Seized by the Spirit: The Mystical Foundation of Squatting among Pentecostals in Caracas (Venezuela) Today
Democracy is always a matter of temporizing. It cannot be conceived of without this continual obligation to take the time — to develop proposals, to discuss the possible outcomes, to persuade, to implement decisions. Democratic power is always exercised more slowly than individual authoritarian power. Thus democracy must remain patient, even at those times when it encounters, more or less fortunately, the media’s haste.
— Sylviane Agacinski, Time Passing: Modernity and Nostalgia
Our God is a Living God,” or “We do not believe in God, we believe God.” The Pentecostal squatters in Venezuela’s capital city, Caracas, among whom I have recently done fieldwork, voice these and other related statements on the most varied occasions, often to distinguish their own brand of spirituality from that of other religious communities across Venezuela. Although I originally found what the squatters said somewhat puzzling, their statements soon began to resonate powerfully with what I had first observed during the initial moments of fieldwork, namely, the strange (at least to me), unexpected spectacle of these squatters illegally occupying — in the name, and on the behalf, of the Holy Ghost — an empty twelve-story building located in what was once a relatively posh, bohemian part of the city now teeming with informal commerce and all sorts of criminality.
A few initial encounters with the squatters sufficed for me to grasp the connection between the squatters’ phenomenal spatial avarice and the notion of a “living God” instantaneously conveying His dictates to His squatter-people. This is a God, moreover, that one does not so much believe in, as if He was forever installed in some distant, invisible realm mediated by some visible image or authority. Rather, one believes Him as much as one believes or ought to believe a figure of authority who in the here and now tells you what to expect and what to do. It became clear to me after some probing that the Pentecostal squatters assert you must “believe God” simply because He, as a living, present deity, addresses you right now as a believer who, as such, is part of the community of the chosen. Therefore, according to the Pentecostal squatters, you had better not merely believe in Him but believe Him, paying close attention to all that He tells you in the very moment that He speaks and you hear Him. In this essay, I hope to make clear that, at least in Venezuela, much of Pentecostal spirituality is precisely about obliterating the gap between God and His own creation so that, presumably, representation may give way to forms of religious presencing pregnant with all sorts of far-reaching, devastatingly efficacious worldly social and cultural effects.1 For now, however, I want simply to note that, given the connection between the squatters’ spirituality and their spatial orientations, it is not all that surprising that the image of a hungry Holy Ghost gobbling vast stretches of the cityscape by means of the squatters’ docile agency eventually seized my imagination. Such a ghostly apparition presides over much of what I write here.
I credit the rapidity with which I gained some preliminary insight into the squatters’ behavior to the very insistence with which they accounted for their actions in terms of the Holy Spirit’s agency. I will say more about the link between the Venezuelan squatters’ aggressive spatial practices and the kind of Trinitarian theology favored by a majority of Pentecostals around the world,2 exploring in greater detail what becomes of this sectarian Ghost as He moves south of the border into the messy bowels of a huge South American city. Before this, however, a few examples will suffice to give an idea of the extent to which it is the Pentecostal squatters themselves who reflexively assume the link between the Holy Ghost’s innermost designs and their own spatial agency.
One inheres in the insistence with which the squatters legitimate their illegal operations through appeal to transcendental grounds, claiming that whatever they seize — from material goods to buildings and commercial establishments — is theirs “because God has given it to us.” I cannot think of any more effective means of circumventing earthly property rights than the claim, drawn from the Bible, that “God is the owner of the entire world’s silver and gold.” Voiced constantly by the squatters, especially whenever it is a matter of asserting their rights to something, with syllogistic necessity such a claim neatly assigns divine origins to all worldly property while rendering the squatters’ rights to whatever they seize ever more unassailable. After all, if it is the Divine owner Himself who hands something to me, a member of the community of the chosen, is then not such a thing mine — at least in trust? What could be a more compelling property right than one that originates in such a direct heavenly transmission from God to His People and away from the undeserving?3 Given such premises, it is no wonder that the Pentecostal squatters inhabit a thoroughly miraculous economy, a sort of parallel universe where all sorts of portentous signs — from dreams, to uncanny voices and visions — impinge on believers as so many divine injunctions continuously telling them what to do.4
That it is a matter of doing, of a supremely action-oriented deity seizing across history His very own spatiotemporal creation through the agency of His third-person Trinity filling like electricity the bodies of the faithful — the squatters speak of themselves as “vessels” to be filled by Spirit — should be clear from my second, final example, of a reflexively assumed link between the squatters’ own spatial agency and the intimations of Spirit. One day as I was driving Hermana Juana,5 the squatters’ irresistibly charismatic leader, through the streets of Caracas, she suddenly turned away from the empty buildings she had been gazing at through her window and directed her attention to me: “You know,” she said, briefly catching my eye, “if we do not occupy spaces we do not receive blessings from the Holy Spirit.” What better indication of a divinely inspired logic of spatial occupation spiraling out of all possible control in a limitless series of seizures, acts of more or less violent appropriation, to which there is no foreseeable limit? Does not this statement insinuate a religiously imbued, unbridled logic of consumption that posits the space of the city, the nation, and even the world as fair game, an ever-expanding field for this logic’s limitless self-extension? Lest anyone find fault with mentioning the Holy Ghost and such logic of spatial occupation in the same breath, so to speak, let me say that none other than Hegel himself once spoke of the relation between the three persons of the Trinity as the mode whereby God dialectically seizes or spatiotemporally takes hold of His own creation across history. Thesis, antithesis, and synthesis: according to Hegel, it is through these persons’ interactions that God self-relates by constantly bringing back to Himself, the originating source of all things, His own creation that had become detached from Him throughout history.6
If the Holy Ghost’s ongoing, active reclamation, for and on behalf of God, of the spaces of His own creation may be characterized as limitless, then this is due to the limitlessness of the spatiotemporal flight whereby, since the Fall and on account of their sinfulness, men and women detach the world away from the Father. Ultimately extending to the whole of creation, it is due to such a postlapsarian metonymic flight from one object and space to the next that the thirdperson Trinity has His task cut out for Him. Faced with such a predicament, Spirit, in other words, cannot but intervene in the world or, what comes to the same, in the spatiotemporal manifold so as to constantly reclaim and return it to its originating source and foundation.
To gain a sense of Pentecostal spirituality’s peculiar spatiotemporal drive, it is enough to turn briefly to the images shown on the huge projection screens found in Pentecostal churches all over the world. In particular, I am thinking of a film that I saw during services in places as distant from each other as Indonesia and Venezuela, which is suggestive of how globalized the Pentecostal repertoire and institutional reach is. Bathed in supernatural light, the film shows a series of heterogeneous landscapes caught in rapid succession by a traveling shot that swiftly moves forward, landscape upon disappearing landscape, into an infinitely expanding horizon. Meanwhile, the voice-over somehow manages to suture the Holy Spirit to the moving eye of the camera, thereby generating the impression of a disembodied supernatural agency smoothly yet relentlessly taking over the whole of the planet from above. Needless to say, widely celebrated in Pentecostal services everywhere, the wonders of digital and electronic technologies are not at all foreign to this effect of a limitless spatiotemporal seizure.
It is on account of instances like these, what the squatters themselves say on the most varied occasions, and, last but not least, the kind of Trinitarian theology espoused by a majority of Pentecostals everywhere (with its ever-present temptation to compress the three Divine Persons into the Oneness of Christ as an all-powerful, absolute agency continuously active in the world) that I refer to the Holy Spirit’s repeated interventions as unlimited forms of spatial occupation. In referring to them as such, I believe that I remain faithful to this Ghost’s innermost designs and intentions. After all, much as in the films that I have just evoked, in what amounts to a kind of squatting, what is involved in these interventions is nothing less than the seizing or occupying and taking back, one by one if necessary, of those spatiotemporal chunks of creation that sinfulness keeps snatching away.
When Hermana Juana told me that in order to “receive blessings” from the Holy Spirit she and the other Pentecostal squatters must “occupy spaces,” she was simply voicing the extent to which her own and the other Pentecostal squatters’ agencies overlap with that of the Holy Ghost, to the point, indeed, of both being one and the same. It is precisely such an overlap that the squatters have in mind when, in line with all other Pentecostals, they insist on their self-proclaimed status as mere “vessels” or conduits of the Holy Spirit, with no independent will or agency of their own. Given such a folk theory of the person as a sheer empty medium available to the designs of the deity,7 it is little wonder that such expressions as “I was used by the Holy Spirit” or “the Father used me” are uttered so often among the squatters. They use such phrases to signal God’s exclusive hand in some singularly momentous or delicate matter over which they claim no special responsibility, for example, a miraculous healing or, as happens to be the case, the occupation of the Yaracuy building followed in short succession by the seizure from its Portuguese owner of a relatively large shoe factory located in what used to be the building’s basement or garage. Such expressions convey, with unambiguous clarity, how much the squatters view their illegal activities not as “theirs” but as the Father’s. In other words, in the squatters’ understanding, they are merely the docile instruments that the Holy Spirit “uses” to occupy and repossess those spaces away from the undeserving. An outside observer not attuned to the squatters’ spirituality may very well judge these activities in an unfavorable light as downright criminal and illegal. The Pentecostals, on the other hand, holding on to a Law higher than the human, pass the buck to Him.
But the peculiarly aggressive spatiotemporal tendency of the squatters’ religious practices as forms of seizure and occupation of spaces hitherto held by others is not only present in these invasiones or tomas, as they are called in Venezuela, although these disclose such a tendency in a singularly dramatic fashion. It is, for example, evident in the processions that Hermana Juana orchestrated on several occasions with the aim of reclaiming, in all its filth, messiness, and chaos, the Boulevard of Sabana Grande for Christ. I remember catching my breath while trying to keep up with her, single-mindedly walking straight ahead of me on one of the long avenues parallel to the boulevard with a small group of Pentecostal sisters lagging a few steps behind. With their long, colorful skirts adding a somewhat anachronistic touch to the surrounding cityscape of street vendors, dilapidated storefronts, occasional manic honking, and slightly amused passersby, Hermana Juana and the other sisters made a remarkable sight.8 Seemingly oblivious to anything going on around her, she accompanied her walking with the staccato recitation of a series of barely inaudible formulas. These amounted to so many invocations of the Father to “take out” the Evil One from one object or place to the next so that He could repossess them all. Every once in a while Hermana Juana would rapidly extend either her left or right hand to touch one or another object, briefly pausing while slightly inclining her whole body forward as if to use her weight to push her powerful words right into the wall, phone booth, or lamppost she was passing.
In line with the belligerent overtones of Pentecostalism everywhere, for which the Manichaean battle between God and the Devil is a structuring force immanent in the most diverse religious practices,9 what Hermana Juana and the sisters sought to accomplish with this kind of procession was straightforward enough, namely, chasing the Devil from the boulevard while turning it into “Christian territory” freed from all the un-Christian practices and commodities so prevalent in the area.10 I heard the expression Christian territory repeatedly used by the squatters on a variety of occasions. One day, for instance, when I was driving several sisters into the area of Sabana Grande, one of them observed that we were now “entering Christian territory.” The smile with which she quickly followed her words somewhat undermined them, suggesting that calling Sabana Grande a uniquely Christian redoubt was partly tongue in cheek. Indeed, given the chaotic state of the site at the time of my fieldwork, to refer to the boulevard as a “Christian territory” was, at best, wishful thinking. As it turned out, the sister was actually invoking a period in the recent past, not long before I arrived in the building, when the squatters had violently wrested control over the Yaracuy away from a rival band of squatters. Yet in baptizing Sabana Grande a “Christian territory” she was also probably expressing the Pentecostals’ desires for a time when, with everyone already converted and having submitted their own wills to God’s will and designs, the entire area will have become such a religiously controlled domain.
I will say more about the conflict between the Pentecostals and the rival squatter gang shortly. For now, however, I call attention to the overriding ambition that runs through an expression like the one above and, by extension, through the practices of which this and other related expressions are so clearly a part. As mentioned, such an ambition is for the limitless seizure or repossession of space so as to render it “Christian.” As should be clear by now, if such a seizure is potentially limitless or infinite, this is on account of the infinite, truly limitless struggle in which the party of God, or the Pentecostals, engages with the aim of recovering the world from a recalcitrant enemy. It is on this basis that Hermana Juana and the others voiced their readiness to abandon everything on the spot and travel to distant lands to bring God’s Word to the world. In this sense, their disposition is truly universal.11
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Para Eduardo Portillo y Maria Eugenia Dávila
The research on which this essay is based was carried out while I was a postdoctoral fellow in the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research’s Pioneer Program “Religion, Media, and the Public Sphere,” directed by Dr. Birgit Meyer, at the University of Amsterdam. Earlier versions were presented at a conference at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa; at the Anthropology Department of New York University; as a Boas Lecture at Columbia University; at the Graduate Workshop on Anthropology of Latin America and the Caribbean (WALAC) at the University of Chicago; at the Anthropology Department of Johns Hopkins University; and at the Center for Contemporary Theory at the University of Chicago. I thank the members of these audiences for their comments and questions. In particular, I thank Thomas Abercrombie, Jane Bennett, Edmundo Bracho, Yvette Christiansë, Jean Comaroff, William Connolly, Veena Das, Mark Ellmore, Judith Farquhar, Joao Felipe Gonçalves, Faye Ginsburg, Bruce Grant, Brian Larkin, Claudio Lomnitz, Paola Marrati, Achille Mbembe, Birgit Meyer, Rosalind Morris, Fred Myers, Stephan Palmié, John Pemberton, Beth Povinelli, Danilyn Rutherford, Michael Taussig, Hent de Vries, and Angela Zito. Adam Becker, Deborah Kapchan, Webb Keane, John Kelly, Brian Larkin, Birgit Meyer, Rosalind Morris, Nancy Munn, Emilio Spadola, Rupert Stasch, and Paula Vásquez have generously read and commented on the essay at different stages of its development, for which I am most grateful. I also thank Dilip Gaonkar for his valuable editorial comments. I wish also to thank my wonderful research assistant, Isabela Lujan. Much of the essay was developed at New York University’s Center for Religion and Media, where I was a fellow in 2006, and completed while I was a faculty fellow at New York University’s Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies. I thank the directors of these two centers, Faye Ginsburg and Angela Zito, and Thomas Abercrombie, respectively, for their generosity and intellectual stimulation. As always, Patricia Spyer has provided invaluable intellectual and personal companionship. Last but not least, I owe an immense debt to the Pentecostal sisters, their families, and followers with whom I work in Caracas.
- Needless to say, what I have in mind here is not any “real presence” but the effect of such presence brought about by a wide range of digital and electronic technologies, especially television. As Samuel Weber perceptively argues, with all the uncanny, ghostly consequences that such undecidability provokes, on the television screen the “minimal difference necessary to distinguish reproduced from reproduction, model from copy, repeated from repetition, is reduced, tendentially at least, to the imperceptible.” See Samuel Weber, Mass Mediauras: Form, Technics, Media (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1996), 121, 161.
- To my knowledge, all Pentecostals in Venezuela, as do the majority of Pentecostals all over the world, adhere to a version of the Christian Trinity that assigns a singularly potent agency to the Holy Spirit as the ongoing dispenser of “gifts” throughout history. Nevertheless, such unanimity has not always been the norm among Pentecostals. In 1916, American Pentecostalism underwent a major schism when a sizable number of members from the Assemblies of God “rejected the historic teachings of the Trinity in favor of an understanding of Jesus as being at the same time Father, Son and Spirit.” Such a schism, in turn, had been triggered by the “Jesus only” controversy that was sparked in 1911 by Glen Cook and Frank Ewart, whose teachings compressed the three Divine Persons into the figure of Christ as the all-powerful, single agency that, in different guises, is active across history. Thus eventually “arose the United Pentecostal Church and the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World.” It is from these two Churches that “Oneness Pentecostalism” was itself born. See Cheryl Bridges Johns, “Pentecostalism,” in Encyclopedia of Christianity, ed. John Bowden (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 909 – 12. For the tensions between Pentecostalism and Oneness Pentecostalism within the Latino community in the United States, see Arlene M. Sánchez Walsh, Pentecostal Identity: Evangelical Faith, Self, and Society (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 4, 13 – 15, 18 – 20.
- In line with the squatter’s understanding, by “the undeserving,” I mean all those mundanos or worldly, mundane beings who have not been baptized or “born again” in the Holy Spirit; that is, virtually everyone who is not a Pentecostal.
- The literature on Pentecostalism grows at a pace that is hard to keep up with. I have found especially useful André Corten and Ruth Marshall, eds., Between Babel and Pentecost: Transnational Pentecostalism in Africa and Latin America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001); Joel Robbins, “The Globalization of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity,” Anthropology 33 (2004): 117 – 43; Birgit Meyer, “Christianity in Africa: From African Independent to Pentecostal- Charismatic Churches,” Anthropology 33 (2004): 447 – 74; David Stoll, Is Latin America Turning Protestant? The Politics of Evangelical Growth (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990); Marleen de Witte, “The Spectacular and the Spirits: Charismatics and Neo-Traditionalists on Ghanaian Television,” Material Religion 1 (2005): 314 – 34; Martijn Oosterbaan, “Mass Mediating the Spiritual Battle: Pentecostal Appropriations of Mass Mediated Violence in Rio de Janeiro,” Material Religion 1 (2005): 358 – 85. In general, for Venezuela the essays on Pentecostalism by David Smilde are especially insightful. For the bearings it has on some of the arguments in this essay, see especially Smilde’s “ ‘Letting God Govern’: Supernatural Agency in the Venezuelan Approach to Social Change,” Sociology of Religion 59 (1998): 287 – 303.
- In order to protect the confidentiality of the Pentecostal squatters among whom I have done fieldwork during the past two years, all proper names have been changed.
- For Hegel’s treatment of the Christian Trinity, see Peter C. Hodgson, ed., Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion: One-Volume Edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 111 – 98, 417 – 32. Needless to say, if I mention Hegel here, whose “entire . . . system is based on the logical structure of the Trinity,” this is not because of any direct ethnographic relevance of the German philosopher to the Pentecostal squatters whom I address in this essay; I am quite certain that they have not heard his name mentioned even once. Nevertheless, considering that according to Mark C. Taylor, “the far reaching implications of the Trinity did not become clear until Hegel developed his speculative philosophy,” surely this German thinker is highly relevant not just to Pentecostals everywhere but minimally also to all Trinitarian Christians around the world. After all, as Taylor goes on to say, “far from a symptom of theological excess, the Trinity, Hegel insists, is not only central to Christian faith but is crucial for the course of history as a whole.” In other words, as long as capitalized history continues to matter to Christian and non-Christian alike all over the world, Hegel will be a name to reckon with. See Taylor, About Religion: Economies of Faith in Virtual Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 154 – 55.
- If that is what it is, given the squatters’ borrowing in order to formulate their self-understanding of both person and agency from a globalized repertoire largely shared by Pentecostals everywhere. Nevertheless, as I show throughout this essay, in this very borrowing, the Pentecostal squatters that I address in this essay take this globalized repertoire into a hitherto unexplored territory where its excessive underside clearly shows. The argument can also be made that, in such a process, Pentecostal notions of the person become inflected by other local understandings, but this is the subject of another essay.
- My use of the term anachronistic is consistent with Hermana Juana and the other Pentecostals’ self-understanding of their own attire, especially their skirts, as harking back to biblical times.
- For an illuminating study on this connection, see Birgit Meyer, Translating the Devil: Religion and Modernity among the Ewe in Ghana (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999).
- Needless to say, what counts as either “Christian” or “un-Christian” for the squatters is wholly contingent on the peculiar kind of religious grid that they apply to the phenomena with which they are involved.