The Struggle of Beauty

We can’t help but feel convicted by Joel Aguilar’s story. It’s a story about a land and people victimized by political and economic interests. Joel shows us how Guatemala became a place of deep corruption and inequality. He has worked side-by-side with the poorest of the poor, and now Joel hopes that his academic training can open new opportunities for the people he calls family. But Joel’s expertise comes at a price: it has cost him credibility amongst those he’s trying to help. His nonviolent, boundary-crossing Christianity gets dismissed as a heretical dream. They say he doesn’t understand what’s at stake. But Joel knows well what’s at stake: Guatemala herself is falling apart as different factions fight to control the land. Can the people of Guatemala recapture their love of her beauty? Or will cycles of corruption and revenge destroy their home? Joel gives us hope that genuine change is still possible.

By Lyle Enright, Photography by William Price, III
I. Where Does My Help Come From?

“Do not come,” Vice President Kamala Harris warned immigrants and refugees at a June news conference alongside Guatemalan president Alejandro Giammettei: “[We] will continue to enforce our laws and secure our borders.”

Harris peppered her comments with diplomacy as she insisted that Guatemalans did not need a release valve in the form of immigration but rather a “sense of hope that help is on the way.” For the average Guatemalan, however, “hope” and “help” are not necessarily synonymous; external economic, political, racial and religious interests have stylized themselves as bringing “help” to the region for centuries. Spanish Conquistadors believed they gave the indigenous Maya a sense of purpose and a path to salvation by setting them to work on haciendas. The United States government believed it was aiding the fight against communism when it armed a coup and overthrew a newly-formed democratic government that threatened the economic interests of its congressional constituents. The parade of dictators during and since Guatemala’s 36 year armed conflict (1960-1996) also saw themselves as doing good. Today, Guatemalans battle for everyday hope in a nation of sham elections, serially corrupt administrations that defend their own impunity, and former soldiers who use their training to form gangs and drug cartels. It indeed feels, at times, that help could only come from elsewhere.

Joel Aguilar, at least, believes the way forward for Guatemala is no merely human way—and yet it is also deeply human, already embedded in the land, the people, and their longings. In a country ruled by the military and a colonial aristocracy, Joel has accompanied the poor and marginalized through slums, streets, and coffee shops for over a decade. As dean of the Comunidad de Estudios Teologicos Interdisciplinaros (CETI), and as a fellow of the global urban ministry Street Psalms, he’s built relationships and fashioned hope from almost nothing; not a hope that “help is on the way”, but that help is already present in the everyday potential to do things differently. Joel calls this a “human catechism”.

But such a catechism needs a framework. Recently—and anticlimactically, he says—Joel completed a Ph.D. in Practical Theology through the University of Pretoria, South Africa. His dissertation, “Living, Laughing, and Loving in Guatemala City,” takes a long look at how people change and how traumatized communities might flourish. It is, however, a risky step—one that has already cost him dearly. Stepping away from the violence and astride the day-to-day sufferings of his neighbors in order to develop life-giving tools for them has sometimes been interpreted as abandonment:

“I felt like I was a little bit on the bench,” he says, hands in his lap, almost bashful about it. “I had, in the midst of the pandemic, five or seven [professional] opportunities open up. [But] my friends doing direct work in the slums did not stop. [Doing a Ph.D.] just puts you at a huge level of disparity with many others in our context. There’s a cost in street cred. I’ve had grassroots leaders tell me, man, you don’t know the reality anymore, you just read your books and sit at your desk.”

I asked Joel why he was willing to sit at his desk, surrounded by books and seeking explanations, if it produced such a sense of disconnection and abstraction from his community. He was ready and confident in his answer:

“Violence has ruined us,” he said.

Joel Aguilar, wearing a Covid mask, in Constitution Plaza, Guatemala City, with the Catedral Primada Metropolitana de Santiago in the background.
Graffiti that reads "JUSTICA" in Constitution Plaza, Guatemala City.
Graffiti in Constitution Plaza, Guatemala City.
II. Having and Holding Guatemala

It’s hard to talk about “belonging” in Guatemala. In the jungles south of what’s now the Mexican border, the Mayan people struggled to establish themselves in a land that regularly shook or erupted in protest, as if to say it did not want them. Their perseverance yielded one of the greatest ancient civilizations.

Now their grand pyramids and temples have been reclaimed by the rain forests. Displaced by Spanish conquistadors, the Mayans were told that the land they’d cultivated now belonged to the Spanish crown. The people were moved from their cities onto plantations, and reorganized under a European racial hierarchy. Mayan and mestizo workers spent their lives tilling the fields for wealthy Spanish landowners in what was essentially a feudal system, where one person’s failure to fill a quota could mean the brutal execution and callous replacement of an entire workforce. 

Plantation owners often utilized only 20% of their arable land. While workers cultivated coffee and bananas for sale in foreign markets, this untapped potential called out to them, begging to be stewarded as it had been in the past. This dream was nearly realized by Jacobo Árbenz who, between 1951 to 1954, organized what many consider the most aggressive and successful agrarian reform program in history—before he was deposed in a coup sparked by a disgruntled aristocracy and backed by a newly-formed CIA.

Humanity, liberty, and material security have frequently been placed within arm’s reach of the Guatemalan people, only to be ripped away again and again. It thus makes sense that many Guatemalans have developed a habit of looking askance at their neighbors. “People want more,” says Patricio Gajardo, the International Republican Institute’s Resident Program Director in Guatemala. “People see what others have and say, ‘Why do I not have that?’” This includes jobs, access to schools, food and utilities, and other “attractions” of the United States, Mexico, and even the globalized capital of Guatemala City. Such discontent leads to the migrations the U.S. is trying to curb; but it also leads to envy, and with it corruption, especially among the better-off.

Constitution Plaza, Guatemala City.

“The elite have class solidarity in Guatemala,” Joel explains. “Many of them trace their backgrounds to the first Spaniards that pillaged indigenous people. They want things to stay the same.” As global capitalism turns wealthy eyes outwards, Joel says, “the so-called middle class…are more in solidarity with the elite of the world than with themselves and the poor. Class solidarity becomes an aspirational discourse: someday I’ll be like Jeff Bezos, I’ll take my own trip to the moon. If you change things, I won’t get there.”

“It’s like a copy,” Gajardo says, explaining how this sense of aspiration and entitlement fuels political corruption. “You see somebody not being put in jail because they were able to pay the lawyers or the judges [and] if I see that nothing happens to the big guy, you think ‘I can also do it.’ [But] if a person from the countryside steals a chicken, that person will get five years in jail.”

This irregular and unjust application of the law may be business as usual for the Guatemalan upper class, but the common people have not taken it quietly. While the days of guerrilla insurgency may be behind them, rampant injustice corrupting an ostensibly democratic system has produced a culture of such regular protest that it’s become routine without necessarily becoming effective. A failure of imagination, Joel says, has made the people vulnerable to manipulation and allowed other destructive tendencies to go unresolved; Guatemalans may rightly oppose the corruption, inequality and racism weaponized by the elite, but they do not connect their outrage to their own habits of everyday violence and victimization. While the average Guatemalan is not conscious of it, “justice” for the outraged citizen often implies the right to vent long-held aggression, and to wield power with the impunity of the corrupt. 

All this would become clear to Joel when, in 2015, already deep in his dissertation research, he joined the demonstrations against then-president Otto Pérez Molina. “I vividly remember yelling,” he says, and then, with the seed of a human catechism germinating in his mind, something happened: “All of a sudden, I was like: wait a second. We’re asking for the sacrifice of our leaders. I just looked at everybody and was conscious of it.”

It was then that Joel saw the logic of the oppressor in the fervor of the mob; they whipped themselves into a dehumanizing frenzy that would justify whatever happened next. “A few months later, when the vice president [Roxana Baldetti] was captured and taken to prison, she completely broke down. You could hear her saying, ‘This is where I’m going to be?’ and she lost it, almost went crazy.” That day, in vivid color, Joel realized just how uncomfortable people are with acknowledging that even wicked people are still people: “All news channels cut off the moment she started becoming too human. Nobody showcased her story. [If the cameras had kept rolling], I think people would have questioned what they were asking for. We would have had to face the reality that she was us.”

What unites Guatemalans across all social striations, Joel says—even those who refuse to recognize one another’s humanity—is a “collective woundedness” that keeps working itself out through cycles of violence: “We’ve been so wounded by the armed conflict; we’ve been so wounded by the colonial violence. We’ve been wounded by businesses and corrupt politicians. We know no different. We don’t know how to imagine something else.” 

Joel’s human catechism is his attempt at imagining something else, and at restoring a sense of humanity by acknowledging this collective woundedness. To get there, however, requires understanding the mirrored violence of Guatemala.

An overlooking view of Guatemala City

“The idea of violence and the idea of a violent god are very deeply intertwined,” Joel says, explaining that violence halos our conflicts with a glare of religious urgency. “[When] people confront their own violence, they confront their projection of violence onto their idea of God.”

III. The Fruit that Toppled a Government

During the agrarian reforms of the 1950s, the landowners of Guatemala sought to depose then-president Jacobo Árbenz and re-secure their interests. Despite Árbenz’s transparently capitalist ambitions, the dissenters took advantage of growing Cold War paranoia and sought the aid of the United States. The upper class appealed to the interests of the United Fruit Company, who in turn appealed—in 1948—to “the father of public relations,” Edward Bernays. 

Bernays believed in the power of high-profile “opinion molders” to shape culture by inspiring imitation in others. Bernays had already been promoting bananas in the U.S. on United Fruit’s behalf, using celebrities and other models. By the same strategies, Bernays integrated the “communist menace” into his narrative. The banana soon became an icon of American Christian opposition to communism, a threatened import to be protected at all costs. By 1954, the CIA was conducting psychological warfare in Guatemala, arming the insurgents who would oust Árbenz and replace him with a puppet dictator.

Though he didn’t know it, Bernays had effectively weaponized a fundamental fact of human behavior that Joel has dedicated himself to understanding in a Guatemalan context. He cites the French-American anthropologist Rene Girard: “Humans don’t know what to desire on their own. Humans imitate the desires of others, and when the desired object is not sharable, rivalry happens and that leads to violence.” Girard referred to these phenomena as “mimetic desire” and “mimetic rivalry”. Mimetic desire is so powerful that, as Bernays discovered, it can plant a banana and grow a coup d’etat.  

Joel sees mimetic rivalry as endemic, explaining the “clashing of shared desires to possess the same object: Guatemala itself.” The desire for an object reflects a desire for identity, and each side in the ongoing conflict carefully constructs its identities—racial and economic especially—to legitimate their own claims to the land while dehumanizing perceived rivals. Guatemalan politics thus starts to look like one “mimetic crisis” after another: mimesis drives the engine of corruption as the wealthy imitate one another and test their limits. It reveals to migrants the helpless paucity of their circumstances and leads them to seek lives elsewhere. It inflects cries for justice and turns them into demands for execution. 

What’s more, the rivalrous violence generated by these dynamics is often displaced into the community; in 2019, Guatemala City experienced 43.48 homicides per 100,000 residents, not counting other forms of violent crime. These statistics represent an uptick in crime following a downturn after the 2015 protests: “We averaged 16 violent deaths a day,” Joel says. “It was insane. People were getting robbed and killed at traffic lights. Drug-related crimes were off the charts. We even had a full-on massacre led by cartels. But once the president and vice president were put in prison—I kid you not, people can check our statistics—violent deaths dropped to 10 or 13 a day. You wouldn’t hear about hot spots where you could get your car jacked. Gang and drug violence decreased for two exact years.”

These dips in violence were not, however, cause for celebration in Joel’s eyes. Rather, they were further evidence of mimetic rivalry at work, as the ritualistic and sacrificial fervor around the protests restored order to the community by concentrating its violence on just a handful of victims. The problem with any peace won through sacrificial violence is that it is fragile; there is always, as now, a new surge in violence just over the horizon, as the protesters iteratively imitate their oppressors: “Back when gang violence was off the charts,” Joel says, “[I heard of] a conversation between a dad and his kid. [The kid asked,] what would happen if we killed all those gang members? Wouldn’t that be good? And the response of the dad was: No, son. We would be left with only murderers.”

This story is a paradigm for Joel because it illustrates how a human catechism responds to another natural tendency of communities in rivalry: looking for a scapegoat. While it can easily become indiscriminate, mimetic violence tends to coalesce and concentrate blame. Roxana Baldetti was one such surrogate victim, Joel says, not because she was innocent but because her very public and publicized suffering became cathartic for the community; it was as though she were paying for everyone’s sins, not just her own.

Languages of sin, sacrifice, and scapegoating are not accidental here: “The idea of violence and the idea of a violent god are very deeply intertwined,” Joel says, explaining that violence halos our conflicts with a glare of religious urgency. “[When] people confront their own violence, they confront their projection of violence onto their idea of God.”

The religious language resonates, and is important to the Guatemalan people. Historically Catholic, Guatemala saw a surge in Evangelical Protestant missionary work in the second half of the 20th Century. Guatemala’s unprecedented response has led it to become the first majority Protestant country in Latin America. Evangelicalism has reinvigorated a sense of the supernatural in Guatemala, and opened new channels for expressing Mayan heritage and spirituality; but it has also tangled itself with legacies of violence and sacrifice. Protestant rhetorics of grace and salvation are often filtered through conservative politics and aggressive anti-communism. President Efraín Ríos Montt, an Evangelical convert, spent much of his dictatorship from 1982-1983 sermonizing the nation in fire-and-brimstone style—even as he committed a genocide for which he was never held accountable. On the local level, Joel says, “[g]rassroots leaders have developed faith practices of exclusion and violence to control who can or cannot help transform the city. It’s a direct consequence of colonial evangelization methods.”

Suffering from the same failures of imagination as their fellow citizens, Guatemalan Christians often extend their hands to those in poverty or violence but shun other groups. In the case of LGBTQIA persons, Joel says, church leaders will often encourage violence as a form of moral instruction: “[Christians say] ‘I’m not homophobic or transphobic [but] maybe you need to beat that stuff out of them.’ There is a discourse of tough love, and of making sure you give them one chance to be saved before they burn in hell. In those who are less prone to violence, it comes out as, ‘You can be part of our group, but do not think you can enter into leadership. Don’t think you can teach or sing.’ A lot of that [hidden] exclusionary language is very prevalent. And that’s one of the reasons a lot of my work has been just talking and challenging the perspectives of those who do direct service that way.”

It is through talking that Joel gets people to step outside themselves for a moment, to question whether the God they worship is really a projection of their own desires: “I’ve seen people begin, reluctantly, challenging their ideas of violence. Violence looks so different in different contexts, but once we get to the reality that it’s always against a specific group or a person, through exclusion, blaming, scapegoating, etc. people get very uncomfortable.” 

To mitigate this discomfort, Joel walks students through imaginative practices and rituals that create feelings of cohesion and belonging. He gently crafts spaces of psychological safety in which to expose rather than encourage violence: “One of the exercises that I did a few times pre-pandemic was this sort of seminar on mimetic theory without calling it that. [We] play[ed] a little bit of a sacrificial rite—a cathartic experiment. We would all be like, ‘We’re going to make up our own god’, and then we would [pretend to] bring out the people we believed were our enemies: corrupt politicians and military officers who perpetrated massacres during the war. We would take them up to the volcano and throw them to the volcano god. That was a very cool experience. People thought it was funny; they got into it. Then when we began to talk about why we would be so comfortable doing that, we began to challenge the nature of the scapegoat. 

“But then the next step, right?”

The “next step”, as Joel puts it, is to torque people’s questioning towards their relationship with God. One of Joel’s firmest convictions is that God is essentially nonviolent; that God would never encourage or justify human acts of violence. Study has shown him that message in the words of the Bible, which are often violent on the surface. Showing that good news to others, however, creates friction:

“We [begin] talking about how we want God to take vengeance for us, and how biblical revelation helps us to subvert that with Jesus, and how that opens up a space for the question, ‘What if God is not violent?’ As humans, we’re asking for the blood of our enemies; what if our ideas of judgment or our ideas of redemption are so tied to revenge that that’s what we are hoping for? [But] when we get to God maybe not taking vengeance on our behalf, people usually check out from that. That’s when people withdraw. I would say maybe one or two people have wanted to move on to the next stage.”

Joel stopped holding his two-day seminars due to that hurdle—and due to the unexpected rancor of those who felt their religious identities being threatened: “We got into scripture, looking at Jesus as the forgiving victim. People started getting very uncomfortable, to the point that a person who I worked with for many years began yelling at me. These are Christian grassroots leaders, right? [They see themselves as] very peace-oriented. [But this guy was] just angry, yelling at me, crying, and all of a sudden he started saying, ‘You are asking me to give up my scapegoat! Who do you think you are to ask me to give up my scapegoat? You’re asking me to give up the army officers who murdered my father!’ I was like, wait a second, this is not just an enactment anymore; something happened.”

For a moment, this Christian leader saw the truth of the matter as Joel did—and yet still sided with the violent God who would justify the violence in his heart. Joel felt the burden of becoming a scandal: an obstruction to the desire for violent retribution. Scandal, according to the Biblical prophet Isaiah, is a “stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall,” and Christians believe this passage also describes Jesus Christ. In Joel’s understanding of Christianity, Jesus’ scandal is the necessary precursor to liberating oneself from rivalry. It is a choice-point that most refuse to engage.

“It’s discouraging,” Joel says. “I would say it’s changed my way of approaching things in the last three to five years. You get an emotional beating every time. It’s sad. I just wish we could focus more on the positive imitation of one another, but rivalry tends to lead. And you know what the fascinating thing is? People get more scandalized when you don’t allow yourself to be scandalized by their reactions.” 

This refusal to be scandalized has probably done more damage to Joel’s credibility and belonging within his community than has his foray into academia. Once close friends now provide many reasons why Joel ought not even be considered a Christian anymore:

“One of the main reasons is [my] unapologetic openness to others,” he says, “specifically to the LGBTQIA community. Also the idea of a nonviolent God and its implications. This includes renouncing the religious imagery that’s part of our system, part of capitalism, the controlling hand of the market, even the sacrificial language around it: how we need to make sacrifices in order to achieve the American dream, for example.”

This dual renunciation—of violent Christianity, and of capitalism as its secular expression—paints Joel as an enemy in a country so thoroughly influenced by America’s wedding of Christianity to anti-communist politics. Joel’s aims and motivations can’t be split by such a right-left binary, but he is concerned that many have transformed their violent god into money: “Businesses are constantly asking for sacrifices from their employees,” Joel explains. “You need to sacrifice family or other things in order to reach what you want to reach.” He borrows language from Korean-Brazilian theologian Jung Mo Sun to describe the theology of Guatemala’s middle class and elite: “Global Sacrificial Religion is a lot of what’s happening in Guatemala: this sense that we need to get as much as we can out of this system as soon as we can in order to make a profit; it doesn’t matter how many people die due to COVID, let’s just get as much as we can out of it.”

What Joel calls the Global Sacrificial Religion has also brought its own expressions of “help” to Guatemala. Missionaries and philanthropists—operating in a thoroughly American understanding of charity—regularly seek to address dire economic straits in Guatemala purely through capital. They rarely understand the dynamics of social opposition and identity formation going on behind the scenes, or the dangers of indiscriminate charity in a place that has weaponized covetousness as a form of control and oppression. Understanding this, the Catholic theologian Ivan Illich concluded his remarks to the 1968 Conference on Inter-American Student Projects by saying, “[I] entreat you to use your money, your status and your education to travel to Latin America. Come to look, come to climb our mountains, to enjoy our flowers. Come to study. But do not come to help.” In this same spirit, Joel has tried to explain the situation to philanthropic agents, only to be—like Illich—ostracized by and “puked out” of those circles.

Thus Joel’s countercultural faith comes with its price, exacted through exclusion and a loss of credibility: “The pastor of the church where I am an elder says that I do not take scripture seriously enough to challenge some of the ways of the church,” he says—which may be fair insofar as Joel literally wears his iconoclasm on his sleeve. He sports a tattoo on his left arm of a sword piercing a book: “The old Good Book has to be torn apart to make sense of it again,” he explains with a loving smile. For Joel, tearing apart the “Good Book” is an act of fidelity to the Gospel. He believes that, by vitiating the violent interpretation of scripture—in which suffering and oppression are mere tools of God’s sovereignty—we reveal just how capacious God and God’s story really are. The only God worth worshipping, to Joel, is one who cries in the streets with the starving, who feels the gunshots of the murdered and who tenderly invites them into loving rest. 

But not everyone sees a new story in the skewered scripture on his arm, Joel says. “And this is one reason they say I’m not a Christian.”

An empty high-rise Guatemala City.
Joel Aguilar photographed by William Price, III at a cafe with a view overlooking Guatemala City.
IV. Of Cancer and Catechism

Human catechism rejects the transcendent commands of a violent and mythical god. Instead it follows Jesus deeper into our shared humanity, and “trying to find a way of becoming more human,” Joel says, “is a family affair.” 

In the last ten years, however, Joel’s mother, father, brother, and grandmother have all passed away from cancer. The family affair has become a lonely one for him. 

The people of Guatemala are also like sick family members to Joel, unable to tell if they’re terminal or merely convalescing. He’s lost members of this family, too; some have ostracized him for sympathizing with the “wrong people.” Others he’s lost to gang violence, to drugs, or to avalanches of garbage—those simply caught in the wrong place at the wrong time while slaving away for pennies at the dump.

Joel describes violence and poverty as experiences of being unwelcome in the world—of not belonging. The oppressed encounter the world not as a home, but as a threat, where dwelling is forgotten under the pressures of survival. So too with illness, and with cancer especially: the body—the very dwelling place of the soul—turns on itself and does not want to belong to itself anymore:

“Cancer literally corrodes people from the inside out. I mean, it eats you alive, right? Violence does the same. I saw that happening with both my brother and my dad: not being able to engage the rest of our family in a vulnerable way, but being eaten by the violence they could not forgive themselves for.” The anxiety of lockdown brought back vivid memories of Joel’s parents going off on church business, locking him and his brother in the house. He also remembered a sermon his father once preached on peace and family values, delivered to his congregation on the same morning that he’d delivered a particularly vicious beating to his sons. “I’m just thankful we didn’t kill each other when growing up.”

Joel reflects on the analogies between his family’s dysfunction and illnesses, and the greater part of Guatemala: “Some people are horrible patients. Like, they don’t follow the instructions of the doctors. But at the same time, you’re dealing with somebody whose sickness has also affected their brain functions. I think violence and poverty also kick into the primitive side of our brains. You cannot process anything else. The way you see reality, perceive risks and opportunities—it’s just completely different.”

Beyond family and friends, Joel has lost his own innocence and sense of belonging to a consumptive corruption that believes itself to be blessed from above. He is near to the gravity of violence, helping to pull others from its riptide but always experiencing its tug. To call it a temptation is too simple; violence often presents itself to Guatemala as the only possible path to hope, healing, and justice. 

When Joel experiences the siren song of violence, he thinks of Dietrich Bonhoeffer—the Lutheran pastor who attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler: “I have a friend who asked me, ‘After everything you’ve lived through in your family, your country, why do you still believe in God?’ This is one of the reasons: when you’re choosing either the gas chamber or killing the leader that’s putting people in the gas chambers, believing in a nonviolent God means that, as a human, I am completely free to choose violence. But it’s not God who’s asking me to engage in violence. Believing in a nonviolent God gives me hope that I will fall into hands gracious enough to let me make that choice, but not keep it against me. 

“And I think that’s part of the moral quandary, right? All of a sudden, we’re free. If somebody would do something to my daughter [or] my wife, I don’t think I would be nonviolent. But I trust that if I lose my marbles, I’m not falling into the hands of Angry God.”

For Joel, the most urgent question is whether God is the orchestrator and manager of violence. If he is, then there are truly people who do and don’t belong to God, whom God would rather see exterminated. For such people, who become the targets of transcendent violence, no belonging is finally possible. But by keeping violence within the realm of the human—by understanding it as a consequence of human freedom, however absurd—Joel holds out hope for a universal human belonging that suffers yet endures the setbacks of violence. Despite these setbacks, the arms of a nonviolent God are open, inviting everyone everywhere to belong within their embrace: “That’s what I work for,” Joel says, “trying to change that mentality, [to] stop us excusing ourselves, saying ‘God is calling us to do this, I feel a divine calling to take up arms.’”

There is tension, however, between belonging to a nonviolent God whose grace covers a multitude of sins, and imitating that God in whom there is no violence. Though Joel believes that God shows compassion to those who see no other way, he also knows that, once initiated, violent cycles are devilish forces that will never allow themselves to end. He’s learned this lesson through constant attention to his family, his neighbors, and to his own body:

“[Violence] is just tiring,” he says. “I’ve suffered from anxiety and anger issues—thankfully not violently, but anger rises within me and it just gets bottled up and my body literally implodes. My stomach gets ill, I get migraines. Sometimes I’d be incapacitated because of the anger and I would just lay flat in bed for a full twenty four hours. Anger takes a lot of effort, and violence takes even more effort because you always have to come back stronger than the other. We all want it at some point: to take what is ours, what’s been taken away. In Guatemala there is a massive indigenous mobilization today; 60 percent of our population is of indigenous Mayan descent. People get scared of that, because we only have a violent reciprocity mindset: ‘What if they take up arms? They could burn the whole country down. The army would not be able to stop them.’ That [mindset] is just exhausting.” 

Exhausting, Joel says, as the oppressors project what they know of themselves onto their victims—and not without reason. But it’s precisely Joel’s nearness to this ambivalence that’s allowed him to navigate the unique fissures and eruptions of Guatemala, advocating for the marginalized and interrupting the often brutal means by which people are both included and excluded. Living as a sojourner, Joel carries with him—from friendship to friendship, through the labyrinthine slums and the vagaries of academia—the difficult hope that everyone might transcend their contested categories of belonging and simply be who they are. To this end, he observes—in himself as much as in others—that those who experience the greatest dissonance in their circumstances are often the most willing to renounce their rights to revenge or retaliation, in favor of another kind of struggle.     

“Nonviolence is exhausting in a different way,” he says. “But at least it keeps my mind and heart less angry. Here in Guatemala, violence has destroyed us. Oppression and exclusion have destroyed our world. Just a few people benefit from it. In the last few years, people want to try the nonviolent route because it makes people more upset, because then you don’t have an excuse to repress peaceful demonstrations or tear-gas people. People are just sitting or standing, blocking a road—you have no excuse. So I would say nonviolent practice would be more effective.”

V. Life Together in Guatemala City

Joel’s nonviolent strategy is being tested on multiple fronts. The demonstration in 2015 was a huge statement against political corruption, but as so often happens, the new boss is the same as the old boss: missing vaccines, district attorneys hounded by their own government, Russian businessmen coming and going from President Giammattei’s home, “literally with bags of money”… It doesn’t matter that these details emerge from verifiable reports; Guatemalan society seems to run on rumors.

“Going to an African university to get my PhD, I’ve been deeply impacted by the concept of ‘ubuntu’. I think it’s very aligned with our indigenous collectivist approach here in Guatemala.

With fresh memories of the protests that ousted the previous leaders, the government is feeling the pressure. Joel describes a live press conference, and the head of the public health department visibly shaking behind her mask. President Giammattei nervously updated the public, who were far from oblivious to the holes in his story. The right-wing loyalty he’s maintained through propaganda and misinformation is fragile. As happened in 2015, Joel suspects that the people will approach the increasingly complex situation with the simplicity of blame and violence. In every class and subclass, at every stratum of the structure, people in Guatemala cannot imagine their own belonging except through the exclusion of others. 

Imagining total belonging, a true place for everyone, has been Joel’s most arduous work. He’s been most inspired by a singular spirit—a spirit under constant threat of deformation by colonialism: “Going to an African university to get my PhD, I’ve been deeply impacted by the concept of ‘ubuntu’. I think it’s very aligned with our indigenous collectivist approach here in Guatemala. Mayan culture specifically doesn’t see itself as detached. Responsibility lies in realizing that, whatever I do, I am responsible for the repercussions it has on the community. That’s hard to find. Colonialism was very successful at dividing that, especially in the non-indigenous community; [we’re tempted] to think that our suffering is unique, and so we become addicted to our own personalities and sufferings and keep re-victimizing ourselves. So there’s a responsibility to acknowledge that I’m not alone, that I don’t fend for myself. It’s a huge responsibility, because then freedom, which is always on people’s minds, is not to do whatever the heck I want, but to realize that I am nobody aside and away from a community. 

“I have a friend here who works for the International Justice Mission, trying to find justice for children who have been sexually abused in Guatemala. Their focus is creating a community of survivors who realize, ‘I’m not alone in this; I don’t have to suffer alone in this. I can walk with others in this pain’. Again, that’s a step towards responsibility, accepting the fact that I’m not alone and that I’m not responsible for myself but for others as well. So now I have to respond in community: if I’ve been able to survive up until this point, how do I help others survive? If I’ve been able to become resilient in this way, how do I transfer that resilience to others? I think [that spirit is] not only for Guatemala but also for the Americas in general.”

True uniqueness, according to Joel, is found not in the solitude of suffering but in the solidarity of one’s contribution to their context. Such networked uniqueness is a durable foundation that can resist the victim mentality and, with it, the seductions of violence. But where do such resilient collectives get their start? What is the most basic unit of community?

“I would say friendships,” Joel says. “True friendships with people I would not have befriended otherwise [help me measure success]. I find it funny when I talk to people about it in the States; they translate it into racial diversity. But it goes beyond that: how politically, socially, economically, racially, spiritually, religiously diverse are your friends?”

Joel has intentionally cultivated friendships across the political spectrum. On one end, there’s an American cousin on his wife’s side: “an NRA lover, far right conservative”, with whom Joel shares a taste for good whiskey and Cuban cigars (which makes him, Joel playfully adds, “a hypocrite!”). On the liberal-leaning end, he points to a world-renowned anthropologist who, “the first time I met her, made sure I felt as dumb as possible, because I believe in God.” These two people have nothing in common—except for Joel.

“You are the only person in my life right now,” said his cousin, “who is not white and who is not making me feel like I am stupid for the things I do and love and believe in.”

“You’re the only theologian I know,” said his professor friend after several years of monthly coffee dates, “who is not going to try and make me go back to the church.”

“It’s almost like [I’m] the middle-man connection,” Joel says. “My actual work is connecting the people who do the harder work that happens at a different level; I just know [people’s] stories. A friend of mine said ‘Dude, I have no idea how you made a living for the last ten years; it feels like they just paid you to drink coffee with people around the city and hear them and introduce them to one another.’ Which is a pretty awesome job, man; I love coffee.”

From a collectivist mindset, those coffee-shop connections are invaluable. There is, for instance, great value in simply interrupting someone to ask what they’re reading, believing that the interruption itself will move their processing into a more creative and interpersonal gear: “Once I interrupted a [libertarian] college student from an elite university here. We had this massive conversation on economics and the reality of Guatemalan people, and how they’re not truly choosing to be poor. Then there’s this friend of mine, part of the business elite of our city; she called the owner [of the coffee shop] in; it just so happened that he’s gay. We had a very interesting conversation about the church and violence against the body and sexual minorities.”

At Street Psalms, where Joel is a research fellow, they teach that the city is a classroom. Using data given to him by a friend, Joel has learned the deeper stories behind his city and its construction, and learned what sort of pedagogy it needs. He’s felt out the outlines of unrivalrous spaces—though even these can make people uncomfortable: “There’s no such thing as a non-judgemental space.” Navigating the currents of individual friendships is analogous, Joel says, to the subtle societal intrigues that form a human catechism: “It becomes almost a game of not allowing the other to justify their actions. That can be very strategic as well, in bigger structural things. You play enough to keep the ball rolling without pushing too much and making it violent or trying to impose something on somebody. I thought about responding to that viral tweet: if the non-indigenous middle class doesn’t join this [movement], they don’t have a place in whatever we build. People don’t really understand the weight of something like that going viral, because you’re implying violence that could be brutal, could be carnage. But I was afraid of doing it, because I’m a non-indigenous male responding to an indigenous activist. I think there’s definitely opportunities to respond in a conciliatory way, in a nonviolent way. But that also implies a willingness to receive the heat and be scapegoated. That’s the step that many of us don’t dare take.”

VI. Living Beauty and the Longing to Be

There are more roadblock demonstrations happening on the day Joel and I speak. Part of him wishes he were there: “Guatemala breaks my heart,” he says, as he reflects on the mass migrations from Central America and wonders what comes next: “Half the time I want to leave and half the time I want to stay and do something. We live in a beautiful country that is still being raped and pillaged by transnational corporations, but it’s beautiful: the rain forests, the rainy season, the birds and animals and snakes. We have very resilient people who have been under colonial and neo-colonial rule for five hundred years. That’s beautiful. When I see Honduran caravans walking through Central America and Mexico to ask for asylum in the United States, I see them as beautiful: fathers and mothers and families who are willing to put their lives on the line to find hope—even if it is in the United States, which is not a very hopeful place.”

Joel’s heart breaks not only for Guatemala, but for all the beautiful displaced, bearing in their features an uprooted image of God. Nobody wants to leave where they are, and Joel wishes more could see the divine, reasoned courage in such a decision. “What does it mean to engage as the church within the migration movement?” he asks. “People come and hug our children on mission trips. They’ve done it for decades, but they don’t want them when they cross the border! I think of Moses’ mom, putting him in a basket in the river. That’s the love and resilience of somebody willing to give their child a slight chance of survival! I think that is beautiful, and if people see that they may change their perspective on migration or racial issues.”

While our leaders drive home the message that migrants are not welcome, American attitudes towards philanthropy continue to paint a false picture of belonging for people whose means and needs are wildly different from our own. The opportunities for real help, Joel insists, are not in mission trips and monetary donations but in the relationships of human catechism: “There are many opportunities,” he says, “to cross boundaries—to meet people who are not like me or live where I live or who are very proud of their indigenous heritage. There are opportunities to heal relationships when I realize that people I’ve hurt and who’ve hurt me are advocating for the same things. There are opportunities on a global level for the church, specifically; we know why people are migrating, know Honduras is a mess, Nicaragua’s mess, El Salvador is weird (not quite a mess). People are going to keep migrating and it’ll likely increase. But beauty deserves to live here. Beauty deserves to live.”

Surrounded by urgent demands that all too easily descend into violent rivalry, Joel has concluded that truly transformative action requires careful forethought—what Max Weber called the “slow boring of hard boards”. That crucible has produced in him a new way of imagining reconciliation, devoted to a nonviolent God and so dedicated to beauty and life that it interrupts human religion’s natural patterns of sacrifice and reciprocity. These steps towards reconciliation, however, do not happen automatically—or even instinctively. To discover its conditions of possibility, Joel has had to take a step back from embedded work and direct action. He’s spent time with books and theory, sacrificing an amount of credibility within his community. As dean of CETI, he continues to advocate for Guatemala in a more academic context, where his human catechism might find the right ears to gain even greater traction. The academic world has given him tremendous opportunities, he says, but it’s also placed him in a state of uncertainty: “I’ve always been on the move, and constantly analyzing relationships: is this rivalry? How am I engaging in it? How do I grow? That creates a very uncomfortable life rhythm. I can surf the wave, but what gives me anxiety is trying to integrate everything I’m doing at the moment.” 

The slow and methodical work of scholarship has been one form of integration for Joel, but even as his faith seeks understanding it is still compelled to express itself in works: “I had a little bit of shame, right at the beginning of the pandemic. I decided to go back and read my church history, and realized that the early church was known because they jumped right into a plague, caring for people. While I’m isolated, afraid of COVID, early Christians were willing to die for those who were sick. But I need to keep in mind that my work is to get access, to create more access for those who are behind me. I’m not the one doing the work, but I walk with people who are doing the work. I have friends who are very strong grassroots leaders who love their communities with reckless abandon. I belong to them, and they belong to me.”

Integration, like community, fulfills a need for belonging: just as we need to belong with others, we also need to belong to ourselves—to feel we have been attentive, intelligent, reasonable and responsible in the ways that only we, in our singularity, can be. For Joel, integration comes through his confidence not so much in the work he himself is doing, but in the work he is championing, enabling to get done. From there, self-integration and community intersect in this strange and elusive thing we call legacy, and the judgement of a good life: “When King David dies, there’s an inscription [on his tomb] that he ‘served his generation well’ (Acts 13:36). That always messed me up. How did he serve them well? He was a murderous S.O.B., a settler-colonist, but he served his generation well? Something about that’s kept me thinking since I was 14. Then I think of people who are in the second half of life and ask, have I wasted my life, my efforts, all of this? That could be a question to measure ourselves: have we served a generation well? That implies everything, right? Did my dad serve his generation well, with his imperfections and abuse and everything? Did he serve well while not knowing well? Am I serving my generation well with my imperfections and my anxiety and the whole nine yards? I can say yes to that. If you’re spreading the Good News of a nonviolent God, then I don’t see any waste.”

Joel looks off-screen as we talk and asks another part of his legacy to turn the television down. “I have Dora the Explorer on and Mariana is watching it,” he says—his little round-faced girl, an adopted indegene, fascinated by a face that is just like hers: “I keep thinking of how pretty that is.” He nods, and somberly repeats the refrain of our conversation: “The struggle of beauty, man.”

Spreading the news of a nonviolent God has often led to Joel himself being scapegoated. His own legacy shoulders through colonialist, racist legacies that persist into the present; legacies of abdicated responsibility that say, with bald authority, “Do not come.” But perhaps this is the integration that Joel is looking for: the moment when beauty halos the true and the good, and all the violences dividing them fall away:

“I think of our family,” Joel says. “Annette from Michigan—white, Dutch. And I’m from Guatemala: mixed heritage, some indigenous, maybe Afro-Caribbean somewhere on my dad’s side. Mariana, our daughter, is fully indigenous. And I wonder, what are we as a family? I’m Guatemalan, but we’re not. Mariana is indigenous, but we’re not indigenous. So, what are we?

“We are. We just let each other be who we are. And I think that [world] would be beautiful. I think it’s possible, I think it could happen, but it requires us to let go of many things. It implies that corporations and mining companies let indigenous communities be instead of continuing to take their land. It implies that we take responsibility for the slums, work with them toward dignity and opportunity and belonging—because we don’t currently see them as belonging to the city. We can let the Guatemalan LGBTQIA community be—let them be, let them express themselves. Let’s allow each other to be who we are.”

Joel’s vision is hardly utopian; it does not demand elite political solutions to all its problems. It demands something harder, riskier, and more durable: “It takes a willingness to place ourselves responsibly within context and accept what we have done. It requires a change of heart, a change of perspective, and allowing myself to own who I am right now. If we could just own our history—own the armed conflict, how we damaged one another across generations with the violence we perpetrated against each other—that would be huge. 

“I think that would be possible,” he concludes. “But it requires a vulnerable space, acceptance, and belonging.

“And those three things are what I foresee.”

Hold onto hope with us.

When we resist rivalry together, there is hope for peace.

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