City of God: Christian Citizenship in Postwar Guatemala

City of God: Christian Citizenship in Postwar Guatemala

by Kevin Lewis O'Neill, Kevin O’Neill

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In Guatemala City today, Christianity isn't just a belief system--it is a counterinsurgency. Amidst postwar efforts at democratization, multinational mega-churches have conquered street corners and kitchen tables, guiding the faithful to build a sanctified city brick by brick. Drawing on rich interviews and extensive fieldwork, Kevin Lewis O'Neill tracks the culture… See more details below


In Guatemala City today, Christianity isn't just a belief system--it is a counterinsurgency. Amidst postwar efforts at democratization, multinational mega-churches have conquered street corners and kitchen tables, guiding the faithful to build a sanctified city brick by brick. Drawing on rich interviews and extensive fieldwork, Kevin Lewis O'Neill tracks the culture and politics of one such church, looking at how neo-Pentecostal Christian practices have become acts of citizenship in a new, politically relevant era for Protestantism. Focusing on everyday practices--praying for Guatemala, speaking in tongues for the soul of the nation, organizing prayer campaigns to combat unprecedented levels of crime--O'Neill finds that Christian citizenship has re-politicized the faithful as they struggle to understand what it means to be a believer in a desperately violent Central American city. Innovative, imaginative, conceptually rich, City of God reaches across disciplinary borders as it illuminates the highly charged, evolving relationship between religion, democracy, and the state in Latin America.

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University of California Press
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Anthropology of Christianity , #7
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City of God

Christian Citizenship in Postwar Guatemala

By Kevin Lewis O'Neill


Copyright © 2010 Kevin Lewis O'Neill
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94513-5


City of God

An Introduction

But our citizenship is in heaven, And it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.


[Christians] pass their time upon the earth, but they have their citizenship in heaven.


I COULD MAKE OUT JULIO'S skeleton. His ocular cavities were slightly more pronounced than usual and his cheekbones were no longer padded by fat. Julio was literally starving. The emptiness of his belly mixed with fatigue and weakness to produce a rather dramatic sight that did not distract me from the interview so much as color his comments to me. Dressed well, with a tie and pressed shirt, Julio would lean in toward me when making his bigger claims about personal renewal, about the power of Jesus Christ to restore Guatemala—to bring peace and prosperity to this long-tortured country—and about the individual responsibility that each Guatemalan has to his or her nation. That we spoke together in a busy Guatemala City eatery made Julio's active decision not to eat—to mindfully fast from food altogether—an ever more conspicuous topic of conversation. The question, although asked many times before, was unavoidable: Why aren't you eating today? Growing more distracted by the food shuttling past us—the smell of chicken, tortillas, and beans teasing him—Julio regained focus. Passion won out over low blood sugar. Julio explained, sitting up in his chair, that he was undergoing another fast for the very same reason he prayed in tongues nightly, anointed strangers with oil on crowded city buses (often without their knowledge and consent), and constantly turned inward to monitor his own feelings and attitudes. He did all this, he explained, to save Guatemala: "It's through prayer and fasting that we'll be victorious ... because the Bible tells us that [prayer and fasting] brought victory in all the great battles. Right? The walls of Jericho fell because of prayer, fasting, and praise." Through hunger, Julio chipped at some of Guatemala City's thicker walls.

A middle-class neo-Pentecostal, Julio made these comments not only in the middle of a bustling (and increasingly lawless) postwar Central American city but also during an election year. As Julio's stomach growled for both Christ and country, dozens of presidential hopefuls jockeyed for position on the evening news, at political rallies, and on city billboards. Under the public spotlight, candidates gave speeches and made promises—to reduce urban violence, eliminate political corruption, and unite a postwar country. They rolled up their sleeves, capitalized on photo opportunities with indigenous farmers, and shook hands, vowing to lead Guatemala to its rightful place as a politically stable country in the global free market. Yet, amid this low-budget carnival, Julio's stomach (and millions of similar stomachs) continued to rumble—not because they did not have enough food, although malnutrition is itself a critically important issue in many parts of Guatemala, but because they believed that their faithful fasts would result in the very promises that the candidates held forth: security, stability, and strength. While candidates talked and talked and talked, Julio told me, he and millions of neo-Pentecostals like him were taking action. They were fasting, praying, exorcizing demons, examining their consciences—engaging in a range of monastic practices—to make Guatemala the kind of nation that God demanded. In fact, to make Guatemala a chosen nation, Julio and his colleagues in Christ knew with absolute certainty that Christian leadership alone would never be enough to make Guatemala anew; Christian citizenship—the kind of Christian citizenship made and performed through fasts, prayers, and acts of selfgovernance—would be the key to national salvation.

Given neo-Pentecostal Christianity's continued and often peculiar rapprochement with democracy at the level of citizenship in places like postwar Guatemala, this book deliberately turns away from the loud drumbeat of electoral politics to focus on the low hum of Christian citizenship, especially the mundane practices that Bible-believing Guatemalans pursue every day in the name of Christ and for the sake of Guatemala. This is not, then, a study of Christian leadership or even Christian politics per se, but a study of Christian citizenship. It is an ethnography of a prominent neo-Pentecostal mega-church, and of the faithful who work tirelessly to carve out for themselves (and for their nation) what it means to live a good Christian life in a complicated world. At the same time, it is also, necessarily, a study of the city in which this moral drama takes place—the increasingly poor, multiethnic, and exceedingly dangerous zonas of postwar Guatemala City. And, finally, at its most theoretical, this book is an extended argument about the relationship between Christianity and citizenship. Although civil society theorists have long argued that Christian churches are voluntary organizations where congregants learn to be citizens, that argument places Christianity on the periphery of democracy (and democratization processes) through an ethnographically untenable divide between the private (i.e., the Christian) and the public (i.e., the citizen). This book demonstrates that Christian churches, especially neoPentecostal mega-churches, do not simply deliver life lessons to congregants on how to act as citizens in the public sphere—by voting or protesting, for example. These churches also provide a morality with which congregants constitute themselves as citizens (and perform their citizenship) through Christian practices, such as prayer, fasting, and examinations of conscience (K. O'Neill 2009). Julio made his fast as a Christian citizen in order to change Guatemala. They are efforts that make Christianity neither incidental nor somehow prior to citizenship. In cities such as postwar Guatemala City, Christianity has become central to citizenship's very construction, practice, and performance.

The central claim here is that neo-Pentecostal Christians in Guatemala City perform their citizenship through Christian practices and that these Christian practices make neo-Pentecostal Guatemalans into citizens. Another brief example illustrates what this means. Following a weeklong fast, which included nightly prayer and praise sessions, hundreds of youths gathered in a mega-church parking lot. They divided into four groups and then caravanned to Guatemala City's four cardinal points. Synchronizing their efforts via cell phones, those in the north, south, east, and west clamored for Guatemala for over an hour, dirtying their pants by kneeling in the streets. They stomped for salvation and raised their arms to the heavens. Most spoke in tongues, but the ones who did not focused their prayers toward very concrete problems, such as urban violence, the national economy, and divorce. They prayed. They wept. They exhausted themselves in behalf of Guatemala. And, when it was all over, they returned to the mega-church for a two-hour Sunday service. There the congregation greeted them like soldiers returning from battle. Chapter 3 makes the argument that in many ways they were.

The guiding assumption is that actively praying for the soul of Guatemala is an act of Christian citizenship, and that these acts have observable consequences. Praying for safer streets and fasting for a better economy, for example, are not futile exercises; prayer is a kind of cultural work that does something in and to the world: "Prayer is not an innocent social or psychological activity," Robert Orsi explains. "It is always situated in specific and discrepant environments of power, and it derives its meanings, implications, and consequences in relation to these configurations. Indeed praying is one of the most implicating social historical practices because it is in and through prayer that the self comes into intimate and extended contact with the contradictions and constraints of the social world" (1996, 186). Acts of Christian citizenship are relational practices (and relation-making activities) that carry effects.

Two of the most precarious effects, pursued throughout this book, are the following. First, Christian practices performed in behalf of Guatemala place the moral responsibility for societal problems, such as unsafe streets and a faltering economy, onto the shoulders of the believer. This moral ownership ultimately privatizes, or better yet internalizes, Guatemala's economic and political ills and, in the process, releases the nation-state, multinational corporations, and organized crime from being held accountable for, among many other things, unsafe streets and a faltering economy. In Guatemala City, through a neo-Pentecostal rationality, the public becomes private and the private becomes political. Second, the practice of Christian citizenship further instantiates what Julia Paley has called the "paradox of participation"—albeit through a decidedly Christian register. Christian citizenship provides an increasing number of Guatemalans with a deep sense of meaning while also limiting the avenues through which they can act (Paley 2001, 146). The more Christian citizens fast for Guatemala or weep at each of Guatemala City's four cardinal points, the less energy and interest (as well as time) they have to participate in more traditional modes of citizenship, such as community organizing and voter registration campaigns. The promise of Christian citizenship generates a whirl of activity that limits what the faithful can do as citizens of Guatemala; this effect does not depoliticize neo-Pentecostals so much as repoliticize them.

Neo-Pentecostal mega-churches sit at the very center of this repoliticization. These churches not only exhibit incredible levels of organization but also make it clear that believers have the moral responsibility to save Guatemala—to be good Christian citizens. The following quote from Dr. Harold Caballeros provides an evocative but not uncommon example: "In reality, [Christianity] is the only real option to unite our country in the future. The only option for a united Guatemalan identity. There is no other. Multicultural. Pan-cultural. Multi-everything. No. Where are we as a nation? Where we are is looking for a united, singular vision of a Guatemalan nation. We have no other options ... without a doubt.... We have the key in our hands. We have an obligation to produce this transformation of Guatemala into a Christian nation." Every Christian has the unending responsibility to unify as well as purify the nation.

Setting aside Dr. Caballeros's problematic flattening of postwar ethnic identity, at least for now, it is important to note that making good on one's moral obligation to transform Guatemala starts with the believer's own heart and mind; it is a neo-Pentecostal rationality based on a causal logic where the thoughts and feelings of an individual form his or her actions, and these actions eventually congeal into habits, molding character and, ultimately, the nation. The rationality not only links individual states of mind with the nation-state but also makes Christian practices, such as fasts, prayers, and examinations of conscience, very real acts of citizenship. And these acts of Christian citizenship make neo-Pentecostals morally responsible for the successes (and failures) played out in the streets of Guatemala City. One congregant, for example, made it eminently clear that the stakes are not just high but also strikingly concrete: "Are we [saving Guatemala]? A guy got shot in the face four times this morning just over there [pointing to a street corner]. There's so much work for us Christians to do! There is so much spiritual warfare to wage!"

To approximate the feel of this moral ownership, I develop the metaphor of weight throughout this book, relying on the experience of something pressing down on someone to communicate the felt reality of responsibility. It is the brute-ness of Christian citizenship that the metaphor glimpses. Yet moral weight, in this context, should not be confused with guilt. The two terms differ at the levels of temporality and scope, at least. Guilt is lament for what one should (or should not) have done in the past, whereas weight refers to the shouldering of a burden in the present moment in behalf of the future. The moral weight assessed ethnographically throughout this book is always forward looking, whereas guilt dwells in the past. In regard to scope, moral weight here is also lonely—radically individual—and at the same time (and with no sense of contradiction) collective: I—not we—am supporting the weight for us—not just me and not just you. The Christian citizen struggles all alone in Guatemala City but in behalf of Guatemala. Milan Kundera, building on Friedrich Nietzsche's theory of the eternal recurrence, philosophizes on the unbearable lightness (and weightiness) of being: "If every second of our lives recurs an infinite number of times, we are nailed to eternity as Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross. It is a terrifying prospect. In the world of eternal return the weight of unbearable responsibility lies on every move we make. That is why Nietzsche called the idea of eternal return the heaviest of burdens (das schwerste Gewicht) ([1984] 2004, 5). Christian citizenship, as the heaviest of burdens, is an unbearable responsibility in Guatemala City, but one that neo-Pentecostals shoulder constantly. The weight of Christian citizenship nails congregants to the cross again and again.

This book therefore examines neo-Pentecostal formations of Christian citizenship in postwar Guatemala City and the moral weight that Christian citizenship places on the believer. Christianity is not distinct from citizenship; it is, rather, the very rationality that provides many neo-Pentecostal Guatemalans with their sense of citizenship—with the felt reality of belonging to a nation, of being responsible for that nation, and of having the means to act in behalf of that nation. Before I go any further, however, a number of introductory remarks are in order about the relationships that exist among Christianity, nationalism, democracy, and citizenship in and beyond postwar Guatemala.


The nation has long been one of Christianity's more peculiar concerns. Julio, for example, struggles as a Christian citizen not only of Guatemala but also for Guatemala—rather than for God, for those who happen to live in what is today known as Guatemala, or for humanity writ large. His nation is his focus. Given that Guatemala as a modern nation-state is not even two hundred years old and that the country's borders have never truly been established, not even to this day, it seems counterintuitive that a Christian God, however that Christian God may be imagined, would look down from heaven and make distinctions between Guatemalans and, say, Salvadorans or Mexicans. Yet Julio insists that God does, and, more important, Julio lives his life in a way that takes these divine distinctions seriously. Though chapter 6 addresses this international imagination in greater depth, it is nonetheless important to note why "the nation" is so prominent throughout not only this 6 book but also the lives of Christian citizens—why the nation exists as a biblical unit of salvation as well as a Christian vehicle for belonging.


Excerpted from City of God by Kevin Lewis O'Neill. Copyright © 2010 Kevin Lewis O'Neill. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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