Barreto asks the right question, at the right time: “What is the contribution of the Protestant faith to social change in Brazil?” He seeks to demonstrate that within the Brazilian Protestant ethos, there are precious but underappreciated sources for a “progressive Protestant social ethics.” These previously uncharted sources are particular and complementary. Barreto collects practical responses to social injustice born in actual face-to-face encounters between Protestant communities and the poor. Their responses agree on the Church’s responsibility vis-a-vis Brazil’s social victims. When brought into dialogue, they complement each other, forming a “base ecumenism” of charismatic and prophetic dispositions. Barreto argues that it is these Brazilian Protestant responses to poverty that bear the potential to transform lives and feed a progressive social ethics.
Brazil has progressive Protestant faces but lacks a Protestant social ethics. For Barreto, a cultural transformation can catalyze it. He proposes that a Spirit-filled and expansive dialogue on Protestant responses to poverty and injustice can transform the Christian ethos. The new ethos would sustain a social ethic that promotes adequate responses to suffering and oppression.
The absence of a social ethic is partly a byproduct of the stigmatization of the Protestant face. The stereotypical Protestant is said to be pietist, individualist, and culturally “inflexible.” This false generalization represents someone who is poor but also a neoliberal; a liberal who is nevertheless intolerant; and a socially indifferent but culturally influential person. Individualism and stiffness did not “click” with Brazil’s relational and hybrid sensibility—Barreto ponders. Paradoxically, he observes, Protestants have expanded their cultural sway and accrued political power. They have played a pivotal role in the election of a far-right president. And their political project goes hand-in-hand with the most conservative USA-Evangelical moral agenda.
Barreto shows the stereotype is a half-truth. In reality, the “individualistic” and “socially aloof” individual is a far-right USA-Evangelical caricature of Brazilian faces. “Brazil does not know Brasil”—as Aldir Blanc would say. Not all Brazilian Protestants have only a modicum interest in social change. Barreto’s contribution is vital because he initiates an overdue dialogue among other Protestant faces. Recalibrating José Míguez Bonino’s framework in Faces of Latin American Protestantism (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1997) for the Brazilian context Barreto outlines, that there are three progressive faces of Brazilian Protestantism:
The Ecumenical faces are quantitatively modest and temporally brief, but extremely important. They emerged during the 1950s and decayed after the 1964 military coup. They appear principally in small but forerunner ecclesial and social movements. They inaugurate a critical interrogation on the meaning of religious freedom and show the need for an ecumenical debate on Brazil’s social issues.
The Evangelical faces are religiously conservative and socially progressive. They formulate a response to the Ecumenical and the liberation movements through the retrieval of Church’s missionary identity. Socially-devoted evangelicals harmonize the mission to convert with a social responsibility. The “integral mission” of the Church includes a biblical perspective on spiritual conversion as the means for social liberation. The Church mission is integral inasmuch as the prophetic and apostolic faiths comingle. Social justice complements piety; evangelization serves the Kingdom of God.
The Pentecostal faces are popular, poor, and powerful. They encompass over 70% of Brazilian Protestants. Brazilian Pentecostals do not encounter the poor; they are the poor—converted and speaking in the tongues of popular religion. Barreto suggests the Pentecostal face is so popular because of its empowering and plastic spirituality. The Holy Spirit empowers the community in ecstatic experiences that have an emotional appeal. Upon conversion, people start believing that God acts in all aspects of their lives. Conversion encourages marginalized individuals to transcend social domination. The amplitude of that experience also reveals the virtue of “fluidity.” Pentecostalism absorbed elements of the Afro-Brazilian religions. Charisma and fluidity resemble the spirit of the Candomblé and the Umbanda, for instance.
Barreto’s argument is methodologically airtight and meticulously documented. The real encounter with the oppressed Other is a preferential premise of Latin-American political and theological thought. Barreto’s option for the encounter framework is twice auspicious. First, it neatly organizes the complex historical evidence. Then, it becomes a heuristic analytical device to quicken the ecumenical dialogue.
This outstanding book delivers what it promises and more: sound research of organic ethical experiments that can inspire all engaged religious people to deliberate and act collectively in this bleak hour. Written in Portuguese, its expansive dialogue invites readers who, despite the language barrier, can comprehend and embrace the common and urgent need for ethical innovation in Brazil. Other equally-engaged readers might also want to know more about women’s participation in this liberating dialogue. The book omits the past and present contributions of Brazilian Protestant women in the social ethics space. Barreto could also have said more on the implications of a social ethic that emphasizes the Christian conversion experience in a pluralistic country. Still, the call to an ethical renovation is urgent for all.
University of Chicago Divinity School