Thursday, September 3, 2009

Musings from Rev. Michelle Prentice-Leslie

Good News from Guatemala

      What does justice served feel like?  I've never been involved in a lawsuit, let alone one in which I was on the winning side, but some of you may have, so you may  be able to respond to this question more adequately than I. 
      Whatever justice feels like, I think I've experienced some of its feelings, however, this past week, with some surprising good news from Guatemala. As many of you know, I have been doing short term mission work in Guatemala since 1988, through the civil war (yes, with armed soldiers harassing us) and in years following it (yes, with armed soldiers harassing us).  During the Civil War, almost one million indigenous Guatemalans (we call them “Mayans,” you know, the ones who built the pyramids of Central America) were murdered, disappeared (that's a verb in this case) or forced to flee the country.  Guatemala is roughly the size of Tennessee, and had a population at that time of eleven million people.  So, if that number of people lost would be transported to the United States, it would be equivalent to losing to violence about 28 million people.
      I have made friends with, supported and advocated for some of those indigenous Guatemalans who lost family members, and/or those who themselves were tortured and/or raped, suffering all manner of unspeakable brutality, but who survived.  It's been thirteen years since the Peace Accords were officially signed.  There have been numerous excavations of mass graves where massacres occurred and meticulous record keeping of the dead so ill-regarded by their own country.  There have been numerous identifications of perpetrators by indigenous victims or family members of victims.  There have been numerous stays, blocks, intimidations and murders of forensic scientists, attorneys, and judges who have tried to pursue justice for victims. This year, this month, is the first successful indictment, prosecution and sentencing of one military leader involved in any of the atrocities perpetrated by the Guatemalan government and its mercenaries, aided by our USA government (yes, the USA was involved; some of us knew it before the official evidence, then the Freedom of Information Act of 1996 revealed the evidence).  
      Felipe Cusanero was tried, convicted, and sentenced to 150 years' imprisonment for the disappearances (i.e., murder) of six indigenous persons in the village of Choatalum in the Guatemalan state of Chimaltenango.  The 150 years represents 25 years' penalty for each of his six victims (that we know of).  (Another military man was convicted in 1999 of dozens of killings but none of those was termed 'disappearance,' which is an added layer of criminality.) 
      I try to imagine what it must have been like to be sitting in that court room among victims and families of victims.  I try to imagine what they must have thought and felt as they observed and heard legal proceedings, wondering, at any point, the trial would, again as in hundreds of times before, be halted or thwarted by the powers that be.  I try to imagine what they must have thought and felt as they thought about the years Felipe Cusanero has been able to live all these years, as a criminal on the lam in broad daylight, while they endured the pain of grief over lost loved ones.  I tried to imagine what they must have thought and felt when the verdict was delivered and the sentence pronounced.
      I realize I cannot.  What I feel -- so many thousands of miles away, in an entirely different and much safer political context -- is much gratitude, relief, vindication. But I know it would take Jesus Himself to enable me to actually feel what they must have felt.  It would take Jesus Himself for me to know true compassion, from the Latin com paseo, which means “to feel with.”  Still, what I do feel is indescribable.  All I know is that it feels very, very good.
            How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?
            Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the
            lowly and the destitute. - Psalm 82:2-3

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