News & Observer, The (Raleigh, NC)
October 13, 2006
Forgiveness springs from their faith
Author: David C. Steinmetz
DURHAM--I thought I had lost the capacity to be shocked. After all, the slaughter of the innocents is nothing new. My wife and I have a dark memento of gratuitous cruelty to children, a poster from the Holocaust Museum that shows a group of Jewish children, already separated from their parents and waiting quietly for the freight trains that will take them to Auschwitz or Buchenwald, where -- if they are lucky -- they will suffer a swift death.
After a while, news of fresh acts of violence against children loses its power to shock, even when it still dismays.
But the recent murder of young Amish girls in a one-room schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pa., slipped past the defenses I thought I had safely in place. The act seemed so unexpected, so random, so senselessly cruel, so out of place with the tranquil setting of the school or the peaceful ideals of the Amish themselves, that it was difficult to take in, much less to understand.
The shooter, Charles Carl Roberts, knew the Amish girls would not resist, though he brought restraints with him, just to be safe, especially since (as it appears) he intended to abuse them sexually before he murdered them. But the Amish school teacher, alarmed by his behavior, slipped out the back door, ran to a neighbor's house and did what must have seemed to Roberts the un-Amish act of calling the police. Their unanticipated arrival upset his timetableand saved the girls from rape, if not from his angry gunfire.
Nonviolence is a way of life among he Amish, who, like the Mennonites, are descendants of a 16th century radical Christian group called Anabaptists. Anabaptists were particularly impressed by the teaching of Jesus on the subject of nonviolence. They read the commandments of Jesus to turn the other cheek, to renounce the sword, to return good for evil and to forgive one's enemies, as rules binding on all Christians and not just on some subgroup of the especially pious.
In their view Christians could not be soldiers, because soldiers are required to take human life in time of war, or magistrates, because magistrates are duty bound to order violence done in the name of justice. The command to use no violence against another human being and to forgive unjust wrongs was absolute and admitted of no exceptions. As the Lord's Prayer made perfectly clear to the Anabaptists (and to their Amish descendants), forgiveness is not extended to the unforgiving. Forgive us as we forgive is the intractable rule.
And so the Amish forgave Roberts for imprisoning their children, for maiming and murdering them, and even for intending to molest them while they were helplessly in his power. They forgave him, not because he had been driven by private demons or because his act was anything but heinous. They forgave him because they thought Jesus had told them to and they were not clever enough to think he didn't mean it.
Forgiveness is tough work, and forgiving the unforgivable unimaginably hard. Most of us, whatever our faith commitments or lack of them, would have to whisper a prayer -- at least to "the close and holy darkness" for the grace of a bad memory, before struggling to forgive much smaller wrongs.
But the Amish matched their words with deeds. They invited Roberts' widow to the funerals of their children, insisted that some of the money raised to help them be used to help her, andeven attended the graveside service of the man who had so cruelly wrested their children from them.
By doing so, the unworldly but morally substantial Amish gave their worldly but morally less substantial fellow citizens a brief glimpse of a peaceable kingdom, where the lion lies down with the lamb, where swords will be beaten into plowshares, where violence ceases and a gentle magnanimity reigns.
You can't say it is impossible or hopelessly utopian, because you have just seen it done.
(David C. Steinmetz is the Amos Ragan Kearns professor of the History of Christianity at the Divinity School of Duke University. He is a former resident of Lancaster County, Pa.)