Thanks to the marvels of modern communications technology that the Amish reject, I learned about the school shootings in Pennsylvania seated in my living room in Lithuania. I had just checked into Google News via the internet when the story caught my eye and I noticed that it was only 45 minutes old. So I turned on BBC World (via Satellite TV) which was already giving reports on this breaking story. One of the ironies of the modern world is that my 90-year old father-in-law in Pennsylvania learned of the story happening near his home when my wife called him from Lithuania!
Any story of a school shooting is disturbing, but it seemed especially unthinkable that the world of alienation and mindless violence that breed this kind of destructiveness had burst into the lives of an Amish community. That the victims were little girls, and that the perpetrator was acting out some twisted sexual motivations made it seem to be such a gross violation of Amish innocence.
But very soon the initial story of violence also became a story of the remarkable response of the Amish community. The whole world looked on as Amish people graciously offered their forgiveness and fellowship to the family of the killer. I was impressed as the world press reported this with a sense of reverence and amazement. They seemed to accept these actions at face value. But I must admit that some disturbing questions started percolating beneath the surface in my mind. Hadn't the forgiveness response come too easily and too quickly? Didn't these people need to process grief and anger first? Was their response healthy? Out of respect for their grief it seemed insensitive to raise these questions, but at some point they must be expressed.
As I thought about the actions of the Amish community, and my questioning response, I came to realize that their actions challenge a number of modern shibboleths that many of us have come to accept. Perhaps we can use these events to look again at some of the received wisdom that we more modern believers have too uncritically accepted. Three such modern shibboleths come to mind:
1. We have been taught that the normal, healthy human response to trauma follows certain predictable stages. The response to an event like this should follow a pattern of denial and disbelief, anger (both against the perpetrator and God), grief, and finally acceptance. In this view, forgiveness should be something that comes at the end of a long and painful process. The Amish response raises the question of whether this is indeed so. Perhaps it was this concept of grief stages that lay behind my question about whether the Amish response was "healthy." According to the received wisdom, if someone skips the anger stage they have only repressed it, and at some point will need to return to their repressed anger to find healing. The Amish response shows us that how we respond to traumatic events is not something simply programmed into our human nature. How we perceive and respond to painful events is shaped by our spiritual outlook and our communal conditioning. The Amish response of immediate forgiveness should challenge our notions of what a "healthy" human response to trauma is. Saints, after all, should respond differently than sinners. No doubt the families and friends of those whose lives were taken will return to times of pain and tears for years to come, but their example suggests that forgiveness might be the beginning, not only the end, of a healing grief process.
2. A slogan that has gained unquestioned acceptance among modern social activists is that "there can be no peace without justice". This is closely related to the point above. The assumption is that before there can be peace there must be a long and painful process that involves the innocent victims giving voice to their hurt and outrage, followed by some kind of attempt to make things right. Only after the victim's voice is heard and things are made right can peace be established. The Amish response seems to circumvent the cry for justice. Though in this case, what would justice be? The perpetrator is already dead. His wife and children are already suffering and probably feeling terribly cut off from life and fellowship. There simply are many cases where justice is not a possibility. Perhaps the Amish response of immediate forgiveness and the offer of fellowship to the killer's family is the only possible way in this situation to make things "right".
Instead of peace being the end result of a struggle to achieve justice, we should learn from the Amish to see peace with God and a readiness to forgive as something that is needed at the beginning of the search for whatever justice is achievable in a sin sick world. The slogan "there can be no peace without justice" may at times itself keep us from peace. It assumes that justice is always a possibility and that human beings can fix the world and make things right. There are so many situations in life where, if we live by this slogan, it simply means that there will be no peace! The Amish know a deeper wisdom and that is that in a fallen world there are some sorrows that only heaven can heal.
3. Donald Kraybill in an interview featured on CBS News (yes I can watch video clips from CBS online in Lithuania) pointed out that one of the keys to the Amish response was their deep belief in divine Providence. Without questioning the goodness of God, and without trying to understand the "why," the Amish deeply believe that nothing that happens falls outside of God's will. This belief that God is in control runs directly against the grain of another modern piece of wisdom--namely that we are the masters of our own destiny. This kind of catastrophic event blows this cherished modern myth out of our hands. But to believe that the killing of innocent little Amish girls is in any sense God's will smacks of a kind of resignation and fatalism to the modern mind.
One of the profound theological changes that has been happening in the minds of many modern believers in the past generation is a rethinking or even rejection of the traditional idea of Providence. Contemporary believers, when confronted with terrible events, feel they must either be angry at God for permitting this to happen, or must choose to say that God had nothing to do with it. Our tendency in the face of disaster is to ask, "how could we have prevented this?", or, "how can we make sure this never happens again?" These questions are certainly legitimate. To not ask them would be to deny that we are stewards of God's creation and responsible moral agents. But the Amish response is also a reminder that we are not always in control of our destinies, and that there is a deep and settled peace that flows from the realization that ultimately God is in control, and that God is good.
There is a lot of easy talk among Mennonites about the church being a counter-cultural community. The Amish response to the horror they experienced shows us how deep the streams that nurture a genuinely counter-cultural community must run. To be counter-cultural is not simply to develop a set of alternative behaviors or to make alternative life-style choices. It requires a deeply counter-cultural spirituality and faith and a process of communal formation that shapes our entire outlook on life. The Amish have given a valuable gift to all of us, and challenged us to take a deeper look at ourselves.