“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” These are the words of Jesus as he asks God to forgive the people who are killing Him. This is perhaps the greatest act of forgiveness in human history, and to many it’s almost unfathomable but it is how Jesus expects His followers to live their lives. In Matthew 6:14-15 He says, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” And in Luke 6:37 we find, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”
Admittedly, what He did on the cross sets an extremely high standard that may seem impossible to attain but bear in mind that His ultimate act of forgiveness was the culmination of a lifetime of smaller daily acts, and as with everything worth doing practise makes perfect. It may also be tempting to not even bother trying to forgive because we’re just regular human beings but Jesus was the Son of God. That might be a valid excuse if it wasn’t for some everyday people who HAVE lived up to Jesus’ example.
The recent anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting stirred up more debate about how this horrific event could have been avoided, and whether or not teachers should be armed. It also served as a reminder of another story that made headline news around the world in October 2006 because it demonstrated what is possible if we choose to follow Jesus when disaster strikes.
Charles Roberts walked into the one room schoolhouse in the Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, lined up ten girls aged six to thirteen at the front of the class and systematically shot them in the head before turning the gun on himself. Five girls died and five were severely injured. People who knew Roberts said that it was an inexplicable act that seems even more horrific because just prior to the shooting he and his wife had walked their own three children to their school bus stop. The girls being held hostage were aware of their fate, and according to survivors, two sisters, Marian and Barbara Fisher (aged thirteen and eleven) offered to pray for Roberts and to be shot first to spare the others. As amazing as their bravery was, what really impacted people all over the world was the Amish community’s response to what happened. They forgave. They rallied around the killer’s family, established a fund to assist with their financial needs and about thirty Amish attended Charles Roberts’ funeral.
The grandfather of one of the slain girls was quoted as saying, “We must not think evil of this man.” and an Amish father in the community summed up the views of others when he said, “He had a mother and a wife and a soul, and now he’s standing before a just God.” The following is an excerpt from a letter written to the Amish community by Charles Roberts’ wife Marie, “Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need. Gifts you’ve given have touched our hearts in a way no words can describe. Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community and is changing our world, and for this we sincerely thank you.” That compassion has been the subject of the film “Amish Grace” and the youth organization that I work with has produced a YouTube video about the shooting that’s received more than 30, 000 views.
The response of the Amish was so radically different from what we usually experience in our culture that in Shane Claiborne’s book Jesus for President he included a chapter titled “Amish for Homeland Security”. He asks, what if instead of responding to the events of 9/11 with bombs we used the Amish approach and forgave – spending the money that was allocated for weapons to build schools in Iraq or inviting the families of those responsible for the attacks to attend the funerals of some of the victims. No retaliation, just love. It’s so counter to the way we normally react that it seems weird, and yet it’s exactly the way of peace and reconciliation that Jesus teaches when He says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”
I’ve personally witnessed an impressive, although much less dramatic example of forgiveness when a pair of Old Order Mennonite women wearing long black dresses and bonnets were being taunted by someone because of the way they were dressed. When I talked to them about their experience afterwards they just smiled and said “It’s okay. It’s fine” and they seemed like they really meant it! Perhaps they were used to being stared at and insulted but there’s no denying that the Amish, and other conservative members of the Anabaptist faith tradition are just really good at this whole forgiveness thing, and we can all learn something from them. Even in dangerous situations it seems natural to them to follow the example of 16th century Anabaptist martyr Dirk Willems, and Jesus himself, because they actually believe that our life here on earth is only temporary and that there is such a place as heaven.
We may not all agree with their interpretation of Romans 12:2 “Do not conform to the pattern of this world…” which to the Amish suggests separating themselves from modern culture by dressing differently and not using modern conveniences. They’re sometimes criticized for inconsistencies in the application of their rules but who are we to judge? Their leaders are just doing the best they can to come up with a system that works for their particular community. To those who accuse them of not doing enough to evangelize I might argue that their actions speak louder than our words, and if we don’t think that’s good enough we should probably forgive them, because they’re definitely going to forgive us.