Which made a stronger emotional impact on you: the news that Charles Roberts had killed five Amish girls and wounded five more before killing himself or the report that the Amish forgave him and invited Roberts’ widow to one of the funerals?
Sadly we’re getting used to hearing stories of fatal school shootings. On Oct. 1, Charles Roberts, a milk truck driver and family man, entered an Amish school in Lancaster County, Penn., ordered all the boys and adults out of the school, tied up the girls who remained, asked them to pray for him, and then shot 10 of them before shooting himself.
What we’re not used to are stories of forgiveness. They always seem to surprise and amaze us, as if the act of forgiving transcends human nature. What we are used to is families of murder victims saying they can’t feel closure until they see the perpetrator die by lethal injection at midnight in some penitentiary. It’s like Archie Bunker once said: “What’s wrong with revenge? It’s the best way to get even.”
Many of us think of ourselves as spiritual if not religious people, and all the major religions hold forgiveness up as a virtue. Yet witnessing the thing itself seems to be so rare. What is this thing called forgiveness, anyway?
Matthew Fox, a theologian, defines forgiveness as “letting go,” i.e. wrongdoers are enabled to let go of their guilt, and those who are wronged let go of their desire for revenge.
Daniel Esh, an Amish man, was quoted by the Tribune as wanting Roberts’ widow and her three children to remain in the area. He said, “I hope they stay around here. They’ll have a lot of friends.”
Enos Miller, the grandfather of two of the slain girls, was asked if he had forgiven Roberts. He replied, “In my heart, yes, through God’s help.”
“The hurt is very great,” said Gertrude Huntington who has done research on the Amish, “but they don’t balance the hurt with hate.”
Judea Pearl is the father of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter whose beheading by Islamic extremists was videotaped and then shown on some TV stations. Pearl, like the Amish, has decided not to balance his hurt with hate. What he has done with his intense emotions is to team up with a Pakistani Muslim named Akbar Ahmed and goes on the road to improve Jewish-Muslim relations.
Pearl doesn’t use the word forgiveness, but he is investing his energies into life promoting pursuits. In fact, he says that defeating the hatred that took his son’s life is his “revenge.”
Now, imagine what would happen if forgiveness and letting go of ill feelings characterized how Sunnis and Shiites related to each other, Republicans and Democrats in Congress talked to each other, members of our police department approached disputes, Forest Park council members related to each other, writers of columns and letters to the editor chose their language or husbands and wives solved problems.
Matthew Fox claimed that forgiveness is another word for letting go. Is forgiveness and letting go of ill feeling easy? We all know it isn’t. That’s why we were so awed by the Amish response to violence in their midst. It’s hard work, but it is work that invests in life. Dr. King used to say that in a world that believes in an eye for an eye, everyone will end up blind.