The military and religious faith

Image: Luis Quintero


How should a proclaimed secular State deal with religious activism within its interior?

A video circulated this week showing an auditorium full of military personnel in a religious celebration falsely presented as neo-Pentecostal. In fact, it was a routine Easter celebration for the military which, since the Second World War, has taken place outside the Catholic Church calendar.

The malicious post unsettled Brazilians concerned about threats to democracy: military and police institutions contaminated by religious fundamentalism can only be expected of limitless aberrations.

Until the recent invasion of the Gaza Strip, I turned to French bishop Raymond d'Agile's description of the capture of Jerusalem to exemplify the sanctification of bloodshed: “Wonderful things are seen... In the streets and squares of the city, pieces of heads , hands, feet. Men and knights march everywhere through corpses... In the Temple and in the Portico, people rode horses with blood up to their bridles. Just and admirable was the judgment of God who wanted this place to receive the blood of the blasphemers who had defiled it. Celestial spectacles… In the Church and throughout the city, the people gave thanks to the Eternal”.

We know the ravages of religious fanaticism in politics: it distorts the scrutiny of popular representation and explodes institutionality. We also know that the composition of the National Congress does not represent the Brazilian political-ideological spectrum. What we do not know is the depth of penetration of neo-Pentecostal discourse into the State's instruments of force. We are only aware that it exists and has harmful potential.

How should a proclaimed secular State deal with religious activism within its interior? This is a permanent problem of modernity, which is acutely expressed in the barracks.

The entity that justifies war between civilized people is the nation, also called homeland. By highlighting the cenotaphs (tombs without mortal remains) in the construction of this entity, Benedict Anderson demonstrated how its legitimation derives from religiosity: it refers to the distant past and eternity. The person responsible for sustaining the nation through weapons is, with no escape, enveloped by its sacredness.

The contemporary combatant dresses up as the representative of “good” in a sacred struggle against “evil”. He takes an oath and reveres the national flag like a medieval crusader before the cross. He does not outdated Voltaire's scathingness: “the wonderful thing, in this infernal enterprise (war), is that all the leaders of assassins have their flags blessed and solemnly invoke God before exterminating their neighbor”.

Warriors, at any time and place, are led to cultivate the “beautiful death”: they love life, enjoy material facilities and social projection, but pursue glory, something beyond what earthly existence can offer. War heroes are revered in all societies. They fascinate, galvanize crowds and stimulate social processes.

The modern man's willingness to see war as something exceptional demands arbitrary cuts such as those established between the “religious”, the “political”, the “economic”, the “scientific”, the “diplomatic” and the “military”. Strictly speaking, none of these domains can be understood as disconnected.

Arbitrary distinctions, as well as the always frustrated disarmament agreements, the failed attempts to classify and regulate the behavior of life and death fighters or even the chimerical neutralities in conflicts between national States, camouflage the discomfort caused by the elimination of similar people.

If the secular State cannot ban religious activities in the barracks, it is essential that it establishes limits. This requires guaranteeing full freedom of belief, incompatible with the formal prevalence of the Catholic Church, and the containment of fanaticism.

It's time to review the so-called chaplaincy: missionaries cannot be hired as paid employees. It is important to ensure the presence, in the barracks, of the mosaic of beliefs of Brazilian society. In command, strict respect for religious diversity must be observed.

As for the person who falsely presented the video about the military's Easter celebration, know that he managed to distress those who like democracy and irritate in vain those who, in the barracks, were looking for Christ's coat. How about finding something else to do?

* Manuel Domingos Neto He is a retired UFC professor and former president of the Brazilian Association of Defense Studies (ABED). Author, among other books What to do with the military – Notes for a new National Defense (Reading Cabinet). []

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