To Forgive, or Not to Forgive? Class Explores Strategies to Resolve Conflict

Posted: April 26, 2010 at 1:02 am, Last Updated: April 23, 2010 at 11:05 am

By Devon Madison

“I do believe that everyone is capable of forgiveness, but forgiveness may not be for everyone,” says Professor Al Fuertes. Creative Services photo

From Babylonia to the Balkans, conflict has plagued humankind for centuries. And as current conflicts rage across the globe, the need for innovative strategies to resolve conflict is greater than ever.

For interested Mason students, a class titled Forgiveness and Reconciliation in Divided Communities (NCLC 475) offers such strategies through an interdisciplinary approach.

The 3-credit course was designed and is taught every spring by Al Fuertes, term assistant professor of integrative studies in New Century College. Fuertes specializes in community-based trauma and healing to promote peacebuilding. He draws on years of field experience, having worked all over the world in areas affected by war and armed conflict.

For the class, Fuertes uses trauma as the larger context and invites his students to explore healing by studying the nature and processes of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Traditionally thought of as the domain of religion, the concepts of forgiveness and reconciliation are examined through an academic lens by investigating their emotional, religio-cultural, philosophical and political components. Students have the opportunity to consider forgiveness and reconciliation in a wide range of contexts, from individual to national to international levels.

Sharing Personal Experiences

Fuertes, a recipient of the 2008 George Mason University Teaching Excellence Award, is committed to keeping students engaged in active learning. During the class’ sharing and hands-on activities, students are invited to talk about their personal experiences of forgiving or not forgiving.

And for students who have a hard time forgiving, not to worry — having the desire to forgive is not a prerequisite for this course.

“I do believe that everyone is capable of forgiveness, but forgiveness may not be for everyone,” says Fuertes.

“That’s why there is no passing of value judgment. And that’s why students feel comfortable and very open because they aren’t being judged if they choose not to forgive a person.”

As for how forgiveness and reconciliation fit into the peace picture, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, according to Fuertes.

In short, every conflict is different, and so the paths to peace are going to be different.

“Some people believe that forgiveness is necessary for reconciliation. At the same time, some do believe that reconciliation is possible even without forgiveness,” he says.

“As a person who teaches this course, I’m very aware of not imposing a particular way of looking at this, because it’s very subjective.”

This respect for students’ subjective views permeates the course; Fuertes urges students to take ownership of their learning by actively sharing their experiences and insights.

Since every class meeting discusses a new theme, he also encourages his students to invite friends and family members to class to join the discussions that interest them. It is this very spirit that makes NCLC 475 not just a class, but a community.

Students Apply Concepts

Samantha Gavagan, a first year student in the Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies Program studying international development and social transformation, took the class when she was a senior last spring.

“This was the best class I have ever taken at Mason. Everyone in the class was so connected and interested,” says Gavagan, who, immediately after taking the class, went to Rwanda to conduct an independent study on forgiveness and reconciliation.

She was able to take what she learned and witness its principles unfolding in Rwanda as NGOs and Rwandans worked together to rebuild peace in the nation.

“Seeing how important forgiveness is on an individual level makes you realize how powerful and meaningful it is when [people] can come together and forgive and reconcile, and how it should be focused on more in politics.”

Christopher Rall, a junior and integrative studies and education major, is currently enrolled in the class. One of the reasons Rall decided to take this course was to learn ways to mitigate the revenge-seeking behaviors of the at-risk youth with whom he works.

“One of the main things that I’ve learned is that these principles apply to anybody in any situation, whether it be political, economic or relational,” says Rall, who wants to be an English teacher.

“We can take a lot of these principles and apply them to kids and how they relate to forgiveness and reconciliation.”

For the class final project, students will work in groups and draft a peace proposal for a particular conflict and send it to President Obama.

Rall’s group is writing a peace proposal for Darfur. Though he admits he’s a bit uneasy about telling the president what to do, Rall is grateful that Fuertes is teaching him and other students to take what they’ve learned and put it into action.

“We live in a day when people talk about a lot of great ideas, but don’t really apply them,” he says. “But Dr. Fuertes takes action in direct relation to what he believes . . . He is a huge complement to the university and the world in general . . . He’s touched my life, and I think he’s touched a lot of people.”

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