Incomprehensible forgiveness: lessons from the Amish

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Forgiveness is not usually the lead story on national news, but lately it has been because of the murder of Amish children in their one-room school in Pennsylvania. The demented actions of a milk truck driver have thrown open a window into a closed community where forgiveness is as natural as breathing.

Hate and revenge damage the hater more than the one who is hated. The ability to forgive is an important life skill that North American culture doesn’t usually teach. That is one of the reasons why the Amish have kept themselves aloof from the mainstream. Pride, thinking that I am more important than others, is where hatred and desires for revenge begin. Those are poisons of the soul. The Amish have resolutely aligned themselves with humility through the practice of submitting themselves to the wisdom of their community. What might seem like oppressive demands for conformity to outsiders are what give the Amish their freedom to forgive. If I am no more important than the person who wants to kill me or my child, then I don’t have to worry about judging his actions. God will take care of that.

There is tremendous freedom in leaving the judging to God, while doing your part to build up your community. Wearing the same kind of clothes, driving identical buggies and rejecting things like electricity that make the community dependent on those who don’t share its values are all important in creating the inner strength necessary to face horrors together in a way that strengthens relationships.

At Fresno Pacific University we have been teaching a forgiveness process for a long time, and it is one that is not dependent on strong communal values like those expressed at Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. It was developed through the Victim Offender Reconciliation Program (VORP), something that Mennonites first developed in America, but which has become a worldwide movement. VORP provides a safe, organized process that brings victims of crime together with those who harmed them. Thousands of people have benefited from it. There are four necessary steps, first described by my colleague Ron Claassen, director of FPU’s Center for Peacemaking & Conflict Studies and the founder of VORP of the Central Valley, Inc.:

  • Make a commitment to be constructive
  • Acknowledge the injustices that have occurred
  • Decide what is needed to make things as right as possible
  • Be clear about the future of the relationship

The Amish affected by the tragedy have given us a good example of how this works. They came to the situation committed to being constructive—they don’t know another way. They all acknowledged that wrong had been done and that wrong was recognized by everyone who heard about the event. The killer being dead meant that making things as right as possible would not include him, but by embracing his family as equally victimized the community did what it could. The future is clear. Amish elders have said that they hope the killer’s family will stay in the community where they can receive its support.

Forgiveness like this is incomprehensible to most Americans. The message here is that unless we embrace such extreme forgiveness, those who harm us control our lives, keeping us hostage to hate, draining our resources to build and staff jails, and keeping us in fear. The Amish and their Mennonite neighbors figured out a long time ago that there is a better way. I look forward to the day when more of us can let go of the hate that poisons our lives and destroys our communities. The Lancaster County Amish have given us a glimpse of what that might look like.

Amish people do not have insurance. They rely on the community when disaster strikes and that practice has served them well for over 300 years. The cost of modern medicine has changed the situation. A helicopter ride to an intensive care unit and two weeks of heroic medical intervention can cost as much as a farm. Amish people do not ask for outside help, but if you want to give it, call Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) or Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS).

Telephone MCC at 717-859-1151, or MDS at 717-859-2210. Donate online at http://mds.mennonite.net or http://mcc.org. To donate by mail, send checks to MDS at the following address with the words “Amish School Recovery Fund” in the memo line: Mennonite Disaster Service, 1018 Main Street, Akron, PA 17501. The funds are administered by an Amish accountability group.

Duane Ruth-Heffelbower directs the graduate academic programs in peacemaking and conflict studies at Fresno Pacific University.

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