The Power of Forgiveness

The story about the assault on ten Amish girls at the West Nickel Mines School in Pennsylvania started with horror at the assailant, but continued with wonderment at the response of the Amish community. Five children died, five were severely wounded and the perpetrator committed suicide. Tragedy all around, yet the Amish parents almost immediately sent words of forgiveness to the family of the killer who took away their beloved daughters.

How could these families forgive so quickly, so unreservedly? Donald Kraybill, a professor at Elizabethtown College and authority on Amish life, explains that forgiving is woven into the life of the Amish. Their faith sees tragic events as having a divine purpose hidden from human sight. “The Amish don’t argue with God,” he writes.

The closeness of the Amish community forged by a history of mutual aid like barn-raising, compels them to care for one another in times of tragedy. At a loved one’s death, neighbors bring meals, milk cows and do other chores for the grieving family.

The Amish faith takes seriously the life and teachings of Jesus, Who carried His Cross without complaint, Who prayed, “Father, forgive them” on the Cross, and Who admonished His followers to turn the other cheek, love one’s enemies and forgive seventy times seven times. Vengeance belongs to the Lord.

The Amish practice of gospel forgiveness startled the world. Many columnists across the country wrote how the Amish were teaching a neglected lesson in the midst of tragedy, yet a few writers questioned whether forgiveness so easily dispensed makes sense.

On the individual level, forgiveness represents the only way to true inner peace. President Nelson Mandela, a political prisoner on Robin Island for twenty-seven years, modeled forgiveness and reconciliation when he invited his white jailer to his 1994 inauguration as an honored guest. Consistently, families of murder victims find peace, not through the execution of the murderer, but by letting go of hatred and revenge. They cast out thoughts of vengeance that would allow the murderer to live in their heads and victimize them further.

Robert Frost wrote in his poem, “The Star-Splitter”: “to be social is to be forgiving.” Without forgiveness society would suffer continuous and ever-increasing fits of revenge. Yet the human condition demands not “forgive and forget,” but “remember and forgive.” A believer remembers a crime by pronouncing a moral judgment on the action (murder is wrong), then continues the process of healing by renouncing revenge, envisioning the criminal as a fellow human being and striving to reconcile with the offender. This four-step process makes forgiveness a personal and communal process requiring God’s grace.

On the community level, an innovative program dealing with the needed healing from violence focuses on the victim and community harmed by the crime. Restorative justice programs bring the victim and offender together in the presence of a mediator. The process helps the offender acknowledge the harm he has done and promotes rehabilitation through an apology and some appropriate restitution. By meeting their victims, offenders see and hear what their actions have done to the lives of other human beings.

On the international scene, truth and reconciliation commissions take the same approach.

“No peace without justice, no justice without forgiveness,” were the words of John Paul II on the World Day of Peace in 2002. The formula breaks the cycle of violence for a world community whose conflicts increasingly stem from ethnicity and religion.

Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, the Amish community leaders established a fund for the widow and children of their daughters’ assailant as a final gesture of forgiveness.

Fr. Rausch is a Glenmary priest who lives, writes and organizes in Appalachia.

(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)

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