We've been reading and discussing the book Amish Grace in our adult Sunday school class. Amish Grace tells the story of a horrific incident in an Amish community in Pennsylvania and the response of the people there. In 2005 a non-Amish neighbor entered an Amish schoolhouse, released the boys and the adults and shot 10 girls, killing five, before killing himself. The murders shocked people across the nation. Before nightfall, however, several Amish people went to the home of the gunman's family offering them comfort and assuring them they held no grudges. Other Amish went to see the gunman's parents, expressing their sympathies and telling them all was forgiven. Word soon got out that the Amish had forgiven the gunman and everyone associated with him.
Many non-Amish people found this hard to understand. In our Sunday school class we, too, have struggled with their reaction of immediate forgiveness. Where was the anger, we have wondered; where was the outrage at such a heinous, unprovoked act? Was it right for them to forgive a person who had not repented? Can anyone living forgive someone for murder or does that right belong to the murdered alone? Some in the media and in our classroom questioned whether such quick forgiveness could be authentic. All of us have admitted we doubt we could have done the same.
The Amish were, in turn, surprised that the rest of the nation was surprised by their automatic response of forgiveness. In reply to queries they explained that forgiveness was a habit in their society, that forgiveness lay at the heart of Christian faith, and that children were taught from an early age to forgive. They never thought of doing anything else - which did not mean forgiveness was easy for them, but that it was not optional.
My husband and I had a group of church folks over to watch the Super Bowl - and, of course, the new commercials. The game was great, but we agreed that the commercials (other than Darth Vader) were a bit disappointing. It seemed every other one was for an upcoming movie and depicted cars racing down cities streets, things exploding, and tough looking men saying stuff like "this is how you get it done." Those commercials made quite a juxtaposition to our morning discussion of the Amish and their lifestyle - not engaging in society, no electricity, rejecting all violence.
No wonder we have a difficult time understanding why and how the Amish could so quickly forgive a murderer. The landscape of their lifestyle and that of ours are completely different. I don't mean to suggest that Amish life is utopia - I can't imagine it is. But neither are they bombarded with images of aliens invading the earth and necessitating a violent uprising from earthlings. They are not inundated with advertisements, movies, songs, and televisions shows which suggest the proper response to insult and injury is to destroy your adversary. They don't inhabit the same "culture of redemptive violence" that we do (term borrowed from Walter Wink). Forgiveness is foreign to the images of retaliation, trash talk and big guns that we encounter daily in our world.
What would our society be like if we took forgiveness as seriously as do the Amish? The world would not be perfect, nor would we be perfect. We would still find forgiveness hard to do and sometimes we would fail in our attempt. But I wonder if our neighborhoods, our homes, our nation might be less violent, less angry, less polarized if we did a better job of practicing what we preach regarding forgiveness.
"How many times must I forgive a person?" asked Peter, "as many as seven times?" "Not seven times," answered Jesus, "but seventy times seven." Until we lose count - that's how often we're expected to forgive. Are we up to the challenge? Might we try?
Still practicing and hoping to make it a habit,