The Choice to Forgive {Lessons from My Amish Family}

Dirk Willems (died 16 May 1569) (also spelled Durk Willems) was a Dutch martyred Anabaptist who is most famous for escaping from prison, turning around to rescue his pursuer—who had fallen through thin ice while chasing Willems—to then be recaptured, tortured and killed for his faith. | Wiki

Dirk Willems (died 16 May 1569) (also spelled Durk Willems) was a Dutch martyred Anabaptist who is most famous for escaping from prison, turning around to rescue his pursuer—who had fallen through thin ice while chasing Willems—to then be recaptured, tortured and killed for his faith. | Wiki

As I live in a western society that breathes, practices and preaches personal rights and justice, sometimes it’s hard for me to fathom modeling a life of forgiveness in the way Jesus commands:

“…and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Matthew 6:12

“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” Matthew 6:14

“Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Matthew 18:21-22

“And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” Mark 11:25 – (ESV)
But there’s a countercultural model in America, and it was best demonstrated after the horrific Nickel Mines shootings in a once innocent little one-room schoolhouse, where gunman Charles Carl Roberts IV took hostages and shot ten girls (aged 6–13), killing five of them. In the days, weeks, months and now years that followed, Amish families who were the very victims of the tragic shootings of those sweet little school girls not only spoke words of forgiveness, but demonstrated it, by loving the shooter’s mother, widow and children – and (gasp!) even attending his funeral as an extension of grace to his family only days after burying their own daughters.
Nickel Mines School | Image via NY Daily News

Nickel Mines School | Image via NY Daily News

Nickel Mines School | Image via NY Daily News

Nickel Mines School | Image via NY Daily News

Imagine growing up in a home, and among peers in your church, school and community where forgiveness is practiced and taught, instead of personal rights. Extending grace is the choice made instead of seeking revenge. Meekness is sought after and more highly esteemed than force. When this is the culture of a people, choosing to forgive naturally becomes their reaction in a time such as the Nickel Mines shootings, as it is a collective reflex of their trained character and nature.

“I would say the difference here with the Amish is that this is part of their cultural DNA. They aren’t individualistic like other Americans are, so the burden doesn’t fall so much on the individual to forgive, although individuals obviously are part of the process. But this is more built into the cultural rhythms and the cultural DNA of the Amish community. It’s just the way we live and the way we’re expected to respond in the face of hostility.” ~ Donald Kraybill

I saw this kind of forgiveness demonstrated in my Grandpa Esh’s life. (You can read his story by clicking here.) Instead of being angry and bitter as a result of tragedy – seeking revenge, compensation and justice for being robbed of the ability to walk and function as a normal man, he chose to forgive and move on with life.

I also experienced it in the thousand little ways my family handled things. I’ve watched typical (and great!) American parents who distract their child who is hurt by running into something such as a chair say something like, “what a horrible, bad, awful chair that is for hurting you!”. You would never hear an Amish parent say anything of the kind. Instead, they would simply make sure their child is okay, and quietly move on, placing no blame on the chair or anything else for that matter.

The manner in which the Amish people extend grace in the face of evil seems so unnatural, and could be viewed as forgiving too easily, or even a sign of inner weakness. Typically we want justice in the face of personal tragedy, and revenge when we’re treated unfairly. In the above referenced article Donald Kraybill goes on to explain, “…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 offer it quickly. That offer, including the willingness to forego vengeance, does not undo the tragedy or pardon the wrong. It does, however, constitute a first step toward a future that is more hopeful, and potentially less violent, than it would otherwise be.”

In my Amish family and among the Anabaptist culture, there is a longstanding heritage of choosing to forgive. It was first modeled by Jesus as he forgave the very people who crucified Him. I grew up hearing the accounts from Martyr’s Mirror – where believers who were being tortured in horrific manners, and burned at stake for their faith, chose to forgive those men who were inflicting the unspeakable atrocities upon them.

Children walking to their new schoolhouse called "New Hope School" | image via Seattle Times

Children walking to their rebuilt schoolhouse called “New Hope School”  Image via Seattle Times

“In a world where faith often justifies and magnifies revenge, and in a nation where some Christians use scripture to fuel retaliation, the Amish response was indeed a surprise. Regardless of the details of the Nickel Mines story, one message rings clear: religion was not used to justify rage and revenge but to inspire goodness, forgiveness, and grace. And that is the big lesson for the rest of us regardless of our faith or nationality.” – Donald Kraybill

Obviously we may not all agree with the Amish and Mennonite theology on pacifism and their views on culture. But their beautiful practice of forgiveness is an undeniable beacon and shining example of grace to all of us. I consider myself incredibly blessed to learn from them, and to call them my family.

~ Justina Dee

This is a post from a series I’m sharing about my Amish family. Click here to read more.

Reference: Christianity Today’s “Amish Grace & the Rest of Us” The Amish response to the Nickel Mines shootings wasn’t just plain Christianity. Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt, and David L. Weaver-Zercher/ SEPTEMBER 17, 2007

Links:

Nickel Mines Legacy – Forgive First | Pittsburgh Post Gazette 

The Culture of Forgiveness 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *