Lessons from Honduras: Leaning into the Lives of the Oppressed

This is part one of an upcoming series on reflections from Honduras.

For the past two years I lived in the capital of Honduras, Tegucigalpa, in a poor and marginalized village on the city’s outskirts that has recently garnered considerable attention in the international media, both for the violence that characterizes it, and ironically, the success story that it has become due to the work of perseverant Christians.

 My time in Honduras was one of startling contrasts: life in a poor community, with the physical needs of neighbors greeting me on the daily departure for work, juxtaposed against the wealth and aloofness of the high level Honduran government officials that were regularly present in meetings that I attended. Honduras is a country marked by large numbers of professing Christians, yet it remains marred by the world’s highest homicide rate and corruption on scales unheard of in the United States.

Yet amidst the difficulties, Honduras—and in particular, the Honduran people—helped to open my eyes anew to one of our most basic callings as Christians, and one that Shared Justice seeks to explore daily—the Christian mandate to do justice. Throughout a series of articles, I hope to briefly share a few of these reflections, pointing to practices and values that I learned from both American intellects and workers in Honduras, as well as my Honduran friends and family. 

Chief among these lessons was something that I came to know intuitively throughout my time in Honduras, but which the philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff helped to articulate in his work Journey Towards Justice and in a number of lectures he shared during a visit to the Honduran capital: justice, and justice-work, requires empathy.

What do justice and empathy have to do with each other? Wolterstorff points out that people very rarely seek to do justice—something that can often demand personal sacrifice—simply out of duty. Reading Micah 6:8, which commands us to do justice, probably will not motivate us to respond to justice’s demands to our neighbor, much less the victim of oppression halfway across the globe.

In Wolterstorff’s experience—and my own—central to justice’s mandate is understanding of, and frequently, proximity to, those for whom justice fails to be a reality. When we isolate ourselves from the victims, we also cannot hear, nor comprehend their cries for justice. But by drawing near to the “least among us,” we hear the cries of the oppressed, motivating something deep within us as humans: a call to our common humanity and our equal worth as fellow human beings.

These ideas do not just exist in practice—they also have biblical precedent. Pharaoh’s heart hardened as he refused to listen to the cries of the oppressed Israelite people. Many an Israelite king fell when they failed to uphold the justice God called them to as they led their people, preferring to harden their hearts and pursue their own interests. And in contrast, God’s own willingness to listen to the cries of his oppressed chosen people led him time and time again throughout the Old Testament to empathize with his people and ensure that justice was done. Jesus was also frequently moved to compassion for classes in his own society that might be considered victims of injustice, such as the sick, prostitutes and Samaritans.

As I mentioned Wolterstorff, hearing the cries of oppressed in South Africa moved him to actively and vociferously pursue and advocate for justice among these victimized groups. For me, the powerful experience of living in an impoverished and relatively violent community in a country shackled by endemic corruption informed my own work in Honduras, and provides an unusual understanding and a desire for justice and compassion for the youth now fleeing their countries in hopes of safety in our own country. 

In seeking to understand the importance of this matter for Christians, Catholics have much to offer. Their ethical tradition has long espoused the concept of solidarity: appreciating the needs of the other by drawing close to them and becoming a part of their lives, an action which in turn leads to unity and joint action to address these needs. For many Catholics, solidarity informs how they live and what they work for (think of Mother Teresa), providing an admirable example for other Christians. 

What do these biblical examples, personal experiences, and Catholic social teachings suggest about the nature of justice? Perhaps more than anything, they suggest justice, and the work directed towards it, are intimately connected to those suffering from injustice. Without seeking to understand the needs of the person victimized by oppression and without drawing near to them, the need for justice will be difficult to understand, and the work for it may be misdirected, or at worst, not what those clamoring for justice truly need.

This places a large responsibility on Christians. Justice conceived in this light means more than simply advocating a cause or changing my consumer habits. It means leaning into the lives of the oppressed, learning from them, and accompanying them (perhaps rather than leading them) in the struggle for justice, because only by doing so do we come to learn the pain and suffering they must endure. It’s a high calling—but one which both Jesus and many of our Church ancestors have walked, leading the way for us to address the injustices that demand our attention as part of Micah 6:8’s mandate.

Aaron Korthuis is currently a student at Yale Law School and prior to that worked for the Association for a More Just Society in Honduras. Photo by Nan Palmero.