Forgiveness

By Greg Seastrom

Greg SeastromOn Saturday, October 7, about thirty members of the Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, attended the funeral of Charles Roberts, a neighbor who a few days earlier held hostage and shot ten Amish school girls. In the agony of grief they were able, in fact compelled by their faith, to forgive. Not only did they mourn for Roberts, they also set up a fund for his widow and three children. While the world stood in amazement, they forgave as a natural expression of their being. They deeply understood that Christ was serious when he instructed them to forgive their enemies. They put aside the natural impulse for revenge and acted simply and consistently out of their beliefs.

I noticed two reactions to the Amish response. Mike Gallagher, a conservative talk-show host, offered fifty-five minutes of time on his program to the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, if they would cancel their plans to demonstrate at the funerals of the children. Gallagher, moved by respect for these people who forgave a grievous hurt, provided valuable time to a group he despises, to protect the Amish from a cruel intrusion. The Fresno Bee (Oct. 7, 2006) in an editorial headed “A special grace” said “we could learn a great deal from the Amish about living in peace.” In the concluding statement,

If only the combatants in Iraq and Afghanistan . . . would follow the lead of the Amish this week, our world would be blessed with peace.

In both these reactions I see a human consciousness, possessed by most of us, which responds in kind to love and forgiveness expressed by others.

In Iraq Sunni and Shiite, two Muslim sects, are killing each other as well as many innocent people. In the Holy Land Palestinians are detonating bombs strapped to their bodies amidst Israeli crowds, and the Israeli army retaliates with powerful and sophisticated weapons, maiming and killing scores of innocents in the process. The United States, NATO, and the UN counter with more force from an occupying army, considered the only “realistic” response. An urge for vengeance wells up in people who are harmed or recognize an unfair or harmful act to another, feeling that justice requires retaliation.

This conventional way of thinking is problematic today. Modern weaponry capable of destroying the planet forces us to reconsider how we resolve differences and secure peace. Violent responses to violence might seem to work, temporarily, but violence leaves resentment and bitterness, which are likely to erupt later.

Although sectarian religious rivalries are the source of much strife in the world, I believe that the tenets of love and forgiveness taught by these same religions can be the foundation of world peace. Militancy and extremism are not just found in “the other.” They are found in our own hearts as well. It is necessary to expand our boundaries beyond “us and them” to see the whole world as “us.” We must learn to recognize an essential sacredness in all people we meet, not just those “like us.” A sense of decency and compassion is a universal inner resource available to all people, religious or not. It is not the province of one religion alone.

This brings me back to the Amish of Nickel Mine, Pennsylvania. Their response was from their uniquely Amish beliefs. Compassion, even for one’s enemy, is part of the belief systems in all major world religions. What they did was to live their faith. What a model for all of us!

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