Forgiving what we can't forget
Although the Amish view of forgiveness is in some ways unique, we also believe that the Amish, more than most Christian communities, practice what they preach about forgiveness. In some respects, this commitment to practice forgiveness flows directly from their view that their own forgiveness is bound up in their willingness to forgive others. To them, forgiveness is more than a good thing to do.
It is absolutely essential to one’s spiritual well-being.
Still, there are at least two other factors that facilitate Amish forgiveness besides a literal understanding of Matthew 6:14–15. First, Amish worship practices shape Amish church members into forgiving people. The Amish hold communion twice each year, once in the fall and once in the spring, and two weeks before each Communion Sunday Amish congregations hold “Council Meeting.” The primary themes in Council Meeting are always the same: forgiveness and reconciliation. Amish church members are told that, in order to take communion two weeks later, they must forgive and reconcile with their brothers and sisters. The scripture text read at Council Meeting is always Matthew 18, which includes detailed guidance about resolving church disputes (vv. 15–17). Matthew 18 also includes Jesus’ famous Parable of the Unforgiving Servant who, when he refuses to forgive his debtor, is punished by the king (vv. 23–35).
These biannual Council Meetings are not empty rituals. Some Amish churches will delay communion for weeks or even months until they can achieve unity within the local church body. To be sure, outsiders should not overestimate the ability of Amish people to forgive one another; some Amish people hold grudges against family and friends for years. Still, Council Meetings encourage deep soul-searching as church members ponder the church’s teachings about forgiveness. Members are urged to confess their sins and forgive each other so they can celebrate harmony in the communion service two weeks later.
In addition to their biannual Council Meetings, Amish people regularly hear about their sixteenth-century forebears, the Anabaptists,
who were martyred for their faith. Through sermons, school textbooks, and readings of a martyr history known as Martyrs Mirror, the Amish learn that their spiritual ancestors sought to respond in the manner of Jesus to their persecutors.
Martyr traditions are hardly unique to the Amish. Many religious groups have honored heroes who died for noble causes. But in many traditions the memory of martyrs is used to fuel revenge. Whether in sixteenth-century Protestant stories of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, which were used to justify retaliation against Catholics, or the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade at the turn of the twenty-first century, a powerful impulse ensures that undeserved deaths are repaid in kind.
Rather than fueling retaliation, however, the Amish martyr heritage nourishes an ethic of nonretaliation and love of enemy. Anabaptists have long believed that their martyrs were true Christian martyrs, in part because they had not shed the blood of other Christians. “Forgiving their persecutors at the moment of death was the final act of following Christ in one’s lifetime,” says a companion text to Martyrs Mirror that Amish people sometimes use. “Christ did not use the sword during His life, nor did He resist with the sword at the time of His death. Rather He forgave His enemies.” In the Amish mind, to love one’s enemies, as Jesus taught, surely means forgiving them as well.
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