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BLACK PASTORAL AGENTS AND THE BIBLE IN THE AFRO CONTEXT: A Hermeneutic of Years of Enchantment.

Introduction

In order to reflect on the 32 years of presence and action of the Black Pastoral Agents, it is necessary to consider the articulation between the Word and life. Amidst so much suffering, an enchantment remains: the certainty of our faith in a liberating God, who walked with our ancestors and walks with us. He reveals Himself through various and different manifestations existing in the black community, in religions and cultures, manifestations that create the need for dialogue and encounters. This revelation has shaped the way we celebrate and remember of the role of black people in these years of history and experience, in the places and spaces we occupy, in our origins, in the present and the future.

Interpreting these years indicates a path, a feeling of appreciation for the steps already taken, steps that were not taken by us, but that we continue to remember firmly today; we sing them, dance them, celebrate them, and finally live them.

From living to chanting

Part of this text was created and, one could also argue, lived from the daily commute to work on the train from Central, the mass transportation system that serves the Baixada Fluminense, and is part of the daily life of many black men and women of Nova Iguacu. We first asked ourselves: Is this the place of the black and the poor? These comings and goings, of course, reminded us of slave ships. This inhuman type of transportation that once brought our black people from Africa is somewhat similar to the one that now, using railroads, takes people from the suburbs to downtown Rio de Janeiro to produce wealth for someone else.

We think of theology at this place in particular, taking the Baixada Fluminense as our reference. It is a place where many who came from other parts of Brazil live, people who profoundly experienced the Exodus and the scars of slavery; they move along, swung not by waves of the ocean but by the sway of the trains, dreaming about liberation on the quilombos (TN: hinterland settlement founded by slaves that fled from the plantations in Brazil).

It's worth remembering a poem by Solano Trindade (1):
The filthy Leopoldina train running, running
seems to say there are hungry people
there are hungry people, there are hungry people...
Choo-choooooooooo!

Caxias station once again, to say it again, running,
there are hungry people, there are hungry people, there are hungry
people

Vigario Geral, Lucas, Cordovil, Bras de Pina, Penha shuttle
Penha Station, Olaria, Ramos, Bonsucesso, Carlos Chagas
Triagem, Maua, filthy Leopoldina train running, running
seems to say there are hungry people, there are hungry people, there are
hungry people

So many sad faces, wanting to reach some destination, somewhere
The filthy Leopoldina train running, running
seems to say there are hungry people, there are hungry people, there are
hungry people

Only in the stations while slowly stopping, it starts to say
if there are hungry people, feed them; if there are hungry people, feed
them
if there are hungry people, feed them

But the air brake, authoritarian, tells the train to shut up,
Pssssssssst!


This leads us to think and recall a very common song among Black Pastoral Agents when we were organizing ourselves to prepare our formation and our celebrations in the communities. We sung it many times in our meetings throughout Brazil: "Eu sou la da Africa" ("I am from Africa"). It is worth revisiting the lyrics, so simple and meaningful to our experience:
I'm from there! From Africa!
If I'm not from there, my parents are, from Africa.
I'm from there! From Africa!
If I'm not from there, my grandparents are, from Africa.
I'm from there! From Africa!
If I'm not from there, my ancestors are, from Africa.
Because of my color, because of my smile!
Because of my walking, because of my Samba!
I'm from there! From Africa!
If I'm not from there, my parents are, from Africa.
I'm from there! From Africa!
If I'm not from there, my grandparents are, from Africa.
I'm from there! From Africa!
If I'm not from there, my ancestors are, from Africa.


It is a common song and memory among Black Pastoral Agents reminding us about what enchants us, and helping us recognize our origins and our place on the Earth, and consequently in the Bible.

From singing to enchanting

It wasn't just singing: More than that, our organization had a common interest, which was reading the Word of God. The Black Pastoral Agents discovered in these meetings and in the Holy Bible that people have a mission. This is the beauty of our work and our insertion in the Base Ecclesial Communities, reaching Santa Maria on the state of Rio Grande do Sul. With the accomplishment of having black people as the main theme of the national Fraternity Campaign in 1988 (The Fraternity and the Black: "Black, an Outcry for Justice!"), we sang and marked place and time--"Blacks, women, Indians. At the Church of Santa Maria, the oppressed cultures are coming up."

Their arrival "from there, Africa," was not without reason. They were exploited, but also identified as the people of God who escaped from Egypt, which is located in Africa. Examining both stories as a true encounter with the God of Life and Liberation, we discover the need to participate not only within Christian churches, but further, going toward religions of African origin, the traditions of our parents, our ancestors, in the terreiros (meeting places) for Umbanda and Candomble and in the traditions of the resistance like capoeira, maculele, samba, pagode, and other expressions that delight the lives of our people. These new places have become references for a testimony of liberation and resistance, which was not exclusive to Catholic communities or the profession of Christian faith. It springs from the encounter and is a true witness of the presence of the God, who walks in other spaces. It resulted in a great place to make theology.

From enchanting to moving beyond the chant

Charmed with the assurance of God's presence in our lives and throughout our history, we moved on to read and interpret this presence and to construct the meaning of our own identity as black theologians. We also started thinking about our reality, and the possibility of a Black Feminist theology, which is how the women's group of the Black Pastoral Agents emerged. This theology surely comes from the poor in an ecumenical and pluralist manner, but it is beyond ecumenism; it addresses the need for an inter-religious dialogue, because religious leaders of African religions are not recognized in the process and ecumenical space. Considering this historical condition, we know of the non-recognition of the Pais and Maes-de-Santo (priests of Afro-Brazilian religions) for their religiosity, and we also know how much they suffer from harassment and marginalization, yet they are resilient and victorious.

Identification came from the Word of God itself in the book of Exodus:
Yahweh then said, 'I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt.
I have heard them crying for help on account of their masters. So, I
went down to release them from the hands of the Egyptians and to bring
them to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, the
place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites,
Hivites, and Jebusites. Now the cry of Israel came to me, and I also
see the oppression with which the Egyptians are oppressing. Go, I will
send you to the Pharaoh to bring out my people, the Israelites.


As we remember and recover these stories, the certainty of the loving presence of God, the God of the Exodus on this path of liberation, grows in our hearts and memories. It is important and good, even today, to reaffirm our faith in the Liberating God who sees the misery of His people, hears their clamor, and comes down to free them. In this liberating tradition, black women rescue the figure of Hagar. "Hagar gave a name to Yahweh who had spoken to her, 'You are El Roi,' by which she meant, 'Have I also here looked after him that sees me?'" The matriarch, the mother of her people, knows that God sees her and affirms her feminine vision of God, knows her situation, and determines her place and the place of encounter with her God.

The African slave, who also had numerous descendants, is both the unsubmissive and the submissive who seeks His rights, the one to whom God revealed Himself, the liberating mother who helps us to believe "in Him who lives and sees me." Created in the image and likeness of God, we recognize that the liberating action of God leads people to search for life within a community and with dignity. Looking at the first chapters of Genesis, we find ourselves with a God who created human beings in His own image and likeness. How often have we heard this text and reflected on it?

We heard these words with our collective ear and soul, as black men and women who have their faces and bodies discriminated against, exploited by an ideology that asserts their inferiority. We are created in the image and likeness of God, created from the earth, with the colors and the smell of earth; we take after the face of our Father-Mother. Our faces resemble the deity, who created us. This makes us raise our heads, recognize our dignity, strengthen our self-esteem, and walk in search of liberation, an exodus then, in search of new places, year after year.

It's God who occupies the spaces, steps out of His corner and takes a posture of love for His people. He creates and recreates continuously. He sees, hears, knows, comes down, and delivers. He shows Himself and lets Himself be seen. These should also be the steps of African-Brazilian theology, which would lead us to walk throughout time, a time of religious freedom. Being conscious of the need to walk toward religious freedom and to proclaim with others "I've got faith" has marked our journey. After seven years in the movement, the presence and participation in the fight for religious freedom is an expression of the place we want to occupy theologically. Together with other religious leaders, who dialogue as well with other various religious expressions, we are placed in a social sphere, in a position of building freedom and democracy.

We gradually discovered the great wisdom of meeting each other, a wisdom that enables us to receive and integrate the presence of the Living God in these new spaces, to assimilate and cultivate the possibility of exchange, giving and receiving. This allows us to rescue and receive the transmission of that ancient content present in the oral tradition of "our elders," which enables and ensures the spiritual state of listening to God, necessarily by listening to others in our time. This text then became a key reference; as we return to the origins of liberation, we are provided with a direction, in this context, a return to the origins of our people.

Back to the origins

It is necessary to affirm that African religion and culture left an important legacy, which is essential to understand the values of the black people who came from Africa and built their history on this part of the earth. With a particular method and entirely original elements, resisting all cultural and religious impositions, prejudice and racism, men and women of the terreiros (religious communities), the Babalorixas and Yalorixas have formed a religious tradition and cultivated spaces of faith, worship, preservation, resistance, and stubbornness since the days of slavery. It is this persistence and creativity, this authenticity and identity, these fundamental values that have crafted the cultural formation of the Brazilian people.

They offer us a way to worship God and to relate with nature--and they should be seen as makers of a transforming and revolutionary social and religious consciousness, enabling a mystical encounter with the creation and the Creator, surpassing religious spaces, reaching the sacred. As with capoeira, samba and carnival, this cosmovision has an importance and a meaning in which life and existence are united with the divine, as it is well expressed in a samba enredo from Rio de Janeiro: "Oh, what a beautiful thing, oh what a beautiful thing, God the Father, Creator, creates the black color, oh what a beautiful thing!"--a Samba Enredo, Third Prize for the Samba School Beija-Flor de Nilopolis, 1978.
Danced in the air
The echo of a joyful song
Three African princesses
In sacred Bahia
Iya Kala, Iya Deta, Iya Nasso
Sang like this the Nago tradition
(Olorun)
Olurun! Lord of the infinite!
Order that Obatala
Make the creation of the world
He left, ignoring Bara
And slept along the way and got lost
Odudua
The divine lady arrived
And adorned with great offering
Was transfigured
Five guinea fowls and the earth was made
White pigeons created the air
A golden chameleon
Was made into fire
And snails of the sea
She went down, in a silver chain
In an enlightened journey
Waiting for Obatala
She is queen
He is king and comes to fight
(Iere)
Ierere, iere, iere, o o o o
They fought a duel of love
And life appears with its glory (2)


Through this form of worship, we gain awareness as a possibility of construction for universal knowledge, providing a differentiated quality of life that rescues the human being, male and female, close to the divine, queen and king. These are references in the struggle for the planet's survival, and the search for better relations between individuals, groups, and society. A construction of values emerging from the history and culture of black people, in the beautiful and charming way of singing and telling. This provides us with some indications on how to think about this pooled experience throughout all these years.

New forms of the experience of God

We believe there is more than just one way to experience God. In our practice of faith, in the various religious and cultural manifestations, in our everyday life, in the face of an exclusionary society, there are also other places to experience God. A God who not only reveals Himself as a father, but also as a mother, as the earth, as a sister and a brother, as a friend. A God who eats and makes Himself food, dances, celebrates life and fights, manifests Himself in nature and in the symbolic life. It is a God who is also a black woman, a child, corporeal.

This manner of living and expressing our experiences with God, simultaneously rich and simple, teaches us not to absolutize the Christian experience as the only experience with God. Moreover, it pushes us to reflect beyond some indicatives based on certain elements that systematize the experience of life to a hermeneutics that needs to be updated after all these years.

Indicators for a black hermeneutics

The progress made in these 32 years offers us some direction. To outline a black hermeneutics is not an easy task, but we are certain that taking the path will teach us along the way. Thus, what we present here are some premises that arose from our experiences in biblical rereadings and from working with black communities. A biblical hermeneutics from the reality of black people requires a confrontation with traditional ecclesiologies, in pursuit of new ways of becoming a church with a Christology that has been historically built from a white, male ideology. Indeed, this model of Christology is problematic, where the person of Jesus Christ is the only basis of the revelation, with a liturgy which does not take into account the religious manifestations of black people and ignores their body language, their mystique, and their mystical traditions, while perceiving the Western and European assumptions as the sole starting points for celebrations.

The reading of the Bible from a black perspective demands a certain political position. One does not need to be black to read the Bible from a black perspective. A black hermeneutics cannot be regarded as a skin color issue, but as a political one. To embrace the cause of black people is to embrace a liberation process that implies a radical social transformation, where all of us can take part, with our cultural specificities and fundamental contributions to a society, which does not discriminate nor marginalize people on the basis of gender, age, race, or sexual orientation. Such a position necessarily clashes with colonial theology and forces us to search for new paths.

Postcolonial theology

From the colonial period to our present days, the resistance of black people has been a key element, guaranteed by the orality and practices of our ancestors. The orality and the transmission of knowledge within the religious spaces of African matrices, as well as the cultural traditions, ensured a very important legacy. It is in such context that we reflect on the African-Brazilian theology, taking into account the African religious and cultural expressions. Today, this is already discussed within academic circles, and the rich historical and cultural legacy is recognized for its contribution in the social and religious formation of the Brazilian people. However, it is important to stress how this formation was grounded on life and practice, in a context in which the Black Pastoral Agents are embedded.

We understand today the possibility of theological thinking and of considering the black issue in light of a postcolonial questioning of the African and Latin American context, in particular the Afro-Brazilian cultural, social, ideological and religious aspects. A fundamental question arises from the kind of thinking that favors the need to live and to create a theology, and a hermeneutics acknowledging personal, religious and community values, a way of being and thinking in an African place, or in our case, an Afro-Brazilian place. The initial question we asked ourselves is whether European theology is theology?

African theology needs to be approached from its origin, conception and mentality. In the same way we affirm the relationship between philosophy and theology, we find a relevant line of questioning between the European mind and its conception contrasted with the African mind we inherited.
One of the main ones was Leopoldo Senghor's negritude project, which
sought to reveal African identity by distinguishing the mental
characteristics of Europeans and Africans. According to Senghor, the
European mind distances itself from its object and regards it without
passion, using an ordained given system with preset laws that make the
system intelligible to a neutral observer. On the other hand, Senghor
states that the African mind does not dissociates itself from the
world, but rather develops its knowledge of things by becoming at the
same time subject and object, sensing matters passionately via
participation. (3)


Therefore, we have not only another place from where we can reflect about theology, but also another passionate way to do it, in a closer, more engaging and participatory way. This is evident in the practice of making circles, where each person has an equal position. Basing ourselves on this argument we can agree with Bruce Janz that it is important to understand not what tradition means in the abstract, but what actually the African thought is, and how a local understanding and announcement by tradition enables Africans and Afro-Brazilians a better understanding of their own African lives, their own selves and the other, reality and the universe. Tradition is not an object of thought, but a way of thinking. It is a pointer in our world-life. The thought of Bruce Janz, when dealing with the situation of African philosophy--one of the themes of contemporary philosophy in action--contributes to this understanding of theology.
[...] "What does it mean to make philosophy in this [African] place?"
This is a phenomenological and hermeneutical question, rather than an
existential one. It assumes that there is already a meaning contained
in a lifeworld, rather than supposing that meaning has to be created or
justified. This does not mean that African philosophy should ignore
tradition, reason, language, culture and practicality as key
concepts--quite the contrary. But each one of these concepts behaves
like all other concepts as traces of a previously traveled territory of
an inhabited landscape. (4)


Tradition points to what matters most, and to how it matters

Afro-Brazilian theology has to tend to its creative conceptual potential, which has its own roots. We must become part of the culture, of its ideas, not as concepts of tradition, but as the very tradition and religiosity. The question at stake here is: "what is the African and Afro-Brazilian theology?" Understanding becomes possible when it is "geared towards the place." And it leads us to ask some question, among many other questions, throughout these years and in the future:
Where do theologies come from?
What is their relevance in life and in history?
Where is the place for these people?


A combination of ethnic and racial, national and even international, cultural and religious, political and ideological commitments of theologians affect the way theology is made. Theological thought is affected by the place where it is practiced and by the location in time when it is developed. Since the formation of the Black Pastoral Agents, 32 years ago, much has changed, even our place in churches, in society and in academy. The hermeneutical question that will allow us to interpret the next years is not purely theoretical hermeneutics, but rather the place of life--"lifeworld"--of history, of sensitivity, of the religious, the body, poetry, music, dance, the natural environment, the cosmovision, and so on.

Bringing black life to theology and reflecting on it, creating new territories and extending the scope of life will help us rebuild and project us in our path in the coming years. Here in this place, or wherever history may place us, we recognize the present, we look at the past, and we plan our future. It is necessary to reflect on a critical hermeneutical stance that takes into account its own origin, where and how it appeared, how it expresses itself, its own purpose and direction.

It's important to understand not what tradition means abstractedly, but what tradition is in African thought and how a local understanding will enable African and African-Brazilian people a better understanding of themselves and other people, the African life, reality and the world. Tradition is not an object of thought, but a way of thinking and interpreting. It is a guiding sign of the "lifeworld" or place which the Black Pastoral Agents had already built.

Final considerations

In order to consider the liberating action of God in the history of men and women, referencing the long history and struggle of black people in Brazil and Africa, and in the Bible as well, we must refer to a saving history built year after year. The last 32 years of the Black Pastoral Agents has been a search of identities, of encounters and of understanding the action of God along the paths, seas, roads, and trails that our parents and our ancestors have crossed, leaving us a huge legacy to follow and a path to travel. This leads us to a new attitude toward the continuity of traditions and expressions present in the history and culture of the Afro-Brazilian people. It is essential to consider the need to give a new meaning to the Bible, in the face of new questions, new interpretative spaces, and new subjects.

These are just some representations, among many others, indicating possibilities for reading, rereading, and living the historical experience, where the life of Afro-descendant people takes place, as they encounter theologians, poets, samba dancers, and experienced and wise people. Africa is in the Bible and in the life of Afro-Brazilian people, who went through and are going through an Exodus, which creates and recreates existence, while celebrating another year.

Notes

(1.) Solano Trindade denounced the inequality and the injustice in Brazilian society. He was a precursor of the debate about race in Brazil. Throughout His life, Trindade worked with poetry, arts, theater, and folklore, but he was above all the poet of the simple people. For His song cited here, he was arrested and had His book confiscated. In addition, in 1964, one of His four children, Francisco Solano, died in a prison of the military government. Trindade was instrumental in spreading art and craftsmanship that transformed the city that now is now as Embu das Artes (Embu of the Arts).

(2.) The creation of the world in the Nago tradition, by Neguinho da Beija-Flor, Mazinho, and Gilson.

(3.) Carel, H., D. Games, Filosofia contemporanea em acao (Porto Alegre: Artmed, 2008), p. 111.

(4.) Jans, Bruce, "A filosofia como se o lugar importasse: a situacao da filosofia africana," in Filosofia contemporanea em acao, eds. H. Carel, D. Games (Porto Alegre: Artmed, 2008), p. 111.
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Author:Ribeiro, Obertal Xavier
Publication:Cross Currents
Article Type:Essay
Date:Mar 1, 2017
Words:4143
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