A church mural in Brazil reminds us that gods who fight for nations often don't take prisoners.
By Jason Byassee
While in Brazil for the World Council of Churches, I did what I always do in foreign countries—visited as many churches as possible. Normally these are places of quiet dignity, which make me grateful for the people’s prayers and the priest’s work going on there. At Nossa Senhora do Rosário in Porto Alegre, however, I was hit flush in the face with a vision I still can’t shake.
It was a gigantic mural, well-over 100 feet long and a good 50 feet wide, which covered the entire ceiling of a not-insignificantly sized church and literally provided the image of heaven for the worshippers below.
And what was heaven? A navy battle in the Crusades. The Moors are presented as the clear aggressors: a lion is depicted on their sail, one Arab fighter has a rifle, the others hold axes and daggers and other dishonorable weapons, unlike good Christian swords, which are straight and to the point. The Muslim vessel is bristling with cannons; its sails arch to the sky. Its warriors are all wearing turbans and have dark skin. The crescent flag on their enormous vessel hangs low, for it is a moment of Christian triumph. Crusaders pour aboard the Muslim vessel. Its last defenders slink low as they aim their final hapless blows. The image of this one fight between two vessels is a microcosm of an enormous battle raging behind, full of countless ships, with the same outcome implied.
Dozens of angels hold up the top of the entire mural, with flowers in one hand and the “canvas” of the scene gripped in the other, implying that not only are heavenly troops watching over these events, but the Christians are innocent of any aggression and are merely defending themselves. Their ship lacks the enemy’s cannons and sails—rowers labor away below decks to keep their vessels in motion. The Christians even have the disadvantage of a woman fighting on their side—holding a bow and arrow no less, which would have been little defense against the Arab rifleman. The Infidel has every technological marvel available—and still he loses. God is on the side of right, not might.
However, our Heavenly Father did need a little prodding to provide the victory. At the bottom of the mural, a Franciscan friar is bent over his rosary beads. Beside him is the pope, looking up at the scene and virtually presiding under it, for his figure is drawn in larger scale than the warriors whom he observes. Between the pope and the friar is an image of St. Peter. Below the pope, the friar, and the Holy See of Rome are representatives of the Christian home front: two women, presumably a sister and a wife, and a small boy, praying the rosary together and fighting for hearth and home as well as for Christendom.
I found this mural extraordinary, and not just because of its size and scope. Brazil has hardly been a crusading nation—it only leaped into WWII in 1945, after the Nazis attacked it directly. It’s had its border skirmishes with its Latin American neighbors and its military dictators, but not much more in the way of external military activity. If anything, Brazil represents a moment in European history when eastward expansion toward the Holy Land had basically ceased and, luckily for Europe, westward expansion to the new world had finally become possible, and other peoples with darker skin felt the onward onslaught of Christian soldiers.
Those of us who’ve come through academia are trained to be far too circumspect about our own goodness to depict “our” side as the good guys, blessed by God and granted divine victory (yes—the academy does have some things going for it morally). Yet the imagery of this remarkable mural tells a truth that too many people never cease believing: the good God’s side wins out over the bad God’s. It’s as simple as that. And the result is eternal war and a tribal god. Anyone who thinks the Enlightenment’s replacement of religious armies with those pledging allegiance to nation-states has been an improvement for humanity hasn’t looked at the body count.
And though our churches today don’t, as far as I know, feature murals depicting God blessing America with a military victory in, say, Iraq, there’s plenty of artwork that comes close. Shortly after we attacked Baghdad, I found websites offering, for example, lithographs showing the ghosts of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington laying their hands on President Bush, all three joined in prayer with the American flag waving behind them. Never mind that Lincoln didn’t belong to a church and Washington was a deist; the point was that our current president is linked in his war efforts, through Divine Providence, with two of our nation’s most revered past war presidents. (To see this image, click here and scroll down.)
As I left the church, I noticed parishioners lining up to confess before that evening’s mass. I wished I could trudge up and admit complicity in our nation’s similarly ugly crusade, but for good or ill, I don’t speak Portuguese. And then it struck me: what a picture these people could inspire—the faithful, hearing Jesus’ call to repent, coming to receive his forgiveness, and then going out into the world to offer repentance and forgiveness to others. Though it wouldn’t make for as stirring a mural as the grand, warrior epic in Nossa Senhora do Rosário, it would represent a truer image of God’s self-expression to humanity.
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Jason Byassee is an assistant editor at the Christian Century. His last piece for SoMA was A Haircut and a Theology Lecture.
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