Costly Justice: Mourning the Death of Human Rights Leader Berta Cáceres

  • April 20, 2016

By AJS Co-Founder Kurt Ver Beek

On Thursday, March 3rd, human rights activist Berta Cáceres was murdered in her home. Despite an open investigation and international outcry, it’s still not known who killed her. In her lifetime of advocating for indigenous and environmental rights, she made a lot of enemies.

I often say that you know you are doing justice when people get mad. Berta’s activism, defending the rights of some of Honduras’ most vulnerable people, made a lot of people mad. She had a thirst for justice and an incredible love for her people and for life. Despite threats and challenges, she never stopped fighting.

This loss weighs heavily on us at AJS, and particularly on Jo Ann and me. We first heard of Berta’s organization COPINH back in 1993, when over a thousand marginalized Lenca people marched to the capital city of Tegucigalpa, demanding government support and assistance. It was a huge social movement that was unusually successful – all of their demands were granted.

I was finishing my doctorate at the time, and we decided to make that movement the basis for my dissertation research. I reached out to Berta and her husband, and they welcomed us into their office and their home, while we studied what they were doing within and with their community. I was impressed by Berta’s connection to her community and her tireless fight for justice. She was soft-spoken, but very determined. You knew that if she said she was going to do something, she would do it.

My thesis studied their social movement, and I learned a lot from her committed activism. My family spent three months living with her family, and six months in the indigenous community that Berta had helped mobilize, time that I often thought back to in later work in Honduras.

Berta’s life was taken too soon – but she used her time to create real victories for Honduran people. I hope that Christians around the world will do more than mourn her death, but will learn from her brave work and her refusal to be silent, even at the cost of her life. Berta could have backed down when she began to receive threats. She could have chosen safety over justice. But that wasn’t who she was. She did not fall for the lie that her first priority should be safety and comfort, and neither should we. Justice — God’s desire for this world — isn’t easy. Sometimes, justice costs everything.

I am tempted to respond to Berta’s murder with fear — Maybe this work is too dangerous; maybe we should back off — but I choose instead to respond to her courage and to continue to fight for justice along with our staff at AJS. If we as Christians are to be witnesses to the love and hope we have in Christ, we can only do that by standing up to injustice, intolerance, and hatred with conviction and courage.

1 John 4:18 says, There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear… The one who fears is not made perfect in love. In our own work as “brave Christians” we’re inspired by Berta and other activists who have lost their lives in the fight for justice in Honduras. We’re inspired to redouble our efforts to bring about the more just society these people dreamed about, consumed by the same love that they had, a love that overpowers fear.

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