Monday, October 30, 2006

Lessons from the Amish

by Fr. Daniel C. O’Rourke

In Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania the Amish have torn down the one-room schoolhouse in which five of their young girls were murdered. A neighbor Charles Roberts IV with premeditation and in cold blood had shot them in the head before taking his own life. Only ten days after the massacre a construction company hauled away the blood splattered debris. The Amish have leveled the land and planted grass. The spot will revert to pasture. There will be no marker or plaque. The Amish community didn’t want the site to become a morbid tourist attraction.

The reaction of the Amish to this atrocity astonished the nation. It was much different than what most would have done. The Amish actions can teach us much. They refused to allow even this terrible tragedy to turn them into victims. Victimhood has its seductions. It makes us the center of attention. It forces others to feel sorry for us. It keeps us focused on the past instead of the future, thereby giving us an excuse to avoid the painful effort of moving on.

Joshua Searle-White, a psychologist at Alleghany College, writes that victimhood is “the insistence that people see us through the lens of our perceived hurts, injuries and traumas.” In this horrible butchery we would all understand if the Amish considered themselves victims. They have refused, however, to wallow in such self-destructive self-pity.

There are other related lessons from this massacre. Even in the depths of their own grief, the Amish thought of others. The very day of the killings the grandfather of one of the dead girls went to the home of Roberts's grieving father to comfort him. At the murderer’s funeral half of the seventy-five mourners were Amish! They were reaching out to Robert’s own bewildered children and to his stunned wife. There were no recriminations against the Roberts family, only compassionate, practical acts of human goodness. They visited the sick at heart and buried the dead.

The Amish, moreover, forgive Roberts. Like all of us they had learned that Roberts was angry with God because years ago his infant daughter had died. They had also read news accounts of his suicide note in which he wrote of being tormented apparently by memories of sexually molesting young relatives and recurring dreams of similar perversions. They knew that was no excuse for this violence, but they knew it helped explain it. Evidently Roberts was a tormented and troubled pedophile. He was also a crazed gunman. The operative word is “crazed.” He was sick. The Amish understood and then miraculously forgave.

In commenting on the Amish reactions, columnist Clarence Page quoted Alexander Pope. “To err is human, to forgive divine.” What the Amish did was heroically virtuous. It was far beyond the unaided capabilities of most human beings. Only grace made it possible.

There have been other examples of heroic forgiveness in American history. In 1963 Ku Klux Klan racists dynamited and killed four innocent black girls and wounded twenty-two others at a Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The motive in those murders was racial bigotry not anger at pedophilia or at God, but the forgiveness voiced by Rev. Martin Luther King on the steps of the bombed church was similar.

A reporter asked King whether after these killings he still advocated non-violence. Of course, he said slowly. We forgave them when they raped our women. We forgave them when they lynched our men -- and we will forgive them when they kill our children. Why, the dumbfounded reporter asked. Because, King said, we are Christians and suffering is redemptive.

Suffering is redemptive not because Jesus died on the cross for our sins as most Christians believe, but because our own suffering can redeem us. Of course it can also embitter us, but if we are not seduced by victimhood, adversity can make us wiser and better. What doesn’t poison us spiritually makes us stronger spirituality. Looking back on our lives can’t many of us admit that suffering helped us grow? Didn’t overcoming addiction do that? Didn’t working through a painful divorce do that? Didn’t facing a life-threatening illness do that? Didn’t the devastating death of a spouse or child somehow with great pain lead us eventually to greater wisdom and maturity?

Both the Baptists in Birmingham and the Amish in Nickel Mines were Christians. They put most of us who claim to follow Jesus to shame. Though we often pray the Our Father few of us “forgive those who sin against us.” Even fewer really comprehend Jesus’ words that “Blessed are the peacemakers.” The Amish, however, put flesh on this faith. Unlike most of us they practiced what they professed.

Christians, however, have a no monopoly on non-violent forgiveness. In the Hebrew Scriptures Hosea forgave his unfaithful wife. The Hindu Mahatma Gandhi is legendary for forgiving, non-violence and understanding. His teachings on Muslim equality gave rise to his assassination by a fanatical Hindu.

What do these Amish teach us? They teach us not to complain of our lot and wallow in victimhood. They teach us to move on after loss. They teach us not to seek vengeance but to forgive. My God, if the Amish can forgive the killer of their children, can’t we forgive our sister-in-law for not inviting us to a family picnic?

The Amish rejected the-eye-for-an-eye attitude so prevalent in our world. Can we as a society wean ourselves from that vindictive mind-set? If not, we should remember Gandhi’s warning. “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” The Amish understood that.

Daniel O’Rourke is a married Catholic priest, retired from the administration at State University College, Fredonia. A mediator for the Center for Resolution and Justice, he lives in Cassadaga, NY.

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