Faith and the rifle – crime and religion in XNUMXst century Brazil

Image: Khaled Hourani


Commentary on the recently released book by Bruno Paes Manso

Bruno Paes Manso, author of The Republic of Militias (2020), published another must-read book for anyone who wants to understand contemporary Brazil. It deals, in particular, with the conditions of popular urban life and the socioeconomic and political consequences: Faith and the rifle: Crime and religion in XNUMXst century Brazil.

He interviewed former criminals and wondered if what was said was a mixture of illusions and self-deception resulting from the confusion caused by the faith adopted for “the resurrection”. This was not an unusual episode among the more fantastic conversion accounts. Were these “poetic licenses” on the part of the interviewee to convince himself?

There was a cognitive gap between the worlds of the interviewee and the interviewer. One was full of dogma and dependent on an unshared faith. Another only raised doubts and sought explanations to test a priori hypotheses.

It required the interviewer to have empathy: the ability to identify with another person, to feel what they feel, to want what they want, to learn the way they learn. Fantastic personal (and social) conversions drew attention due to their ability to effectively transform situations.

It involved repentance of people in trouble, abandoned, alone, and the true understanding that their inadequate attitude towards life was one of the causes of their misfortune. Pentecostal churches opened the doors for these people to integrate into a new network, offering truths to transform the excluded into “good citizens”. For those graced with the gift of believing in these truths, there was the chance to reinvent themselves in order to follow society's rules and expectations.

Forgiveness served to amnesty accumulated sins, thus relieving conscience and strengthening self-love. Everything depends on a key decision by the convert: to repent of past mistakes, abandon the life of sin and move forward alongside Jesus. Those who feel on the verge of death embrace the chance with selflessness.

This expression refers to the action characterized by detachment and altruism, in which the overcoming of the personality's selfish tendencies is achieved for the benefit of the person for a cause or principle. It has a double meaning. When referring to belief, it deals with the ascetic renunciation of one's own will due to mystical desires or religious principles. When referring to philosophy, it is the voluntary sacrifice of one's desires or natural human tendencies in the name of any ethical imperative.

Could these mental metamorphoses be done without appealing to the sacred? Could you dispense with magical thoughts? Was it possible to undertake such an undertaking based on formal education? How could the logic of religious thought help in the construction of a rational authority, recognized as legitimate?

This mental reprogramming transforms behaviors, establishes new parameters of “right and wrong” and determines another meaning for life. It occurs “from the inside out” because it is linked to personal will and commitment, arising in the mind.

After the change, the new belief continues to offer intelligent ways out of complicated problems. It was necessary, at the same time, to forgive and be forgiven by habitual killers.

It requires renouncing violence to deal with your conflicts and stopping using drugs, smoking and drinking. Also changing the way of relating to women and creating a new network of friends while abandoning the old one.

Conversion, in this sense, reveals itself as a survival strategy, by defusing conflicts through non-aggression pacts. It allows you to develop a support network to undertake – and earn an honest living.

In “Metanoia” (conversion), the person is reborn and lives an incarnation again in the same body, without having to die. Manso collected many of these cases because they were extraordinary personal stories set in violent urban contexts.

The cases were very varied because the conversions affected different groups, occupations and classes of income and wealth. Many occurred after long periods of depression. But there were also triggers for epiphanies – a message from the heavens, a voice, a dream, a remarkable event –, revealing the urgency of changing course.

Police officers also began to use violence to impose their will in the face of adversity, as if they were free, capable of making their own laws and summary judgments. In the view of these groups, the extermination of criminals worked on two fronts: it made young people considered dangerous disappear and taught obedience to other survivors of police massacres.

This was the case of many vigilantes – residents of the outskirts of São Paulo who became killers, financed by local businesses – and military police officers. They started killing, thinking that they would reduce crime.

In practice, they spread more violence. Each death promoted circles of revenge and conflict. They made homicide rates explode.

Previously honest police officers ended up discovering corruption within the police itself. He would send the suspects to the police station in the morning and, at night, he would find them on the street.

He asked how they got out; They told him to go “get some of his money from the police chief”. The revolt against the system grows and over time the idea of ​​executing the suspects matures.

In the process of self-deception, he begins to “kill for idealism”. He murders recidivist boys, seen as incurable, because, from his perspective as a judge without contradiction, they should disappear from the world to make it safer.

After a mistake like arresting, in front of several witnesses, a suspect to be executed, he goes to prison. When he spends years in prison in a closed regime, he receives invitations to escape and work in gangs made up of police officers, with connections outside the country, experts in extortion, robbery and car theft.

As he adapts to life as a prisoner, at the same time, he loses contact with “the outside” of prison. He sees his family move away, his children grow up at a distance and his wife no longer visits him. Due to this abandonment, he accepts the evangelicals' invitation to go to a service inside the prison.

There, he “realized”: his life had been a mistake, an immense illusion, and his new identity would be shaped by his new beliefs. God would have left a manual, the Bible, for believers to follow his instructions.

The story of many ex-cop killers converting into believers contains a certain transformation. Many had become exterminators because they believed the bandits had no salvation because they were essentially bad, evil, with no chance of recovery. Therefore, they should be eliminated instead of arrested.

However, when the killer police themselves transformed and began to believe in the possibility of change, they began to believe: everyone must have the chance to transform. After all, “a man cannot want to assume the role of God over the life and death of other human beings”.

When the former police officer finds himself down, with no hope of escaping death, threatened day and night by other prisoners, feeling vulnerable to the point of attempting suicide, he becomes open to changing his beliefs. He learns to have love for life.

Many, even after becoming believers, suffer retaliation from PCC criminals, in attacks against police officers, even murdered in front of their new family. They had transformed, but the world remained the same.

Other more pragmatic and/or realistic believers take on, for example, a mission in Cracolândia to work with transvestites or transsexuals. They preach not to change their identities or orientations, but to leave drugs and the streets.

Mere isolated phenomena do not help to explain structural changes in society. Over time, however, cases of conversion proved to be visible symptoms of a changing society, whose members tried to adapt to the upheavals and changes that the country was going through.

According to Bruno Paes Manso, in his essential reading book to understand urban Brazil, or more precisely, the metropolitan periphery, “modernity and urbanization carry a past of slavery and violence. It will haunt us for a long time.”

*Fernando Nogueira da Costa He is a full professor at the Institute of Economics at Unicamp. Author, among other books, of Brazil of banks (EDUSP). []


Bruno Paes Manso. Faith and the rifle: Crime and religion in XNUMXst century Brazil. São Paulo, However, 2023, 304 pages. []

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