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.