In recent weeks, Brazil has been convulsed with protests. How are Christians responding?
Two different believers in Brazil take two different attitudes. Guilherme de Carvalho is a staff worker at L’Abri, a Christian study center in Belo Horizonte, a city in the more developed southeast of Brazil. He is also the pastor of a local Evangelical congregation. He sees the protests as a catalyst for change in Brazil and thinks Christians should play an active role in shaping the outcome.
Kenneth Wieske is a Canadian Reformed missionary who has been working in the large northeastern city of Recife for thirteen years. He does not see a place for Christians in these protests. He believes true political reform will only happen when Brazilians start changing the way they live.
The protests began when a leftist group (Movimento Passe Livre) denounced an increase in bus fares and demanded a greater level of government subsidy. This quickly grew into a broad expression of discontent with the national status quo as millions took to the streets. Much of the resentment focused on the billions of dollars spent on stadiums for next year’s soccer World Cup, even as the average Brazilian deals with poor infrastructure, education, and medical care. But the views being expressed in the protests were as diverse as the protestors themselves. Two people could be marching side by side and protesting two totally different things.
Both Belo Horizonte and Recife are slated to host World Cup matches, and both were the scenes of large demonstrations. Carvalho lives near the city center, so he and his family experienced the protests firsthand. He decided early on to get involved. “There was a strong feeling among everyone that something major was going on,” he says. “I had a strong desire to go out in the streets and discovered that many people in my church had gone out too.”
Wieske and his family live on the outskirts of Recife, so they didn’t feel as much impact from the protests. They’ve been careful to avoid the hotspots. Two weeks ago, though, there was a general bus strike, which meant many people in their church could not get to work.
He says that in some ways the protests did not surprise him: “There is great income disparity here and great injustice towards the poor. Especially when I first moved here 13 years ago, I wondered if the poor would ever rise up if someone agitated them enough.”
Wieske would not participate in the protests himself because of the way they originated: over a rise in bus fares: “The people who protested that are violating the Eighth Commandment,” he explains. “Those bus fares are subsidized, so other people are paying the fares and the protestors want more of their money. They want to live off the fruit of someone else’s labor.”
Carvalho also disagrees with the original protests, but he thinks they quickly morphed into something totally different: “The initial protests were like a butterfly effect. They brought other people onto the streets to complain about other things. The movement very quickly stopped being left-wing and became national.”
He sees lack of political representation as the greatest challenge facing Brazil, and that is the reason he was protesting. “Politicians are elected but as soon as they take office they forget the people who elected them,” he says.
He has been blogging about his views. His first post on the protests garnered two thousand Facebook likes. He also helped start Igreja na Rua (Church in the Street), a small networking group of believers who are joining in the protests. They have been adding the hashtag #igrejanarua to their banners. The group had its first meeting last week to discuss an agenda. Increasing political representation is its top priority.
Igreja na Rua is only one of many different Christian groups that arose spontaneously during the protests. Carvalho does not know where they will go in the next year, but he is pleased to see Christians becoming more politically engaged.
Carvalho does not believe any good will come from rushing reforms through in the current climate, but he is optimistic that carefully thought-out changes to the law could, in time, have a big impact. This is a historic moment and changes are coming, he thinks. Thus, it’s particularly important for Christians to remain engaged and vigilant. “The recent rise of the extreme left is worrying. They’ve been organizing off the back of these protests. Christians should also organize,” he says.
He hopes the protests will lead Brazilian Evangelical Christians—who he believes have been overly ideological—to become more pragmatic in forming political alliances, particularly with Roman Catholics.
Wieske has a very different perspective. He thinks the political system will only be transformed when ordinary Brazilians spark cultural change: “We need to address the problems by living in a consistent manner. You won’t change corruption in the government if you’re tolerating it in your own life. If you’re pulled over by a police officer who is looking to get a bribe, don’t pay it. Most people find it much easier to pay the bribe and drive on. People have pirated CDs and DVDs in their houses and then they go out and protest corruption.”
Wieske believes there are sufficient mechanisms in Brazil’s current laws and constitution to tackle most of the issues being protested. Brazilians rarely attempt that because it is difficult, expensive, and sometimes even dangerous. But that would change if large numbers began taking legal action. Right now, he thinks people prefer protesting because it is easier.
Last year, he and several other Brazilian Christians launched Projeto Reforma Hoje (Project Reformation Today), which seeks to promote Christian Reformed thinking, reflection, and action. The project has a Portuguese-language website with articles on how to apply Christian ethics to areas like education, family, and politics.
Wieske does see room for Christians to participate in a public demonstration, but only if it has a clearly defined purpose. “I could see going with a crowd to a corrupt official’s place of work or residence and surrounding it and saying, ‘We won’t leave till your corruption has been dealt with.’ That way the official is the one being inconvenienced and not the general public. And maybe then that person would start to think about their sins,” he explains.
At this point, both Carvalho and Wieske believe the protests will largely fizzle out and see that as a good thing. Whether the protests will bring meaningful changes to Brazil remains to be seen.
Emma Elliott Freire is a freelance writer living in England. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.