Lausanne Global Analysis
November 2016 · Volume 5 / Issue 6
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The Brazilian Crisis
How Christians can avoid polarization in divisive political contexts
Shortly after the end of the Rio Olympic games, Brazil impeached its second president in 24 years, in controversial circumstances and amid profound political divisions in the country. Brazilian Christians have not escaped this polarization, affecting relationships within families, not to mention churches and denominations.
By all indications, this is not the end of the political crisis in Brazil, but merely one more stage in a battle that is far from ending. Furthermore such Christian polarization in divisive political contexts is not confined to Brazil.
Therefore, it is important to continue to articulate principles which can guide Christians in how to respond in such polarized and divisive contexts.
First Principle: Knowing how to behave is more important than knowing what position to adopt
At a time when politics threatens to tear the Brazilian Christian community apart (perhaps even more than society as a whole), we want to suggest some principles for the political debate. These take into account that this moment will pass and that in a few years’ time Christians will no longer need to have an opinion regarding current politicians, but they will still have to live together as brothers and sisters in the faith and give an example of seriousness and wisdom to society as a whole.
Hence the importance of cultivating the natural political pluralism of the Christian community, of knowing how to debate and disagree without excommunicating each other or twisting each other’s motivations. We need to remember that politics, although very serious, belongs to the realm of the relative and not the absolute, to the sphere of convictions but not (with rare exceptions) to the sphere of the basic doctrines of the faith.
Second Principle: Cultivate Christian political reticence
In politics, Christianity is characterized by a certain reticence, a hesitation, a non-dogmatism, a broad space of freedom for legitimate disagreement between believers.
This reticence comes partly from the historical origins of the faith.
Some comparisons with Islam help us to understand what this means:
- The founder of Islam governed a state; the founder of Christianity was put to death by the state.
- The followers of the former enjoyed political power from the start; the followers of the latter spent 300 years without political power, as a voluntary, transnational, and trans-ethnic community. It is during that period that its normative Scriptures were written.
That is why Christianity usually has less political ‘self-confidence’ than Islam, why it feels less free to exercise power in the name of God or create political ‘recipes’ in the name of the faith.
In addition, the Christian concept of revelation is that God revealed himself over time, in various ways and in very diverse circumstances, culminating in the incarnation of the Son of God. There were in fact several biblical worlds:
- The New Testament was written for the early Christian community, which was a small transnational group with no control over territory, no access to political power and no possibility of formulating legislation. Whoever tries to formulate a ‘Christian politics’ only from the New Testament soon runs into the problem of a political vacuum, above all in a democratic context where citizens are called upon to participate in constituting the authorities. That is why the default position of primitive Christianity is distance from politics.
- The Old Testament, written for a national community that actually did have to deal with questions of territory, law, power, and force, has to be read in the light of the final revelation of God in Christ. No modern country, however many Christians it contains, is in the same situation as Old Testament Israel. That is why Christian politics is always less sure of itself than (for example) most Islamic approaches.
Another factor is that, as is often said, politics is the art of the possible and the political phenomena of a modern society are extremely complex. As a result, two people who deduce the same political principles from the Bible may still disagree radically about what is possible and advisable to do now, in our country.
Jesus warned us to ‘beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees’ (Matt 16:6). Although very different from each other, both these groups absolutized what should be relativized in the light of Christ. Today, one example of such leaven is to place the Christian faith at the service of a particular political position. This politicization of Christian identity is disastrous for the church, and is idolatrous, because it absolutizes our relative opinions and puts them on the same level as the central doctrines of the faith.
Third Principle: Distinguish the different debates
Today, in Brazil, at least four questions get intertwined, and failure to separate them makes debate very difficult:
- whether President Dilma Rousseff deserved to be impeached;
- corruption as a generalized problem in Brazilian politics;
- party preferences and who we would like to see in power; and
- larger ideological questions (neoliberalism, neo-conservatism, social-democracy, socialism, etc).
Fourth Principle: Avoid dichotomous thinking and recognize the many possible positions
There are not only two possible positions (for or against impeachment). Being worried about procedural failings (in Congress and in the investigations) is not the same as defending this or that person. It is dangerous to accept a highly fallible procedure just because the people affected are politically on the other side from us.
In part, the problems stem from a mismatch between presidentialism and parliamentarianism. In a parliamentary system, a prime minister Rousseff would fall through a simple vote of no-confidence, without the need for impeachment. Since that is impossible in our presidential system, the constitutional mechanism of impeachment is being used. Nevertheless, this opens up a dangerous precedent, being a mechanism that is meant only for exceptional situations, and not as a convenient way of removing an unpopular head of government.
Given the complexities, we should recognize the multiple stances that might be adopted within the Christian community and seek to understand the best arguments on the other side, instead of believing the caricatures disseminated by much of the media.
Fifth Principle: Go beyond simplistic moralism in the Christian perspective on corruption
For Christians who understand little about politics, corruption seems to be a political issue that is easy to comprehend simply by transferring personal moral values to the public sphere. Crafty politicians, including Christian ones, take advantage of this to try and mobilize their grassroots and justify their own presence in parliaments. However, the Christian view of corruption is much more sophisticated than this:1
- Christians view the radical nature of sin as affecting not only all individuals but also all groups and institutions, including churches and political parties, without exception. Christians ought to be less susceptible than most to any messianic feeling around any person or party—and less surprised at the inevitable disappointments.
- Christianity offers a balanced view between individual and institutional renewal. Corruption is related both to institutions and to cultural factors, and both these renewals are mutually reinforcing in combating corruption. Substantial reduction in corruption takes a long time and involves work on various fronts.
Universal human ‘communion’ in sin is one of the great justifications for democracy; nobody deserves unlimited and unsupervised powers over their fellows. It is also one of the main arguments for political concern over social inequality. Christianity is realistic: wherever there is inequality, there will be oppressors and oppressed. For that reason, loving one’s neighbour includes efforts to weaken the unequal structures that engender oppression.
The Christian view of the world also helps us to remember that Brazil has already been here before (in 1992, with the impeachment of President Fernando Collor). The anti-corruption campaign is extremely necessary, but will not solve the problem once and for all, and will certainly be taken advantage of for other political and economic ends.
Any improvement will be merely temporary if there are no political reforms, especially in the electoral and party systems. The electoral system of proportional representation with open lists is responsible for a considerable part of Brazilian political corruption. (It is also responsible for the large ‘evangelical caucuses’ in the federal, state, and municipal parliaments, which means the evangelical politicians are unlikely to have a constructive role in combating corruption.)
Sixth Principle: Distinguish between an ideal and the carrier of that ideal
All human projects end up disappointing us. However, disillusionment with the carrier of an ideal does not have to lead to abandoning the ideal itself (just as disillusionment with a particular church does not have to lead to abandoning the Christian faith). We need to know how to criticize and, if necessary, abandon a particular carrier, without necessarily rejecting the ideal the carrier claimed to represent.
In Christian circles, the task of distinguishing between ideal and carrier is made harder by a tendentious use of the word ‘ideology’ as a swear word to criticize our political adversaries. They are ‘ideological’; we are not. It is better to say that we all have our ideologies, merely by virtue of being human beings in a particular social location, with our limitations and interests. None of us has a ‘God’s-eye’ view.
Today, we confront two temptations: of rejecting an ideal because the carrier of it has let us down; or of clinging on to the carrier because we feel that the survival of the ideal demands it.
It is important not to give up on political ideals that are compatible with the Bible and in fact recommended by it, such as justice and solidarity; prioritizing the weakest and most needy to reduce inequality; the fundamental value of democracy as a reflection of the character of God expressed in the way he has treated humanity since the beginning and the way he treats humanity reconstituted in Christ (Gal 3:28); and the rejection of idolatry both of the state and of the market (paraphrasing Mark 2:27).2
Being a Christian means not bowing to fashions. History springs many surprises, and the person who subordinates their reading of the faith to a passing social consensus, to supposed ‘obvious lessons of history’, will discover one day that their reading has become strangely dated. That is why we must affirm the importance of Christian political pluralism, in which some will be more to the right, others more to the left, never despising or excommunicating those with whom we disagree politically.
1 Editor’s Note: See article entitled ‘The Earth is the Lord’s! How taking a stand against corruption can be gospel work’ by Dion Forster in the July 2015 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis.
2 Editor’s Note: See article entitled ‘The Restorative Economy: poverty, the future of the earth, and the role of the Christian’ by Richard Gower in the March 2016 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis.
Paul Freston is the CIGI Chair in Religion and Politics in Global Context at the Balsillie School of International Affairs and Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada. He is also professor colaborador on the post-graduate programme in sociology at the Universidade Federal de São Carlos, Brazil. His books include Evangelicals and Politics in Asia, Africa and Latin America (Cambridge University Press, 2001); Protestant Political Parties: a Global Survey (Ashgate, 2004); (ed) Evangelical Christianity and Democracy in Latin America (Oxford University Press, 2008); and (co-edited) The Cambridge History of Religions in Latin America (Cambridge University Press, 2016).
Raphael Freston is a Masters student in sociology at the Universidade de São Paulo, Brazil. He has a degree in social science from the same university.
07 Nov 2016