Piety, Peril, and the Politics of Place – By Jill DeTemple

Jill DeTemple reviews Kevin O’Neill’s Secure the Soul

Kevin Lewis O’Neill, Secure the Soul: Christian Piety and Gang Prevention in Guatemala, University of California Press, 2015, 304pp., $24.95
Kevin Lewis O’Neill, Secure the Soul: Christian Piety and Gang Prevention in Guatemala, University of California Press, 2015, 304pp., $24.95
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As the recent debates in the US Congress remind us, security is an organizing principle that has become paramount in the post-9/11 era. It drives policy even as it invites the cloaking of that policy and its mechanisms. Security is transcendent, yet evasive: powerful, necessary, ubiquitous, slippery when we want to pin it down. In wealthy enclaves all over the world, walls, cameras, and security guards protect those within from those without. People targeted by UN development programs are not “poor”; instead they face “food insecurity.” Children in US schools practice intruder drills in which classrooms are fortified against imaginary gunmen, as their parents debate the merits of letting them live “free-range” lives when the instructional day is over. Will they be safe? Will we be saved? It is this tenuous link between security and salvation that anthropologist Kevin Lewis O’Neill explores in Secure the Soul.

O’Neill’s setting is contemporary Guatemala, a country emerging from a 36-year-long civil war in which Communist-backed Mayan and Ladino peasants fought government forces supported by the CIA. As many as 200,000 people were killed or “forcibly disappeared,” and sexual violence was a common weapon during the struggle. Details of the conflict continue to surface as Mayan groups hold mass burials to honor victims of government–sponsored massacres, and Rios Montt, the evangelical president of the country during much of the conflict, was recently declared mentally unfit to stand trial for war crimes. In war, security was brutal, and most often perpetrated by government troops and ostensibly neutral police forces.

O’Neill begins his story not with these accounts, but in the fragile peace established since the end of open hostilities in 1996. His interest is “soft security,” interventions meant to maintain social order through institutional programming in civil society. Throughout the book, he employs a lightly Foucauldian framework to reveal security as a form of discipline that uses what he calls “Christian piety” as its channel of control. The result is often a brutality that O’Neill seeks to make legible, especially in the story of Mateo, an ex-gang member born in Guatemala, raised in California, and deported back from the United States as a young man.

O’Neill introduces readers to Mateo in hell, juxtaposing Pentecostal testimony against an annual rite in which Guatemalans immolate images of the Devil along with their trash. As Mateo speaks in a church service about the saving power of Jesus and the very real atrocities of gang life, the world around him is going up in flames. In his testimony, Mateo describes “knowing God” as an alternative to life where he “only knew gangs.” God is liberatory, whereas the gangs were dangerous. He does not seem to notice the choking fire that is the backdrop to his story.

What Mateo does not see, at least overtly, O’Neill teases out in Mateo’s story — beginning with a childhood of regular abuse at the hands of his father and ending after several years of attempts to find a place in formal sectors of Guatemalan society. In this way O’Neill locates where and how “Christian piety” dovetails with mechanisms of security: prisons, reality TV shows starring ex-gang members, call centers that employ deported gang members, child sponsorship programs, Pentecostal rehabilitation centers targeted at “delinquents,” and urban Guatemala more broadly. Secure the Soul thus contributes to a growing body of religious studies scholarship that is concerned less with the sacred as absolutely separate from daily “profane” life, than with the sacred as that which is constituted precisely by quotidian existence. Like David Chidester’s discussion of TupperwareTM parties and Church of Rock ‘n Roll as constituent of American religiosity, like Kathryn Lofton’s analysis of O as a transcendent ideal to which Oprah fans aspire, and like Chad Seales’ use public consumption of barbeque to explain how Protestant understandings of gender still control public spaces, O’Neill is interested in using ex-gang ministries and other soft security interventions to query the ways in which social forces become powerful realities with the force of religion behind them.

Gang Recruits in Guatemala. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Gang Recruits, Guatemala, 2005. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

O’Neill’s ex-gang programs in Guatemala bear the trappings of religion as they impose a social order, offering models for the “best lives” of these young men. Unlike Chidester and Lofton, who eschew any direct Protestant connection to their subjects, O’Neill focuses on Christian, specifically evangelical and Pentecostal, practices that give “soft security” programs their particular character. Charismatic Christian piety — confession and repentance in particular — lends itself to programs and institutions that employ what O’Neill dubs “soteriologies of self”: a relentless focus on self-improvement that promises security through spiritual salvation, even as these programs often act brutally upon those they set out to save.

O’Neill’s choice to focus on specific spatial sites of security is effective and allows the particularity of Mateo’s story, which is interspersed with chapters attending to security programs, to stand in for and interact with broader social realities. An initial chapter focuses on a gory prison riot that demonstrates the extremities of gang life, but also the relative powerlessness of either hard security or the radical kindness of a Pentecostal pastor to ameliorate the worst consequences of that life. Subsequent chapters show how the formal incarceration of prison is repeated in softer forms: on the reality TV show, in call center jobs, and in Pentecostal gang ministries that also discipline and punish ex-gang members under the guise of reform. In all of these cases, gang members and former gang members are rounded up and promised a new life, but only if they confess to the sins of their old lives and become, in one way or another, born again. To succeed according to the dramatic logic of the various modes of intervention at work, they must accept a new life in the work clothes provided by the TV program or from North American and European child sponsors, in their job as relentlessly self-improving and able translators with the call center, or as new men in Christ in the Pentecostal ex-gang ministries that substitute for state programs. But O’Neill reveals that, for these men, assuming a new life and discarding the old is an almost impossible task, as many of them are killed by former rivals on the streets. Confession, belief, and change are not enough to “live one’s best life” in post-war Guatemala. Mateo, though still alive and with some advantages his fellow deportees lack, still struggles. He has God, and drugs, and violence. He is not secure. He is not liberated. He can’t “get the fuck out of here,” as one young man in a dismal gang ministry wishes to do, because “here” turns out to be everywhere.

For these men, assuming a new life and discarding the old is an almost impossible task, as many of them are killed by former rivals on the streets.

In mounting a scathing critique of social policy around gangs, migration, and a world order that supported thirty-six years of civil war in Guatemala, O’Neill ends up making a theological argument about the nature of Christian liberation in the country, at least in the (neo-) Protestant tradition. “Christian Liberation is no longer primarily about time (or progress, or even the future),” he writes. “It is about space.” It is about an “ethics of escape” that defines liberation not as that which will be, but that from which one needs to get away in the here and now.

Here, O’Neill is on shakier ground. He relies on Augustine, particularly his Confessions, to talk about the centrality of confession and repentance in Christianity, but he never explains why the fourth- and fifth-century bishop may be relevant to twenty-first-century Protestants in the New World who are never shown to engage with him. While Augustine’s emphasis on experience may have something in common with its contemporary charismatic cousin (many Pentecostals and evangelical Christians emphasize experience as the mark of salvation), O’Neill never makes the link explicit, possibly because doing so in any coherent way would strain credibility. It is also a bit odd that O’Neill so frequently invokes a Catholic saint and yet ignores the long Catholic history and continuing Catholic presence in Guatemala. While, as he points out, Protestant Christianity has grown explosively in the country, becoming a powerful political force, the Catholic Church continues to occupy many of the spaces with which he is concerned (one may think of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, where many Guatemalan gang members seek refuge, for example). Space, time, and even religious identity may be more connected, and more fluid, than O’Neill allows.

O’Neill’s argument also falls short in the chapter on child sponsorship in a slum outside of Guatemala City, where he misses an opportunity to more fully engage with the international development programs that comprise much of the soft security programs in Guatemala. Titled “Left Behind,” the chapter explores a program that directly links sponsoring families in North Carolina with children who live lives “unimaginable” to their patrons. O’Neill’s fieldwork here, as throughout the book, is impressive: he talks to sponsored children and to church members, many of whom have visited the slum, and shows how such programs commodify poverty and the poor even as they may have real and immediate impact for some children. He also convincingly conveys a general lack of effectiveness of government-sponsored development programs, such as those supported by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which partners with the sponsorship program and also backed the reality TV show. In focusing on the children who do not get sponsors (those “left behind”), however, O’Neill misses an opportunity to explore gang ministries and child sponsorship as international development interventions. The important issue may not be that some children are sponsored and others are not (a point less relevant in the majority of sponsorship programs where donor funds go to the community rather than to individual children or their families), but that a small church in rural North Carolina is a part of international development at all.

These links between international economic development and religious organizations — what often falls under the rubric of “faith-based development” in anthropological and political science accounts — form the infrastructure in which O’Neill’s actors operate. As development scholars have noted, government-sponsored foreign aid has become increasingly privatized since the 1990s when non-governmental organizations (NGOs) began to explode in numbers and importance around the globe. Rather than executing projects directly, many governments subcontract to NGOs in the area in which they wish to work. Guatemala is no exception; Pentecostal and evangelical organizations partner freely with USAID, which appears to provide almost unlimited funding for their activities along with varying amounts of oversight and involvement. Unlike what might be considered the classic post-development narrative in which development is monolithic and aligned almost wholly with colonialist and neo-colonialist concerns for conformity to (a presumably secular) Western modernism, O’Neill’s account shows that while international development is still very much concerned with a kind of security in its modern ideals, it is not the monolithic, impervious, government-run, or overtly secularized conglomeration of policies it is often imagined to be. It is instead remarkably broad and does not focus only on measurable improvements in technology, poverty reduction, or health, the classic concerns of overseas aid that critics often decry as tone-deaf to cultural differences. Indeed, the development interventions in the book represent precisely what many development reformers advocate: a focus on liberation, locality, flexibility, and cooperation with the groups sponsors seek to help. That these programs are largely ineffective at their best, and intensely abusive at their worst, reveals the ills of global security, the limits of development, and the impossibility of any ideal form of either. Salvation is hard to come by. Benjamin Fogarty-Valenzuela’s black and white photographs, used strategically throughout the book, emphasize this clearly, and beautifully.

Although Secure the Soul offers no easy solutions, it opens up a range of important conversations about the nature of religion, international economic development, and ideas of security in the early twenty-first century. The brutality that O’Neill so vividly describes grabs our attention. The structures that create and perpetuate that brutality are what should keep it.