Tuesday, March 9, 2010


"In forgiveness the victim forgoes the right to vengeance."

I am reading a book called Amish Grace - How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy. It is about the murder of 5 Amish girls in the one room schoolhouse in Pennsylvania in October of 2006. I first heard about the murders while checking my e-mail in an internet cafe in Peschici, Italy. I logged onto Yahoo and it was the lead story. "Deadly Shooting at Amish School." I was immediately disoriented. There have been times in my life when the ground seems to shift under me and I no longer know where to put my feet. This was one of those times.

I grew up just outside Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It was not uncommon during my childhood to ride on roads that carried as many horse-drawn buggies as cars. We had our kitchen cabinets built by an Amish man, sold one of our horses to an Amish girl, and bought pies from Amish women. I have been to the Amish communities of "Paradise," "Intercourse," and "Blue Ball." On summer Sundays our family would attend Meeting for Worship at the Quaker meetinghouse just down the road from the school where these girls were killed. I remember sitting in the silence, smelling the musty benches that had supported my ancestors for 200 years of worship - the cicadas were humming in the trees outside the open door and from time to time I would hear the clomp, clomp, clomp of a horse and buggy passing by the meetinghouse. Those memories of a world that seems unimaginable in my day-to-day life now, are precious to me.

On October 2, 2006 a father of three left suicide notes for his wife and kids, drove to the one room schoolhouse and entered with guns and the materials he needed to barricade the doors. He had the teacher and the male students leave before he bound up the girls hands and feet and barricaded the schoolhouse doors. Without any phone there was no way to call for help and the teacher ran across the fields to the nearest farm with a phone and help was summoned. By the time the police arrived the man had shot 10 girls, killing 5 and then himself. But that is not the story that I am carrying with me these past few days. The reaction of the Amish community is what has stirred me so much.

The same day of the killings, while the five surviving girls were fighting for their lives in hospitals, members of the Amish community were already visiting the wife and kids and parents of the man who had caused this tragedy. The Amish recognized that his family would be experiencing pain and loss and grief and they went to provide comfort and to express their forgiveness of the man. When thousands of dollars of donations arrived from around the world, the Amish decided to give half of the donations to the gunman's family to help with the financial burden of losing the income that he had provided. Nearly 50 Amish men and women attended the burial of the gunman in support of his family and to show their forgiveness.

Many have tried to uncover what motivated this response. Was it for show? Was it because the eyes of the world were on their community? Was it sincere? The Amish didn't really understand the questions. All they have ever known is a world where the first reaction when one is wronged is to forgive. They believe that only by forgiving will they ever be forgiven. They pray The Lord's Prayer numerous times each day. It is the only prayer that they say out loud because they believe it pretty much covers anything that needs to be said.

Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors

Each day is filled with numerous moments when the choice of whether or not to forgive is presented to us. Fortunately most offenses are minor, but even those can catch me up. I imagine what the world would be like if the impulse was to step towards the one who offends and to embrace them - if not literally, at least figuratively. We are a defensive society and too often my impulse is to interpret gestures as personal offenses. Someone cuts me off in traffic and I am enraged at the offense. If someone has spoken negatively about me I want to defend myself against them. But a reaction of defense, or anger, never diffuses a situation or eases the tension and anxiety.

I am inspired and encouraged by this book. I actually can imagine a world where the first reaction is one of calm, and peace, and forgiveness. I don't truly believe we will ever live in a world like that, but the Amish show that it can be done. Imagine the outcome if we all just stopped defending ourselves and fighting back. What might have happened if, after September 11, 2001 our country had reached out to the families of the men who flew the planes? What if we had gone to their countries and tried to understand why the attacks happened? Somehow I can't imagine that we would be any further behind than we currently are and maybe we would even be in a better place.