Observing Jesus as a ‘man of sorrows’ in the midst of genocide

As we gathered in a circle passing a flame from candle to candle, I did all I could to keep tears from streaming down my face.

Just a few yards away was a large pit, swallowing pine-needles, vines and saplings, a testament to 36 years of horror and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children. A group of seven students and three professors, along with our hosts, stood among the trees, wrestling with the evil of humanity.

This fall break, I traveled to Guatemala to study genocide as a part of an honors colloquium. I receive odd looks when I share that I chose to take a class called “Becoming Evil.” With my quiet and calm demeanor, why would I be interested in such heavy and dark topics like genocide and evil? With something so far beyond my control, why would studying genocide be something I cared about? I feel that seeking justice is a higher calling, and as a follower of the Champion of the vulnerable, I will take up my cross, my mission, to honor those who have no voice.

While people may be surprised to find out I went overseas for such a short time, when I announce my purpose in traveling to Guatemala, there’s often an awkward silence, followed by, “There was a genocide there?”

Although many of us have studied the Holocaust, Guatemala’s genocide during the civil war in the 1960s to the 1990s is often not discussed in classes or conversations. The massacre of over 200,000 individuals, mostly indigenous Mayans, resulted from centuries of racism and disparity, peaking in the conflict between the dictatorship of General Efraín Ríos Montt and the Guerilla Army of the Poor in the 1980s. The scorched earth of villages, rape of women and murder of young children proliferated rural regions and devasted generations from the actions of a national army aided in training from the United States military.

Despite this darkness, God’s redemption and reconciliation is ongoing through the work of the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala (FAFG). This organization, which we were given the opportunity to visit, reunites families with their loved ones’ remains through meticulous investigations, forming DNA databases of victims and families to find matches. Their goal is to restore the dignity of victims, provide justice for families and spread the truth about the genocide, even in cases where victims remain unidentified.

Genocide is real, and it is vastly beyond my comprehension. Humanity’s capacity for evil is blatantly displayed through the voices of survivors and the bones of martyrs crying out for justice. I will never pretend to understand how we could let such atrocities repeat over and over again in our history. I don’t know when we will finally learn to look at individuals through the imago dei, as people with inherent value and purpose, life-breathed from God.

When studying genocide, my initial reaction is to be angry at God. Why does He allow this to happen to His people, His creation? Can’t He feel their pain? Does He not care? Why doesn’t He stop it from happening? Instead of motivating me to action, I often find myself stuck in rage and tears, shaking my fist at Him for these atrocities. I am reminded that humanity, through the Fall, is held guilty for widespread evil, I see the responsibility lands on me and I am angry at myself for blaming God for my inaction.

This came to mind during my time in Guatemala, ironically during our visit to Antigua, which was supposed to be one of the lighter moments of the trip. Entering Templo de San José Catedral, I was instantly struck by an icon of Christ laid in a glass casket. Drawing closer, I could see His contusions and the blood dripping from His wounds. This was my Lord, my God!

As I was overwhelmed by the sorrowful weight while I leaned onto the altar, it finally clicked for me—God is not removed from our suffering. He was “a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief” as it says in Isaiah 53:3. I was filled with gratitude for having a God who suffered, who can identify with our pain and who mourns with us. Although we may think that God has abandoned us, He is right beside us in our pain and strife. Even in the midst of incomprehensible suffering, God’s presence never leaves us.