Manoela Carpenedo, University of London, UK
‘A light for the nations’: The multifaceted Hebraic-Christian nation in the tropics
Charismatic evangelicalism (or, Pentecostalism) is changing its preestablished shapes and doctrines in surprising ways in many parts of Brazil. More and more congregations are combining their Christian beliefs with rituals and artefacts deriving from Judaism.
An excellent example is the monumental construction of the replica of the Temple of Solomon in the outskirts of São Paulo by the Neo-Pentecostal Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG). Inaugurated in 2014, the colossal building is made by Jerusalem stone imported directly from Israel at great cost. According to head and founder of UCKG Edir Macedo, “the temple is a way to bring believers closer to Jerusalem”. In a way, it makes the outskirts of São Paulo part of the ‘Holy land’.
In contrast with its usual exorcism and deliverance rituals, the UCKG inauguration of the Temple of Solomon showcased a number of Hebraic symbols and paraphernalia. Edir Macedo led the performance wearing a controversial costume, characterised by a long beard and a kippah.
While not affecting UCKG theological program dedicated to providing services to their followers, namely, exorcisms, deliverance, prosperity gospel promises; the introduction of Hebraic symbols and Jewish artefacts emerged as something innovative in UCKG’s repertoire.
Some observers claim that this use of Hebraic symbols is only incidental, representing just another UCKG trend to differentiate itself within the highly competitive Brazilian religious market. Others are convinced that the Temple of Solomon – being two times higher than Christ the Redeemer (the national icon of Brazil) – represents the institutional consolidation of a new religious force in the country. Whatever the case, Brazilian Pentecostals’ current adoption of Jewish narratives, rituals, and even Zionist political anxieties is gaining more relevance in the socio-political landscape.
‘Christian Zionism’ is an established feature of U.S. geopolitics, which has gained attention due to the U.S. administration’s decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem. Echoing such dispositions, since the election of the far-right President Bolsonaro, Brazilian Charismatic Evangelicals now demand the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, despite Brazil’s decades-long pro-Palestine geopolitical alignment. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu even went to Bolsonaro’s inauguration and announced that a new diplomatic era was about to start: “Israel is the promised land, Brazil is the land of promise.”
At this point the reader may be wondering: why would one of the largest Christian nations on earth demonstrate such passion towards Jews, Judaism and Israel?
For the last six years, I have been trying to answer this question.
Researching the religious landscapes of my home country, I found that this approximation with Judaism has different meanings within the multifaceted Brazilian Christian field.
Although there are some similarities between Anglo-American Christian Zionist forms and those found in Brazil, it would be incorrect to assess the Brazilian case exclusively through Anglo-American frameworks.
In the US, Christian Zionist movements are often connected with dispensational theology that, coupled with ideas of American exceptionalism and ‘choosiness’, bolster ideas about America’s role in leading the Jews to return to Israel as a fulfilment of messianic prophecies. As Bolsonaro’s picture combining Brazil, US and Israel flags illustrates, these inclinations seem to be present in Brazil as well. Although the prophetic role of the Brazilian nation in the unfolding of the end of times has not been as clearly theorised as the theological narratives about the American nation, in mobilising these Zionist political sentiments in the public sphere Brazil (as a nation) could be emerging as an important actor, having a particular role to fulfil in ‘God’s work’. Therefore, while these Zionist manifestations could be simply demonstrating a rallying call to the political right-wing by Bolsonaro’s administration, they could also be indicating the ways in which Christian Zionist imaginaries are being infused in the formation of narratives about Brazil as a nation with a God-given destiny.
To further investigate the different ways that the Hebraic Christian Nation is taking shape in Brazil, between 2013 and 2015 I conducted fieldwork among the ‘Judaizing Evangelicals,’ which I explore in my recent book Becoming Jewish, Believing in Jesus. This growing community is organised in small congregations spread all over Brazil. Judaizing evangelicals are former Charismatic evangelicals and Pentecostals with no Jewish background who, instead of mobilising Zionist geopolitical sentiments or building extravagant temples (like the UCKG), are adopting Jewish tenets and rituals into their Christian lives. In contrast with UCKG’s incidental use of Jewish symbols and artefacts, which do not greatly impact its Neo-Pentecostal theological program, the Judaizing Evangelicals are creating dramatically new meanings and logics through their approximation of Judaism.
During my fieldwork, astonished, I watched as mikvot were built in member’s backyards; male adults, teenagers, and children underwent circumcision; kosher food was incorporated into member’s diets, and increasing numbers of women chose to respect menstrual taboos and strict codes of modesty in dress. However, as believers in Jesus (“Yeshua,” in their parlance), they did not show any interest in converting to Judaism. In short, these former Pentecostals approximate Judaism with such intensity that the community proposes a dramatic adoption of an Orthodox Jewish ethos among people who were not born into Jewish families.
For the Judaizing Evangelicals, their turn to Judaism seeks to purify ‘degenerated’ Brazilian Pentecostalism. In their view, Brazilian churches are deteriorated by scriptural superficiality, moral permissiveness, materialism, emotionalism and focus on the supernatural. For example, the community fiercely condemn prosperity gospel – a common Pentecostal teaching that a promises wealth and health to its followers.
Pentecostal teaching promises wealth and health to its followers. As Dinah, a retired house cleaner, explains:
“My former church was so different. They were very focused on healing and material prosperity. I used to find this approach to prosperity so wrong.”
But it is not only the insistent focus on material progress that the Judaizing evangelicals reject. During my time in the community, I also learned that members now despise the emotional experiences found in Charismatic Christian “spiritual warfare,” including the centrality of evil/demons, exorcism, and manifestations of ‘gifts of the spirit’ such as speaking in tongues.
As Hadassa told me: “The crente (born-again Christian) want to live emotions, they go to church to have emotions to feel supernatural things that they do not experience in their daily life. This is nonsense for me now”.
The belief in the supernatural is understood by Brazilians in general as one of the main characteristics of the Brazilian religious field, present from mainstream Christianity to Afro-Brazilian possession cults. By rejecting it, Judaizing evangelicals seek to reform their country’s Christianity through Judaism. Expanding this dimension, they also see themselves as “the light for the nations,” having the distinctive mission of spreading the “Judaizing truth” to the Christian world. Therefore, in criticising key elements of Brazilian cultural identity whilst adopting Jewish symbols and styles, Judaizing evangelicals would redeem the Brazilian nation from its inadequate grasp of the Christian message. At the same time, the community would have a key role in reforming Christianity’s inaccurate interpretations.
The case of Judaizing evangelicals exposes the multifaceted ways in which Christian communities are relating with Judaism and Hebraic symbols in the contemporary religious field. The emergence of such groups reveals the importance of grassroots anthropological approaches in the study of these tendencies. My experience in Brazil has taught me that one has to go beyond established theologies and geopolitical inclinations in order to understand the meanings and logics of this emerging ‘Hebraic-Christian nation’ in the tropics.