On Oct 2, 2006, Charles Roberts IV, a milk tanker driver, distraught over the death of his infant daughter, pulled up to the West Nickel Mines Amish school house in Southern Lancaster County, walked through the door carrying a semi-automatic pistol and ordered the teachers out and the boys to carry in lumber from his truck before ordering them out. He then ordered the ten girls age 13 to 6 on the floor and barricaded the door. In less than 45 minutes just as the police stormed the schoolhouse Roberts shot all ten girls, killing five and wounding all the others before turning the gun on himself. The horror of this shooting stunned a nation. The Amish, the most devout of the Anabaptist peace churches seemed the last safe place for children in America. There are no metal detectors, no phones and on that warm fall day the door was wide open.
The grief of such a tragedy effected everyone; the close knit Amish community of Georgetown, PA, the police, the non-Amish, Roberts’s widow, Amy, indeed the entire nation. And yet, within 24 hours, even before the girls had been buried, representatives of the Amish Community came to the Roberts home to express their forgiveness for Roberts. Reports of this forgiveness further stunned the country. Most of us found it the most courageous and powerful testament of faith and humanity they had ever encountered. More than one editor asked how would our lives been changed if George W. Bush had forgiven the hijackers attacks on 9/11. Others were not so sanguine. Some commentators remarked that it was too soon to forgive such a crime. That such forgiveness would only excuse evil acts. Some complained that the widow was not the one to receive such forgiveness. Nevertheless, the fact remained that the Amish of southern Lancaster county had forgiven the crime.
To be sure, they had not forgotten the tragedy. They had not forgiven his heinous acts, just the man. And the Amish never asked the families to offer that forgiveness (although every family would later proclaim they did eventually forgive Roberts). The forgiveness was offered by Amish leaders in the name of the church community itself. And to be sure, it is one thing to forgive a killer who has taken his own life, quite another to forgive a killer who survives.
What the public did not know is that forgiveness is one of the highest virtues of Amish culture. Taken from the Gospel of Matthew, wherein Jesus dying on the cross says “Forgive them Father for they know not what they do” and the sermon on the Mount in which Jesus commands his followers to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. In other words, forgiveness for the Amish is rooted, deeply rooted, in their faith. Amish talk of the mortal prison of vengeance and anger but the most compelling reason the Amish make such a cardinal virtue out of forgiveness is quite selfish, as one Amish minister put “How can we be forgiven is we do not forgive?” the fate of their mortal souls, the Amish believe, is rooted in forgiving those who trespass against them.
Forgiveness is not the same thing as a pardon. And for the Amish, forgiveness does not mean a criminal should not be punished. In fact, those straying from the order within the Amish community are forgiven but not always pardoned, unless they choose to repent for their transgressions. Nonetheless, I offer this radical form of forgiveness as a beginning to considering the complexity and the promise of forgiveness in our own lives.
While the Amish root their impulse to forgive in a faith in God, I contend that we too might consider such an impulse, not as commanded by scripture, but as compelled by the Unknown God, Spirit, Force, Humanity that dwells within us; the inherent worth in all. We may not forgive the acts of evil but we can forgive the actors.
Our theology points towards the circle of life. When one part of our circle is damaged, it does no good to commiserate about the damage; this only keeps the circle broken. Finding the strength to deal with these issues as maturely as possible, starting with watching what we say and do, goes along way. Often times the best thing we can do for ourselves after a painful tragedy is to carry on with the mundane and joyful details of life that remain. This does not belittle or bury the sorrow but places it where we can work on it best.
Of course, and I want to stress this, forgiveness is not always immediate nor does it entail forgetting. Women who have been abused may never be able to forgive their abuser, and they should seek and receive justice for the crimes committed against them. But as I have known all too often in my own life, holding hatred keeps us imprisoned, indeed victimized for the rest of our lives.
The 19th century French Poet Charles Baudelaire once wrote “Hatred is the most deadly of poisons; it is made of our blood, our health, our sleep and two-thirds of our love.”
In the Jewish calendar, Rosh Hassana has ended and we are just about to welcome Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, in preparation for which Jews are commanded to forgive those who have wronged them. Indeed, forgiveness, as complex and heart wrenching as it is, is the only means to atonement, At- One – Ment with God, with our integrity as human beings.
With Grace and Grit - John