Jesus and the Gang: Book Review

Wolseth, Jon. 2011.  Jesus and the Gang: Youth Violence and Christianity in Urban Honduras. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press.

By: Henri Gooren (Oakland University)

This fine ethnography begins with a murder. “They shot him, they shot El Títere. El Títere is dead” (1). Children are shouting and running; soon a crowd forms near the shirtless corpse of a young man who was “barely twenty” (2). Wolseth describes the confusion and the excitement of the local people and the laconic reaction of an older woman, a neighbor of the victim’s grandmother: “It’s too bad that they shot him, but he was a gang member. I have sympathy only for the family” (2). That same night Wolseth discovers the victim was the best friend of his key informant, Sergio. “His closest gang buddy had been gunned down by a rival gang in front of his buddy’s house.[..] Sergio said, “They shot him seven times.[..] I remember that the people there said that when they put the first [shot] in him he said, ‘No, grandma. I left it [the gang],’ he said, yelled that way, and he fell to the ground. They shot him once here,” Sergio points to his stomach, “another here,” he points to his cheek, “and he shot him more” (4).

The aim of the book is “to examine the ways that young men in the working-class and working-poor neighborhood of Colonia Belén in El Progreso, Honduras, respond to youth violence by drawing on the available social institutions in their lives” (6). These institutions are the gang, the family, which is often dysfunctional, and the church. Wolseth spent twelve months in 2001-02 conducting participant observation at church meetings, local non-governmental organizations, hanging out on the street with young men, and at people’s homes (19-21). “Colonia Belén is a neighborhood of 600 houses located approximately five miles to the south and east of the [El Progreso] downtown area” (17). It has a bad reputation: “Newspaper accounts, politicians, and locals alike commonly characterize this area as ‘crime infested,’ ‘filled with gangs,’ or ‘most dangerous.’ Young men are consistently implicated as the source of violent crime” (17). Wolseth describes how the death of El Títere was a “clarion call” for Sergio, making him realize that “the only way he can leave behind a social self as a gang member is through the acceptance of a new social self, that of being a Pentecostal” (5).

Reflecting the explosive growth of Protestantism in Honduras, Colonia Belén has six non-Catholic churches: “Pentecostal, Baptist, Evangelical Free, Seventh Day Adventist, Mormon, and Jehovah’s Witness. This number would jump to eleven if we included the churches on the immediate edges of the neighborhood” (21). Pentecostalism is the only avenue to get out of the gang alive and Wolseth also selected the local Pentecostal church as a case study “because of the rapid growth of its youth membership and the relatively high percentage of youth who held leadership positioned within the church structure” (21). Wolseth mentions that “at times, it seemed that religious meetings dominated my research life. During a typical week I found myself attending some sort of church-related activity, Pentecostal or Catholic, five or six nights week” (22). This makes it all the more regrettable that Wolseth does not provide much detail on their backgrounds or reflect on how representative these churches are for poor neighborhoods. Uncharacteristically, the local Catholic parish is quite progressive, with a base community and a youth group founded by Jesuits; the Pentecostal group is dominated by the type of prosperity theology (the “health and wealth” gospel) that has surged since the 1980s. Wolseth also met many youth who were not involved in any church, often “siblings, relatives, neighbors, and close friends of youth I already knew well” (22).

The religious groups are presented as contrasting cases, with the Catholic base community (CEB: comunidad eclesial de base in Spanish) representing community life and the Pentecostal church offering individual redemption through religious conversion. Chapter 4, “The Making of Community and the Work of Faith,” deals with the CEB. Its first subtitle is a fine summary: “We live as a community, not as individuals” (72). They have a strong and very active youth group, which welcomes (ex) gang members. The group has fierce debates, on politics as much as theology, always coming back to the core issues: they are a group, a community. They act for the good of the community, not for selfish gains. Members attack neoliberalism as unchristian, but they are unable to offer an alternative. They also find it hard to integrate (ex) gang members into the youth group. Paradoxically, a successful integration would imply danger to the other CEB members. Just by associating with a gang member, whether current or ex, they put their own lives in danger, too. “If Catholic youth identify with all youth – including addicted and violent youth – this places them in a situation of possibly being confused with this class of youth” (94). Wolseth correctly identifies love as the core CEB concept and provides an astute analysis of the CEB’s “theology of forgiveness” and accompaniment with the poor and the dispossessed (98-100). Yet he also explains another paradox: “Catholics, by viewing themselves as ‘the community’ under which all segments of the population fall, have little recourse to alter an individual’s behavior in the way that evangelical Protestantism offers its adherents a conceptual separation from the sins of the world. Indeed, because CEB participants are likely to contend that sin is social – including violence and drug addiction – they offer only incorporation into the community, not a radical break from the community” (98).

Pentecostalism is only represented in the book by the God is Love Pentecostal Church, described in chapter 5 (“Finding Sanctuary: Youth Violence and Pentecostalism”). Unfortunately, there is no information on the church group itself: its history, leadership structure, meetings, or membership profile. Instead, there are sections on salvation, conversion, and its interplay with gangs. Gang members respect evangelicals: “You mess with a cristiano, it’s like you’re messing with God” (111). Conversion to Pentecostalism is the only way to get out of a gang alive, but “gangs judge who has authentically become a Christian, based on the individual’s public performance of being a cristiano” (121). Essential background information on the Pentecostal church is missing, however, which does not allow the reader to understand just how (un)representative this one Pentecostal church is. Deu è Amor is a neo-Pentecostal church from Brazil, characterized by a strong emphasis on the prosperity gospel, tithing, and deliverance (“exorcism”). It is often put in the same category as the more notorious Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (Igreja Universal). In other words, God is Love is not classical Pentecostalism and not even mainstream Pentecostalism. Adding a section with this information and a few references to trusted authors like Paul Freston, David Martin, and David Stoll (all missing from the bibliography) would strengthen the book immensely. Now the reader is left with the impression that the God is Love Pentecostal Church is representative of all Pentecostalism in Honduras, even Latin America. Wolseth contributes to this by writing sweeping statements like “typical blessings such as economic success, healing, and family cohesion are evidence of an individual’s dedication to God and his or her saved status” (106). The crucial conversion concept is treated rather cursory by first echoing the Comaroffs’ plea against using it as a sociological category altogether (108) and then correctly describing it as “both an ascribed and attributed status” (110). Wolseth’s limited knowledge of contemporary evangelical Protestantism in Latin America is also evident from awkward phrases like “Unlike in many versions of evangelicalism in Latin America, Catholic youth and CEBs do not cast God as a paternal, distant, and castigating figure” (85). Most Pentecostal churches do not share this old image of God either, which is evident from the data in chapter 5.

Wolseth’s ethnography shows how youth in general, and young men in particular, are stigmatized as violent gang members by people in their neighborhood and outsiders alike. He connects this to a wider frame of neoliberal economic policies destroying jobs, educational opportunities, and health care in Honduras (11). Wolseth records his surprise that under these dire circumstances, Catholic base communities do not gather greater strength as one of the few organized counter groups (89-92).  His explanation is that “neoliberal ideologies of individual comparative advantage have eroded a sense of community and working together. That is, an emphasis on individualism has atomized cooperation and civic participation” (90). I agree, but the necessary follow-up would be to analyze how this has affected the Catholic base community and the God is Love Pentecostal Church that Wolseth studied in-depth in Colonia Belén. After all, both religious groups were introduced as Durkheimian “moral communities” at the start of the book (9).

This is an excellent ethnography, with fieldwork conducted under extremely difficult circumstances. Wolseth gained great insights from his 51 interviews, although he obviously could not get inside the gang as deeply as Bob Brenneman (Homies and Hermanos). Apart from some jarring social science jargon, the book is a great read with a compelling narrative and a harrowing ending.

References

Brenneman, Robert. 2012. Homies and Hermanos: God and Gangs in Central America. New York: Oxford University Press.

Comaroff, Jean and John Comaroff. 1991. Of Revelation and Revolution: Christianity, Colonialism, and Consciousness in South Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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