Last Sunday at A-'s church was a baptism Sunday: Festa das Aguas. And a party it was, with people waving flags and banners and fireworks going off for each new baptism. There must have been eight or so people making a public confession of their faith…and I was struck by the difference between the use of fireworks here and in the poor communities near where I live. In the favelas, fireworks so often are used as warning devices, as signals that the drugs are coming or going, that the cops are entering, and as such, are announcers of death. But while these fireworks yesterday were also announcing death, it was of a different kind, a joyful death. It was death of the old self, of desires that only brought isolation, of separation from God, from ourselves, from each other. It was the death of one era and the beginning of another. It was the celebration of a new life, rising from the waters. A new life that would face those same temptations but would not be enslaved to them. A new life with new options, because even in the face of impossible situations, there would now be the ever-present reality of God as friend, as companion, as father, helper and guide.
After the evening service at a church A- refers to as a “refrigerator” due to the formal, stiff order of service and the inability of the congregation to imagine that hands were made for clapping (!), we came to my home and watched a film that tore into my heart. It was a film produced in Brazil but made for export. All the titles were in English. It told the story of two friends who entered the police force in Rio de Janeiro and then through a series of circumstances, joined a special unit. The special unit whose symbol is a skull with crossed knives. Who are as well trained as the Israeli military, if we believe what they tell us. And who enter this elite group for one reason: to kill.
It was hard for me to watch not because I didn’t know many of these things already. How many times did I utter a shuddered prayer at the smell of smoke in the air, fearful that it meant a human body was being unceremoniously cremated? The nights of “pipoca,” the popcorn explosions of grenades and machine guns littering the air with tracer lines of bullets? The pillars of tires, the revenge assassinations, the rich playboys from the Zona Sul perpetuating with their callous drug use a civil war in which they will never have to be soldiers, never have to face justice, and will be lauded for their occasional volunteer service to help the “less-fortunate” who are kept that way by poverty initiated by social exclusion and the violence enacted by the marijuana/heroin/cocaine trade.
I knew all these things already. But seeing the two sides lined up, lado ao lado, I was struck by how demonic it all was. Suffocating people with plastic bags until they confess or betray isn't justice, no matter how hard you bend the rules. A clean, sniper murder isn't justice, not according to the laws of this or most other countries. The authorities play just as dirty as the bad guys. But how much justice can you expect from men and women whose symbol is a skull and crossed weapons? They're advertising what they're about...
And on the other hand, we have the dealers, whose multi-million dollar business is built on the backs of the poor, on the children and teens and grandmothers who die as casualties in police raids, on the disposable lives of the faceless young men who are here today and dead tomorrow but who never lack replacements to hold their plastic sacks full of cocaine or marijuana. On the lookouts who are the first to die when the police come in...or when they were not astute enough to notice the raids but not lucky enough to arrested. No one gives second chances in the trade. A business built on violence, fear, and thousands of rich people who prefer to close their eyes to the favelas and pretend that their casual weekend drug use doesn't hurt anybody.
As I am processing this film, remembering the fireworks of the morning, I'm thinking about the evil that underlies both the drug trade and the corruption of the system that is supposed to combat it. There's really nothing humanly speaking that we can do about these problems. Both are so deeply rooted that nothing short of a revolutionary social and moral earthquake is going to enact long-lasting change. And the only revolutionary social and moral earthquake that I know of doesn't use violence. It doesn't rely on anything particularly Nobel peace prize-worthy. It's not academically correct. The only earthshaking experience I know of that brings about change, real change, is an encounter with God. It's what those baptisms Sunday morning testified to: lives forever changed by a personal encounter and subsequent relationship with God. Revolutionizing forever how they will think about and engage life and others. When they hear fireworks tomorrow morning, and every time after that, I hope they remember their experience under the water. I hope they remember what those joyful explosions were signifying, celebrating. And I hope that that knowledge does something with the way they go out into the day, does something to forever change the fabric of the society they live in, until one day, the fireworks cease in our favelas and the only farinha sold in the street is flour for birthday cakes, biscuits and bread.