I don’t know what to say that can add to the following statement issued by some members and leaders of the Amish community in Nickel Mines, PA., on the recent first anniversary of the deaths by shooting of five young schoolgirls and the wounding of others:
“Forgiveness is a journey….you need help from your community of faith and from God, and sometimes even from counselors, to make and hold on to a decision to not become a hostage to hostility. Hostility destroys community.”
The decision of the Amish community members to forgive has not been met with universal approval. What right have the living and the unharmed to forgive an assault against others who died or were wounded? some have asked. But it was an assault against the entire community, when you factor in the familial, neighborly, and religious connections among all the Amish of the region, even of the country. This act of corporate forgiveness is an important reminder of our connectedness and a necessary challenge to a stubbornly individualistic culture.
But the approach that the Amish take, not to allow themselves to “become a hostage to hostility,” turns that question on its head. The value of forgiveness is not only in what it does for the assailant (or in this case, his surviving family, who have received much support from the Amish) but in what it does for those who have been injured, even indirectly. While we might be able to make a legal or philosophical case for the “right” to hold a grudge or to avenge an insult or an assault, it is a right no better than one’s “right,” so-called, to hit oneself with a hammer or to drink poison. In fact, withholding forgiveness has been likened by sages to “drinking poison and hoping that someone else will die.”
Of equally stunning insight is the admission with which this statement begins, that “forgiveness is a journey,” and that “you need help.” This is a transparent and disarming admission of the fact that forgiveness has been no more automatic or easy for the Amish than it is for the rest of us. If ever we have determined to forgive someone, only to find our anger rising again and again, we are not alone. But we often differ with the Amish in this: don’t we often think of forgiveness as a destination we arrive at after the pain of the injury subsides with time and insight? The Amish, by contrast, seem to see the decision to forgive as the beginning of the journey, not its end.
And could it be that forgiveness does not always preclude anger? Rather, in forgiveness we work to transfer our grief, anger and outrage from the assailant to the assault, from the enemy to the enmity between us. Some actions are indeed worthy of great outrage and grief, some for the long periods of time that it would take to work toward resolution and healing. God forbid that we would come to any cheap and easy peace with such atrocities as what happened at Nickel Mines, or Columbine High School or Dachau. But part of that resolution and healing involves coming to see the enemy and assailant as someone in just as much need of healing and grace as ourselves, and finally even, to dare to pray and labor for his or her healing, as well as for our own. In this dark and difficult mystery we enter the very heart of God and the meaning of the cross. As Jacob said to his brother Esau, after years of bitter estrangement and separation between them, “Seeing your face is like seeing the face of God (Genesis 33: 10).”