During my most recent return visit to Guatemala two years ago, I was struck by a series of paradoxical experiences. I wrote a little reflection about it here, including this from a taxi ride across Guatemala City:
I got into a discussion with the driver about world Christianity and the rise of Pentecostalism. He said that in Guatemala City people are leaving the Catholic Church in droves and joining evangelical and Pentecostal churches. I had heard that 60% of the country identified as either Pentecostal or charismatic, but I also know about where Guatemala ranks in terms of homicide and corruption, and you wonder how these faith and crime statistics can coexist. But they do.
I revisited this theme on the blog a few months ago, reflecting on the seemingly impossible dilemma facing Christians in Central America, given the explosive rise of organized crime while churches also experience exponential growth. It’s a topic that I think about often. So I was fascinated to discover there’s a book exploring this very topic. It’s called City of God: Christian Citizenship in Postwar Guatemala, and is written by Kevin Lewis O’Neill, a cultural anthropologist and professor of religion who spent a great deal of time trying to figure out how Christians in Guatemala City think about and practice citizenship in such a challenging context. He focuses on interviews and discussions with members of El Shaddai, a Pentecostal megachurch in Guatemala City, and on the teachings of its pastor, Rev. Harold Caballeros.
Observers of democracy and citizenship in Guatemala don’t have much to be excited about, unfortunately. O’Neill summarizes the current state of affairs this way:
remarkably inactive citizenship, low voter turnout, sluggish civil society, shocking levels of tax evasion, high level of dependency on nongovernmental agencies and international aid, incredible levels of pessimism about democracy’s promise, and faltering sense of nationalism.
Among the Pentecostals he gets to know, though, he observes a lot of active citizenship, although it’s not the kind we might hope for or expect. In a nutshell, he says that for these Christians, the way they seek to address the rampant poverty, unchecked corruption and alarming levels of violent crime in Guatemala is, almost exclusively, through fasting and prayer. The idea is that Guatemala is a nation of 14 million individuals, and any change in the country is going to begin with one person at a time. Once everybody in Guatemala becomes a committed Christian, the thinking goes, the country’s problems will be taken care of. As a Christian, I can appreciate that to a certain extent, but it also leaves me unsettled. Here’s why:
The more Christian citizens link themselves to the fate of the nation — praying and fasting a new Guatemala into existence — the less time, energy, and interest they have for participating in more traditional modes of citizenship, what some commentators would call ‘real’ politics, such as community organizing, public demonstrations, and voter registration campaigns. The promise of Christian citizenship produces an impressive level of bustle — a hive of activity — while also narrowing what Christians actually do as citizens of Guatemala… Christian citizens in Guatemala are more likely to pray for Guatemala than pay their taxes; they tend to speak in tongues for the soul of the nation rather than vote in general elections; and they more often than not organize prayer campaigns to fight crime rather than organize their communities against the same threat.
We all know we’re not supposed to discuss religion or politics in polite company; much less the intersection of the two. But we need to, I think. Reading and meditating on the Scriptures and taking an honest look at the mess we humans have made of things, it seems clear to me that we are certainly called to no less than fervent prayer; but faithfulness in the here and now entails a whole lot more. Yes, Christians are citizens of the Kingdom of God, but we’re also citizens of present day nation-states, and I don’t think we can love our neighbors without dealing with the pressing needs of our neighborhoods. For Christians, that work should begin with prayer, but it should also eventually lead us into the messes of our cities as instruments of shalom.