The response this fall of the Amish in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, to the killings of five of their own young school girls has captured the attention of many of us. This tragedy has the makings of drama and fiction. Its "resolution" in the overtures back and forth between the Amish and the family of the murderer presents a scene that's rarely played out on a national stage. Too often in real life, we see acts of outrageous kindness twisted or botched.
I'm not a formally-trained theologian, so I can't respond as I'd like along those lines. Furthermore, I'm distanced from the events, only knowing about the actions of the Amish from what I've read in Mennonite Weekly Review or heard, read and seen in the national media coverage. I have no firsthand knowledge of any of those involved. And yet, I watch and listen. I think about what I can learn from all of this.
I tell my students to avoid, whenever possible, using abstractions. And yet, here I am, intrigued by the questions raised about possible tensions between forgiveness and justice. The terms mercy, grace, and love aren't far behind. Restoration and reconciliation lurk. I know better than to take on such complexity at my desk, let alone in a public forum. And yet, like a sucker for too-deep water, I proceed.
I think the Amish modeled forgiveness in their actions. While the death of the perpetrator, Charles Roberts, keeps them from needing to deal directly with him, it likely doesn't change the necessity of "full" forgiveness for their own health. When the families of the deceased girls shared with Mrs. Roberts the over three million dollars that has poured out to them from friends and strangers, they actively and symbolically spread acts of mercy to victims beyond their own families.
Surely the Amish would say that they have practiced mercy because they had already received mercy from God, that God's extravagant mercy underpins all human attempts at forgiveness. That's the language of Christianity. In the process the Amish have made something new, echoing that old, "Behold . . ." I believe that all world religions teach the principles of the Golden Rule: love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you; I think forgiveness and grace can be extended in multiple ways from the richness of a Higher Being, whose expressions aren't limited to the God of Christianity. Indeed, I've been the recipient of mercy from people who make no religious profession.
In a secular context it's possible that forgiveness and justice can be separated, but in a religious context I don't think forgiveness exists without justice, and I doubt that justice is possible without forgiveness. I search for the links between the two.
The questions come faster than the attempts at making meaning. Are the concepts of forgiveness and justice actually different, or could they be faces of the same entity? Parts of something bigger, this thing called mercy. Can I forgive when wronged, without seeking justice for myself? Can I seek to be forgiven without wanting to help implement justice for the one I've wronged? Can I be forgiven by another if I don't, in turn, forgive those who fail me? Can I seek justice for myself without forgiving the one who took advantage of me? Can I seek justice for another without asking forgiveness for my complicity in another's mistreatment? Perhaps justice and forgiveness can be separated only in our minds, as a way of trying to make sense of the whole by dividing it into parts. Sometimes we have to take things apart in order to see how they fit back together again. If there are many routes to a new place of creation—to that sought-after "Behold . . ." then reconciliation and restoration may be one way.
I'm not sure how to define any of these abstract terms floating around, and yet, I recognize some of the components of forgiveness. Surely someone, somewhere among the Amish wanted revenge. "Getting back at" feels good, when one person suffers and then sees the perpetrator of that suffering end up suffering also ("eye for an eye" thinking), either through circumstances or through the legal system's findings. Revenge may be a primary desire that leads to secular justice (and I would say that secular justice is usually better than no justice), but I'm not convinced that revenge brings healing. It seems foolish to ask for a monetary settlement, say for the loss of a child in a car accident, or for weight gain from fast food, or for pain and damages inflicted to family survivors of 9/11 victims. The offer of some financial reimbursement for medical costs through a lawsuit is tempting (maybe even critical for physical survival), but the trauma of legal proceedings (the language of plaintiff and defendant) would leave me in limbo, continuing as a victim. I'd rather try to let go of the bitterness and anger that I'd feel at having been wronged, than to endure ten years of legal wrangling. I'd need to forgive for the good of my own ability to move on with life. And yet . . .
Did the Amish acknowledge their full pain of being wronged? I hope they did, without kicking the cow's udder or ripping apart bolts of new fabric. Maybe they found relief in seeing that school building torn down. I hope so. It's unwise to gloss over pain and anger in a rush to put unpleasantness in the past. That's tough for stoic people who often don't show outward, negative emotions. But "forgive and forget" often isn't very helpful advice; it might be downright cruel. How could a parent of a murdered child truly forget being traumatized by loss or injustice? How could a surviving child from that schoolhouse not be scarred from watching and hearing unspeakable horror, not feel guilt at being one who escaped? With time, the losses of innocence and trust may be "redeemed" by seeing that some positives come from the changes that are implicit with the losses. I'm not a psychologist or sociologist, so I can't go very far in that direction either. But naming any positives would be for the ones who have suffered the injustice to do, not for "outsiders" to declare.
Forgiveness can happen if the perpetrator's behavior changes, but in the Amish schoolhouse killings there's no perpetrator left to forgive. There's only a "fallen" society with multiple individuals (and whole groups of misguided people) capable of doing what Charles Roberts did, if given the right triggers. Surely the Amish and the rest of us know we can't protect ourselves from Evil. Does this mean the Amish should build another school building and simply hope a tragedy doesn't happen again? Is this parallel to telling a victim of domestic abuse to forgive and "go back and be a good wife (or husband)"? That can mean: smile and hope that the bruises heal before the next round of fists or insults comes. In that case, "forgiveness" may actually perpetuate bad behavior if someone is allowed to continue to take advantage of another's availability to be "used." Does this mean that the Amish at West Nickel Mines should put up a chain-link fence and hide an emergency cell phone somewhere on the premises to show that they won't be quite as easy a target the next time?
Is this where the justice work comes in? Is this where all of us come in? Where we're complicit in not doing enough to bring about just conditions in our world that make it more possible for people to be fully human, rather than respond to their worst instincts? Or is this essay getting completely out of control: blame everybody and thus nobody? If everyone's responsible, then no one does anything about the problem. I'm still trying to figure out the path from forgiveness to justice. Maybe it's not a path, but a circle of sorts.
If the Amish indirectly forgave us all for a messed-up world, then we all need to ask forgiveness for our parts in allowing a world to exist where children aren't safe. We need to see that we—from educators, to economists, to politicians—have failed to build each other up. Surely the circle includes dents where the ones seeking forgiveness need to be transformed: i.e. stop our bad behavior, stop denying our problems, see where we've failed, and change our attitudes and behaviors, so there can be justice for the betrayed ones. Otherwise, how can we claim the right to be citizens of the same country, let alone the rights of shared membership in a body of believers?
Where am I? Oh, yes, tracking down justice. This concept could mean that both people/parties in the conflict are satisfied to the extent that the misbehavior or antagonism won't continue (and doesn't). Here I'm struggling with my view of humans as weak and prone to repeat the same mistakes and errors in judgment. And yet, I have to believe that forgiveness and justice are possible. Otherwise, there's no chance of either one happening. That means the Amish (and I) have to trust the other's good intentions without thinking that all our differences have been resolved and we all see or think the same. Returning to the perfection of the Garden of Eden doesn't seem viable to me. I'd rather focus on this new thing—"Behold, I make all things new"—this creation work that the Amish have shown us.
So how do I wrap this up? Forgiveness and justice seem to be part of the extravagance of God's mercy, where justice is based on "seventy times seven" thinking. Where "the last shall be first and the first last." Where the laborers in the vineyard work for an hour and get the same reward as those who clock in for eight hours. Not a bit of fairness there. Nothing that makes sense with our earthly standards of fair play. And yet. There's mercy. Enough for everyone: the "I was hungry and you gave me food" response. God's framework for getting along in the world. And our main, human task in that whirlwind? To love God. That's all. Love God by forgiving our neighbor and forgiving ourselves; love God by seeking justice for our neighbors and for ourselves. If only it were as simple as messing around with words, juggling concepts.