Monday, October 09, 2006

Is Forgiveness Only an Amish Virtue?

In the wake of the Amish school shooting, much has been written about the willingness of the Amish community to forgive the perpetrator and his family. Before the bodies of the children were even buried, the Amish "sent words of forgiveness to the family of the killer who had executed their children", and representatives of the community even attended the murder's funeral - not to vent their anger, but to forgive and mourn for the troubled man who has caused them so much grief. Needless to say, the eagerness of the Amish to forgive has surprised and confounded most Americans, who tend to view revenge as a perfectly natural, and even beneficial, response to such injustices. We have grown accustomed to the sight of victims' families testifying in favor of the death penalty – a practice supported by a majority of Americans. The Amish, however, have set a very different example.

Indeed, the Amish response to this tragedy is so outside the norm that it has sent the media scurrying to finds its source in their theology and way of life. What is it about these simple people that allows them to forgive so freely and so quickly? Donald B. Kraybill, an expert on Amish life, does a good job of answering these questions in an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Amish roots stretch back to the Anabaptist movement at the time of the Protestant Reformation in 16th-century Europe. Hundreds of Anabaptists were burned at the stake, decapitated and tortured because they contended that individuals should have the freedom to make voluntary decisions about religion... The martyr voice still rings loudly in Amish ears with the message of forgiveness of those who tortured them and burned their bodies at the stake.

The martyr testimony springs from the example of Jesus, the cornerstone of Amish faith. As do other Anabaptists, the Amish take the life and teachings of Jesus seriously. Without formal creeds, their simple (but not simplistic) faith accents living in the way of Jesus rather than comprehending the complexities of religious doctrine. Their model is the suffering Jesus who carried his cross without complaint. And who, hanging on the cross, extended forgiveness to his tormentors: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Beyond his example, the Amish try to practice Jesus' admonitions to turn the other cheek, to love one's enemies, to forgive 70 times seven times, and to leave vengeance to the Lord. Retaliation and revenge are not part of their vocabulary.

For me, Kraybill’s analysis is somewhat unsettling, as it begs the question: why don’t other Christians, myself included, behave like the Amish? Why is the media so impressed, and so surprised, by the radical forgiveness exhibited by this isolated community? Could it be that the willingness to “turn the other cheek” is not often seen, even in this supposedly Christian nation? Could it be that most Christians, unlike the Amish, fail to “take the life and teachings of Jesus seriously”? In a nation whose foreign policy has been motivated by a spirit of vengeance ever since 9/11, a tiny group of pre-modern farmers has shamed us by its extraordinary example.

We “conventional” Christians should be quite worried that, for many non-believers, the forgiveness exhibited by the Amish is considered a peculiar quirk of their brand of Christianity, and not of Christianity in general. That they could think such a thing is proof that they have not witnessed enough forgiveness from the rest of us.


P.S. (an after-thought) said...

Well, it is easy for the "church body" to say they forgive. But that isn't meant as a cynical comment, but rather, as a factual comment on their leadership trying to put their beliefs into action.

Our society perpetrates that one can't forgive without the offender saying he/she is sorry. This is, IMHO, a myth that enslaves the person harboring the anger.

Jesus says forgive 7 X 70, which I have come to believe is not symbolic for "completely" but, rather, it means that we have to repeatedly forgive and forgive and forgive because the bad feelings will continually pop up, stir our anger and resentment, and try to keep us wallowing in the mud of unforgiveness and self-righteous feelings about our anger.

Some years ago, a young woman was murdered in a near-by community. The parent's attitude of grace and forgiveness was remarkable. BTW, they are Lutheran.

If this posts twice, sorry. Something in blogger is stuck.

Steve Hayes said...

In some circles even asking for forgiveness is regarded as strange. Repentance is alien. When Adriaan Vlok washed Frank Chikane's feet one commentator even said that it was "deeply offensive".

It seems that the thing that many people find hardest to forgive is forgiveness itself.

Anonymous said...

"Hundreds of Anabaptists were burned at the stake, decapitated and tortured because they contended that individuals should have the freedom to make voluntary decisions about religion..."

This isn't really true. In many cases they were being persecuted by people who also believed that individuals should have such freedom (i.e. other Protestants). And it's anachronistic to say that it was individual freedom they were standing up for. What they were standing up for was their commitment to discipleship over doctrine.

Forgiveness is a lost art in much of Christendom.

I clearly remember the morning of 9/11 being horrified at the ABC news commentator (I think it was Peter Jennings) saying how these acts would be avenged. Wasn't there already enough blood shed? But, no, apparently not. Still not. It repulses me.

I wonder how the world might have been changed if instead of launching a war on terror we had announced a national day of repentance.

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