Secure the Soul: Christian Piety and Gang Prevention in Guatemala by Kevin Lewis O'Neill

O'Neill, Kevin Lewis. 2015. Secure the Soul: Christian Piety and Gang Prevention in Guatemala. Oakland, CA: University of California Press. 304 pages; $60.00 cloth, $24.95 paper.

Gang violence, drug trafficking, inequality, and the inability of the state to protect lives and property have turned Guatemala City into one of the most dangerous places in the western hemisphere. The deportation of Guatemalan gang members from US cities has further eroded a security situation that, after several decades of civil war, was precarious to begin with. Complementing the ineffective efforts of the state security apparatus, non-governmental entities work toward reducing gang activity by engaging at-risk populations, deportees, prison inmates, and substance users. Many of the individuals and organizations that participate in this field of “soft security” have an evangelical background, and some are rooted in the United States.

Kevin Lewis O'Neill's Secure the Soul: Christian Piety and Gang Prevention in Guatemala provides a multi-sited, ethnographic account of the confluence of gang violence, deportation, US foreign policy, and evangelical soft security operations in Guatemala City. Theoretically inspired by Foucault's genealogy of discipline and the prison, the author aims to expose the logic of selection of the redeemable subject whose soul these programs target. O'Neill reads this logic against St. Augustine's Confessions and identifies it as Christian piety. The moral distinctions contained in this piety, O'Neill contends, “set the conditions for visibility, segregation, and captivity—for who is seen (and who is not), who belongs (and who does not), who is free (and who gets tied up). Soft security can be brutal, [...] and Christianity makes it so” (11).

The book leads the reader through a variety of ethnographic settings which, for the most part, are not discussed in prior anthropological literature, save O'Neill's own shorter publications. In the first chapter, the author describes how prison chaplaincy frames delinquency as a lack of will and self-esteem. The second chapter discusses a reality television show that staged the conversion of evangelical delinquents into righteous petty entrepreneurs. The third chapter follows several deportees through their travails in bilingual call centers, which do not seem to have a religious background or affiliation but exercise an “explicitly corporate but also conspicuously Christian logic of control” (97). The fourth chapter focuses on the work of a Protestant North American child sponsorship program in one of Guatemala City’s problem districts. The final chapter, which explores a network of drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers run by Pentecostal pastors, is perhaps the ethnographically densest, and in any case the most riveting. The reader learns that some of these centers snatch drunkards of the streets, lock them away in abusive conditions, and cajole their relatives into paying for a treatment that is predicated on deprivation and spiritual warfare. The chapters are held together by encounters with Mateo, a deported gang member from Los Angeles whose life story connects him to all five of the ethnographic settings. The book relegates most theoretical and bibliographic work to footnotes. It reads in many passages like a novel, ample use of expletives in direct quotations included, which suggests that it is written with a wide public in mind.

Without mentioning Max Weber's (1930) foundational contribution to this line of inquiry, the book adds to a tradition of scholarly work that highlights the relation between Protestant views on salvation and the spirit of self-improvement and entrepreneurship. The book presents Christian piety, however, as a universal characteristic of soft security operations and/or contemporary Christian religious practice that transcends Protestant forms of living the biblical faith. In this understanding, the author contextualizes his work with the assertion that up to 60 percent of the Guatemalan population are Pentecostal and charismatic Christians (10). Given that current statistics put membership in Protestant groups around 40 percent of the population (e.g. Pew Research Center 2014), this figure seems to include the Catholic movement of Charismatic Renewal. The five ethnographic examples discussed in the book bring together Guatemalan and US American evangelicals with a transnational corporation and “ostensibly secular security officials” (35). The claim to universal validity of the concept of Christian piety is also expressed in the genealogical line that the author draws between Catholic liberation theology and the Pentecostal concept of individual liberation from demons and sin (159f.).

For a collaborative research project on religion in Central America of which I was a part, we interviewed almost 200 people in Guatemala City. Our interviewees generally told us that the root cause for gang activity was to be found in the disintegration of families. Many of our Pentecostal informants offered the opinion that the propagation of the evangelical faith would help to restore families and contain crime, thus making a pragmatic and inclusive connection between salvation, a Christian lifestyle, and security (preliminary results of this project are published in Schäfer et al. 2013). O'Neill bypasses the different doctrines of salvation that Christian churches officially profess and reconstructs soteriological beliefs and their effects from the ethnographic material instead. Given the nature of the argument, this is certainly warranted. However, I find the book's premise of an all-encompassing Christian piety less than convincing. As a consequence, I have difficulties following the author's categorical conclusion that “to let [the impious] die is not piety's limitation: it is Christian piety's most basic function” (188).

O'Neill's ethnography is a forceful indictment of the hardships caused by the selective nature of the programs and institutions he describes. It is a very engaging read that takes the reader into scary spaces of neoliberal state abandon. The book will be of great relevance to readers interested in Central American gang violence, Guatemalan drug rehabilitation programs, soft security, and transnational evangelical charity.


Tobias Reu holds a PhD in cultural anthropology from New York University and currently teaches at Universität Bielefeld in Germany. His research interests include the comparative analysis of Christian religious practice and citizenship in Latin America. His current participation in a collaborative project on the social presence of religious actors in Central America has entailed more than a year of ethnographic and mixed methods research across the range of Pentecostal, neo-Pentecostal, Catholic charismatic, and main stream Catholic groups in Guatemala.


Works Cited

Pew Research Center. 2014. “Religion in Latin America: Widespread Change in a Historically Catholic Region.” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project. November 13. http://www.pewforum.org/2014/11/13/religion-in-latin-america/.

Schäfer, Heinrich, Adrián Tovar, and Tobias Reu. 2013. “Cambios en el campo religioso de Guatemala y Nicaragua: 1985 a 2013.” Revista Sendas: Insituto de Investigaciones del Hecho Religioso 1(1): 11-32. Guatemala: Universidad Rafael Landivar.

Weber, Max. 1930. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. London: G. Allen & Unwin.

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