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Amish Grace | jonmower.com

Amish Grace

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AmishGrace I recently finished reading "Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy" by Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt, and David L. Weaver-Zercher.  From Wikipedia:

When a group of Amish schoolgirls are taken hostage and killed in their classroom, their parents and the Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, stun the outside world by immediately forgiving the killer.

I previously new very little about the Amish (mostly from the film Witness?).  As I learned more, I couldn't help but notice some similarities to my own heritage.  I loved the book both because of its thoughtful examination of the nature of forgiveness and because it's a fascinating story of a group of Christians who obviously and in many ways aren't excusing themselves from being transformed by the radical, counter-cultural demands of the gospel.

I gave it 4 out of 5 stars.

This quote from page 12 caught my attention:

“We believe in letting our light shine,” said one Amish father, “but not shining it in the eyes of other people.”

I love that phrase.  It reminds me of 1 Thess. 4:9-12:

9 Now about your love for one another we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. 10 And in fact, you do love all of God’s family throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more, 11 and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, 12 so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.

The Amish take very seriously what Jesus said about forgiveness in Matthew 6.  From page 95 of the book:

To say that the Lord’s Prayer is a “good, well-rounded prayer” covers a lot of territory. But the prayer’s words about forgiveness “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” ring loud in Amish ears. One elder explained emphatically, “Forgiveness is the only thing that Jesus underscored in the Lord’s Prayer. Do you know that Jesus speaks about forgiveness in the two verses right after the Lord’s Prayer? So you see, it’s really central to the Lord’s Prayer. It’s really intense.”

The fundamentals of Amish forgiveness are embedded in those two verses: “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6: 14-15).

The Amish believe if they don’t forgive, they won’t be forgiven. This forms the core of Amish spirituality and the core of their understanding of salvation: forgiveness from God hinges on a willingness to forgive others. The crucial phrase, repeated frequently by the Amish in conversations, sermons, and essays, is this: to be forgiven, we must forgive.

This notion was never clearer than in the aftermath of the Nickel Mines shooting. In response to a flood of inquiries about how the Amish could forgive, local leaders provided an explanation in an unsigned letter: “There has been some confusion about our community’s forgiving attitude, [but] if we do not forgive, how can we expect to he forgiven? By not forgiving, it will be more harmful to ourselves than to the one that did the evil deed.”

Here's an interesting passage from pages 126-128 where the authors explore the meaning of forgiveness:

Forgiveness is a concept that everyone understands - until they’re asked to define it. Many Christians say that people should forgive because God forgave them. The Amish say that people should forgive so that God will forgive them. But those statements point to theological motivations for offering forgiveness; they do not define what forgiveness is. Others argue that forgiveness brings emotional healing to the forgiving person, but this psychological motive for forgiveness also fails to define forgiveness.

In recent years, psychologists such as Robert D. Enright and Everett E. Worthington Jr. have helped to define forgiveness and examine its effects. As a result of their clinical research, both Enright and Worthington have come to believe that forgiveness is good for the person who offers it, reducing “anger, depression, anxiety, and fear” and affording “cardiovascular and immune system benefits.” To make that claim, however, they’ve needed to clarify what forgiveness is and what it is not.

Enright, in his book Forgiveness Is a Choice, uses philosopher Joanna North’s definition of forgiveness: “When unjustly hurt by another, we forgive when we overcome the resentment toward the offender, not by denying our right to the resentment, but instead by trying to offer the wrongdoer compassion, benevolence, and love.” In Enright’s view, this definition highlights three essential aspects of forgiveness: that the offense is taken seriously (“the offense was unfair and will always continue to he unfair”), that victims have “a moral right to anger,” and that for forgiveness to take place, victims must “give up” their right to anger and resentment. In sum, forgiveness is “a gift to our offender,” who may not necessarily deserve it.

Forgiveness, then, is both psychological and social: psychological because the forgiver is personally changed by the release of resentment, and social because forgiveness involves another person. That other person, the wrongdoer, may or may not change as a result of the forgiveness. In fact, Enright and many other scholars argue that forgiveness does not and should not depend on the remorse or apology of the offender. Rather, forgiveness is unconditional, an unmerited gift that replaces negative feelings toward the wrongdoer with love and generosity. “In spite of everything that the offender has done,” writes Enright, forgiveness means treating the offender “as a member of the human community.”

There are certain things, however, that forgiveness does not mean. Partly in response to their critics, forgiveness advocates have developed a long list of things that forgiveness is not: it is not pretending that a wrong did not occur, it is not forgetting that it happened, and it is not condoning or excusing it. To the contrary, “forgiveness means admitting that what was done was wrong and should not be repeated.” Similarly, forgiveness is not the same thing as pardon. In other words, granting forgiveness does not mean that the wrongdoer is now free from suffering the disciplinary consequences of his or her actions (for example, legal or other forms of discipline).

Finally, forgiveness should not he confused with reconciliation - the restoring of a relationship. That’s because “reconciliation requires a renewal of trust, and sometimes that is not possible.” Forgiveness may open the door to reconciliation, and in some ways is a prerequisite for reconciliation, but a victim may forgive an offender without reconciliation taking place. For instance, a victim of domestic abuse may forgive her abuser but at the same time seek legal means to keep him at a distance. Forgiveness advocates such as Enright even argue that forgiving  a dead person is both possible and appropriate, even though reconciliation cannot take place in such cases.

In the following passage from pages 175-177 the authors emphasize how truly counter-cultural Amish Grace really is:

To hear the Amish explain it, the New Testament provides the pattern for their unique form of spirituality. In a certain sense they are right. The Amish take the words of’ Jesus with utmost seriousness, and members frequently explain their faith by citing Jesus or other New Testament texts. But the Amish way of life cannot be reduced simply to taking the Bible or even Jesus seriously. Rather, Amish spirituality emerges from their particular ways of understanding the biblical text, a lens that’s been shaped by their nonviolent martyr tradition.  With the martyrs hovering nearby, offering admonition and encouragement, the Amish have esteemed suffering over vengeance, Uffgevva over striving, and forgiveness over resentment. All Christians can read Jesus’ words in Matthew’s Gospel “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” but Amish people truly believe that their own forgiveness is bound up in their willingness to forgive others. For them, forgiveness is more than a good thing to do. It is absolutely central to the Christian faith.

All of this helps us understand how the Nickel Mines Amish could do the unimaginable: extend forgiveness to their children’s killer within hours of their deaths. The decision to forgive came quickly, almost instinctively. Moreover, it came in deeds as well as words, with concrete expressions of care for the gunman’s family. For the Amish, the test of faith is action. Beliefs are important, and words are too, but actions reveal the true character of one’s faith. Therefore to really forgive means to act in forgiving ways - in this case, by expressing care for the family of the killer.

In a world where the default response is more often revenge than forgiveness, all of this is inspiring. At the same time, the fact that forgiveness is so deeply woven into the fabric of Amish life should alert us that their example, inspiring as it is, is not easily transferable to other people in other situations. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but how does one imitate a habit that’s embedded in a way of life anchored in a five-hundred-year history?

Most North Americans, formed by the assumptions of liberal democracy and consumer capitalism, carry a dramatically different set of cultural habits. In fact, many North Americans might conclude that certain Amish habits are problematic, if not utterly offensive. Submitting to the discipline of fallible church leaders? Forgoing personal acclaim? Constraining intellectual exploration? Abiding by restrictive gender roles? Declining to stand up for one’s rights? Refusing to fight for one’s country? Could any set of cultural habits be more out of sync with mainstream American culture?

Many observers missed the countercultural dimension of Amish forgiveness, or at least downplayed it, in the aftermath of the Nickel Mines shooting. Outsiders, typically impressed by what they saw, too often assumed that Amish grace represented the best in “us.” Few commentators did this as crassly as the writer who equated the faith of the Amish with the faith of the Founding Fathers. In his mind, the Nickel Mines Amish were not acting counterculturally; they were simply extending a long American tradition of acting in loving, generous, and “Christian” ways. Other commentators, eager to find redemptive lessons in such a senseless event, offered simple platitudes. Rather than highlighting the painful self-renunciation that forgiveness (and much of Amish life) entails, they extolled Amish forgiveness as an inspiring expression of the goodness that resides in America’s heartland.

We are not suggesting that the Amish response to the shooting was not praiseworthy. We contend, however, that the countercultural value system from which it emerged was too often neglected in the tributes that followed in the wake of the shooting. As if to drive home the depth of this cultural divide, ministers in one Ohio Amish community forbade a member from giving public lectures on Amish forgiveness. Ironically, the very value system that compelled the Nickel Mines Amish to forgive Charles Roberts constrained a member’s freedom to talk about forgiveness with curious outsiders. No, the Amish response at Nickel Mines was not so much the “best of America” as it was an expression of love by a people who every day challenge many of the values the rest of us hold clear.

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