As a Brazilian, I will remember January 8, 2023, as one of the worst days for my country’s democracy. As an evangelical, I will remember it as one of the darkest days for my country’s church.
This Sunday, dozens of angry citizens arrived in Brasilia and stormed the National Congress, the Supreme Court, and the Planalto Palace, ripping apart furniture, damaging paintings, smashing windows, and beating up journalists. The extremists are supporters of former president Jair Bolsonaro and erroneously believe that the 2022 election was rigged.
Video footage of Sunday’s attack shows the violence of these vandals. But it also reveals some protesters carrying Bibles, praying before they entered Congress, and singing hymns while being detained by federal police—actions that suggest many were evangelicals, an important electoral base for the former president.
“Brazil belongs to the Lord Jesus. The Congress is our church. The Congress is the church of God's people. If you are a Christian, come to the Congress. The Congress is ours, the people of God, until military intervention.” From a video filmed in the National Congress originally uploaded by Clayton Nunes.
Unfortunately, the seed of this extremism that reached its peak Sunday was planted and cultivated, in part, by evangelical churches that supported and campaigned for Bolsonaro in the last elections, amplifying polarization, hate speech, and radicalization. In their extravagant stumping for Bolsonaro, some evangelical leaders christened a rude, violent, and greedy politician into a “man of God.”
Beyond the ways in which many in the evangelical church cultivated an inappropriately intimate relationship with Bolsonaro throughout his presidency and reelection campaign, many Christian leaders have struggled to demonstrate significant fruit of the Spirit when engaging in politics. While publicly calling the church to defend family values, too many pastors themselves struggle with hatred, rancor, violence, division, and pride toward political opponents—works of the flesh that Paul suggests deny entry to the kingdom of God (Gal. 5:19–21).
In recent years, churches have had a loose relationship with the truth and have too often irresponsibly shared conspiracy theories. This past year, some Christians claimed that leftist groups were fighting for the legalization of pedophilia. Since Lula claimed victory in October’s runoff, Christians have joined many of their fellow countrypeople in suggesting that the election’s runoff was the result of voter fraud.
In the aftermath of Sundays’s attack, a January 10 poll from Instituto Atlas found that 67.9 percent of evangelicals in Brazil believe that Lula did not actually win the election, 64.4 percent believe the attack was justified, and 73.8 percent think Bolsonaro is not responsible for it.
Following the elections, Bolsonaristas set up camps in front of barracks around the country, asking for the military to intervene and remove Lula from power. A few days ago, as the Belo Horizonte police dismantled one camp, a man prayed to God in bad Hebrew, “Yauh, Yauh, please don't allow it, Yauh.”
The prayer was fervent and desperate. It also sounded sincere and revealed a theology that had fostered despair, fanaticism, and a revolutionary posture—perhaps acquired encouragement from someone in a pulpit. The ingredients for demolishing a democracy and tarnishing Christian witness on display. A harbinger of the tragedy to come.
I fear we saw the fruits of the church’s worst tendencies on display this Sunday, including resentment toward the president and fellow Brazilians, an aversion to the truth, and a willingness to embrace violence rather than nonviolent protest when things did not go the desired way. But avoiding this outcome in future fraught elections won’t be achieved by swinging the results to a different party. Instead, for Christians of all political persuasions, it will start by seeing ourselves in the life and example of the apostle Peter—and then embracing his advice for us as we navigate living out our faith in adverse circumstances or in contexts in which we do not always agree.
Peter, passion, and a change of heart
The Bible holds the stories of humans who make mistakes, sin, and yet are called by God to repentance and conversion. The apostle Peter is one such person. Peter shows up in the Gospels as someone who fiercely loves Jesus but is prone to making rash announcements, selfish statements, and sometimes violent decisions. Peter frequently and passionately misses the point, he fights with James about who will sit at the right hand of Jesus one day, he tells Jesus he will never deny him, and he cuts off a man’s ear when Jesus is arrested. Even after Jesus forgives him for his denial and Peter spreads the gospel during the first Pentecost, he subsequently struggles to overcome his xenophobia about sharing Jesus with Gentiles.
Never shy about wearing his emotions on his sleeve, some years removed from his emotional and misguided outbursts, Peter later writes to Christians his advice for those who seek to boldly live out their faith.
In your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. (1 Pet. 3:15–16)
The exhortation to “in your hearts revere Christ as Lord” immediately orders our priorities and asks us to check ourselves for idolatry. Notably Peter is writing to people who believe in Jesus, and yet he is still asking Christians to make sure that they have centered the Lord. This includes not only believing in Jesus but also following his word and example in our actions. Relevant to our current situation, Jesus did not condone nationalism or sedition—two political trends expected in part of the messianism of the time. On the contrary, Jesus not only praised Samaritans but also added Zealots and tax collectors among his disciples: anti-colonials and colonialists.
Speaking to Christians living in a hostile world, the apostle Peter—the same Peter who earlier, believing in an aggressive and cowardly faith, had cut off Malchus's ear and denied Jesus three times—explains how we ought to answer the person who asks the reason for our hope. Peter uses two nouns: gentleness (πραότητα), which means “humility” and “meekness,” and respect (φόβου), which means “reverence” or “fear.” When used to refer to people, gentleness conveys an attitude of humility or submission. Likewise, respect refers to a feeling of deep consideration for another.
Having a clear conscience is a common theme in 1 Peter; the word “conscience” appears in some versions of 1 Peter 2:19 and again in 3:21. In both cases, the context is the attitude of submission and respect that Christians should have, even when they are mistreated or persecuted.
When we feel wronged, we can often feel justified in bending the rules, distorting the truth, or adopting an “ends justify the means” mantra. But if we take a moment to reflect, we can quickly see that these are the very actions that discredit Christians to the rest of the world. In fact, Peter wants our character to be so sterling that—it’s worth repeating these words again—“those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.”
So what is the relationship between Peter and Christians who either ransacked the capital on Sunday or bear some responsibility for the attack because of their influence? The lives of both reveal that religious zeal can assume exaggerated proportions and become idolatry, taking the place that belongs only to the Lord. As Peter teaches us, living according to the teachings of Jesus means placing him as the supreme Lord in our lives. Even those of us Christians who may (naively) believe we would never take part in something like last Sunday’s attack can acknowledge that we regularly fall short in this area.
Evangelicals need to experience the same metanoia, or spiritual conversion, that the apostle Peter went through. Perhaps this transformation happened when he started to follow two instructions from his Master: instead of cutting off ears, “put your sword away” (John 18.11), and instead of denying Jesus out of fear or cowardice, “take care of my sheep” (John 21:16).
Guiterres Fernandes Siqueira is a journalist and theologian. He is the author of five books, including Quem tem medo dos evangélicos? (Who’s Afraid of Evangelicals?) (Editora Mundo Cristão.) He lives in São Paulo and is a member of the Assembly of God (Ministério do Belém) in the same city.
With additional reporting by Marisa Lopes and Mariana Albuquerque