King's Evangelical Divinity School

28 June 2012

Christian Citizenship in Postwar Guatemala

My review of the following book was recently published in Pneuma: The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies 34 (2012), 300-1. This important book will appeal to those interested in Latin America, Guatemalan Pentecostalism and politics, citizenship, ethnography, and Pentecostal practice and theology.

Kevin Lewis O’Neill, City of God: Christian Citizenship in Postwar Guatemala (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010). xxix + 278 pp. $55.00 hardback; $24.95 paper.

Conducted at the El Shaddai community, an urban, middle class, neopentecostal megachurch in Guatemala, the central claim of this compelling ethnography 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” (3). Thus El Shaddai’s congregants engage with the political sphere primarily through prayer, fasting, personal morality, and examinations of conscience, firmly believing such practices yield tangible, observable social and political effects.

In a country where Protestantism is strong, middle class Guatemalan neopentecostalism has enjoyed considerable growth and political success over the years, culminating with the (controversial) presidencies of Efraín Rios Montt (1982-1983) and Jorge Serrano Elías (1991- 1993). Yet City of God shifts the focus upon Pentecostal politics away from such political activity, arguing too much scholarly attention has been lavished upon formal politics and leadership to the detriment of how Guatemala’s neopentecostals do politics through forming their citizenship. Focusing on three key dimensions of citizenship (political status, cultural identity and governing rationality), O’Neill explores how neopentecostals exhibit a sense of belonging, view citizenship, and take responsibility for governing themselves. Crucially, he analyzes how it is through Christian practices like prayer, speaking in tongues, fasting, emphasizing personal responsibility and morality, and engaging in spiritual warfare that they engage in genuine citizenship. Moreover, their desire to transform their nation demonstrates how neopentecostals do not dabble at the margins but rather represent “one of Guatemala’s most sophisticated effforts at making citizenship in postwar Guatemala” (xv), seeking to build a city, the city of God.

This neopentecostal focus on citizenship (which echoes the Guatemalan government’s emphasis on citizenship) is expressed through personal morality, relations with the community and nation, philanthropic activity, the Christian as defender and citizen-soldier, and citizenship relations with the wider community, nation and the world. For example, a focus on personal morality is aimed as much at fostering good citizenship by impacting the local community as for pietistic reasons. Elsewhere, for Guatemala’s neopentecostals spiritual warfare echoes “the Greek notion of the citizen-soldier” (89) as they seek to withstand and slay the demonic strongholds that hold their nation back, taking back their city bit by bit through prayer. The study details at length the use of military language and imagery, such as one neopentecostal pastor dressing in military fatigues and likening Christians engaged in spiritual warfare to Guatemala’s elite army corps, or how a pile of stones prayed over by an army of congregants were then placed at key landmarks (almost like explosive devices) ready to detonate satanic strongholds. O’Neill is less concerned about the otherworldly nature of such activity than with how it demonstrate a thoroughly this-worldly mindset and concern towards Guatemala’s many problems. Meanwhile, fatherhood represents another aspect of Christian citizenship, where bad fatherhood breeds alcoholism, drug abuse, crime, gangs, and sexual immorality, to the detriment of Guatemalan society, while good father- hood emphasizing love, afffection, discipline, and morality ultimately serves the nation.

City of God provides a helpful contribution to the ongoing (and somewhat Manichaean) debate surrounding if and how Pentecostals “do politics.” Too often scholars focus upon either Pentecostal apoliticism (whether understood as nonpoliticism or else code for not pursuing the right kind of politics) versus Pentecostal social action, and indeed even some within the Pentecostal academy have become somewhat preoccupied with this other-worldliness versus this-worldliness dialectic. Yet O’Neill challenges this somewhat artificial dichotomy, highlighting how otherworldly neopentecostals in Guatemala City are thoroughly this-worldly in their motives and desire to transform their nation as expressed through their understanding of citizenship. It brings an important dimension to the ongoing debate on how Pentecostals do politics.

All this, of course, raises the inevitable question: does it work? The briefest perusal of Guatemala’s social and economic situation, delinquency, violence, and other problems indicate a very clear “no,” leading to O’Neill’s rather poignant (and all too short) conclusion focusing on an acute sense of disappointment, not only among some of the neopentecostals he studies, but more generally disappointment with the notion of citizenship itself, which often promises so much but all too often delivers so little. For O’Neill Guatemala’s neopentecostals invest considerable energy in these Christian practices at the expense of traditional means of engaging politics. He also believes this focus on citizenship and self places the blame for Guatemala’s condition upon the shoulders of believers, liberating the multinationals, politicians, and organized criminals from their share of the blame. For the Pentecostal insider-observer the book raises another (if not fully intended) problematic theological question, namely, why is it that in countries like Guatemala, where Pentecostalism is so numerically and politically powerful, such countries are complete “basket cases,” regardless of whether Pentecostals are strongly socially active or not?

These and other questions which O’Neill’s research raises are not always explored in depth in the book. Yet arguably that is not its purpose. Rather, O’Neill provides his readers with a rich and detailed piece of qualitative research exploring and documenting neopentecostalism in Guatemala City. Drawing upon thousands of hours of fieldwork in the form of interviews and conversations, analysis of recorded sermons, attendance of church, Bible, and cell group meetings, and various documentary sources, City of God represents an important, objective ethnographic contribution to our knowledge of Guatemalan neopentecostalism, Christian citizenship and indeed Guatemala (City) itself. Moreover, one of O’Neill’s stated aims is also to provide scholars with a tool to explore the correlation between Christianity and neoliberalism, “to understand how faith mingles with the retreat of state services and a marked decline in protections from market fluctuations, structural inequalities, crime, and violence” (xxiv). Therefore this book offfers readers a valuable collection of knowledge, together with analysis, which is a must-read for scholars and students of Pentecostal Studies, Latin America, and the social sciences alike.

Reviewed by Calvin L. Smith 
Principal and Tutor of Theology 
King’s Evangelical Divinity School, UK

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