Frei Betto on Intolerance & Neoliberalism

Frei Betto, 70,  a Dominican Friar and author of 52 books, is one of the central figures in the Brazilian liberation theology movement. Tortured and imprisoned for four years during the military dictatorship, he went on to play a key role in the formation of the CUT labor union federation,  the Central de Movimentos Populares (CMP) social movement federation and the Movimento de Trabalhadores Sem Terra (MST) social movement. He was one of the architects of Lula’s lauded Zero Hunger program and served as advisor to the Brazilian presidency in 2003 and 2004. In this, the third installment of our partnership with LeMonde Diplomatique Brasil, Frei Betto speaks with editor Luis Brasilino about intolerance.

In your opinion, what is intolerance and what fosters it?

As I say in my book “Reinventar a Vida”, intolerance is the inability to see the other, accept a different opinion or understand that not all points of view come from the same starting point. It feeds on arrogance, the conviction that one can own the truth, fundamentalism and ego-centrism.

In your article, “The art of tolerance” you say that religious intolerance is its most repugnant form. Why?

Because God does not have a religion. It transcends all religious doctrine. Religion comes from the verb, re-ligar [reconnect]. It reconnects with itself, neighbours, nature and God. Therefore there is nothing more contradictory than trying to impose it on others in the name of faith because faith, in principle, induces love which is the Siamese twin of tolerance.

Any act of intolerance is an attitude of non-love. Love, as the Apostle Paul says in the first letter to the Corinthians, “is patient and attentive; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. It doesn’t get happy with injustice and rejoices in the truth. It forgives everything, believes everything, waits for everything and supports everything.”

Has the level of religious intolerance improved in recent years?

Yes because of the practice of ecumenism among the christian churches and the inter-religious dialogue. Catholics no longer persecute protestants and discriminate against spiritualists. Evangelicals don’t segregate themselves from atheists. Jews and Muslims get along well in Brasil and this scares people in other countries. Nevertheless, there is still a lot of intolerance to be eradicated.

Do you see the growth of the power of the neo-pentacostal churches as one more factor that feeds intolerance, especially religious intolerance, or are these groups also victims of prejudice?

I avoid prejudice against the neo-pentacostal churches. There is tolerance and intolerance inside all religious institutions. The Catholic Church, for example, created the inquisition at the height of its intolerance. The problem is that, as La Boétie said in his classic “Discourse on Voluntary Servitude”, many people abdicate their autonomy and prefer to be led around like dogs on a leash… They shelter themselves in the shade of a pastor, a priest, a politician or a leader and submit to their will like followers of a divine oracle. Many religions exploit this vulnerable side of human nature that was so well analysed by Freud.

Beyond intolerance based on religion there is intolerance of religious people against determined practices and groups, these days especially against homosexuality. What is your take on this?

The Catholic Church, to which I belong, is still officially intolerant in relation to women despite the fact that they are the main apostles of the Christian faith. Women are considered ontologically inferior to men, which impedes them from becoming priests. Fortunately, Pope Francis, an example of tolerance, is working to change this institutional posture. There has been all kinds of intolerance throughout history: the free against the slaves, the rich against the poor, the Nazi’s against the Jews, the Jews against the Islamic Palestinians, the whites against the blacks, etc.

All prejudice reinforces intolerance and provokes discrimination. Today this is evident in many rich countries in relation to Muslims who are considered potential terrorists and in homophobic people in relation to homosexuality which is no longer considered an  illness or deviance. There is still a main step that has to be made: accepting that if God is love then every loving relationship is an experience of God.

Manifestations of intolerance have gained more visibility with the social networks and the possibility to comment about journalistic content on the internet. Does this pass from the virtual to the real world or does it remain confined to cyberspace?

The social networks merely break the walls of intimacy and reveal how people really are. There is a procedural inversion: the crime of privacy invasion gives way to cynicism and the hyper-exposition of invaded privacy. People expose themselves with their prejudices, flaws, neurosis and craziness. The real world merely uses the virtual to reinforce reality as it is. This shows that we have a long road to travel to create a civilising project free of prejudices, discrimination and intolerance.

In the sense that the economic crisis reduces opportunities and lowers the quality of life, does intolerance tend to increase?

It is not that an economic crisis reinforces intolerance. In declaring “the end of history”, the consumer culture that is propagated by neoliberalism seeks to confine all of us in a cycle of the present without a historical perspective or utopian horizon.

In my book, “A Mosca Azul” (Rocco) I write that post-modernity’s main philosophical problem is that neoliberalism removes history from time and causes the political debate to descend from the rational to the emotional. It reinforces intolerance and thus subverts logic and annuls common sense.

The current Brazilian Congress is cited by many specialists as the most conservative since the return to democracy [in 1989]. Is this an expression of an increase in intolerance or does it merely reflect distortions in the Brazilian political system?

I believe in the second hypothesis.  In spite of the 1988 Constitution, our political system is still bound to the long period of military dictatorship. I don’t believe that the current Congress is capable of enacting a positive political reform. This is why it is so important that we create a sovereign assembly exclusively for political reform.

The expressions of dissatisfaction about the Federal Government and the PT party frequently cross the line of hate. How do you analyse this situation?

Although the PT has provided the best government in our republican history, above all through its promotion of economic inclusion in wide sectors of the Brazilian poor population, it committed the error of not also promoting political inclusion. Now it is paying for this grave omission. It embraced a neo-developmentalist project,  stimulating consumption of personal goods (appliances, smartphones, cars, etc) without a counterpart in social goods (such as health, education, housing and public transportation) and fostered a neoliberal consumer culture which, confronted with the fiscal adjustments which only punish the poor, is now turning against the government. There will be no salvation for PT without the social movements.

Finally, what steps that can be made to foster a more tolerant society?

Education, education and education, including ethics and spirituality in the curriculum (which cannot be confused with religion, according to the distinction made in my book “O Que a Vida me Ensinou (Saraiva)). Severe punitive legislation for those who practice intolerance will also bring us closer to our neighbours and to the collective.

The law has to be intolerant with intolerance. I don’t see any other path.