about the origin of fundamentalism, its pathways and the current strategies of fundamentalist groups in Brazil. As she is accustomed to pointing out, Magali noted that, although these are plural, they have features in common.

“Fundamentalism is present among catholics, evangelicals, but also the non-religious.  Their religious nature comes from their worldview.  For this reason, they are not only religious, but rather religious and political with social, economic, cultural, and environmental dimensions,” she explained.

One of the aspects that Magali emphasizes is the use of fake news and the dissemination of moral panic as a strategy for fundamentalist groups.  “All this affects and captivates people emotionally.”  And she repeated the call she makes to progressive forces.  “We need to go back to work on the critical formation of these bases, but with ways that connect the pastoral with the biblical, with the mystical religious language that touches people’s hearts.”  `

For his part, Fábio cited the movement of hegemonic religious fundamentalist groups to maintain power, by signalling to then candidate Jair Bolsonaro.  Among others, he noted the discourse of ex-Senator Magno Malta, who was allied to Bolsonaro during the elections, when he announced the current president’s election.

“At these times, it is customary for the winner to go out onto the streets for a party. At the time that Bolsonaro’s victory was announced, he met Magno and a group of people and the ex-Senator prayed, thanking God for the outcome.”  Fábio highlighted the use of specific terms from pentecostal churches. “He said that ‘God gave us victory’, ‘His word anoints with authority’, ‘concretely elected by God’.

And he cited other examples.  “When Bolsonaro was the victim of that stabbing, Pastor Josué Valandro Jr, Michele Bolsonaro’s pastor, talked to Eduardo Bolsonaro in a live-streamed event held when he visited his father in hospital and ‘noticed the extent to which he is elected by God’”. He pointed out that Jair Bolsonaro has a mixture of Christian traditions behind him, interested in equipping his administration theologically.

Finally, Edgar Sanchez asserted that there is nothing new in organized economic interests using politics to appropriate political significance and determine what is possible and desirable. “What is not new, although it is huge, is the use of the temple as an arena for congregational identification and a relevant space for the creation of meaning.  This is not a physical temple. There is a three-pronged relationship between the media, the market and politics.  This is an arena that enables the reproduction or reinforcement of significant reports – the dogmatic narratives on the subject of rights are derived from this.”

The three roundtables were mediated, respectively, by the General Secretary of the National Council of Christian Churches of Brazil (Conselho Nacional de Igrejas Cristãs: CONIC), Romi Márcia Bencke; by the Bishop of the Diocese of the Amazon in the Anglican Episcopal Church of Brazil (Igreja Episcopal Anglicana do Brasil: IEAB), Marinez Bassoto; and by Sônia Gomes Mota, Executive Director of the Ecumenical Coordination of Service (Coordenadoria Ecumênica de Serviço: CESE).

 You can access all the materials and talks from the three days here (in Portuguese).