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Transforming Guilt and Shame into Action and Community

By Jeanine Legato Witness for Peace International Team – Colombia

We were in our hotel in Cali, Colombia debriefing the days events of a barbeque and charla with the parents of Jhonny Silva Aranguren and Katherine Soto. Over the course of the afternoon, we’d eaten grilled meat and plantains and swung contentedly in hammocks. Then we settled down to the business of hearing the circumstances of Jhonny and Katherine’s murders by the Colombian military; Jhonny had been gunned down during a peaceful protest at his school, Universidad de Valle. Katherine, also a Valle student, was shot by a military official while crossing a bridge en route to a weekend beach get-away.

Already half-way through the delegation, we’d seen many times how the over 8 billion dollars in U.S aid to Colombia over the last 11 years, used mostly by the military and police, has contributed to the death of countless innocent civilians. We knew that Jhonny and Katherine’s murders and those of many like them remain in impunity and that the U.S continues to fund the ever-increasing militarization of Colombia anyway.

So when James, a first-time delegate, spoke up in the hotel room about how discouraged he felt, we all could sympathize.

“A lot of you speak really eloquently about feeling energized by the activists we’ve met. I just feel helpless. I feel like there is so much to be changed and that I can’t really make an impact.”

I joined the Colombia International team two months ago. One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned in this short while is that most activists never knew they had it in them. They were forced to react to the extraordinary circumstances of victimhood. They are like Katherine’s mother Julieta, who the International Team visited at the Valle campus at last weekend’s National Congress for Territory, Land, and Sovereignty. Julieta was installing a memory gallery for the Valle students lost to the Colombian armed conflict. She was ecstatic; so many people were coming by to remember her daughter. It occurred to us how much courage it took for Julieta to return to a place so filled with her daughter’s memory, to repeatedly face the fact of Katherine’s murder even though the silence of impunity insists as if nothing ever happened at all.

Not all victims become activists, or all delegates. But I think that those that do are moved by a terrible and endless inadequacy in the face of “making just” such a loss as phenomenal as the loss of one’s daughter to senseless violence. Or, like James’ experience, a haunting moment when a parents’ frank plea to do something about the impunity of a child’s case leaves them feeling ashamed and unable.

What I don’t think James realized at the time was that his feelings of shame were power. Sometimes it’s more what we don’t do when we could have that actually motivates us to get active, to have “moral courage”–in the sense of this excerpt from J.N Figgis–the next time around:

“Ask yourself for one moment what your feelings have been on the eve of some act involving courage..what has happened to you? If it has really called forth courage, has it not felt something like this? I cannot do this…All of me will be gone if I do this, and I cling to myself.

And then supposing the Spirit has conquered and you have done this impossible thing, do you find afterwards that you posess yourself in a sense that you never had before. That there is more of you?…So it is throughout life…”

What about you? Has a commitment to peace and justice ever come out of a memory of a time when you witnessed and failed to act as you wish you had? Were you ever empowered by the feeling of inadequacy in the face of a great injustice?


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