[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
I love forgiveness stories, and never tire of sharing good ones in these “Course Meets World” pieces. Recently, during a week in which we celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Selma marches for African-American civil rights, I was inspired by a young man who seems to be following in the nonviolent, loving footsteps of those legendary marchers: University of Oklahoma student Isaac Hill.
We’ve made great progress in the civil rights struggle since Selma, but the event that brought Hill into the public eye was a sad one that illustrates just how much further we need to go. Members of the University of Oklahoma chapter of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity made national headlines when they were caught on video singing an ugly racist song while on a bus trip. It is believed that the video was shot on Saturday, March 7, the same day that the fiftieth anniversary commemoration of the famous “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma was taking place.
The song was a hateful rejection of black people that made liberal use of the “N” word and even gleefully referred to lynching.
The official response has been swift. As of this writing, the OU administration has disbanded the fraternity chapter. The fraternity’s national organization has revoked the chapter’s charter, and is investigating to see if further action needs to be taken against individual members. Two of the members have been expelled from the university for their “leadership role” in the incident. The two expelled members have issued public apologies. Other sanctions are being looked into, and other racist incidents both at OU and on college campuses elsewhere are being investigated with new vigor.
There has been a strong public response as well. There are a few apologists minimizing the incident, unfortunately, but most people have (thank goodness) come out firmly against what the fraternity members did. Indeed, not surprisingly, much of the reaction has been marked by fierce anger and condemnation. There have been marches and protests. People have used social media to post diatribes against the fraternity and its members. The chapter house itself has been sprayed with graffiti, saying things like “SHUT IT DOWN.” It has been reported that there have even been physical assaults and death threats on some of the fraternity members.
Enter Isaac Hill. Hill is a young African-American man who is the president of OU’s Black Student Association. Two days after the incident, he was interviewed (in the video linked at the beginning of this piece) by Fox News commentator Megyn Kelly. Kelly begins by expressing her amazement that in response to an incident which would normally evoke an angry call for retribution, Hill has put forth “a call for forgiveness.” Kelly asks, “How?” Hill responds by saying that while he agrees with the official sanctions that have been handed down as consequences for the fraternity members’ actions,
It is not smart to fight hate with hate. It is only logical to fight hate with love….I forgive them, and I hope that we can take this experience and [use it as] a time to learn and grow.
Hill goes on to invite those involved in the incident to come to the Black Student Association and meet with black students there to learn why what they did was offensive, so that racism would not be passed to future generations. Kelly then asks Hill how he could possibly meet with and try to reason with a person who has sung about people like him hanging from a tree. Hill responds:
It’s hard to do, honestly, but….These behaviors are taught; we are all born innocent people, and I think the only way to do it is to unteach it. And for them to be able to look me in the eye and see if they would be able to say anything like that, I just think would not be a thing that would happen.
After Hill speaks of the importance of increasing campus diversity as a means of educating people and widening their horizons, Kelly asks him how he would respond to those who have been spraying graffiti on the fraternity and issuing death threats to some of its members. He says:
Let’s not let their hate spark hate with us. Let’s just let their hate spark love with us. And let them learn, and let’s teach them how to be good American citizens.
Kelly concludes by saying, in a tone that shows just how moved she is, “Isaac Hill, you’re an extraordinary young man. God bless you. Thank you for being here.” I couldn’t agree more—I practically stood up and cheered when I heard Hill speak. Bravo, my brother—you’re my new hero!
There’s so much that I like about what Hill says and his gentle manner of saying it. But I think what stands out most for me is the frame in which he puts his call to love and forgiveness. What I get from his words is that love and forgiveness are not just matters of feeling, but are matters of thinking, matters of reason. I love the way he expresses his position: “It is not smart to fight hate with hate. It is only logical to fight hate with love.” What I see in his statement is a suggestion that you don’t just forgive because it feels good (though it does) or because it’s the right thing to do (though it is), but because it’s the only response that really makes sense. Forgiveness is what reason dictates; anything else is not “smart” or “logical.”
I find this a real breath of fresh air. There is this very common conventional view which says that when our rights or the rights of someone we care about are violated, we have to react with anger and hate in order to reclaim those rights. Indeed, in our eyes, it is our right to act this way; those who violate our rights are vile enemies worthy only of outraged graffiti and death threats (or, if we’re not quite so extreme, at least our righteous indignation). This, we think, is the only “realistic” response for any sane, decent person. But Hill turns this on its ear, with a stance that reminds me of the Course’s words on why forgiveness is entirely justified:
If pardon were unjustified, you would be asked to sacrifice your rights when you return forgiveness for attack. But you are merely asked to see forgiveness as the natural reaction to distress that rests on error, and thus calls for help. Forgiveness is the only sane response. It keeps your rights from being sacrificed. (T-30.VI.2:6-9)
This passage says that forgiveness is justified because those who seem to take our rights away cannot really do so in truth (even if they do so on an earthly level). Therefore, they are not enemies, but simply innocent brothers who are distressed because they are making a mistake. And as such, they need not anger and attack, but loving help. They don’t lose their right to love just because they are making a mistake, and our affirming their right to love is the way we affirm our own right to love. This is why forgiveness, not attack, is the only realistic way to go, the only way that upholds everyone’s rights, “the only sane response.”
I don’t know what Hill’s spiritual beliefs are, but I do see a logic in what he says that looks at least similar to what the Course is saying. That logic begins with the idea that at heart we are all “innocent people.” We have an innocence so innate that Hill finds it hard to believe that those fraternity men could say anything racist to him if they looked him in the eye. Love is what is really natural to us. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way (in the Course’s view, long before we were born into this world), we’ve all learned falsehoods that have convinced us to hate instead of love. We’ve all learned what could be called a thought system of hate.
Of course, since we’ve all learned a thought system of hate, our temptation is to respond to other people’s hatred of us with hatred of them. But both Hill and the Course suggest a different approach: education, or what the Course would call “mind training.” If our problem is that we’ve learned a false thought system of hate, the way to solve that problem is to unlearn that false thought system. We’ve been reinforcing it by teaching it to each other, and “the only way to [un]do it is to unteach it.”
How do we “unteach” it? The way we do that is to “not let their hate spark hate with us,” but instead “let their hate spark love with us.” We need to make a decision to forgive each other and see these hateful attacks as opportunities to “take this experience and [use it as] a time to learn and grow.” (Of course, this learning and growing may come in part through a firm response to unloving actions, including the kinds of official sanctions carried out in the OU situation.) This is how we learn the true thought system of love. And this is how we’ll all experience our innate innocence once again.
Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us the same; as he put it, “Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” I pray that everyone involved in the University of Oklahoma situation can take this profound message to heart. As the journey to equality for African-Americans and for all human beings continues, I am immensely grateful that there are young people like Isaac Hill taking up King’s beautiful legacy and bringing it to a new generation. Let us all learn from him and from everyone who is teaching us that “it is only logical to fight hate with love.”
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