Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
A Journalist’s Confession: Justice, Honduras and the Surprise of Both
July 20, 2102
By Jo Kadlecek
Tegucigalpa—Honduras seemed to me an odd choice for an academic seminar in the summer. After all, the United Nations reported last October that Honduras had the highest per capita homicide rate in the world. The Peace Corps recently pulled its volunteers here after reviewing security and safety issues. Over 20 journalists and 36 lawyers have been murdered in the past three years, and corruption around land, labor and education issues has created a not-so-subtle climate of danger for those working for justice here.
Maybe that was the point. Often held in urban offices surrounded by barbed-wire fences and security guards, the seminar—entitled, “Justice: Theory Meets Practice” and hosted June 18-29 by the Association for a More Just Society (AJS) and its local partner, Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa (ASJ)—was, I discovered when I arrived, a literal look at the costly implications of advocacy work. Many were selected to participate because of their experiential understanding: the Romanian college graduate determined to fight government corruption in his home country; the Guatemalan lawyer who shelters victims of domestic abuse; the Cambodian minister who’d escaped the Khmer Rouge and now directs a holistic agency there; and of course, the American and Honduran AJS workers who live here and daily encounter the threats and challenges of holding its government accountable.
Together, they joined 25 other Christians from countries such as Ecuador, Canada, Peru, Nigeria, the Philippines and the U.S. for two weeks of scholarship and fellowship, with the Honduran context as its backdrop. They learned from each other and from lectures by Yale scholar and writer Nicholas Wolterstorff, 80, who traveled here with his wife and 15-year old granddaughter. I was invited as a journalist. And so I listened and interviewed, took notes and observed, as surprised by each story as I was, I confess, by this first introduction to Honduras, and therefore, the developing/majority world. I hadn’t gone looking for this summer education; I’d simply answered the phone when a friend asked if I would come and write.
I took heart when Dr. Wolterstorff—whose most recent book is Justice in Love (2011)—admitted he, too, hadn’t gone looking for justice. “It found me,” he said. Early in his career, he had accepted an invitation to South Africa in the 1970s, before apartheid ended. There, he realized he’d need to speak up for victims of injustice, a challenge that came again in the 1990s when he accepted another invitation, this time to a Palestinian human rights conference.
“Why were both experiences so moving for me?” he asked us one morning after a security team drove us to a church office, only a few blocks from our hotel, past street vendors and rifled police making random stops. “Both experiences evoked empathetic anger for those harmed. Now I’ve come to believe that empathy is what motivates justice, not duty. Unfortunately, though, the faces and voices of the wronged don’t always evoke empathy. Too often, hearts are hardened and empathy blocked because acknowledging empathy requires admitting complicity, which could cost power or privilege. The prospect of change becomes too difficult.”
Bingo. This, I’m ashamed to admit, was why I’d avoided trips to the developing world. But these aren’t the only reasons for avoiding justice, Wolterstorff said: We also believe false narratives, dehumanize victims or misuse trust; each can breed fear or vengeance instead of charity or forgiveness. Yet such “blockages” can be overcome when we combat bad ideologies and narratives and build a framework for thinking about justice grounded in human dignity.
Which, I eventually understood, was also the point of this seminar. That it happened at all was due, in part, to Calvin College sociologist Kurt Ver Beek, co-director of AJS, who has lived with his family in Tegucigalpa for the past 25 years. He and co-director Carlos Hernandez, along with their mostly Honduran staff and partner agencies, were the logistical heroes behind this gathering.
“Our goal has always been to make a lasting change for Honduras,” Ver Beek told me. “Everyone here (at this seminar) came with a pledge to create something for their country and to be changed themselves. Learning from each other is always inspiring. Call it a different kind of short-term mission.”
I did. And what else did I learn? That the real danger occurs not when we visit countries like Honduras, but that we never go at all.
—Jo Kadlecek is the senior writer and journalist in residence at Gordon College in Wenham, MA.
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”