Thursday, December 02, 2010

Brazilian Brethren leader presents a peace church hermeneutic based in community

Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic -- A presentation from a leader of Igreja da Irmandade (the Church of the Brethren in Brazil) opened the fourth full day of the Historic Peace Church conference in Latin America. Representatives of Friends (Quaker), Mennonite, and Church of the Brethren groups in Latin America and the Caribbean are holding the conference at a retreat center just outside Santo Domingo, the DR.

A peace church hermeneutic based in community experience was presented by Alexandre Gonçalves, president of Igreja da Irmandade.

"Christianity and violence are not compatible," he said forcefully, adding that it is impossible to think about an active nonviolence without starting to think about the manipulation of power within ourselves and with each other in our churches and societies.

Describing differences between the Brethren and the many pentecostal-type churches that are growing quickly in Brazil, he gave a forceful critique of pastoral leaders and church hierarchies that are domineering and even abusive. In Brazil, the leadership of pentecostal-type churches are "every day more oppressive," he said, and are strongly influenced by messianism, and the narcissistic individualism of secular society. "We are looking at a huge phenomenon of power concentration in the clergy."

On top of that, he added, Brazil is inundated with the prosperity gospel, which he described as "a pragmatic relationship with God influenced by consumerism."

By contrast, he explained the peace church community hermeneutic that he said is based in the tradition of the "priesthood of all believers." He defined "hermeneutic" as the interpretation of scripture and its practical application. The Brazilian Brethren talk about and interpret scripture within the church as the community of God, and with a community perspective, he said. They also seek practical application of the Bible texts as a community. This includes prayer and reflection, directed by the Holy Spirit, and requires participation by all members of the church.

"What we’re interested in is how the Spirit can talk in diversity," he said, "...without forgetting our critical capacity and caring." In their worship services, the Brazilian Brethren do not preach sermons but share about the experiences that they have lived, he explained. "It’s a simultaneous process of construction and deconstruction. We want to reflect and live out a life full of significance."

During a question and answer session, in which Gonçalves fielded several supportive but also skeptical questions, he was asked if such a hermeneutic community can ever really exist in practice. He answered in the affirmative: yes, he said, this is being done by Brethren in Brazil. He also acknowledged its difficulties, saying the Brazilian Brethren have not stopped talking about hard issues. But, he maintained that diversity of opinion should not be a problem in the church.

For the rest of the day Dec. 1, the conference received a preliminary report from a three-person committee working on a final document from the event, spent time in a creative activity aimed at narrowing down the conference presentations to key concepts, and took a walking tour of the colonial zone of Santo Domingo.

The afternoon tour followed a guidebook telling an alternative history of Santo Domingo--the first European city in the Americas. Titled "Five Hundred Years of Domination and Resistance," the guidebook was created for the 13th International Summit of Justicia Global held in May this year, with an introduction by Irvin Heishman, a coordinator of the Church of the Brethren mission in the DR.

The tour visited sites where Christians can contemplate Columbus’ arrival on the island as "an encounter of two cultures," and invited the conference to remember the genocide of the original population and the exploitation of slaves imported from Africa, as well as acts of faithful resistance to this oppression by Catholic Dominican friars such as Fray Anton de Montesinos. In 1511, Montesinos preached what is considered the first sermon for human rights in the Americas.

The day closed with an evening of presentations, worship, and fellowship at a Mennonite Church in Santo Domingo.

Webcasts from the conference are being offered at An online photo album has been started at

-- Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford is news director for the Church of the Brethren.