Christian equality — utopia?

Materialism among Mennonites in Brazil

Jul 1, 2014 by

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We live in a fallen world. The world we live in is not the world God had anticipated. When we decided to sin, we chose our own way, our own lord and our own path that did not convey blessing to us or others. Nevertheless, God did not abandon this fallen world. He constantly attempts to redeem creation, as the Scriptures attest throughout.

As humans, we have to deal with two contradictory elements within us and within the structures we live in. Although we live in a fallen world, God’s image is not completely lost — there are elements of God’s good creation in us. On the other hand, our conscious decision to rebel against God and his purposes affected everything on Earth. This means that all cultures on Earth have elements that resemble God’s image in humankind, as well as elements of our fallen nature.

As Christians, and Mennonites/Anabaptists, we have a strong spiritual heritage. Anabaptist groups were born in a time of crisis. Their search for a Christian life that resembled the early church in Acts certainly influenced their theology, since theology never develops in a vacuum. As was the case with the early church, early Anabaptist communities at large tried to diminish the economic inequalities within the church. The radical dimension of the “first love” could also be seen in the fact that the poor were cared for. The economical dimension was a means to an end — a tangible way of revealing Christ’s love.

With time, though, turmoil decreased and Christianity became more world friendly. Of course, Christians have always become more acculturated in the world, as is evident in the letters to the seven churches of Revelation 2-3. There, we see that dualism took over: If at the beginning most of culture was viewed as “worldly,” after some time the barriers came down and culture got good reviews.

Something similar happened to the Anabaptist movements. The initial years of persecution gave way to tolerance and a certain distance from the world. This, however, did not avoid the inclinations of the flesh, which were influenced by a previous culture. The distance from the world created a false security — the world was far away and could not influence them.

For the most part, Mennonites in Brazil, where I work, do not live in colonies anymore. Capitalism and materialism have given rise to huge inequalities, which seem even stronger in the urban contexts. Brazilian Mennonites at large have been strongly influenced by the prevailing culture. Inequalities are as great in the church as in society.

Mennonites came to Brazil from Russia as refugees, with virtually no material possessions. However, the desire to make things happen and the initial community spirit soon made them look for opportunities that would make an economic lift possible. It did not take long and soon most of them were doing better financially, due to hard work. Those whose situation did not improve were often accused of being lazy. With the church’s mission outreach, the inequalities got even worse. Many Brazilians live in very poor situations. Mennonite people compared themselves to these Brazilians with the remark: “We also did not have anything at first, and look at us today. It is clear that they do not want to have a better life.”

Since the economy in Brazil has been growing in the last years, so has materialism among Mennonites. Individualism replaces community spirit and the inequality issue is hardly dealt with, even though it is before our own eyes. As a whole, Brazilians are able to see a mansion beside a slum and have no qualms about it. This lack of compassion has entered into the churches as well. Even social work was not something that was on the agenda of churches until a few years ago, due to fundamentalist influence and to a desire to distance themselves from the Catholic Church. Today, most Mennonite churches in Brazil at least speak of doing something for the poor. Some try to help individuals or groups with food, clothing or some other material aid. They try to meet some of the urgent needs, but inequality itself is rarely mentioned — as happens with culture at large.

A few years back I was urged to speak at a family retreat about the simple lifestyle. While some people clearly reflected on the issue, the session did not lead to a discussion group nor to a consideration of practical issues. It seems we are not ready for that just yet — will we ever be?

Arthur Dück is director and professor of intercultural studies at Faculdade Fidelis Christian College, a Mennonite Brethren educational institution in Curitiba, Brazil. This originally appeared in the April issue of Mennonite World Conference’s quarterly magazine, Courier, available on its website:


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