Forgiveness and apology has often gotten mixed up in my mind. I am finally getting it sorted out. I apologize for a wrong I have done to someone else. I forgive when I have been wronged. When I forgive I choose to give up my right to keep bad feelings about the other person, institution or nation. This means that I am releasing those fantasies of revenge, or hate that threaten to dog me or have occupied my energy, perhaps for years.
Apologizing and forgiving are two of the most difficult things we can do. Maybe it is because even when we forgive we worry we might not be able to keep our word. Perhaps it’s hard because forgiveness comes from the same place in our brain that gets jumbled with retribution and reconciliation. That is why it gets so confusing and throws a wrench into our understanding of health and its connection to justice. I believe that the reason spiritual teachings in the Bible and elsewhere come back to this theme is that without the grace and extra space that forgiveness provides we might destroy each other in the legalistic demand for justice.
Last week I attended a meeting in Pennsylvania where the massacre of Amish children in Nickel Mines, PA was noted as part of a longer discussion. In October 2006, five young school girls were murdered and five more were severely wounded. The perpetrator then killed himself. The Amish community forgave the perpetrator and reached out to his family. The reporter at the event last week informed us that he recently visited the Amish home of the one victim who may have permanent brain damage. When he entered the house, the still recovering girl was in the arms of a non Amish visitor who had come to hold the child. The visitor was the former wife of the man who carried out the crime.
The unilateral act of forgiveness by the Amish in this instance grabbed world attention and awakened discussions around the globe. Jay Leno has a regular thread of humour built on the the curious life style of Amish that he and his writers find to be fertile ground for giggles. He gets laughs because he touches something inside his audience although I personally wish he could learn to say Amish correctly with an ah rather than a long hard A. There were no jokes about forgiveness when Amish persisted in this long held practice. Amish forgiveness touched the masses because the curiosity, thirst and acknowledged need for the grace of forgiveness is recognized as a necessity for survival.
For the Amish parents and community, forgiveness may have been no easier than it is for others. After all they have most of the same DNA information pumping through their neurological systems that the rest of us do. I bet some of them are still finding ways to complete their forgiveness at the deepest level. They are helped of course by 300 years of community teaching and a culture of forgiveness.
When Jay Leno tweaks our funny bone with Amish with a long A stories, he doesn’t notice the nuances. For example, Amish communities are rather imperfect. Unlike other utopian communities like the Shakers, Amish are not economically communal although they practice creative forms of mutual aid and not just in barn raisings. Amish families and communities have their problems. Occasionally there is abuse. Leaders sometimes misuse power. Groups split away over what others might consider negligible issues of life style. Even notions like forgiveness and reconciliation are still in formation like other great ideas that some of us hold to like democracy, peacemaking, and building consensus. But the imperfection of the Amish community does not detract from the power of the prophetic witness to grace that they were able to give to the world in a moment of supreme crisis and death.
The October 2, 2006 massacre occurred in a time when people doubted. The Iraq war had infected all of our lives and forgiveness was not on our minds. We couldn’t even decide who should be forgiven, President Bush, Saddam Hussein, Al Qaeda, those who went to war, or those who refused. Into this valley of death where evil surrounded us, another word enlivened our lost conversations to remind us of that forgotten piece of ourselves called forgiveness.
But if we forgive people who violate us, what kind of society will that get us? We are back to the problem of justice. We live in a world of an “eye for an eye” where evil including murder must be paid for. Remember the “eye for an eye” code was not always accepted. In fact it was a reform of an earlier ethic that demanded a genocidal destruction of the village or people who perpetrated an act of murder, terror or other violations. The Amish who root their understanding in God’s forgiveness through Christ have upped the ante. We notice because we know that something about the way we do justice and make war isn’t working. It is not getting to the peace. That is why the Amish witness to unilateral forgiveness is so refreshing for us now.
For a brief moment the world listened. The exceptional story of forgiveness in a time of school house, military, and terrorist violence gave room for hope. I don’t think any of us expect to find all the answers in the Amish system. But they are here for such a time as this, a people who never wanted to make noise, be prophetic, or publicly launch campaigns about the evil of violence. They just knew they wouldn’t engage in retribution or indefinitely nurture their sense of being violated. Amish remind us to listen to those forgotten teachings like forgiveness that live in our shadow side. When forgiveness blossoms even for a moment the planet is made more safe and we have a wider chance to be what we are meant to be.
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