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On October 2, 2006, Charles Roberts IV, a milk tanker driver, distraught over the death of his infant daughter, pulled up to the West Nickel Mines Amish school house in Southern Lancaster County, walked through the door carrying a semi-automatic pistol and ordered the teachers out and the boys to carry in lumber from his truck before ordering them out. He then ordered the ten girls age 13 to 6 on the floor and barricaded the door. In less than 45 minutes just as the police stormed the schoolhouse Roberts shot all ten girls, killing five and wounding all the others before turning the gun on himself. The horror of this shooting stunned a nation. The Amish, the most devout of the Anabaptist peace churches seemed the last safe place for children in America. There are no metal detectors, no phones and on that warm fall day the door was wide open.
The grief of such a tragedy effected everyone; the close knit Amish community of Georgetown, PA, the police, the non-Amish, Roberts’s widow, Amy, indeed the entire nation. And yet, within 24 hours, even before the girls had been buried, representatives of the Amish Community came to the Roberts home to express their forgiveness for Roberts. Reports of this forgiveness further stunned the country. Most of us found it the most courageous and powerful testament of faith and humanity they had ever encountered. More than one editor asked how would our lives been changed if George W. Bush had forgiven the hijackers attacks on 9/11. Others were not so sanguine. Some commentators remarked that it was too soon to forgive such a crime. That such forgiveness would only excuse evil acts. Some complained that the widow was not the one to receive such forgiveness. Nevertheless, the fact remained that the Amish of southern Lancaster county had forgiven the crime.
To be sure, they had not forgotten the tragedy. They had not forgiven his heinous acts, just the man. And the Amish never asked the families to offer that forgiveness (although every family would later proclaim they did eventually forgive Roberts). The forgiveness was offered by Amish leaders in the name of the church community itself. And to be sure, it is one thing to forgive a killer who has taken his own life, quite another to forgive a killer who survives.
What the public did not know is that forgiveness is one of the highest virtues of Amish culture. Taken from the Gospel of Matthew, wherein Jesus dying on the cross says “Forgive them Father for they know not what they do” and the sermon on the Mount in which Jesus commands his followers to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. In other words, forgiveness for the Amish is rooted, deeply rooted, in their faith. Amish talk of the mortal prison of vengeance and anger but the most compelling reason the Amish make such a cardinal virtue out of forgiveness is quite selfish, as one Amish minister put “How can we be forgiven is we do not forgive?” the fate of their mortal souls, the Amish believe, is rooted in forgiving those who trespass against them.
Forgiveness is not the same thing as a pardon. And for the Amish, forgiveness does not mean a criminal should not be punished. In fact, those straying from the order within the Amish community are forgiven but not always pardoned, unless they choose to repent for their transgressions. Nonetheless, I offer this radical form of forgiveness as a beginning to considering the complexity and the promise of forgiveness in our own lives.
While the Amish root their impulse to forgive in a faith in God, I contend that we too might consider such an impulse, not as commanded by scripture, but as compelled by the Unknown God, Spirit, Force, Humanity that dwells within us; the inherent worth in all. We may not forgive the acts of evil but we can forgive the actors.
Our theology points towards the circle of life. When one part of our circle is damaged, it does no good to commiserate about the damage; this only keeps the circle broken. Finding the strength to deal with these issues as maturely as possible, starting with watching what we say and do, goes along way. Often times the best thing we can do for ourselves after a painful tragedy is to carry on with the mundane and joyful details of life that remain. This does not belittle or bury the sorrow but places it where we can work on it best.
Of course, and I want to stress this, forgiveness is not always immediate nor does it entail forgetting. Women who have been abused may never be able to forgive their abuser, and they should seek and receive justice for the crimes committed against them. But as I have known all too often in my own life, holding hatred keeps us imprisoned, indeed victimized for the rest of our lives.
The 19th century French Poet Charles Baudelaire once wrote “Hatred is the most deadly of poisons; it is made of our blood, our health, our sleep and two-thirds of our love.”
In the Jewish calendar, Rosh Hassana has ended and we are just about to welcome Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, in preparation for which Jews are commanded to forgive those who have wronged them. Indeed, forgiveness, as complex and heart wrenching as it is, is the only means to atonement, At- One–Ment with God, with our integrity as human beings.
A late middle age man steps into the dim chapel. It’s early evening. He is bone tired. He is in that place in life where he is no longer ascending, his proposals and emails often go unanswered. Those who meet him often quietly dismiss him as old, at the descent of his career. He knows his sun is setting. He longs to go home to his wife and children and just break down and cry. But he is the adult now, they depend on him. He cannot do that. So is finds himself sitting in a pew, with only an old woman in the corner saying her prayers. He stares up at Virgin Mary and as if from some old corner he remembers a prayer. He prays, “Mother Mary, help me. Hold me. Forgive me.” He falls to his knees and tears pour from his eyes. Tears that come not from desperation but from comfort. He feels in the moment, like he is being held for the very first time. His shoulders drop and he feels a warmth he had long forgotten.
This story borrowed from the book Religion for Atheists could be about any of us. The skeptical might think all of this is infantile, but the fact remains, that cult of Mary, like the cult of Mazu in Buddhist China, Venus in ancient Rome, Kali in India, exist for a reason, mostly to take the place of that which we all primordially need, a being in whom find forgiveness. This man could be anyone of us, who has fallen from the death of a loved one, the loss of a relationship, or even the sheer mediocrity in life. There is a reason mother cults have survived through the ages. And the reason is us; we need a place, a person, a time to let go in order to forgive ourselves and move on.
There is an old saying that when one door closes another opens but it can be pretty dark in the in the hallway. How many of us have been there? How many of us are afraid to close the first door at all? The darkness of the hall though is where change really happens. Daring in the dark means allowing ourselves to experience pain without avoiding it or medicating it with consumerism and addiction. It means opening to mystery and trusting that what we do not know or cannot know is also a place to meet the divine. Only in letting go, do we move onto the path of forgiveness and redemption. And while we may think we don’t need to be forgiven, I would bet that any of us needs at the very least to forgive ourselves, for some wrong we had done, or forgive another for how we were left alone. Forgiveness is a universal need, and the fastest way to that forgiveness, the only promise that forgiveness will work for us is to let go. But how?
How we let go has to do with the creative art of finding every opportunity we can. This is why the Amish forgive so readily. To hold onto the revenge is poison to their community. Perhaps the greatest challenge of abuse is not the pain but the fear of the unknown when we leave the pain. I have counselled many women and a few men through the pain of divorce. Often it is just a parting of the ways, one changes and the other doesn’t or there is an infidelity that is just too hard to return from. And sometimes it is a matter of abuse; not always physical but certainly always painful. The decision to leave is not a matter of common sense; why doesn’t she just leave him? The decision is whether we have the strength to let go of the familiar and go into the mystery, the divine feminine power of what we cannot see until we find another way. When that decision is finally made it is not a matter of relief, but dread. And make no mistake about it, it will be painful? But worth it? Oh my yes.
Finding what remains is also part of forgiveness. While going through some files this week I ran across the Memorial Program from my mother’s service, 15 years ago . I recall that service, I led the memorial, and collapsed for three days afterwards. It was some of the most difficult letting go I have ever done. But what remains? What remains is the power of life. We remain. We who are their words, their creation, their dreams and their failures. We remain, and in the remaining we are forgiven as well. I became what my mother dreamed and failed at what she hoped as well. And still we love.
“And sometimes forgiveness means letting our body fall into the arms of those who love us.” Dr. Paul Zak has done considerable research into the release of oxytocin, a chemical in our brain that actually gets released with trust, like hugging. Weddings have the highest release of oxytocin on the planet, followed by tandem skydiving. Why? Because we trust each other. Even when we think we have been wronged. Real trust works by assuming the best intentions and letting go of our worst assumptions.
People come here now as before, not to serve on committees, although that work is important, but to find meaning in life. We are about the business of faith not the busyness of faith; transforming our lives into the way life ought to be. Some of you are returning to this congregation after having been gone a long time. Some of you left after hurts you could not reconcile. I am asking each of us to forgive one another for what has been said or even done and look towards a new future. To strive for Atonement with this congregation our beloved community. To rejoin us in covenant to build a new way home. To support the church through the pledge cards on your seats. To offer your gifts of hope as an act of forgiveness.
Embracing the promise of forgiveness is a conscious act. Take your pain where it belongs; with you to work on later but be self-conscious of what you are saying and doing now. The Buddha taught that right speech leads to right action and right action leads to right thought. This is very important. Watch what you say, and you will actually begin to let go of the hurt. We have a tendency to hold on to what hurts, not because we are masochists but rather because it is familiar. One of the reasons it is so hard to leave an abusive relationship is not because we are weak but because we are human; we want to be with what we know. We have to begin by letting of what we know.
If I learned one truth from my years of studying Buddhism it has been that only forgiveness can lead to healing and compassion. Not a blanket forgiveness, not even complete forgiveness and certainly not forgetting what happened but an understanding of what holds our pain in. Many times the Dali Lama has been asked if he hates the Chinese. His response: “hate the Chinese? Oh no, no hate. I forgive the Chinese, not because what they did was right – it is wrong – but because to hate them holds me prisoner to them.” Sometimes this practice is as easy as mouthing the words “I forgive so and so”, remembering that right speech leads to right thought. It might take years to truly forgive. But those who have suffered abuse for instance find it so much more powerful to forgive, even to be still angry in the memories of someone who did something that may have been a continuation of their own pain into your life. Those who seek revenge are rarely satisfied. Families of murdered children know that forgiving only frees the soul. That capital punishment, while a temporary elixir to our pain, does not result in freedom from that pain.
We are pretty good at macro forgiveness. I have met Native Americans who are not angry with the abuse of our ancestors. I have known disabled people who have forgiven the drunk drivers. I am always startled by the courage it takes to forgive this way. But you know the closer you are the harder it is to forgive. We can start with the words but the belief is often a struggle. I can hear some of you saying “easy for you, holy man, but I really still hate the son of bitch.” It’s fine to hate for a while. Get it out of the way. One of the fathers of a slain Amish girl put it this way: “Hate is a very big, very hungry thing. Lots of sharp teeth. It can eat up your whole heart, and leave no room left for love. I will never forget my daughter and the man who took her life but I have three other children to love.” Without forgiveness there is no room for love. Amen.
I close with these words from Mary Oliver:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
― Mary Oliver