by Julian Cola
“Liberation theology,” a progressive interpretation of Christianity that gained traction in the mid-20th century, was long preceded by African-based religions such as Brazil’s Candomblé. “The emergence of African-based, syncretic religions caused an abrupt split from the religious and social status quo championed by the dominant class.” Candomblé’s sister-beliefs moved oppressed people towards resistance elsewhere in the Americas, including the U.S.
Letter from Brazil: Before There Was Liberation Theology There Was Candomblé
by Julian Cola
“If a praxis for liberation theology emerged in the late 1950s and early 60s, it certainly had a long, glorious history of resistance in Brazil and other countries in the Americas.”
African resistance to slavery in Brazil gave birth to Candomblé. While their ancestral religious belief, Yoruba, was forbidden by law, Portuguese slave traders and missionaries obliged their field laborers and servants to adopt Catholicism. Discontented with the imposition of colonial rule that went as far as preventing the expression of their religious worldview, Africans substituted the names of their Orixás (Yoruba deities) to Catholic Saints. The binary syncretism of these religious practices insured safety amongst the enslaved Africans by disguising their veneration.
Serving as religious resistance to the dictates of slavery, Candomblé empowered newly formed, autonomous communities known as quilombos. Albeit an African-based syncretic religion, Candomblé practitioners welcomed Tupi-Guarani and other indigenous groups, as well as people of mixed-race heritage and poor European immigrants, into their ranks.
The religious manifestation of Candomblé is not unique to Africans who were abducted and enslaved in Brazil. The syncretic fusion of African deities and Catholic Saints occurred in Haiti, Cuba, the southern region of the United States, and other parts of the Americas. The practice became known as Santeria in Cuba. In Haiti and New Orleans it became known as Voodoo (or Hoodoo). Although they originated in different geographical regions, subjugated by different European colonial powers, the essential aspect of their historical formation and divine worldview are intertwined.
“The binary syncretism of these religious practices insured safety amongst the enslaved Africans by disguising their veneration.”
That Candomblé continues to be such an important aspect of religious life in Brazil is a testament to the resistance of African-descendants in the country. Although its mother religion, Yoruba, underwent changes to guarantee its survival, the fundamental message of its belief system never wavered. John Mbiti, author of African Religions and Philosophy, emphasizes that:
“According to African peoples, man lives in a religious universe, so that natural phenomena and objects are intimately associated with God. They not only originate from Him but also bear witness to Him.” (MBITI, 1969: 48)
Despite a milieu of oppressive forces that has lasted for over five centuries in Brazil, enslaved Africans, and their descendants, have maintained their ancestral divine worldview alive through the practice of Candomblé. If a praxis for liberation theology emerged in the late 1950s and early 60s, it certainly had a long, glorious history of resistance in Brazil and other countries in the Americas. Empowering the poor from internal religious interpretation based upon practical day-to-day knowledge is not a new concept. What makes liberation theology unique is that it was the first time that a cohesive group of Catholic priests in Latin America utilized Catholicism as a basis to effectuate change from the bottom-up. This revolutionary surge had been espoused by African-diaspora communities in the western hemisphere for centuries. In order to grasp the full implications of this argument we must explore how African religiosity offered resistance to legalized oppression and, in doing so, empowered the oppressed.
Africa Liberating in the Americas
Candomblé is a religion that gives reverence to, and communicates between, life and death, earth and cosmos, and the supreme universal power. It offers spiritual salvation from a world rampant in material-capitalist disillusion. The religion also provided a pathway to venerate the collective and individual identity and liberty of Africans and their descendants during colonial and post-colonial Brazil. Priestesses, priests and followers spoke many Yoruba words and phrases during religious ceremonies. Similar aspects of Candomblé and Tupi-Guarani religious beliefs facilitated a cohesive existence between Africans and indigenous peoples in Brazil. L. Nicolau reminds us that:
“Candomblé, despite its predominate African leadership and black participation base, was a source for an increasingly mixed-race clientele, including mulattos and even whites, belonging to all social and legal statuses (slaves, freed and freeborn). Candomblé does not seem to have developed merely as a ‘refuge’ for subjugated and enslaved blacks, or as a closed exclusivist ‘space of blackness,’ but it seems to have also used a socially inclusive strategy that is still operating today, accepting and taking in individuals of all colours and social backgrounds.” (NICOLAU, 2002: 154)
It can be said that Candomblé presents a new state of religious affairs and social interaction amongst oppressed groups that didn’t reflect the views of the dominant class. Vehemently opposed to its unifying power, the elite, latifundio class counterattacked. They denounced Candomblé as being black magic – a heinous cult to be feared, fought and abolished in order to preserve a form of Catholicism that showed little concern toward systemic, brutal oppression and injustice. Religious defiance of the oppressed despite legal prohibition of their belief highlights a fundamental praxis of liberation theology.
“O sujeito da práxis é o sujeito vivo, necessitado, e por isso cultural, em último termo a vítima, a comunidade das vítimas” [The subject of the praxis is someone who is conscious and in need, hence, a cultural representation; Ultimately, it is the victim – the community of victims.” – (translated from Ética da libertação na idade da globalização e da exclusão)] (DUSSEL, 2007: 530).
“They denounced Candomblé as being black magic – a heinous cult to be feared, fought and abolished.”
When subjugated groups take the initiative to free themselves by creating a reality that’s uniquely their own, in this case an African religious worldview, it can be assured that we’re referencing a praxis for liberation theology. The victims shed the oppressive, religious veil that had been complacent to their anxiety and suffering. In doing so they release a historical ethos based upon a deliberate act that represents some of the finest ideas in any civilized society – freedom, equality and justice. Whereas these concepts had been utilized to only benefit an elite minority and maintain despotic forces in Brazil and other slave regimes throughout the Western Hemisphere, the emergence of African-based, syncretic religions caused an abrupt split from the religious and social status quo championed by the dominant class. Candomblé, Santeria, and Voodoo fostered concepts of freedom, equality and justice that favored marginalized groups. Antonio Rufino Vieira reminds us that:
“(…) libertação ocorre quando os valores de liberdade, igualdade e fraternidade (a herança tricolor, como precisa Bloch), são despojadas da conotação abstrato-formal que a burguesia lhes dá, orientando, portanto, a uma real libertação, aquela em que o homem oprimido se realiza enquanto homem” [(...) liberation occurs when values such as liberty, equality and fraternity (the tricolor alliance suggested by Bloch) are removed from the formally abstract connotation bestowed upon them by the bourgeois class and orientated toward real liberation, the kind in which the oppressed man realizes his potential as a man (translated from Marxismo e filosofia latino-americana: uma aproximação dentre Ernest Bloch e Enrique Dussel)] (VIEIRA, 1975: 137).
How Free Communities Developed a Praxis for Freedom
Quilombo dos Palmares, the touchstone quilombo by which all other Brazilian quilombos have been measured, was home to Candomblé adherents. Voodoo was present amongst the Haitian revolutionary forces led by Toussaint Louverture and free maroon communities in Louisiana. Santeria and other African-based, syncretic religions flourished amongst Cimarron communities in Cuba and South and Central American countries. The presence of these religions amongst free communities and revolutionary forces composed of ex-enslaved Africans provide a recurring motif. Had they served as pacifying forces, reaffirming slavery, colonialism, historical materialism, class division and any other ideology that secured the position of, and prevented resistance against, the dominant class, there would not have been such fervent opposition to their practice. There wouldn’t have been a need to fuse the religious worship with Catholicism. Contrarily, African-based syncretic religions provided a divine basis for life and a collective and individual endorsement for freedom and justice amongst marginalized groups.
“Quando se reconhece o outro como alguém, um além da totalidade, é possível uma “práxis de libertação” (…) a liberdade de quem vive oprimido na totalidade. Essa práxis é essencialmente anti-fetichista, porquanto nega a falsa divindade da totalidade no serviço ao pobre.” [When another human is recognized as someone outside of the totalitarian state, it is possible to experience a liberation praxis (...) liberty for the person who has been subjugated by totalitarian forces. This praxis is essentially anti-fetish, it negates service to the poor by false divinities within the system (translated from Liberdade e Libertação na Ética de Dussel)] (AMES, 1992: 39).
“African-based syncretic religions provided a divine basis for life and a collective and individual endorsement for freedom and justice amongst marginalized groups.”
Candomblé is influenced by animist beliefs. Universal power and spirituality are equally distributed amongst all living things, innate objects, nature, natural phenomena and the cosmos. Unlike the material-religious history of the Americas, the need to know why, what, when and how,” wasn’t conditioned to special interests (i.e. economic, political, and geopolitical influence) that benefitted elite, dominant society. It’s not a religious doctrine supportive of anthropocentric impulses that result in the subjugation of nature to exalt human virtue and superiority. In fact, Candomblé devotees have a cyclic, egalitarian view of the divine, universal power that emanates in all things. Placing this religious expression within the historical context of colonialism in the Americas identifies it as being a praxis for liberation. A society founded upon institutionalized oppression, unabated pillaging and materialism was at stake. Catholicism provided religious justification for those individuals who profited from the pain and toils of such a society. However, Candomblé, along with Santeria, Voodoo, and other African-based syncretic religions, provided ancestral religious worldviews that unified and empowered the victims of societies stratified along socioeconomic and racial lines. It offered ways of resistance to dogmas sustaining legalized injustice.
Julian Cola has a BA (cum laude) in Portuguese from the University of New Mexico. He’s been awarded a CELPE-Bras Certificate (Brazilian Ministry of Education) and a FLAS Fellowship (US Department of Education). He can be contacted at mjuliancola(at)gmail.com.
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