The following represent my personal observations regarding the prominent religions of Amazon Brasil, since arriving here two years ago.
Probably the most frustrating thing that I’ve observed while beginning to work in this culture is a general misrepresentation of Jesus and who He is. It seems to me that similar misrepresentations of Jesus are presently occurring in much of the world. The fact that there are so many contrasting ideas about Him supports the fact that many representations of Him are untrue. The historical Jesus is known, and even respected, by most cultures, but who He is seems to be greatly misunderstood. The majority of people in Brasil, for example, know a fair amount about Jesus, but does the Jesus known in Brasil resemble Jesus, as He really is? A majority religion of ritual and superstition, as well as an “evangelical” faith and prosperity religion, are the dominant forms of “Christianity” in Amazon Brasil. On a recent census, about 80% of the population claims to be Catholic and about 15% claims to be evangelical, mostly of the above type. Sadly, neither seem to encourage relationship with God as primary (as Jesus did), while both emphasize that if you do certain things, God will “bless” you and good things will happen. “God” is a type of Santa Claus, looking to see who’s “naughty and nice”, and who is at the beck and call of those who behave or pray a certain way.
You don’t have to live in Brasil long to appreciate its unique and very religious culture, but is it “Christian”? There is great emphasis on performance (outward show). For example, Christianity seems to equal “niceness”, and while this has its benefits culturally, it just isn’t true regarding Christianity (Jesus emphasized love, which is sometimes perceived as nice and sometimes perceived otherwise). This is apparent in that speaking the truth is not practically valued, but rather telling people what they would like to hear holds more value. People seem to lie habitually, always with a smile and a show of apparent concern, and seemingly unaware that they are doing so. People of this culture are generally conflict-avoiders and people-pleasers to a pathological degree. They are peacekeepers and not peacemakers, and virtually always nice. Facade is alive and well, as virtually every interaction includes a smile, an “Everything is great!”, and a handshake or hug but the genuineness of each is quite variable. Another interesting part of this “religious” culture is that vehicles, boats and buildings are covered with Jesus’ name, Bible verses, and religious statues and paintings, with the apparent belief that this will result in blessing or “good luck”. The same sentiment applies to attending church services, saying “prayers”, religious “speak” (“by the grace of God” or “Thank God”, etc.), giving money to church, etc. Virtually everyone seems to “believe in” God, but the prime motivation of this faith seems to be, “What can I do to get a blessing from God?” All of this in a country with more professing “Christians”, percentage-wise, than anywhere in the world. This compares well to the States (doesn’t it sound familiar?) where Jesus is also professed by the majority and facade is common in the church, but where greed (in the name of prosperity) and pleasure (in the name of blessing) are perhaps the main rationalized sins of the culture. So many people in both cultures (who would call themselves “Christians”) need to encounter the living Jesus, as He is.
The Brasilian and American church cultures provide evidence that the fruit of Christian religion often does not resemble Jesus at all. The focus in both countries is often on pleasing God in order to acquire further blessing, rather than on gratitude for the extravagant blessing(s) that are already ours (like His completely undeserved, unconditional love and care for us). This focus on acquiring blessing is seen in both dominant “Christian” religions in Brasil. In the Catholic religion here, performing ritual (mass, certain prayers, Eucharist…) and works (baptism, sacraments, various good works…) will result in blessing from God. In the evangelical church’s religion, their own rituals and behaviors (how one dresses, baptism, tithing, praying in “faith”, etc.) will please God and result in prosperity and healing. More earthly blessing (comfort, ease, good fortune, happiness, healing, etc.) seems to be the emphasis in both. Is this what Jesus is about?
There also appears to be a disturbing misrepresentation of Jesus in the evangelical church worldwide that is similar to the Brasilian church belief system. Popular church phrases today include: “God wants you (and everyone) healed.” “God is a God of blessing.” “God wants you to prosper.” “All illness and affliction is of the enemy and is not God’s will for you.” “God has a wonderful plan for your life.” (emphasis mine) “Signs and wonders (usually meaning dramatic healing and miracles) will follow all those who believe”. The focus is on the earthly, the seen, and on what WE would understand as “supernatural”. All have an element of truth (based on certain Bible verses) and all can easily remove the focus from what to Jesus was primary – our relationship with Him.
Jesus’ ministry focused on relationship with God which could produce various outward changes, rather than on the changes primarily. He emphasized values beyond our earthly senses. He emphasized that the fruit of our relationship with Him would not necessarily be “seen” in this life but that in no way made it less than absolutely true and hugely relevant. Joni Erickson Tada (an “unhealed” Christian quadriplegic) once said that she believed in Jesus, “not because it is easy, but because it is true.” In other words, knowing Jesus doesn’t necessarily produce earthly results that we would consider to be “good”, such as prosperity and healing (in Joni’s case). In fact, the fruit (results) of His spirit in one’s life is manifested in things “unseen” and not natural to man (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control).
The apostle Paul, for example, had a very close relationship with Jesus and consistently manifested the above fruit in his life as he endured many circumstances that we would not consider “blessing” (beatings, hunger, relational conflict, shipwreck, etc.). He was ill (not healed) and in jail (not prosperous) for much of his ministry. Many early believers (and many since) lived short (martyred), tortured (unhealed), poverty-filled (not prosperous) lives, and it was in this environment that the number of believers grew exponentially! Jesus came to die for our sake, but He suffered throughout His life, including during His crucifixion (beaten, whipped, spit on, abandoned, insulted), before His appointed death. He who is our example of “walking in the Spirit”, had no home, no income, and no earthly comforts (prosperous?). All of this was allowed by a God who, with a word spoke the world into existence, gave Jesus life after almost three days dead, and certainly had the power to alter any of the above sufferings. Fox’s Book of Martyrs and many similar books provide countless other examples of godly, fruitful people living very difficult earthly lives, as does the book of Acts and the eleventh chapter of Hebrews in the Bible.
The weakness of our faith today is demonstrated not in the absence of miracles, but rather in a lack of wonder regarding our miraculous relationship with a God who chooses to love even us and who came to earth to demonstrate (in His life and in His death) this love.
We must remember, in our 2007 arrogance, that the mistake of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day was primarily that they expected the Messiah to look and act a certain way (and in all their sincerity and zeal, they were completely wrong!). Jesus’ message was one of miraculous love of God for broken people, miraculous acceptance, by God, of love from broken people, and miraculous love of broken people, one to another. He emphasized that this life would be full of affliction, tribulation, and heartache (verses not often quoted by today’s religious leaders). But He also made it clear that a relationship with Him held far more value than a prosperous, healed earthly life and that placing all of our proverbial eggs in His basket was wise, though often humanly counterintuitive.
Another personal frustration is that all of the above misrepresentation of Jesus still exists in me. Virtually everything I see outside of me is within me, as well. I question which Jesus is known in Brasil, but is the Jesus I worship really as He is? Or do I also create my own god that will be for me what I desire? My understanding remains incomplete and I am still as flawed as any person or any culture that I might be critical of. Who can save me and save us from our inconsistent, and confused human ways? Thank God that, through Jesus, He has! His love and acceptance of us depends on Him and not on us! Perhaps my favorite song, by Delirious, is called, “I could sing of your love forever.” His love for us is, and will always be, our primary source wonder and joy. No number of miracles and blessing, no amount of character perfection or health, no vocational achievement, will ever be more significant or miraculous than this greatest miracle ever!
The question for all of us today is, “Will we seek to know God, as He is? Will we recognize the millions of miracles that surround us and that give us life each and every moment, or will we live in frustration because God isn’t as we would have Him to be? Will we be grateful for who He is and for whatever circumstances He chooses for us, whether we “see” them as good or bad?” Our task, as His church, is to introduce others to Him, not to a promise of healing, prosperity or a wonderful life, or to a certain “religion” or church, or to misunderstood biblical promises. I so appreciate the passion and perspective of my home Vineyard church and my pastors, where the emphasis is on seeking simple devotion to Jesus, as He is, with others who are doing the same.
It is our miraculous privilege to listen to, and to follow, Him. He is leading us on a journey of understanding Him. None of us have arrived. We are to love those that He gives us (whether cross-culturally or next door), encouraging them to Him. We are called to suffer well the tribulations that He provides, trusting in His purposes for each. And we are to look forward to a day when we will joyfully enter the home He has prepared for us, where our relationship with Him will still be our source of joy and miraculous wonder.
Please pray for us that we strive to maintain Jesus’ focus of love and relationship in our lives and in what we teach, and that we would be bold in challenging the current belief systems. Please let us know, as well, how we can pray for you as you face similar challenges with your family, at your workplace, and in your neighborhood, as you seek to love and to guide others to the Truth.