Religion and Social Activism: The Grassroots Catholic Church in Brazil
Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.
-- Karl Marx
Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, Introduction
With these words, written in 1844, Karl Marx dismissed the possibility that religion could serve as a force for social change. The oppressed may sigh at their misfortune, but religion will produce in them a druglike state that will remove the desire to become involved in any kind of activism.
This was not, however, the end of the sociological discussion on this matter. About seventy years later Max Weber pointed out that religion has a prophetic aspect. He noted that the Biblical prophets issued challenges to the authorities of their times, demanding social justice ( Weber 1963:50). According to a recent interpretation of Weber's theory, religious movements may also be considered prophetic, if these movements are critical of the established order ( Maduro 1982: 106-107).
While Marx may not have been entirely wrong in his assessment of religion, since in many situations it does encourage conformity to the existing order, there are other situations that lend support to Weber's view. In my research on the Roman Catholic Church in Brazil, I have found evidence of a prophetic movement in the form of base communities (in Portuguese comunidades eclesiais de base, or CEBS). These are groups of lay people who organize their own religious practices in the absence of priests. Lay leaders direct Sunday worship and provide instruction for people preparing for sacraments, such as baptism and marriage. They organize Bible groups whose members interpret Scripture in a way that leads them to take a critical look at the situations in which they live. Since the majority of people in Latin America live in poverty, this critical look often leads CEB members