Matan Shapiro, University of Stavanger, Norway

Hebraic Style in Brazilian neo-Pentecostalism

In March 2016, Congressman Cabo Daciolo – then representing the centre-right-wing party Partido Trabalhisa do Brasil (PTdoB) – took to the speaker’s stand in the Brazilian Congress. Beginning with Glória a Deus, Daciolo read a short passage from the Gospel of Luke (11:14-19), which describes how Jesus expelled a demon from the body of a person who was ‘mute’. Bewildered onlookers then accused Jesus of being a witch working for the Prince of Demons – Beelzebub – but in response Jesus questioned their own spiritual purity, proclaiming he was in fact using ‘the finger of God’ to liberate people from the destructive influence of demons. Visibly moved, Daciolo closed his bible and looked at his fellow Congresspersons. ‘The Kingdom of God is coming’, he affirmed, and began prophesying:

I speak here under the authority, which belongs to Lord Jesus Christ, [to claim] that the blood of Christ has power! And under the authority of Lord Jesus Christ I say: all demons roaming this nation – leave this nation! In the name of Jesus Christ, all demons that roam the National Congress, leave in the name of Lord Jesus! … This nation will be the mirror of the world for the honour and glory of Lord Jesus Christ… Together we are strong, we will not take one step back, and God is in control .

Daciolo’s exorcism of demons from the national congress came at a time when political reality in Brazil looked grim. The impending impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, the worsening economic crisis and the daily scandals emerging from the Petrobrás investigation all instantiated collective anxieties. Attributing the chaos to the work of demons, Daciolo framed the entire human political sphere as a cosmological stage on which a variety of extra-human agents compete for the realization of different eschatological plans. At this cosmic register, divine power actively displaces humans from the centre of the universe while replacing them with Christ, the Abrahamic God, the Holy Land and a set of divine standards that are used to actively transform the Brazilian public sphere at large. The ontological presence of this power in the congress, through Daciolo’s own prophecies and the presumed simultaneous flow of angels there, thus creates an overlap between state politics and neo-Pentecostal ritual practices. In a recent article I used the term ‘Brajisalem’ to refer to the emergent construction of this new trend, wherein adherents of neo-Pentecostal churches in Brazil increasingly come to see themselves as the direct descendants of the ancient Hebrews, and their capital Jerusalem. In 2015 Congressman Daciolo was in fact expelled from the left wing party PSOL (Partido Socialismo e Liberdade) – which at the time he represented through his Rio de Janeiro constituency – for initiating a motion to amend the Brazilian constitution. He proposed to change the sentence ‘all power emanates from the people’ to ‘all power emanates from God’ .

Brajisalem acquires its spiritual authority from Holy Land tours during which participants capture and harness God’s divine power. In order to distinguish these trips from from Catholic pilgrimage (peregrinação), Brazilian neo-Pentecostals call these devotional trips caravanas (expeditions). They travel in groups of around 40 people who share a bus, accompanied by a Brazilian pastor and an Israeli tour guide, usually for the duration of about 10 days. The ‘bubble‘ of the bus–for the duration of the journey these devotional travellers exist in a relatively isolated social context – generates an exclusive Brazilian-neo-Pentecostal worship environment, which also often includes direct references to God’s primordial divine force that is thought to permanently reside in the Holy Land/Promised Land of His (‘chosen’) Jewish People. Commonly, this divine force is celebrated in the presumed geographical sites in which certain biblical events are said to have occurred, such as the war of David and Goliath in the Valley of Ellah, or Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount of Beatitudes. In such places, whose holiness is predisposed and unquestioned, worship practice includes a preaching session often followed by spontaneous (or even orchestrated) episodes of glossolalia.

Man with Kippah
A Brazilian participant in a neo-Pentecostal caravana wearing a Jewish kippah on his head during an annual march organized in Jeruslaem by different Christian Zionist groups during the Hewish Sukkot holiday (the Tabernacles Feast).

The search for the flowing power of God ultimately manifests in the transfer of the divine essence of God from the Holy Land to Brazil. In most neo-Pentecostal trips I accompanied, pastors purchased bottles of olive oil and bags of salt in Israeli supermarkets in order to quite literally charge them with a sacred bliss. This is done by consecrating these artefacts and substances in different symbolic places, such as Mount Carmel in northern Israel, which neo-Pentecostal devotional travellers celebrate as the site where Prophet Elijah fought the pantheistic worship of the Baal among the Israelites. Pastors often filmed themselves blessing the oil, including such typical Jewish sacramental objects as prayer shawls (tallit), ‘kippah’ head-caps and mezuzahs , and then released the videos online as advertisement blurbs for upcoming ritual events in different churches in Brazil. These rituals include anointment with a divine substance said to be charged with the essence of God that was imported directly from the Holy Land. Some churches now also use songs in Hebrew to accompany these activities.

In all its manifestations these rituals, a ‘Jewish’ or sometimes ‘biblical’ essence/object heuristically becomes a metonym for God’s divine power that is seen to represent the original eschatological setup of the universe. The common view among believers, then, is that this residue or surplus of divine power can ultimately make miracles, not only in the Holy Land but also in Brazil. Brazilian neo-Pentecostals that celebrate Hebraic Styles thus emphasize an experiential ontology, a life giving-substance that is immersed in the ground, or in objects, or in the Blood of Christ, which can be dispersed through prayer or touch to actively transform people’s lives.

Deploying this power in Brazil is not conceptualized as metaphorical nor as suggestive, but rather, as the literal constitution of what can be imagined as islands of divine grace scattered across the land and its people. It is through this process of dispersal that ‘Brajisalem’ – A Brazilian Jerusalem – comes into being. This emergent construction makes manifest a new political reality in Brazil: the reality of a “never-secular” Christian Nation that relies on the divine power of God (rather than on the power of the People, as stated in the Brazilian Constitution) to achieve material prosperity and social justice .

The rituals that make Brajisalem come about – from exorcism, through ‘cleansing’ and healing to ongoing worship practices that involve ‘Jewish’ religious objects –are growing thanks to the increasing influence of neo-Pentecostal cosmological ideas in national politics. President Jair Bolsonaro’s baptism in the Jordan River in Israel in 2016 is a good example. Although Bolsonaro was not previously a Pentecostal ‘convert’, his trip to Israel in 2016 and his consequent immersion in the water of the River Jordan can be read as a mimetic attempt to become viscerally absorbed with a divine power (as a converging force); it was also a marketing gimmick that appealed to the huge evangelical electorate in his ultimately successful 2018 Presidential campaign . Increasingly, in this newly conceived cosmo-political game, manipulation of divine power becomes a platform for policy making. Some ministers in Brasília now refer to the authority of God to justify diverse legislative procedures, which range from the abolition of sexual education in schools to the issuing of mining and logging contracts in previously protected natural reserves in the Amazon basin.

A pastor holding a Jewish prayer shawl with the signatures and consecration texts written by the group participants. The prayer shawl will be taken to Brazil and presented as a holy object capable of carrying and dispersing divine power.

Contrary to the abstract force that the democratic-liberal political imaginary in Brazil views as emerging bottom-up from all segments of the Brazilian people to create a unified nation, the ontological divine power in Brajisalem descends top-down from the heights of God’s sublime cosmic space (as well as from the elevated spiritual position of the Holy Land in which He dwells) to animate an emerging, purified, Nation. Brajislam, along with the Hebraic Style that accompanies it, thus expands beyond the house of worship to mould and transform the public sphere on a much larger scale. It is the power of God that will overcome the power of the People, as faithful disciples institute His Kingdom in Brazil.

A series of questions comes to the fore: what would become of the Brazilian political imagination if Brajisalem becomes the country’s spiritual and moral centre? Would the public sphere acquire a distinct Hebraic character? Would Brazil abandon its traditional commitment to secular politics to fully embrace a neo-Pentecostal cosmological project at the policy-making level? And, at the level of social conflict, would other Brazilian faith cultures – especially different brands of Catholicism and the wide range of Afro-Brazilian spiritual doctrines – attempt to introduce their own cosmo-political frameworks into national decision making processes?

The contest between Brasilia and Biblical Jerusalem has only just began.