There are a whopping 425 million Roman Catholics in Latin America – almost three-quarters of the region’s total population. Of the globe’s estimated 1.2 billion Catholics, more than 40% call Latin America their casa. This raises the question: why do Lutherans bother sending missionaries to the most Catholic region in the world?
In this snapshot of the religious landscape of Latin America, I hope to demonstrate that even though the name of Jesus is certainly known throughout Latin America, many people there are being tormented by a Monster of Uncertainty regarding how He feels toward them.
The Monster of Uncertainty behind Syncretism
The first place you see the Monster of Uncertainty is in the most prominent feature of Latin American Roman Catholicism: syncretism. This is the blending or mixing of traditional indigenous religion with Christianity. One example of syncretism in Latin America are Pucara Bulls.
These ceramic cows are a common sight on the rooftops of traditional Andean homes. Known as Toritos de Pucara, they are placed on the roof to bring good luck, fortune and fertility to the house. They are a popular gift, and just about every building in the region has their own set.
The problem with the Pucara Bulls from a Christian perspective, is that they take away from the sufficiency of the person and work of Jesus. On rooftops all across the Andes, the cross of Christ must share the glory with these cows made of ceramic.
The Pucara Bulls are a manifestation of the Monster. The combining of pre-existing, pagan beliefs, symbols and customs with Christian ones reveals uncertainty regarding Jesus. Is Jesus really Lord of Lords? Did He really die and rise for me? Syncretism is proof that many people are not sure.
The Monster of Uncertainty behind Two-Tiered Christianity
The next place you see the Monster of Uncertainty is in the phenomenon of Two-Tiered Christianity. In Latin America, there is the institutionalized, elitist religion practiced by those at the center of society. Then, there is the popular, folk religion practiced by those on the margins. This is oftentimes called “Folk Religion” or “Popular Catholicism.”
A good example of “Folk Religion” is the cult of the Lord of the Miracles in Peru.
The Lord of the Miracles following began way back in the XVII century in the outskirts of Lima, where, in a small village of immigrant slaves from Africa, called Pachacamilla, an Angolan slave painted the image of a Black Christ (Cristo Moreno) on the wall of his brotherhood. On November 13, 1655 a terrible earthquake shook Lima and Callao, killing thousands. The entire city was left in shambles, all except the image of the Black Christ, which “miraculously” survived the quake in perfect condition.
Fast-forward about 15 years and a man named Antonio León finds the image and starts to venerate it. Antonio asks the image to cure him of his tumor. It´s another miracle and the image begins to earn a name for itself. Almost four centuries later, and people come from all over the country to participate in the annual procession, hoping to find God in the “blessed image”.
According to “Cristo Moreno” followers, God showed favor to the poor African slave by preserving his painting, and in this way He revealed a new message to His people, that He truly does listen to the outcry of the oppressed.
The cult of the Lord of the Miracles is a manifestation of the Monster. While not all expressions of Popular Catholicism are created equal, the same Monster of Uncertainty lies behind them all. It’s the question whether or not God cares for the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed of society. Two-tiered Christianity in Latin America is proof that many people are unsure.
The Monster of Uncertainty: Pentecostalism
Another place you see the Monster of Uncertainty is in Pentecostalism. In recent decades, tens of millions of Latin Americans have left the Roman Catholic Church for Pentecostalism. It is the largest Protestant denomination in Latin America, and it continues to grow at break-neck speed.
There are many contributing factors to the growth of Pentecostalism. One of them is its appeal to the poor and marginalized. Pentecostal theology is appealing to the poor because of its emphasis on the health and wealth gospel. People are told that with sufficient faith and petition to God, one can move up the social latter, and that all the things you want in life will be yours.
How can I be certain that I’m truly forgiven and justified? What if I don’t have health or wealth? Does that mean God doesn’t love me or care for me? There is absolutely no certainty in Pentecostalism, as people are encouraged to look at themselves for proof that Jesus is on their side. What a monster!
Lutheran Missions and the Means of Grace
In his 1535 commentary on Galatians, Luther fights against the “wicked idea of the Papacy” that a Christian should be uncertain about the grace of God toward him. He calls out the Pope for commanding Christians to look to themselves – to their “own works and merits” – instead of to Christ and His Word of forgiveness for the assurance of their salvation. He calls the result a Monster of Uncertainty.
Luther fights the Monster of Uncertainty with the certainty found in the Means of Grace – God’s Word and Sacraments. He writes in his Galatians commentary,
“[The] Word makes us certain that God cast away all His wrath and hatred toward us when He gave His only Son for our sins. The sacraments, the power of the keys, etc. also make us certain; for if God did not love us, He would never have given us these. Thus we are overwhelmed with endless evidence of the favor of God toward us. Now that the plague of uncertainty, with which the entire church of the pope is infected, is driven away, let us believe for a certainty that God is favorably disposed toward us, that we are pleasing to Him and of concern to Him on account of Christ.”
Because God has attached His promise of forgiveness to the preaching of His Word, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, a Christian need not be tormented by uncertainty, but rather, take joy and comfort in the certainty that God is favorably disposed toward them. Lutherans send missionaries to Latin America in order to fight the Monster of Uncertainty with the endless evidence of God’s favor for the least, the lost, and the lowly of the world found in His Word and Sacraments.