Understanding religious hybrid identities – Fellows’ seminar by Wanda Deifelt

3 June 2019

“The enslavement of indigenous and African peoples was carried out through colonialism, often using theological reasoning to justify occupation. While Roman Catholicism remains the predominant – and, in many cases, official – religion on the continent, religious identities are much more plural and diverse,” said Wanda Deifelt of the Department of Religion, Luther College.

Deifelt - 1
STIAS fellow Wanda Deifelt during her seminar presentation on 16 May 2019

Deifelt was presenting a seminar on her project looking at the religious hybrid identities which have emerged in Latin America due to the merging of Christianity with indigenous and African perspectives.

“Ultimately I’m interested in these religions because of my overall commitment to fostering and coaxing interfaith dialogue, based on the fact that there is a plurality of religious expressions in Latin America and the Caribbean,” she said. Deifelt is also a Lutheran Pastor.

“The slave trade to North America has dominated research in English literature. There is less work on the trade to Latin America and the Caribbean – largely led by Spain and Portugal – and not much on the resulting religious identities that emerged,” she continued.

“Religious practices stemming from indigenous communities and the African diaspora in Latin America and the Caribbean served as forms of resistance and survival to European colonialism and occupation. However, these are often subsumed under broader categories of cultural expression (as folklore) or obfuscated by dogmatic or doctrinal views that restrict the concept of religion to institutional manifestations,” she said.

“In doing so, the hybrid religious identities that result are ignored or reduced to a bi-product of the colonial enterprise. Their potential as resistance to occupation and critical voice to Christianity itself is lost if religious pluralism, interfaith dialogue, and the legitimacy of the religions stemming from Indigenous and African matrices are not acknowledged.”

Occupying bodies and minds

She described colonialism as the practice and policy of exercising political, economic and cultural control over other nations. “The reality of colonialism is the occupation of lands, bodies and minds,” she said.

“The enslavement of African peoples derailed the continent’s economic development and dwarfed its political history.”

She pointed out that our thinking has been dominated by colonial history – by key dates and stories of important males. “For example, everyone is taught that Columbus discovered America in 1492 – but you can only discover something if you are first and it is actually lost. That was not the case, given that the land was already populated and had its own cultural heritage.”

“Spain and Portugal had a long history of slavery, mostly involving Berbers and Arabs from North Africa. In 1455 Pope Nicholas V gave Portugal the right to expand the trade along the west coast of Africa, with the provision that they convert those they enslaved. The argument for slavery was that the subjection of ‘heathens’ was legitimate because they would benefit from the guardianship of Christian lords.”

This was part of the massive slave trade to the Americas, including Latin America and the Caribbean.

“It disrupted society, family, kinship bonds. People were separated, killed by war, famine and disease, often undocumented.”

“The model of Christendom included the entanglement of state and church – to the benefit of the Holy Roman Empire. There was no distinction between the colonial enterprise and Christianising. Converting, educating and ‘civilising’ was presented as the justification for enslavement.”

“Although there were those who genuinely believed in this mission, slavery was basically a commercial enterprise carried out under the veneer of furthering Christendom. The huge cruelty was depicted as nothing compared to the salvation offered. For them, it was more important to save souls than bodies.”

Deifelt pointed out that although the Catholic Church was the official religion in these countries, the type of Christianity brought to the Americas was far from uniform and neither was the encounter between different systems of belief, traditions and rituals. There was a distinction between the practice of religion and the official discourse of the church.

“This diversity is evident in the religious expressions that found their unique voices in Latin America and the Caribbean. Several religions developed – drawn from the intersections of African, Indigenous and Catholic traditions.”

“The association between old and new gave religion a Latin American identity – and a diversity – not easily classified and not immediately recognisable.”

She described the Candomblé religion, one of the predominant Afro-Brazilian religions.

“Candomblé is headed by priestesses and priests who are able to contact the orixás, the ancestral spirits,” she said. “The orishas are identified with natural forces such as thunder, water and the sea, and participants make offerings to the orisha (including animals, plants and minerals). Olodumaré is one all-powerful deity (similar to God) served by the other deities.”

“However, the most striking characteristic of Candomblé is the overlap between Roman Catholic saints and African orishas. It’s an amalgamation of the religious ideas of the various West and Central African ethnic groups that arrived in Brazil and Catholic practices.”

“Because of some of its practices – specifically the idea of possession by deities – Candomblé has been seen by many as satanism or witchcraft and therefore was subjected to persecution and was practiced underground.”

Although this had improved, Deifelt pointed to recent incidences of arson attacks on Candomblé shrines.

A new battle for the souls

“The movement back to what are regarded as authentic African and Brazilian religions has caused contention and conflict in the last 20 years. On the one hand, there is recognition that religions other than Christianity are part of the national landscape. Candomblé, for example, has tremendous political power. But, on the other hand, there is also a rise of religious fundamentalism, particularly among Neo Pentecostal pastors.In Brazil, for example, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God owns the second-biggest TV network. The prosperity ideology espoused by these churches is very powerful and can change people’s lives. Unfortunately, it is also sometimes linked to intolerance towards others.”

“There is a battle between the Evangelical Christians and Afro-Brazilian religions.”

In discussion, Deifelt talked generally about what constitutes a religion. “Western thought classifies religion as having a deity, rituals, sacred texts, a community of believers, and an ethical imperative. But this is a limited world view – for example in Candomblé there are no sacred texts so that would eliminate them by this definition. What about Buddhism? – Buddha is not a God – Buddhism is a philosophy of life – so should Buddhists be excluded from interreligious dialogue? As you can see, even the understanding of religion is a contested space.”

“The history of Christianity is, in any case, like a sponge – absorbing many things. There have never been homogenous voices and never just one line of argument.”

She also acknowledged that it’s not just about hybrid religions but also multiple belongings, with people using aspects of different religions for different areas of their lives.

“This is a multi-layered and complex area. Colonialism and the slave trade are factors that had a huge impact but there are definitely many more.”

“From its inception, colonialism had economic, political, cultural, psychological and religious underpinnings. The economic and political effects are obvious, but the cultural, psychological and religious aspects present a counter narrative. The slave trade created tastes, images and ideas that challenged the colonial enterprise and its mentality of occupation. The legacy of enslavement is still tangible in racial and cultural stratification – and often in outright racism. But the religious expressions stemming from African and indigenous matrices also present a counter-narrative of resilience and resistance. It is this ongoing adaptation, transformation and reinvention of religious identities that makes them so fascinating and dynamic.”

Asked about her personal beliefs she said: “As a Lutheran pastor it’s not difficult for me to embrace understandings of other religions. You don’t have to be wrong for me to be right. We learn from each other. I’ve been working on Catholic/Lutheran dialogue for more than 10 years – there are more commonalities than differences.”

“I may not agree with the teachings of other religions but I agree with their right to exist.”

“I’m interested in interfaith dialogue to strengthen civil society,” she added. “Engaging is part of peace making.”

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Christoff Pauw

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