Ekklesia: Three Inquiries in Church and State

Ekklesia: Three Inquiries in Church and State


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226545585
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/13/2018
Series: TRIOS Series
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 1,149,985
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Paul Christopher Johnsonis professor of history and Afroamerican and African studies and director of the Doctoral Program in Anthropology and History at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He is the author ofSecrets, Gossip, and Gods: The Transformation of Brazilian CandombléandDiaspora Conversions: Black Carib Religion and the Recovery of Africa.

Pamela E. Klassen is professor in the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto, cross-appointed to anthropology. She is the author of several books, including Spirits of Protestantism: Medicine, Healing, and Liberal Christianity, and Ekklesia: Three Inquiries in Church and State, with coauthors Paul Christopher Johnson and Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

Winnifred Fallers Sullivan is professor in and chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University Bloomington. She is also an affiliated professor of law at Indiana University Bloomington Maurer School of Law.

Read an Excerpt



Paul Christopher Johnson

Backed up by the law,
Text recovered in the ruins of Canudos

In Brazil as elsewhere, many citizens now see the state as a fragile shell. The republic seems hollowed out; there is no "there" there. In September 2015 the lawyer and professor Janaína Paschoal submitted a motion to launch impeachment proceedings against Brazil's president, Dilma Rousseff. On April 4, 2016, in a video that went viral, she took the podium at a rally to describe the government in diabolical terms. "When we succeed at impeaching Dilma," she shouted into the microphone, "We will destroy the Republic of the Serpent!" Two weeks later Brazil's lower house in congress voted to begin impeachment proceedings against the president. Fifty-nine deputies prominently invoked God in the televised process of declaring their vote, including the (then) president of congress, Eduardo da Cunha. God was rolled into verbal screeds against corruption, and not without justification. The country was in economic turmoil, with many federal and state employees long unpaid. Yet as one congressional deputy after another found themselves accused of corruption and bribery or were discovered to hold secret offshore bank accounts or rely on illegal "box number two" (caixa dois) campaign funds, the political and economic impasse mutated into a moral crisis of trust.

On the feast day of Santo Antonio, June 13, the Convent of Saint Anthony in the center of Rio de Janeiro was filled to overflowing. Usually the faithful petition Saint Anthony for marriage, lasting love, and children. That year, said Cardinal Orani Tempesta, "people's biggest worry is the question of their getting paid at the end of the month. Obviously we ask for intercession so the state will have jobs and be able to pay people." The cardinal implied that even divine aid needs the state for its administration and distribution, while the state, for its part, needs some transcendent guarantee. But if the congress that impeached the president is itself packed with thieves, where is the solid body around which justice settles and gathers force? What guarantees the wages of those who work for the state? Where is stateness at all and, given its elusiveness, how will the church help to broker its benefits?

Fears that the republic was a fragile mirage caused concern not least because in August the Olympics would begin, and the bright lights of international media would be turned on Rio. The former capital city required at least the look and infrastructure, the "metaphysical effect" of a republican state. It needed to pop on television screens with the sounds and colors of national unity, security, tradition, and competence, with foundation. Instead the state appeared febrile and thin, a trompe l'oeil propped up by the army now called in to protect arriving tourists on normal city streets. On the eve of the games, the unfinished husks of apartments at the Olympic village and the still-idle new metro line testified more to the obscurity than the presence of stateness.

When the games were done, the political clouds massed and stacked again. On August 30, 2016, the yearlong felling of a regime was a fait accompli when the senate voted to confirm the president's dismissal. Dilma, criticized from the right as an atheist, even sought last-minute help from God, or at least the godly. Yet, far from settling matters, the impeachment launched new debates and marches on the fate of democracy in Brazil and, tangentially, the place of religion and religious discourse in that future. The jurist Janaína Paschoal, who had helped to launch the charge, weighed in again as she summarized and sealed the case before the senate on the eve of the last vote: "It was God who made various people perceive, all at once, what was happening to our country, and who gave them courage to get up and do something about it." Paschoal clarified that she was a not an evangelical but a spiritist: "I'm devoted to St. George, St. Michael the Archangel, and Iemanjá [the Yoruba and Afro-Brazilian goddess of the sea and maternity] ... If I was a Pastor or a Mãe de Santo [priestess of Candomblé], would my request for impeachment be less legitimate? ... I think it's necessary to talk about God, because materialism, intrigue, indifference, falsity and dissimulation have taken over the country."

Some senators echoed the need for religion to repair the republic. They too hoped to play Saint George slaying the serpent. Despite Paschoal's presentation of a stereotypically Brazilian-style ecumenism, many of those echoing her position in bringing God into Brazilian politics hail from the so-called bloco evangélico (evangelical block), a cross-party alliance of evangelical congresspersons who mostly vote in chorus and who had aggressively rallied for the "leftist" Dilma's demise.

In the press appeared familiar wry laments: given the anemic condition of the nation's futebol, usually the favored totem (it was never the church or the republic), only the long-running telenovelas would be left to convene collective civil life. Once upon a time a backlands town named Canudos was the subject of such a telenovela, in 1997. It flickered on screens in almost every home. A century before that, in 1897, the real Canudos and its destruction served as a narrative pivot of the nation, through the medium of newspapers. In that moment, the new republic was similarly suspected of being possessed of a demonic quality manifested by the serpent or, as the people of Canudos called it, the Law of the Hound.

Here I take up a question raised in the introduction on the techniques of making and unmaking social orders that install new renditions of the People. The essay takes the reader to Brazil and the first decade after a confluence of key events: the abolition of slavery (1888), the founding of the republic (1889), the exile (1889) and then death (1891) of the emperor, Pedro II, and the separation of church and state (1890). The paradoxical event I explore is the appearance of a powerfully weaponized churchstate alliance that emerged just a few years after the official separation of church and state. In fact, the separation of church and state helped to generate a more forceful and aggressive edition of the church than had existed before.

Looking at churchstateness through the window afforded by Brazil's first republican decade and, within it, the ekklesia of Canudos and the astonishing war waged against it by the new government, offers a rare opportunity. In just a few years unfolded a radical national reimagination of the people in relation to church and state. The reporter Euclides da Cunha called it a "revoltation" (revoltação) — more than a revolt but not quite a revolution — the neologism struggling to name a wide-ranging transition compressed into a single riveting decade. Among the first challenges to the republic and its ideals was the emergence of a large frontier town in the middle of "nowhere" a thousand miles from the federal capital in Rio de Janeiro. Its name was Canudos, or, as its religious and political leader Antonio Conselheiro (Anthony the Counselor) renamed it in 1893, "Belo Monte." There, in a shantytown that swelled to as many as fifty-two hundred houses and approached thirty thousand persons, a specific politics of refusal erupted: the refusal of the republic's separation of church and state and a refusal of the idea that a lawful polity and governance could not exist outside the republican state. They imagined the republic as the Antichrist and its laws as the Law of the Hound. In the 1890s, Antonio exhorted the faithful to resist the new republic and its signs — civil marriage, state burials, federal taxation, the national census, and the forced exile of the emperor. He did not seek military conflict but did not shy from it when it came. He described visions of four wars, of victory in three followed by a fourth conflagration whose terminus was unknown, but that would bring change.

Over the course of a year, from 1896 to 1897, the humble villagers of Canudos — the plebs, the serfs, the frontier, the fanatic horde, as they were called — defeated the republic's well-equipped military three times. The fourth expedition brought six thousand soldiers reinforced later by several thousands more, Krupp cannons, and mounted machine guns. It brought fire and the total destruction of the city, almost all its inhabitants, and the Counselor himself. But it also authorized the republic in acclamation, in glory, and in blood. The journalist Euclides da Cunha was direct on this score in his diary entry: "What is being destroyed is not Canudos — it's our unnerving apathy, our morbid indifference about the future, our ill-defined religiosity spread through strange superstitions." The total war on Canudos was waged to destroy a renegade people — their religion, polity, and polis — and advance a still-precarious stateness to the edge of the territorial and religious frontier. The republican state succeeded, at least superficially: the head of Canudos's sovereign, Antonio Conselheiro, was carried back to Bahia for craniometrical evaluation at the Faculty of Medicine: a thorough conversion to a state-informed body indeed.

My wager is that the case of Canudos can move us closer, even into, the oblique processes of transition from sacred king to sacred state — this "pass into," that "comes to replace" named in the introduction — by revealing how the republic no less than the people or the king depend for their efficacy on their capacity to take hold of emotions and direct actions, to grip persons and quicken them toward certain affinities and predispositions. Santner called this this the "jointure of the somatic and the normative." Through the events at Canudos we may be able to see how the loss of the king and the arrival of the republic helped produce the church/state dyad and what that actually meant in the lives and deaths of a people at the frontier, how it signified in, through, and on the ground. How did the normative get into the bones and sinews, to become somatic? In this essay I give attention to how republican state and church came to possess subjects or, conversely, be resisted and cast out — that is, respectively, as ecstasy and as excess. It was reported of the Counselor that, at a certain hour each day, he entered into an ecstatic state in order to communicate directly with God. In response, one Brazilian official wrote of the rebellion, "The urgent challenge is to make the jagunços [more or less, "ruffians," the standard name given to the backland rebels] feel the relevance of their duties as citizens." The civic challenge in the view of this state bureaucrat was to make the prophet and his community know ecstasy as excess, to drain ecstasy and fill them rather with duty, to leave their bodies infused by the spirit of the state.

Much has been written, told, and filmed about the war at Canudos, from the journalist Euclides da Cunha's canonical 1902 Os Sertões (Rebellion in the Backlands) that became a classic of Brazilian literature to Mario Vargas Llosa's massive 1981 War of the End of the World to various films and a television miniseries. The study of Canudos, too, has passed through multiple cycles. To cut into this mass of histories and afterlives, the first part of the present treatment revisits the much-told story from a particular point of view, attuned to everyday religious practices as they constituted an ekklesia. The essay then turns to republican techniques of unmaking a people who did not conform to the new order of churchstateness. Here I pay close attention to the mundane modes of civil religion at the front — its music, chants, burials, and flags.

The first technique of unmaking, detailed below, was through the sensorial eclipse of Canudos's religious practices by republican sounds and sights. Like Klassen in this volume, I foreground the sensorium in how the normative becomes somatic — the sonic vibrations and felt textures. It was through the sensorium that republican claims were pressed on one side and countered by an older version of church stateness on the other. Then the essay turns to the second and third techniques of unmaking by caricaturizing of the followers of the Counselor as dangerously mixed — religiously, socially, and racially — and so illegible and illegitimate as candidates to join the republic. The next and related technique was casting this ekklesia as a fanatical horde. For, after the republican transformation, in Brazil as elsewhere, all social groups came to be perceived through the lens of the people, either as positive exemplars of it or deviants or rebels against it. By discursively rendering, and then killing, those at Canudos as a delirious crowd, a flawed and illegitimate ekklesia, these persons were unhinged from the (Brazilian) people until their postmortem rehabilitation and redemption, as sacrificed citizens of the republic. The fourth technique of unmaking was the spectacularization of the machinery of war and the demolition of Canudos. Related to Sullivan's essay in this volume on the death penalty in the United States, I emphasize in this part how the republic's separation of church and state summoned its own rites of terror, how it, for example, relied on performative beheadings of the rebels as a form of enunciation and communication. In the end the republican army took with it the Counselor's severed head less as a totem of republican society, as a Durkheimian formulation might have it, than as signature of the religious group's radical outsideness — its completed detachment, as in the French revolutionary model. Later, the victims were posthumously converted into honorary citizens, as sacred corps and corpse.

Before turning to these techniques of unmaking, I begin by glossing the story of the emergence and then destruction of Canudos and its prophet, Antonio Conselheiro (fig. 1).


The arid northeast of Brazil suffered massive changes in the second part of the nineteenth century. The centers of prosperity shifted to the south's burgeoning coffee valleys and to the northwest with its rubber extraction in Amazonia. Sugar, the traditional anchor of the northeast, declined. The interior's familiar role in raising cattle for the dried beef (carne seca) to feed the coastal slave-labor force, was likewise in doubt. The plantations that managed to remain prosperous underwent drastic mechanization, with fifty refining factories built in a single decade from 1875 to 1885. Factory men wielding new British technologies began to overshadow the centuries-old seigneurial landowning class. Rails and telegraph lines were set, laying the groundwork for an emergent "national culture" for the first time, but also pitting urban bourgeoisie, industrial, and military classes in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo against rural landowners of the northeast, who until then ruled their vast estates like autonomous lords.

Even against this backdrop of dramatic change, life for the poor laborer remained little altered. Workers on large ranches and farms were serfs and semislaves even after abolition in 1888. Bound in debt and patronage relations with land barons, they had few options other than peonage, banditry, or a state of permanent nomadism, a dangerous risk given the threat of drought and starvation. Droughts lasting several years without any rainfall whatsoever occurred from 1877 to 1879, a decade later, in 1888–89, and yet again in 1893–95. The future chief of police of Salvador, Durval Vieira de Aguiar, traveled the region in 1882 and drafted a description: its people were peaceful if often in need, he wrote. The commerce was insignificant; the industry consisted of nothing but the curing of leather and making of nets. Worrisome for Durval was that the forms of "moral equivalence" that had for centuries woven the social fabric of the region, despite the poverty and periodic drought, had unraveled.

Within such precarity, the church provided a crucial social frame. This was churchness writ large, an ensemble of folk traditions and Iberian practices dating back centuries, godparenthood networks, pilgrimages, cultivation of relations with saints, the influence of Amerindian and African shamanism, and the expectation of miracles as well as charismatic figures who could bring them about. In the late nineteenth century, the church undertook an aggressive program of reform that aimed to severely trim this ample and malleable repertory. Ralph Della Cava summarized the reform as threefold: a return of the church to the people; a reorganization of ecclesiastic jurisdiction and structure; and a spiritual revival among both laity and clergy. The first of these, the return to the people, is especially noteworthy for my purposes. The "return" cues us to the previous long-standing disinterest in the poor, who had mostly been left to their own devices in improvising a folk Catholicism now derided as childish and superstitious. Also conspicuous is the tension between the "return to the people" and what Della Cava cast as the third part of the reform, ultramontane reforms and revivals. This top-down regulation of the church's theology and orthopraxy rendered a "return to the people" anything but straightforward. The people, after all, were loyal to their own strongly rooted forms of practice, and mostly accustomed to making do without actual priests.


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Table of Contents

Paul Christopher Johnson, Pamela E. Klassen, Winnifred Fallers Sullivan

The People and the Law of the Hound at Canudos
Paul Christopher Johnson

Spiritual Jurisdictions: Treaty People and the Queen of Canada
Pamela E. Klassen

Banning Bibles; Death-Qualifying a Jury
Winnifred Fallers Sullivan


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