They sit on the throne of Saint Peter, but their concerns are really with Saint Paul, the first “missionary” who journeyed to the “pagans” to bring to them Christ’s message. In this manner, symptomatically, the missionaries had been in the final focal point of the last Pope and in the first focal point of the new one. “Missionaries are the bread of life divided up within the life of the world, who make the words of the Redeemer reverberate with their actions and who do not hesitate to breathe life into the Gospel” wrote Pope John Paul II in a document recently, posthumously, revealed by the Vatican. “We must be missionaries, animated by a Holy Restlessness: to take the gift of faith to all. The love of God was given to us so that we may pass it to others. We receive faith so that we can bestow it on others” announced Pope Benedict XVI in his first sermon to his Cardinals, one day after having been elected Pope. Distant from theological subtleties, the missionaries have even influenced lay society: it was not without reason that, because of land disputes, a American nun was shot dead in the Amazon.
Missionary action is a complex issue – especially so at the start of the 16th century, with the Jesuits, in recently discovered Portuguese America, grouped together with the native Indians – and continues up until today to worry the Church. “John Paul II made an effort to be the great missionary” observes Paula Montero, the coordinator of the thematic project entitled, Christian missionaries in the Brazilian Amazon: a study of cultural mediation, funded by FAPESP. But in spite of this symbolic labor of the Vatican, since the 70’s, missionary intervention into the indigenous peoples has been seen in a dualist manner, like a cultural shock with winners and losers (or those who exchanged their culture). “This encounter was not just decimating, but brought about the establishment of relationships between cultures” the researcher reveals. “One of the major questions that is placed in front of us today is how to understand the subtle process through which the differences, which supposedly would be condemned to disappear, before globalization, are recreated and reinvented. In our research, we became interested, above all, in perceiving this dynamic process of cultural redefinition, when mediated by a particular social player: the Christian missionary” explains Marco Rufino, from the project team, whose results will be published in a book by Editora Globo.
“Thus, the focus of reflection has moved, from the point of view of the indigenous societies to position itself in the production spaces of interaction relationships; this means trying to understand how two (or more) points of view interact to produce shared meanings at more and more generalizing levels” the coordinator explains. “One further reason for returning to the history of the missions: as emblematic history of the multicultural structure of modern times, since they came up with the first ethnographic study on alteration, whose historic value transcends the ‘religious’ dimension and, on the other hand, they constituted an archeology of all the human sciences that, by way of shock encounters between diverse civilizations, have continued relating man’s pathway and the ‘meaning’ that they endeavored to give to their lives” evaluates Nicola Gasbarro, another member of the team. “Truly and factually, they were the first anthropologists of modern times” the researcher completes.
Curiously enough, the missionary movement – that changed considerably throughout history and, contrary to common sense, was not just am arm of the colonizing State (though at times their interests overlapped), but more endowed by its own freewill – has its origin in the desire for the universality of Christianity by setting itself up as the “the true cult of the true God.” Within this movement, the Church is structurally missionary, notes Gasbarro. “The missions are a practice of evangelism that allows moving from potential universality to actual and current universality.” At the bottom of this structure lies the concept of salvation, the organizer of differences as it gathers under its “spiritual greatness” the plurality. Everybody, even Indians, are men and need to be saved. “The grand missionary project of the Counter Reform was born from a cultural urgency: the West attempting to understand other cultures in terms of ‘civilization’ and ‘religion’ because they were dealing with the fundamental structures of social life” the researcher observed. Religion became the constructor of reality.
The discovery of the new peoples of the New World, was a golden chance for the Church to put into practice the new concept of “salvation” as a universalizing amalgam. However, from theory to practice there was a whole ocean separating the Jesuits and the native Indians. The Christian monotheistic model existed in opposition to ancient classical paganism: The only God needed rivals in order to exhibit his greater power. The problem was that the religiousness of the Indians did not serve the purpose: they essentially had not believed in great superior forces. This marked the start of a long and arduous “translation” of religion (which explains why, before the coming of the catechism, there was the need for writing down the natives’ grammar) and of bargaining between the two cultures. At the same time, it was necessary to make the Indian a civilian so that he could then receive the spiritual gift. “Therefore, the start of the catechism deals with the idea of turning the Indians into ‘men’ (= civilian) so that afterwards they could become Christians, an idea that accompanied all of the evangelical situations in colonial Brazil” says Cristina Pompa, also one of the project’s researchers. Thus, from this situation one can no longer speak about the meeting between missionaries and the indigenous population as “a shock between two monolithic blocks, one imposing its cultural schemes and religion and the other absorbing them, being destroyed by them (or exchanging their culture), or on the other hand, ‘resisting’ in the face of their immovable tradition” the author continues.
This means the production of a negotiated consensus. “There is the calculation of the Indian as well with respect to relationships with the missionaries, and quite simply one cannot speak of a fusion of cultures, but in a grouping of relationships that were agreed around some common interests that ended up producing inter-cultural relationships” explains Paula Montero. Tupã became the equivalent of the Christian monotheistic God, Our Lady was transformed into Tupansy and the “pajés” (medicine men) became the devils. “European imagery constructed the indigenous alterations starting from a revision and a re-articulation of some religious categories: faith, prophecy, demonic sphere. Starting from that, the missionary project was built upon. Parallel to this, the ‘other’ indigenous had carried out his reading of the colonizing and missionary alterations, attempting to absorb them and place them in accordance with his categories: mythical-ritual symbolism” continued Cristina. Right from the start, irrefutable polarity had not been observed, but a game, a “translation” in the search for a common plateau, a dimension of symbolic transition that had in “religion” its language of mediation.
Without denying the truculence with which the native Indians were treated, the project reveals that even “adhesion to the use of Christian symbols explains the historic dynamism through which the indigenous population searched for instruments of political affirmation in the colonial world, constructing a symbolic universe shared by other social players and re-constructing with them a new hierarchy of social and power relationships.” But new times followed and a new Church asked for a new missionary. From the 19th century on, the indexation is inverted: civilization becomes the world’s new generalizing code in the place of “salvation.” “Throughout the 20th century a new notion of culture was consolidating itself, redefined by the political feuds of the 19th and 20th centuries towards a grouping of specifically hereditary traits” explains Paula. In the years after 1970, missionaries became culturalist agents. “The religious field was relatively neutralized as a legitimate field of translation, the native culture understood as ritual, ceremony and traditions, had already been built up as such in the eyes of these players. The field of translation could thus leave the grammar of religion and adopt the field of ‘culture’ (of ethnic or ethnicized identity) as the language for the negotiation of feeling” the coordinator observed.
“In the years after 1970, the code of salvation of the missionaries moved from spiritualism (a soul to be converted) to cultural (a tradition to be saved), without losing its capacity of organizing feelings.” All of this reversion consolidated itself, during the 60’s, with the Second Vatican Council: in an attempt to incorporate into a Europeanizing institution the many non-European bishops, the Church assumed in its vocabulary the anthropological concept of culture. At the first instant, this was taken to the extreme, especially by the ideologists of the so-called Liberation Theology, during the 70’s, which “symbolically brought together” observes Rufino, “the indigenous groups throughout the continent and the factory workers, field hands, banished farmers, blacks victimized by prejudice, to the marginalized populations of urban centers, along with anyone else covered by the wide grouping of excluded peoples.”
The religious model of conversion fell into decline. “The new idea of converting the Indian is to support him in his political fights. The missionary is now the converted, only in the questions of the survival of the Indian” Paula noted. The pontificate of Pope John Paul II marked the turning point of this “ortho-practical” movement of the reunion of faith and praxis. A severe critic, (at the side of the then cardinal Ratzinger), John Paul II defended a new missionary ideal under the banner of “in-cultural involvement” a dive not into social problems, but into alteration. The missionary is re-invented and the Church intends to be absorbed in many diversities. “Pope John Paul II placed the cultural question at the center of his pontificate. Hence the importance of his travels, in which the Church was immersed in the differences in an attempt to find a common denominator. The pilgrimages become the element of unification of the diversities” the researcher states. In this manner, Pope John Paul II was truly a great missionary.
The dilemma of today’s religions is to revert to the past, in a curious and unusual spiral of time: in order that the Indian can be saved, it is necessary that he returns to recover the traits that would again bring him back to his alteration as an Indian. Thus, the new missionaries move in the reverse direction to their antecedents, those who brought civilization to the natives. Now it is necessary to teach them again how to be indigenous. This is the new discourse of the new moment of the movement. But the reflux of Catholicism has brought other religions onto the scene (Protestants, Universals, Baptists, the Assembly of God, etc.) who have also resolved to “look after” the Indian. These are the so-called “trans-cultural missions” which, Ronaldo de Almeida notes (also a member of the team), “have announced Evangelism to the cultures, remodeling the universe of values, rituals and behavior in accordance with the parameters of fundamentalist evangelical religiosity.” Interventionists, they have ended up coming close to the colonial Jesuit model and, contrary to the to the Catholic in-cultural involvement, do not show any interest in helping the political fight of the indigenous Indians, but only in the religious aspect itself.
“Many missionaries tend to transform themselves into social service assistants, into humanitarian organization workers, perhaps even into apostles of political revolutions. They remain silence as far as the announcement of Evangelism as to the hope of eternal life, they speak nothing of the need for Baptism in order to participate in this promise. We have reached the point of discouraging conversions to Christianity, inverting the role of the missionary”: words of the then cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. “I believe that the arrival of Benedict XVI coincides with the end of the cycle of the potentiality of the Second Vatican Council. He is a theologian and has already given notice that he doesn’t intend to run around the world like the previous Pope. The development of the cultural question continues central within the new pontificate, but will remain in the scheme of reflection, of doctrine, and not that of ritual, as occurred with Pope John Paul II, who went out of his way to encounter other cultures” evaluates Paula. He has shown himself disposed to open himself up to the other, she adds, “but looking to an ethical universality of the human condition to go beyond the cultural diversities.” Nothing leads us to think anything else from the man who, in Dominus Iesus, a document written by him in 2000 as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, negated that other religions in the world, which are not Christian, could offer salvation to their peoples. “To convert the people to Catholicism is an urgent duty” he then proclaimed.
Christian missionaries in the Brazilian Amazon
Paula Montero – Anthropology Department of USP