City of God: Christian Citizenship in Postwar Guatemala City

Ten questions for Kevin Lewis O’Neill about City of God: Christian Citizenship in Postwar Guatemala City (University of California Press, 2009)

What inspired you to write City of God?

I spent two years in Guatemala City for this book but have been in and out of Central America over the last ten years—completing research, teaching at the university level, pursuing human rights work. And so I am pretty comfortable saying what would otherwise sound like a pretty reckless statement: Postwar Guatemala is burning, and no one knows what to do.

A decade after Central America’s longest and bloodiest civil war, one that reached genocidal proportions in the early 1980s, Guatemala’s postwar context has proven to be just as violent and just as lawless as the country’s wartime era—even if the political and cultural coordinates of this violence have changed significantly. The country has one of the highest homicide rates in the world and one of the lowest prison populations. With some 17 murders a day in Guatemala, the average criminal trial lasts more than four years with less than two percent of crimes resulting in a conviction. “It’s sad to say, but Guatemala is a good place to commit murder,” one international observer recently remarked, “because you will almost certainly get away with it.”

And so in terms of what inspired me to write City of God, I’m interested in how this postwar violence coincides with uneven efforts at democratization as well as an incredible shift in religious affiliation. Once overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, Guatemala is now 60% charismatic and Pentecostal Christian. How has evangelization mixed with democratization in a way that prompts the faithful to not just make sense of their lives but also respond to the realities of a postwar context?

What I found, in the end, was that new forms of Christianity, especially neo-Pentecostalism, provide an increasing number of Guatemalans with a new kind of citizenship. This Christian citizenship prompts them to participate constantly (feverishly, at times) in the re-formation of their postwar nation. And so, Christian citizens pray for Guatemala; they speak in tongues for the soul of their nation, and they organize prayer campaigns to fight crime. I wrote City of God to describe this whirl of activity—this obvious, observable, and constant participation—and to say something about Christianity’s re-politicization (rather than de-politicization) of citizenship.

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

Praying for Guatemala as a Christian citizen has an effect. I don’t mean in a theological sense; that’s not my interest as an anthropologist. What I mean is that praying, fasting, and speaking in tongues are social activities that carry unintended consequences. Christian citizenship, for example, provides the believer with a deep sense of meaning—a sense of belonging and responsibility.

Yet, this deep sense of meaning also limits the way believers actually participate as citizens. Christian citizens tend to pray for Guatemala rather than pay their taxes; they speak in tongues for the soul of the nation rather than vote in general elections, and they organize prayer campaigns to fight crime rather than organize their communities. Finally, and maybe most importantly, Christian citizenship saddles each believer with a weighty responsibility. It’s observable. It’s palpable. It’s concerning. The message of Christian citizenship is direct, penetrating the individual with a call to participate. Think James Montgomery Flagg’s 1916 poster of Uncle Sam pointing a finger. The Christian narrative in postwar Guatemala is clear: God wants YOU.

Is there anything you had to leave out?

Lots of material sits on the cutting room floor, sadly. That’s the nature of ethnography. Some of this material ends up in articles. I have one coming out February 2010 in the journal Comparative Studies in Society and History (52:1). It’s about neo-Pentecostalism’s erotic dimensions—its language of wetness, openness, and coming—and how this affects formations of postwar citizenship. In the postwar context, the Guatemalan state celebrates what the philosopher Iris Marion Young would call the erotics of democracy—a call to engage the other face to face—while Christian eroticism (a much more powerful force) prompts the believer to turn inward, to care for themselves, as citizens. Again, this is about the re-politicization (not the de-politicization) of citizenship. I think its pretty engaging material, but beyond the scope of City of God.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

One is the idea that I’m just talking about Guatemala. This isn’t the case. The church where I did the majority of my fieldwork is headquartered in Guatemala City, for sure, but it has dozens of satellite churches throughout the Guatemalan countryside as well as the Americas. My own fieldwork included a satellite church on the south side of Chicago. There, Guatemalan immigrants cultivate their Christian citizenship in a foreign land that they are constantly making their own. This book is not just a study of Guatemalan Christianity but also a reflection on a worldwide entanglement between Pentecostal Christianity and efforts at democratization — in South Africa, South Korea, Brazil, Mozambique and Kenya, for example.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?

This book is for people seriously interested in the political effects of Pentecostal Christianity. This includes the undergraduate student, the educated lay reader, the policy wonk, the aid worker, as well as the seminarian or pastor. Of course, I’m an anthropologist of religion, and so I am also in conversation with other anthropologists and scholars of religion. In that sense, the book addresses some pretty specific debates—about anthropological approaches to democracy, citizenship, Christianity, and cities. City of God also participates in a continued conversation about “governmentality,” an analytic developed by Michel Foucault.

Are you hoping to just inform readers? Give them pleasure? Piss them off?

That’s up to the reader. I hope the book is enjoyable but I also want to critique a commonly accepted divide between Christianity and citizenship. The approach to date has been an assumed division between Christianity and citizenship—a separation of the public from the private, of the citizen from the Christian, of church from state. City of God begins with entanglement, especially since tens of millions of Christians throughout the world practice their citizenship not in light of their Christianity but through their Christianity—by praying, fasting, and examining their consciences for their nation.

What alternative title would you give the book? How do you feel about the cover?

Soy la Revolución. I would have named the book Soy la Revolución, or “I am the Revolution,” if City of God didn’t work out. The cover image actually comes from a neo-Pentecostal youth conference titled Soy la Revolución, which focused on the idea of each individual Christian being his or her own revolution. The notion that I am the revolution is a pretty bold statement given Latin America’s not-so-distant history of social revolution and civil war as well as today’s return of the political Left in Bolivia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. Nonetheless, with buzz and excitement, thousands of Pentecostal youths gathered under the banner, “I am the revolution” to discuss the future of the country and their responsibility to save Guatemala one cleansing prayer at a time. The idea is that individuals must take control of themselves in order to take control of Guatemala. It’s a powerful, inwardly trained social movement that raises some serious questions about the promise of citizenship.

Is there a book out there you wish you had written?

It’s changing all the time, but right now, at this minute, I’ll go with Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy. In one sense it’s a novel about convent life at the turn of the century, but it’s also a beautiful narration of monasticism, of ascetic devotion. And its Ron Hansen’s ability to write asceticism that I covet as an ethnographer, especially his gift of conveying affect and temporality as always dependent upon the other.

What’s your new book?

I’m in the middle of the second book project right now and have a part of it appearing February 2010 in the journal Public Culture (22:1). Basically, I’m looking at Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, from the perspective of “gang ministry.”

MS-13 is a transnational criminal network that originated among Central American immigrants in Los Angeles during the gang wars of the 1980s. Since then, United States deportation policies have transported MS-13 back to Central America, with the strongest networks forming in the postwar countries of Guatemala and El Salvador. Tens of thousands of men and women, many of whom are former soldiers, now smuggle drugs, participate in human trafficking, and control prison systems.

While research currently focuses on why these young men and women join the ranks of MS-13, I’m looking instead at the ways out, at the only two avenues through which men and women are able to leave MS-13, a group to which they have otherwise pledged their lives. The first of these is death. The second is Christian conversion. Now courted by state officials to augment (largely unsuccessful) efforts to secure neighborhoods, lock down borders, and interrupt drug trades, charismatic and Pentecostal ministers work diligently to open the hearts of MS-13 members to what these men and women of faith understand as the saving grace of Jesus Christ. It’s pretty powerful material.

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