Ciudad Juarez: between God and the Devil

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Ver en español. Visitors arriving in Cuidad Juarez can't help but notice the message on one of the hills overlooking the city: "Ciudad Juarez, the Bible is the truth. Read it."

Such outward expressions of faith could easily lead a visitor to think that Juarez is bursting with religious fervor, a place where its churches are influential and an important part of life.

But this is in fact not the case.

Ciudad Juarez is a city of 1.5 million inhabitants. The evangelical Christian population alone is estimated at 125,000, with some 800 churches scattered through the city. The remainder of the population almost universally professes to be Catholic Christians.

In such an overwhelmingly "Christian" place, one has to ask why there are so many murders in this city - 5,500 and counting since January, 2008. Why is there so much violence and so little evidence of the presence of the Church in the city?

I would not go so far as to say that tangible evidence of the Christian faith is completely absent, because there are hints of it here and there. But I will assert that the expressions of faith that push back against this tide of violence that claims the lives of 25 people a day are feeble to the extreme.

In the last 48 hours as I was writing this column, 56 people were murdered, and not a single killer has been caught. And this is now normal.

The religious community has organized protests, but in these marches for peace, less than 3,000 church-going persons have shown up. This is especially poor when we consider that is not even 10% of those identifying themselves regular church-goers, to say nothing of the nominal Christians.

Beyond that, there is no strong, organized church-based response. There is no notable church presence, and certainly nothing like the cultural force for change - the "salt and light" - that the Bible expects of its adherents.

The church should be spotlighting unjust acts in society. Instead the Church has been dragged down by the very economic and social disaster it should be fighting. The Church no longer claims to be a road that leads people away from violence.

The print and electronic press is paying attention to the situation in Juarez, but not for the purpose of combating the violence, nor is its aim to inject hope into the misery.

Injecting hope is the Church's purpose, but the evangelical community in particular does not have access to the media. Evangelicals have been rejected by the media for espousing doctrinal positions bordering on fanaticism.

As a result, Christians have almost no impact on the public life of Juarez, even though the city has been a destination for missionaries from all corners of the world for 30 years.

The movements that do exist are missing what boxers refer to as the "haymaker" punch that can take down an opponent. And the more the church struggles, the more obvious it becomes that it cannot muster the power to move the culture in the other direction.

And this lack of force, the missing "haymaker", is both due to and a cause of pervasive apathy in the Church. Practical action is replaced with over-spiritualized ritual and fanaticism among Christians.

This is not an attractive package.

Media, of course, simply reproduce what they see and record. And so far, this strange picture is what the media have observed. A post-modern culture demands something more.

If religious people - and in Juarez that means Christians - are to be taken seriously by the media and by the culture, they must change their behavior. In a city where more than a million people leave their homes in the morning and aren't sure they'll ever return, the Church should be the most visible sign of hope.

Ciudad Juarez is, simply speaking, a most troubling irony. It is stuck between God and the Devil, sitting as it is across the national border from the U.S. city of El Paso, TX.

Juarez is the world's most violent city. El Paso, TX, is the second most peaceful city in the United States.

Why such a difference? The secret is in the different levels of citizenship and authority, obedience and service. Though El Paso is not exempt from corruption and other ills, its citizens do understand their civil role and shared responsibility.

And that is the heart of the matter.

[Translation by Richard Potts, The Media Project.]