One of the most important sacraments in Christianity takes place around a table. It is at the Last Supper table that Jesus teaches his disciples about communion. Around nutritious and traditional food from the Hebrew people, Jesus chooses to spend his last moments with his friends before a great pain. Commensality, or sharing meals, is an idea that is highly praised by many Latin American theologians. Perhaps this is because, for many of us who live in the global south, talking about food is, first and foremost, talking about hunger.
In the last two elections (2018 and 2022), evangelicals were the most important and decisive religious group in the political field in Brazil. Evangelical fundamentalist support for former President Jair Bolsonaro has divided churches, families and communities when evangelical leaders decided to support the far-right, especially for the so-called “moral agenda” or “the defense of the traditional family” (anti LGBTQIA+ community, feminism and leftist ideologies agendas). Bolsonaro’s mandate was devastating in practically all areas, from managing the COVID-19 pandemic to the environment, but also economically, reaching the number of more than 33 million people in a state of severe food insecurity.
Currently, for most Brazilians, Christian commensality is an almost impractical challenge: there is no bread nor wine, no communion. The house has been swept away by a flood and the table is cracked. The food system is a complex network that affects not only humans but also non-human animals and the planet. The concept of food sovereignty recognizes that the question is not simply how to end hunger, but how to do so. As Christians, we have a responsibility to ask ourselves what it means to share Christ’s table in this context, even though we still have a long way to go.
An ox marked with 22 on the face
In October 2022, a video went viral on social media showing a veterinarian branding an ox with the number 22 on its face using a hot iron. In the background, Bolsonaro’s campaign jingle can be heard. “22” was also the campaign number of the then candidate for re-election for president. Although branding is routine in livestock farming, the video shocked many people. It illustrates not only the connection of agribusiness agenda with Bolsonaro’s neoliberal policy, but also the way colonial ideologies view beings as inferior products that can be subjected to any violence. Both human (especially people of color and marginalized) and non-human animals are seen as simply means of profit or disposable.
The entire industrial complex is justified by the notion that Brazil is the “storehouse of the world”. In other words, Brazilian agribusiness is seen as a means to help feed the world. Brazil is second only to the United States in beef production, and according to the 2022 FAO report, it is projected to become the world’s largest meat exporter, surpassing even the United States.
Contrary to what agribusiness claims, researchers, activists, indigenous peoples, and rural workers have shown that this system is actively responsible for perpetuating hunger. In regions of Brazil where agribusiness has expanded, poverty and violence have increased. These are the same places where the most technologically advanced agriculture can be found, as well as numerous workers rescued from slave labor. Furthermore, agribusiness produces food that is meant to have a long shelf life but is low in quality and nutrients. The economic advantage for agribusiness lies in international buyers who purchase commodities in dollars. However, this creates shortages and high food prices domestically.
In fact, family farming, not agribusiness, is responsible for 70% of the food that arrives at Brazilian families’ tables. However, in the face of these contradictions, we need to ask: what sustains agribusiness as the hegemonic food system in Brazil?
Hunger arrived by caravel in 1500
While the terms “agribusiness” and “commodities” are relatively recent, the exploitation of Brazilian lands for the purpose of exporting wealth has been present since the arrival of Portuguese colonizers in 1500. This (so-called) new land was rich in valuable natural resources, but most importantly, there was an enormous amount of suitable land for sugarcane monoculture.
The sugar cane industry is one of the colonial legacies that still has a strong presence in agribusiness today. It was primarily to expand this industry that the first enslaved people were forcibly brought to work in Brazil. The colonizers also brought with them their religion, Christianity, which was propagated through violent and coercive means, and was used as a justification for slavery. Colonization relegated the status of “human” to only a small portion of people, while commodifying the bodies and beings of others.
Agribusiness actively lobbies against the demarcation of indigenous lands, land reform, and stricter laws regarding labor regulation and anti-deforestation in the Amazon and Pantanal. As such, agribusiness is primarily enabled by colonial institutions and continues to act in a colonizing manner. One example of this is the “ox, bible, and bullet bench,” a political coalition that advocates for agribusiness, fundamentalist Christian agendas, and relaxed gun laws in the Brazilian legislative chamber.
The connection between Brazilian evangelicals and Bolsonaro reflects many of the characteristics of Trumpism, which is not surprising since most evangelical churches in Brazil draw on US fundamentalist theology. Colonization is also present in this aspect, when imperialism takes over our reading of the Bible and reality. The evangelical church’s support of the far-right has led several scholars to use the term “Christofascism”, coined by theologian Dorothee Sölle in the 1970s to describe the relationship between the churches and the German Nazi state, which used Christian references and terminology. These aspects are also evident in Bolsonaro’s politics.
Today, within the majority of evangelical churches, supporting Bolsonaro is seen as a litmus test for whether one is a “real” Christian, and leaders present him as the ruler most aligned with Christianity, openly persecuting more “progressive” Christians. However, the majority of evangelicals in Brazil are women of color who live in marginalized and low-income regions. While many of them struggle to feed themselves and their families, their fears and moral anguish are exploited by religious and government leaders who prioritize profit over life. In the midst of this material crisis, fascism enters their homes disguised as the truth of the gospel. Yet, many of these women made a difference in preventing Bolsonaro’s reelection in 2022.
Elected president in 2022, Lula spoke often during the campaign about his desire to see “Brazilians eating steak again,” evoking both the end of hunger and the cultural significance of red meat as a symbol of social ascension and abundance in Brazil. Now, the Lula government faces the challenge of lifting millions of Brazilians out of hunger while negotiating the demands of agribusiness. The system that brands non-human animals in the face with a hot iron is not designed to feed people, but rather to maximize profit.
A table set in demarcated indigenous lands
Faced with this scenario, the idea of sharing the table becomes quite a challenge. We run the risk of falling into the common rhetoric of blaming “humans” for destroying the planet and causing hunger. However, this is also a colonial rhetoric that assumes our current Western idea and configuration of being human is the only one that exists. It’s important to remember that for thousands of years, human beings have inhabited the Amazon rainforest and kept it intact. These communities possess valuable knowledge that has the potential to change exploitative food systems.
As an example, we can examine the sustainable management of pirarucu by riverside indigenous communities living near the Amazon River. Pirarucu is one of the largest freshwater fish in the world, native to the Amazon and it was under threat of extinction for many years due to predatory fishing. The community passes down indigenous ancestral wisdom to differentiate each fish by its color and the noise it makes when emerging to breathe. This allows them to count the number of fish in the region and prevent predatory fishing. Work and income are shared equally between men and women in the community. In just 10 years, the fish population grew by 600%.
This example, among others, highlights how different food systems can be and how there are already ancient and effective proposals for transformation. As seen in Brazil, it is family farming, not agribusiness, that ensures food on the table. If we want to move towards a world that does not view the planet and non-human animals as commodities, we must recognize that this perspective is a result of a colonial system and white supremacy. The indigenous people who handle the pirarucu identify them by their unique qualities rather than marking them with serial numbers. This is the result of a respectful integration with their environment, which they share.
In the communion of human and non-human animals with the Earth, we find ways of resistance. Peoples of biblical times also experienced this. In 1 Kings 17:8, during times of poverty, persecution, and oppression, the prophet Elijah prophesied change, and change began to happen in people’s lives by awakening the community’s potential. In the following texts, we encounter communities that found tools to combat hunger within themselves. Miracles occurred from community integration, such as when neighborhood women gathered the remains of oil and flour from their vessels (2 Kings 4:1-7), when even in the face of disconnection with knowledge about nature, ancestral wisdom rescues food spoiled (2 Kings 4:38-41), and the few loaves were multiplied when shared in the community (2 Kings 4:42-44). As Cardoso put it:
Prophecy is this: the gestures of making food from almost nothing to carry on with life. The little shared makes a lot and feeds everyone. The good taste of prophecy in the mouths of the people. Sacred gestures and sacred words make the bread of life appear. As flour and oil meet, pots and pans, cakes and bread appear before the eyes of the community. It’s the miracle of continuing to eat from the mysterious gesture of believing in life, in the other, in the other person and becoming a community every day. No one will be hungry!Receitas de Vida: Na cozinha com Elias e Eliseu, my translation
In the New Testament, the Jesus of wine, of the multiplication of bread, of our daily bread, of meals at marginalized and unlikely tables, walks inviting people to eat at the table, as a form of resistance to the empire and religious fundamentalism. The table is a place where hierarchies cease while the meal takes place. We meet as equals, we look each other in the eye, and we share bread and life. It is in communion that we find paths of resistance and hope.
Many Latin American peoples are marked on their faces by the hot iron of Christofascism – by the colonial past and present imperialism. We sat at Jesus’ table with these marks and hunger. Hunger and thirst for justice. Today we sit at the table of Christ, so that through commensality we can discern faith from fascism. To overcome hunger in the abundance of the community.