Spiritual warfare and citizenship

I just finished reading Kevin Lewis O’Neill’s excellent ethnographic study City of God: Christian Citizenship in Postwar Guatemala, which I will be using in my Global Christianity course. His overall argument is that Guatemalan Neo-Pentecostals understand their religious practices to be the way they exercise their citizenship, the way they can take responsibility for the future of their country. They pray, fast, speak in tongues, undertake “spiritual warfare” (including drawing literal maps of where demonic powers are strongest and the paths they travel) — all the while downplaying more straightforward paths of action. For instance, one of O’Neill’s informants tells him that he should be praying more to get rid of all the bars in his area, and when O’Neill suggests that he could also talk to the bar owner, the guy tells him that’s just a waste of time. The whole outlook is radically individualistic: if they can change their own hearts and induce others to change theirs, they will eventually add up to a better nation.

I’m not convinced that these people have chosen the most effective route to help their country — though Guatemala is in such bad shape I’ll admit that I don’t know what would be effective — and I suspect that at least some of my students will be skeptical as well. Partway through the book, though, I had an epiphany. My own practice of citizenship consists, aside from voting every couple years, of reading a lot of stuff so that I can stay informed, then forming opinions about public policy and arguing with people on the internet about it. Like the Guatemalan strategy, this approach is premised on individualism: if the debates have a point, it is to change people’s opinions, one by one, so that they will then vote the right way.

When I look at things that way, I wonder if maybe prayer and fasting is the way to go.

11 thoughts on “Spiritual warfare and citizenship

  1. From reading the book, “self-absorbed” does seem like a fair description — but it’s a weird kind of self-absorption, because they think being self-absorbed really is the best way to help others, perhaps even the only way.

  2. The difference, maybe, between your internet-persuading and their fasting and prayer is that they genuinely believe in a “spiritual realm” that is more real — in the sense that it’s more worthy of their energy and attention — than the political, social, biological world of the people around them. They aren’t praying about social or political things for political or social reasons, but because they think of them as buttons or levers to effect more important things in some luminous other-world. Whereas, I’m sure, you don’t imagine that the realm of internet argument is more real than the things you are arguing about? Your apparent goal — to affect the social and political, albeit through advocacy rather than activism — is also your real goal; their apparent goal — to “add up to a better nation” — is not their real goal — to save souls and wage spiritual warfare, like some rpg where behind the mask of mana, strength, and defense lie a game of computation.

  3. I think this is where they’re different from the Americans we might be more familiar with: they really are aiming at a more stable and prosperous country. They talk about outcomes as seemingly minor as getting people to stop littering — and the lever for all of this is building up individual character through self-discipline. But of course to get someone to the place where they’re practicing that character-formation, you need supernatural grace to intervene. I really don’t think that they perceive the spiritual and political as separate, although their view of what will “work” politically is different from most of ours.

  4. Oh, to reinforce what I was saying above about the unity between spiritual and political — there’s a town in Guatemala where reportedly 90% of the people have converted to Pentecostalism in a short period of time, and the culture supposedly has completely changed and — crucially — the economy of the town has now picked up to the point where they have sufficient quantity and quality of vegetables for export. At major international meetings, representatives of this town will show up with their awesome vegetables, and people will praise the Lord.

  5. That’s really interesting. Also, you’re right, a lot more “worldly” of an outlook than most of the pentecostals I know in North America.

    So, if both your and the Guatemalan pentecostals’ styles of citizenship are premised on the power of individual change, why do you say “I wonder if maybe prayer and fasting is the way to go?” Is it because this style is more overtly “Christian”, more effective, or for some other reason? Not trying to be rude, just wondering.

  6. I also wonder about the significance the presumably bourgeois pentacostal missionaries (and the development of pentacostalism in that context) that I’m assuming disseminated this brand of Christianity. I know people were going on “mission trips” to majority Catholic countries all of the time when I was a kid (grew up Southern Baptist).

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