Forgiving what we can't forget
In the aftermath of the Nickel Mines school shooting, many observers lauded the Amish response and noted that “the rest of us” should be more like the Amish. We agree that the Amish response was laudable. At the same time, adopting the Amish approach to forgiveness in its entirety is not something that most Christians will be willing or able to do.
Moreover, it’s important to remember that the Nickel Mines school shooting—an absolutely horrific act, yes, but one that was short-lived and definitively concluded when the killer took his own life—is far different from forms of injustice that continue year after year, decade after decade. Contrast the school shooting, for instance, with the centuries-long oppression of African Americans, the calculated extermination of six million Jews, or repeated abuse at the hands of a spouse. Even minor offenses can obstruct forgiveness when they continue day after day.
With these caveats in mind, is there anything in the Amish response for the rest of us? We believe there is. What we learn from the Amish, both at Nickel Mines and more generally, is that how we choose to move on from tragic injustices is culturally formed. For the Amish, who bring their own religious resources to bear on injustice, the preferred way to live on with meaning and hope is to offer forgiveness—and to offer it quickly. That offer, including the willingness to forgo vengeance, does not undo tragedy, but it does constitute the first step toward a future that is more hopeful, and potentially less violent, than it would be otherwise.
Many Americans, we believe, have been formed by a culture that mocks grace and nourishes revenge. Running against that grain, finding alternative ways to imagine our world and facilitate forgiveness, takes more than individual willpower. We need to construct communities and churches that value and nurture forgiveness—by the scriptures we read, by the stories we tell, by the practices we perform. How might we work more imaginatively to create communities in which enemies are treated as members of the human community and not demonized? How might these communities foster visions that enable their members to see offenders, as well as victims, as
persons with authentic needs?
There are no simple answers to these questions, though any answer will surely involve the habits we decide to value, the images we choose to celebrate, and the stories we seek to remember. Contrary to popular opinion, forgiveness is not a matter of “forgive and forget.” It’s instead a matter of “re-membering”—taking the broken pieces of our lives that have been dismembered by tragedy and re-membering them
into something whole. Forgetting an atrocious offense may not be possible, but all of us make decisions about how to remember what we can’t forget.
Non-Amish Christians may never be able to forgive exactly like the Amish, but we can create communities that foster, rather than undermine, our ability to forgive. That more than anything, we believe, is the lesson the Nickel Mines Amish have modeled for the rest of us.
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