Sunday, June 9, 2013

On Religion in Brazil

Religion is a frame of reference. Our choice of religion or lack thereof determines how we see the world. It frames our view. Familiarity with religions allows us to at least attempt to see the world from different perspectives, much like speaking different languages does. If we can cross the boundaries of the religions we were raised with, if we were raised with one, or cross the barrier imposed by non-belief if we weren't, and become "fluent" in another faith, then we can begin to better understand that religions' practitioners. We will be able to think like they do, feel what they feel and be moved by what moves them. In other words, we will be able to have a meaningful dialogue with them, especially when we disagree.

I have long questioned those who refuse to read someone else’s sacred texts or visit their temples and abodes. When they tell me that their religion forbids them, that they cannot, I have to question the strength of their faith. Are they actually afraid that they will be led astray by "Satanic" forces? Are they so weak that the least little exposure to something else will destroy what they hold sacred. Are they in fact, of little faith? On the other hand, those who engage with others, pray and play with them, learn from them often strengthen their own faith. They learn to look back at themselves and analyze what it is they truly believe. It's a lot like learning another language. All of the sudden you better understand why you put the adjective where you do or what that strange word really does mean and, conversely, what it doesn't in both your native language and your target language. I am reminded of a scene in the movie The Shoes of the Fisherman when Anthony Quinn, in the role of the newly elected Pope Kiril, a Russian and former political prisoner, sneaks out of the Vatican dressed as a common priest and winds up helping a doctor in an emergency. The patient is dying, so Kiril begins to give the Last Rites. The man's family informs him that they are not Christians. Upon realizing that the dying man is Jewish, he covers his face and begins to intone the Shema in Hebrew.  He is "bilingual". He "speaks" their religion and, thus, is able to help them in the hour of their need in a way that is meaningful to them. By praying as a Jew, he is the ultimate humble Christian. Pope Kiril is, obviously, a fictional character, but he gave me an example of what we should all strive to be and how we should all strive to act, whatever we believe.

It is in this spirit of "multilingualism" that we will look at religion in Brazil.

Perhaps we should begin with a short overview of Brazil’s  religions. This is nominally a Catholic country. A recent census indicates that 64% of the population is Catholic and another 22% is Protestant, divided amongst the many and varied Protestant groups in the country. This leaves another 14% that, theoretically, embraces the non-religious, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Spiritists, macumbeiros – practitioners of religions derived from those brought over by enslaved Africans, and so forth and so on. It would be easy to simply leave things at that and move on to another topic, except that we are talking about Brazil, where, as I have said elsewhere, things aren’t that readily separated. The lines here are often blurred. Syncretism is – after soccer, of course – Brazil’s favorite pastime. Catholics and macumbeiros sometimes inhabit the same body and do so quite comfortably. And tolerance is a given. On the street 25 de Março in São Paulo, a street not only noted for its commerce, but also for having many Jewish and Arab merchants, you will often see them – Jews and Muslims – sitting together, drinking coffee, sharing the most spirited of friendships.

After my seemingly bizarre assertion above, perhaps I should explain myself a little. First, when the Portuguese arrived, they brought their religion with them and encountered a native population that wasn’t the least bit enthusiastic about working for them or praying like they did – all for no pay. Hence, the importation of human beings from Africa began. Since those Africans also weren’t overly thrilled about being ripped from their homes and their cultures, sprinkled with a little water and being told they were Christians, they found subtle ways to resists. Theirs was the way of “If you can’t beat them, make them think you’ve joined them.” And, so, when their masters and priests would visit the senzalas, the slave quarters, they would look on approvingly at the altars the slaves had erected. They featured the images of various saints and were always lovingly covered with a cloth. What the masters and priests either did not see or, perhaps, simply chose to ignore, were the offerings underneath, hidden by the mantle – offerings to Iansã, disguised above as St. Barbara, Xangô as St. John, Ogum – St. George, Iemanjá – Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception... And, thus, African religions survived. In time, different versions developed, some of which included syncretizing with Native religions. Today, we have both Candomblé and Umbanda, among others. The former is much closer to its Yoruba origins, while the latter is a thoroughly Brazilian adaptation of the same. However we look at it, Africa’s influence in Brazilian culture is pervasive. In many ways, we can thank those priests’ and masters’ “blind eye” and the slaves determination to keep on being who they were for the beginnings of Brazilian tolerance. That is something that cannot be said about the relations between masters, preachers and slaves in the United States, where attempts to root out every last vestige of African culture were largely successful. In Brazil, they simply weren’t – and that is a good thing.

Many years ago, I went to a festival put on by Alcoholics Anonymous in São Paulo. I very quickly noticed that there were strings of popcorn everywhere. In fact, popcorn was the central motif for the decorations. Being new to Brazil, I didn’t think about it much, other than to see it as being somewhat cool. When I mentioned this to a friend, who is both an anthropologist and a macumbeira, she explained to me that popcorn was the favorite offering to the orixá Obaluaê, the Lord of diseases and, consequently, of their cures. Popcorn not only is good to eat, it symbolizes conquering our problems. Most of the good folks at that festival probably considered themselves Christians and, yet, they chose to celebrate their overcoming one of life’s most devastating afflictions by using the symbol of an African god. That, my friends, is religious “multilingualism” at its best. And that is Brazil.

There are many, many examples of this multilingualism and tolerance to be explored. We will, however, close here. We will later talk about the Catholic Church, Afro-Brazilian religions and other manifestations of spirituality and religion in Brazil in separate articles. All I wanted to do today is give you a small taste of what is to come. Popcorn, anyone?

No comments:

Post a Comment