Sin and Grace in Honduras
The problems facing Honduras are complex and have escalated since the military coup in 2009. The most violent nation in the Americas, Honduras is plagued by a multidimensional crisis: the dispossession of many citizens of their rightful farmland; the unrestricted destruction of land and communities by foreign mining companies (land concessions to these companies account for about one third of the national territory); drug trafficking and its effects (80 percent of drugs en route to the United States from South America pass through Honduras); collapsing and dysfunctional government entities and the growing militarization of the nation; gangs and brutal murders; a young population, with few options, often turning to drug dealing or risking their life on top of la bestia, the cargo train that takes them through perils in Mexico in hope of reaching the United States. Poverty is exacerbated in Honduras by a lack of the solidarity networks and groups that exist in other Central American countries.
In September, I was honored to be part of a delegation to Honduras, organized by the Jesuits’ national office in Washington, D.C. Our leaders were Shaina Aber, policy director of the Jesuits’ office of social and international ministries, Ismael (Padre Melo) Moreno Coto, S.J., director of the social research and advocacy organization ERIC (Equipo de Reflexión, Investigación y Comunicación) and Radio Progreso, and their respective teams. During this intense week, we met with many persons, grass-roots organizations and even the staff of the human rights office of the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa, the capital city. The delegation traveled and visited parts of the more troubled areas of the country, including San Pedro Sula. Our base was Colegio San José in El Progreso, the community where most of the Jesuits in the country are based.
The critical issues mentioned above have distinctly Honduran characteristics and history. Yet one can also see that the Honduran people are suffering from the consequences of what the church has called “structural sin,” which has taken new dimensions and forms due to globalization. Structural sin is complex: injustice is woven into the system. The problems in Honduras, sadly, are similar to those of other peoples today—in Africa, in Mexico, in Palestine. Jesus warned us against going down the wrong path when he said, “You cannot serve both God and mammon” (Lk 16:13). Unrestricted capitalism and powerful multinational corporations have chosen the standard of mammon, not the standard of the poor, humble Jesus, who is victorious. So much of what we saw in Honduras is a “preferential option” for mammon; human beings at the service of mammon.\
Many religious traditions and spiritualties describe three areas of darkness and sin that want to surface in the human person in various shapes and forms: the desire for worldly power, the desire for personal prestige and the desire for more and more material possessions. These appear to be at the center of the three temptations of Jesus in the Gospels. These are certainly driving forces behind injustice and violence in our world—both now and in times past. It is not hard to understand why we believe there is original sin and its effects. Even Jesus acknowledges that the evil spirit is the ruler or prince of this world. It has no power over him, but it rules (Jn 14:30).
When I see situations of violence and injustice, like in Honduras, I am disheartened that the majority of people continue to suffer so much at the hands of a minority, even in the 21st century. I wonder how there can be so much bloodshed and mistreatment of others, especially in a historically “Catholic” country.
A Prophetic Message
The stories in Scripture only make sense when one understands their paradigmatic nature: the stories are relevant and true for all times. Even today many Catholics, however, do not know Scripture well or how to interpret it. While it is necessary to avoid fundamentalism, which impoverishes the life-giving meaning of Scripture, it is important to revisit and reflect on Scripture to understand more deeply what is happening in our world today.
The prophets of the Old Testament—as well as those of present times—have the capacity to see what others may not see and then point to the logical outcome. The words of the prophets, who are instruments of the God of Life, bring strength and consolation to those who face massive institutional injustice. Look at what Amos voices in the name of God: “Yes, I know how many are your crimes, how grievous your sins: Oppressing the just, accepting bribes, repelling the needy at the gate! Therefore, the prudent man is silent at this time, for it is an evil time” (5:12-13).
Amos and Isaiah denounce with their utmost strength a repulsive reality, namely, the attempt by religious people—who should know better—to disregard justice and focus only on religious practices: “I hate, I spurn your feasts, I take no pleasure in your solemnities,” Amos tells the people. “The melodies of your harps, I will not listen to them. Rather let justice surge like waters, and righteousness like an unfailing stream” (5:22-24). One finds the same message at the very beginning of Isaiah: “Bring no more worthless offerings; your incense is loathsome to me,” the prophet says. “Though you pray the more, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood!” (1:13-15). Then Isaiah makes the same plea for justice for the oppressed: “Cease doing evil; learn to do good. Make justice your aim: redress the wronged, hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow” (1:16-17).
Jesus, also a prophet, building upon his predecessors, addresses similar situations in his time. Two of his strongest teachings address the priority and urgency of helping poor and marginalized persons: the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31) and the last judgment (Mt 25:31-46), where we are commanded to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, welcome the immigrant, care for the sick and visit the imprisoned.
The sin of the rich man was not his richness per se but his blindness and lack of solidarity with the suffering Lazarus at this doorstep—probably from the numbness that often accompanies having great wealth. The power of Matthew 25, meanwhile, is centered on this claim of Jesus: “Amen I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers (and sisters) of mine, you did for me.” Whatever good or harm one does to others, we do to Jesus. Imagine if this were more emphasized in our teaching and practice of the Catholic faith—in Honduras and elsewhere.
Christianity naturally includes social consciousness. A simply spiritualistic or ritualistic view of Christianity, however, represents an ongoing challenge in some sectors of the Catholic Church and in evangelical or fundamentalist churches as a whole. Spiritualistic religion disregards a holistic view of the person; Scripture and the teachings of Jesus are reduced to works of charity, neglecting justice. Working for a better world is not seen as integral to holiness—or evangelization. It is hard to understand how this impoverishment of the life-giving, action-oriented teaching of Jesus and the prophets came about.
Light in the Darkness
The prophet Habakkuk says: “How long, O Lord? I cry for help but you do not listen! I cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not intervene. Why do you let me see ruin; why must I look at misery? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife and clamorous discord” (1:2-3). Habakkuk is speaking about Honduras and many other places today. So many around the world live in despair. Where is light to be found in the midst of the darkness of injustice?
In Honduras I found that light does shine in the darkness. There are many people of light. As a pastor myself, it was very moving to meet two pastors, Padre Cesar, a Claretian priest, and Padre Colato, a Jesuit priest, as well as Bishop Michael Lenihan, O.F.M, of La Ceiba, and many men and women, all taking a prophetic stance, denouncing injustice and living in solidarity with the many men, women and children who suffer. They are truly putting their lives on the line for the common good. The light shining in the darkness is evident to me when I encounter in many places, including among the undocumented in the United States, suffering people whose faith is solid, alive and relevant as they live daily with pain and injustice. What keeps them alive is their genuine faith and trust in God.
These encounters remind me that God reveals God’s self uniquely to the “little people,” who have much to teach us. Jesus says, “I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike” (Mt 11:25-26). Such personal encounters with open hearts yield a great hope. The challenge is: how can one make this happen more frequently? It is important to have interchanges of people and churches that lead to solidarity and action. This includes ecumenical work and also partnerships with those of no religion. In Honduras our delegation met a group from a United Church of Christ in Oregon, which supports Padre Melo. We were enriched and edified by their presence. There are others, too, who do not identify with organized religion, yet who live humbly and risk their lives for their brothers and sisters—for Gospel values.
Gift of Solidarity
After this eye-opening trip, my reaction will be different when I see a t-shirt that says “Made in Honduras.” Now I know it was likely made by women in a maquiladora where workers are often pitted against each other in a race to outperform others. I will remember that these women often resort to wearing adult pampers to avoid taking a bathroom break and disrupting the production line. These women—mothers, in many cases—work from sunrise to sunset and can hardly make ends meet at home with what they earn.
Globalization has been described as a “race to the bottom.” It is a race to squeeze the worker to the maximum, pay them as little as possible and make as much profit as possible for the shareholders. Undoubtedly, it is also a race to the bottom concerning the priority of human dignity. Solidarity is shattered. Workers are not permitted to organize. It is production, not an encounter with the human person, that counts.
The Incarnation reminds us of God’s greatest gift of solidarity. God became one of us, suffering with us and dying with us, so that we can unite with God after this life. God actually and mysteriously enters every one of our lives.
Our delegation, upon returning from Honduras, continues to search for better ways to see, judge situations in light of the Scriptures and act in love and solidarity with others. An urgent call for all of us, followers of Christ, is to create solidarity that leads to effective and nonviolent works of justice for the benefit of the majority, not the few.
Rafael García, S.J., is pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Albuquerque, N.M., where he also participates in an interfaith immigrant justice network and visits with immigrants detained in a county jail. He had served as pastor for 13 years at Sacred Heart Parish in El Paso, Tex., near the border with Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
Additional coverage of Honduras from 'America'
Celebrating the Life of Padre Guadalupe, Nicholas Napolitano (Oct. 21)
A Dark Night in Honduras, Luke Hansen, S.J. (Sept. 13)
Report from Honduras, Luke Hansen, S.J. (Sept. 12)
Photo album from the delegation to Honduras (Sept. 8-15)