Guest column: ‘Have mercy for the powerless and hope that mercy prevails’

DONNA POTTS | Guest columnist

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My first semester at the University of Missouri, my professor raped me a week after my father committed suicide. The professor said afterwards, “I have a lot of power in this department, so it won’t do you any good to say anything about this.”

Nobody, including my mother and my best friend believed me. When I tell this story now, all these years later, some people ask, “why don’t you just get over it?” My answer is that I can never get over it because I am reminded daily of the lessons that trauma teaches.

Those in power silence the victims they overpower, and bystanders generally do nothing to change the outcomes, because, as Judith Herman writes, “It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the other hand, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering.”

Silence is soul destroying, and nearly cost me my life. It cost my father his life. Now I am constitutionally unable to keep silent when an injustice is right in front of me. I have tried for years to address cases of bullying, harassment and sexual assault, but find that they are always quickly swept under the rug by those of have more power than the victims, and moreover, that the perpetrators soon proceed to positions of greater power.

After the election, when students were being surrounded and told to “go back to f—ing Mexico;” a gay student found death threats painted on his car; and I myself was screamed at merely for being a woman, I proposed to the Faculty Senate to increase protections for undocumented students. “Don’t you think you’re over-reacting?” was one immediate reaction.

Now that Trump has “directed his administration to enforce the nation’s immigration laws more aggressively, unleashing the full force of the federal government to find, arrest and deport those in the country illegally, regardless of whether they have committed serious crimes,” no, I don’t think I was over-reacting.

Last year, an African faculty member who lost his external funding at WSU was coerced into resigning, threatened with years of agonizing investigations and public humiliation — this, despite his colleagues’ firm faith in his research and truly inspiring attempts to defend him by means of a letter writing campaign. Those who overpowered him moved on to positions of even greater power. Those who had the power to change the outcome didn’t hear his story directly nor did they speak to those who so eloquently defended him. It didn’t seem to matter to anyone that universities should be committed to preserving academic autonomy — including the academic freedom rights of faculty — in their relationships with industry.

He is an immigrant, in a particularly vulnerable position right now, and also a Christian, who told me “I will keep the light switch of my faith on,” hoping that eventually faith will win, someone in power will care, and the administration will act on his behalf. Those in power likely consider themselves Christians too. I’ve often wondered why and when Christians stopped asking the question, “what would Jesus do?” The Prayer of Humble Access still echoes in my head: “thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy.”

My father felt a moral obligation to have mercy. He welcomed immigrants and homeless people into our home. “If you’ve done it unto the least of these, you’ve done it unto me,” was the governing principle of his life. “He was too good for this world,” his sisters said after his death. The lesson I learned from his loss was that the only way I keep his spirit alive is to have mercy for the powerless, and hope that mercy prevails.