Nov 022009
Authors: Anne Marie Merline

How easily do you forgive other people? I began thinking about this idea for a column when I realized that I missed the deadline to submit a column three weeks ago. I apologized to my editor, and he shrugged it off and urged me to look at my absent-mindedness as a mini-vacation.

As I was thinking about this interaction of forgiveness, the concept once again came up in my junior seminar this semester, and it has brought me to teaching thoughts about forgiveness.

The second time I taught my course on Human Rights, almost two years ago, someone asked me how any one individual or ethnic group of people could forgive whole governments or whole cultural groups for atrocities committed against other humans.

My initial reaction was “I have no idea.”

This was asked as I was screening films for the Tri Media Film Festival two springs ago; I was lucky enough to screen “Flowers of Rwanda,” in which Tutsi survivors of the genocide travel the country showing films trying to find ways in which the surviving Tutsi and Hutu people can live together and progress without continued hatred.

How can humans move forward, peacefully, without hatred and understanding when 800,000 people of your culture are slaughtered because they are from a different culture?

This semester, I am leading a seminar about the Beat Generation and its possible links to the New Left and the Rise of the Conservative Movement.

Last week, we got into the discussion about the roles of African Americans in the Civil Rights Movement. We talked about The Black Panthers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. and their different methods of contributing to The Civil Rights Movement.

As middle class whites in the 21st century, it is impossible for us to put ourselves in the shoes of any person who lived during that time, especially someone who is black. We all, of course, applaud the peaceful and activist perspective of Dr. King, but I asked my students to put themselves in the shoes of someone who did advocate violence.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t ever think violence is warranted. But, I do have to take the oppression of the African Americans into consideration when we are asked to understand the effectiveness of those who saw violence as a necessity to gaining the human rights that were not afforded to them because they were black.

One of my students was visibly upset at the thought of forgiveness in his life. Many of my students talked about the necessity of forgiveness, but because he said so, and because he was so shaken by the conversation, I knew something heavy was on his mind.

After class, he came to my office to apologize for his “actions.” I told him that he had no reason to apologize for his reaction to the discussion. I told him that he had a right to bring his life and his humanity into the classroom.

We, as people, have no right to judge others’ reaction to what life deals to any one else. Being an imperfect creature with emotions, humans act less than reasonably, and therefore there is a need for forgiveness.

I passed this article on to my friend Al to look at before I submitted this piece. I thought Al would have insight into this foray into forgiveness. Al is a black man who survived the Vietnam War and the challenges of the American Civil Rights movement, and Al is one of the most peaceful people that I know.

Al added his wisdom: “It is one thing to forgive a peer for a trespass or an oversight,” but he wondered if we could do the same for human atrocities on a large scale. He added that acceptance is more appropriate for deliberate actions.

“To be here today is an accumulation of all things before. I accept it and encourage all to accept the challenges of tomorrow,” he wrote. Think about sorrow, forgiveness and acceptance in your world.

Anne Marie Merline is an instructor for the University Honors Program. Her column appears biweekly Tuesdays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to

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