Analysis by Mario Osava (IPS)
HAVANA TIMES – Jesus Christ as a 30-year-old man in a gay relationship is the storyline of a recent Netflix film, The First Temptation of Christ, which has sparked controversy and led to a trial and police investigation, as well as challenging the power that religion has acquired in Brazil.
The Brazilian State is secular, the Constitution stipulates, but the government headed by President Jair Bolsonaro, who was sworn in on January 1, 2019, adopts a religious view in many of its actions.
“God above all” was the slogan of the president’s electoral campaign in 2018, which he repeats in many of his speeches and which different ministers have tried to include in official documents, before receiving warnings about its unconstitutional nature.
The economic concessions that churches have, especially the Evangelical church, such as tax exemptions, have grown under Bolsonaro’s government. Former Special Secretary to Brazil’s Federal Revenue Service, Marcos Cintra, who proposed a tax for religious bodies, was laid off in September after pressure from the president.
Bolsonaro announced his intention to increase subsidies for churches, cutting their energy expenses, and to appoint an evangelical judges to replace members of the Federal Supreme Court, who will retire this and next year.
He is also moving ahead with the plan of moving the Brazilian Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, in response to demands from the Evangelical Church, and following the US’ example under Donald Trump.
Several of Bolsonaro’s ministers are evangelicals, starting with the minister of Women, Family and Human Rights, Damares Alves, who confessed to being “terribly evangelical”, when being sworn in.
It was within this climate of great religious empowerment, especially of the Pentecostal and neo-Pentecostal church, that the 46-minute-long video appeared by the comedy group “Porta dos Fundos”, with a powerful satire about the birth of Christianity.
The movie, which has been available since early December, portrays a gay Jesus Christ, God as a lover who insists on kicking Mary (Christ’s mother) out of the family and Joseph as a dumb and irritated husband who has been cheated on.
The “blasphemy”, as insulted religious followers call it, sparked a strong reaction and protest, as was to be expected. The Dom Bosco de Fe e Cultura Association/Center asked the Supreme Court to ban the movie from being disseminated, which insulted the faith and honor of Christians.
The request was accepted on January 8th by Appeal Judge Benedicto Abicair, in Rio de Janeiro, who ordered that Netflix remove the movie “The First Temptation of Christ” from its platform.
“Calming the nerves” of Brazil’s “mostly Christian” society, which had been upset by the biblical satire, the judge said in defense of his ruling, who also argued that freedom of expression “isn’t absolute”.
However, Abicair’s views were different in November 2017 in favor of then Congressman Jair Bolsonaro, when he was accused of being homophobic and racist when he said that homosexuals were the result of a poor family upbringing, in a TV interview. “(You can’t) censor anyone’s right to express themselves in a democracy,” the judge ruled.
His latest decision was revoked the following day by the Federal Supreme Court, due to a ruling in response to an appeal by Netflix on its rights against “legal censorship”, announced by the Supreme Court President Jose Dias Toffoli.
Toffoli remembered that the Court had repeated on several occasions that “the full exercise of freedom of speech” is an inherent right of human dignity and the validity of the Constitution.
A satirical comedy doesn’t affect the values of the Christian faith which has been around for over two thousand years, he maintained.
Opinions are divided in legal circles. Large organizations, such as the Brazilian Bar Association, reject what they consider inadmissable censorship and the “relapse” in democratic freedoms.
However, the Brazilian National Association of Islamic Lawyers stood in solidarity with the Christians, with a message of protest against Netflix and Porta dos Fundos.
Things got worse with the attack by a “fundamentalist” group (which first appeared in the 1930s and inspired by Italian Fascism) which threw incendiary bombs, known as “Molotov Cocktails”, at Porta dos Fundos’ main offices, in Rio de Janiero, on November 24th.
The only identified attacker, Eduardo Fauzi, traveled to Russia on December 29th, and is seeking political refugee status in order to sidestep the warrant for his arrest by the Brazilian Supreme Court. His extradition is quite likely given agreements between Brazil and Russia.
“There is no other way to respond but with our own hands” to attacks made against our faith, when “the liberal paradigm, which is hegemonic in times of (atheist) post-modernity”, imposes its thoughts and stops Christians from being heard, Fauzi said in an interview via Whatsapp with news website Colabora.
As a result of the attack, which didn’t result in any fatalities, Fauzi was kicked out of the Social Liberal Party (PSL) which he had been a member of since 2011. This is the same party which helped Bolsonaro reach the Presidency, which he then left on November 19, 2019, to form his own movement Alliance for Brazil.
Porta dos Fundos’ special Christmas satire reflects the unease many Brazilian population groups feel in the face of growing religious interference in public affairs, the decline of the secular State.
Bolsonaro has stated many a time that power belongs to the majority, which is Christian in Brazil, forgetting his promise to rule for every Brazilian and the plurality that defines democracy.
His actions respond especially to those sectors which helped him to win at the ballot; almost 70% of Evangelicals gave him their vote.
The movie, which is still available on Netflix, tells the story of how Christ returns after 40 days in the desert, where he was subjected to many a temptation. The comedy-makers chose gay attraction as the temptation they wanted to focus on.
Welcomed back by his family for his 30th birthday, he learns about the mission God bestowed upon him. His doubts mix with dreams brought on by a drug and his “boyfriend”, Orlando, ends up taking his real identity, the devil or the greatest temptation.
Christ wins his fight with the devil, possessing him and making him explode, after losing the first battles of paralyzing or crushing blows, as well as his father God. That’s to say, he overcomes the temptation and takes on his mission as the Messiah, like the Bible says, but along a burlesque route.
As well as comedians, atheists began to react in the face of a wave of mysticism. The Brazilian Association of Atheists and Agnostics made an appearance and questioned Catholic monuments in public spaces and shows with Gospel music being paid with money from the secular State.
A problem some churches have contributed to is the reappearance or increased risk of diseases such as the measles, because of their anti-vaccine rhetoric. There are religious leaders who recommend to their followers that they don’t get their children vaccinated, using fake arguments, such as the risk of infection and other diseases.