As the country marks the first anniversary tomorrow of the Amish school shootings in Nickel Mines, Pa. — where a 32-year-old milk truck driver shot ten Amish schoolgirls, killing five and critically wounding the others — the word “forgiveness” may be the defining theme.

As scholar Donald Kraybill notes in his new book, Amish Grace, forgiveness started to dominate the otherwise tragic story. As the introduction to his book states,

Within a week of the murders, Amish forgiveness was a central theme in more than 2,400 news stories around the world. The Washington Post, The New York Times, USA Today, Newsweek, NBC Nightly News, CBS Morning News, Larry King Live, Fox News, Oprah, and dozens of other media outlets heralded the forgiving Amish. From the Khaleej Times (United Arab Emirates) to Australian television, international media were opining on Amish forgiveness. Three weeks after the shooting, “Amish forgiveness” had appeared in 2,900 news stories worldwide and on 534,000 web sites.

The story of Amish forgiveness was voted the top religion story of 2006 by the Religion Newswriters Association.

Of course the Amish have always been a source of fascination for Americans, presenting an imagined ideal of a simple, faith-infused, community-oriented rural life. The extraordinary story of their forgiveness of the killers — how some Amish went to comfort the killer’s family on the very evening of the crime, for example, and later attended his funeral — only serves to heighten the symbolic importance of the Amish and their strange ways.

But, as Clint Eastwood so ably showed in his recent movie, Flags of Our Fathers, putting others on a pedestal can have subtly corrosive effects. In the case of the men who were captured in the flag-raising photo of Iwo Jima, the constant public adulation of their heroism led them to feel like hypocrites. As the movie synopsis puts it, “The surviving flag raisers had no interest in being held up as symbols and did not consider themselves heroes.” Two of the men were “shattered” by the experience of being hailed as heroes, and they met an early death.

As the public turns its attention to Amish forgiveness, then, the question would be: Does the adulation of Amish forgiveness actually translate into more forgiveness in the broader society? Or do we simply love to love the Amish? As Daniel Burke of Religion News Service reported, the Nickel Mines tragedy was the “Amish 9/11.” Such a comparison begs the question: Has the public praise for Amish forgiveness led to a discussion about forgiveness of the 9/11 perpetrators?

Talking about forgiveness in relation to 9/11 is “still a pretty hard sell,” said Frederick Luskin, director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project, in response to a question from ReligionWriter. Indeed, Beliefnet writer Jason White wondered in 2004 if 9/11 made revenge as “spiritually acceptable” as forgiveness once was.

There have been spots of forgiveness in the dialogue on 9/11. Cheryl McGuinness, an evangelical Christian and wife of an American Airlines co-pilot who died in the Twin Towers crash, has spoke publicly about her own journey to forgive the 19 hijackers. South African Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu has also called directly on Americans to forgive the 9/11 perpetrators.

And some American faith leaders have spoken quietly or indirectly about the importance of forgiveness as a way to move forward, but the more common sentiment is expressed by Maggie Dyet, whose brother-in-law died on American Airlines Flight 11. In a 2007 Arizona Daily Star article, she was quoted as saying: “Mass murder with pure evil, I don’t think forgiveness is possible or even expected.”

As journalists cover the anniversary of the Nickel Mines shooting tomorrow, then, asking some hard questions about 9/11 may help prevent “Amish forgiveness” from becoming just another feel-good story.

Related elsewhere:

ReligionLink Source guide on Love and Forgiveness 

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2 Comments so far

  1. Jennifer on October 4, 2007 5:27 pm

    When we refuse to forgive someone, the only one it hurts is ourselves, and possibly our loved ones. Forgiveness isn’t for the guilty party, it’s for yourself. Forgive those who have trespassed against you so the Father can forgive you of your trespasses.

  2. Bunner on October 5, 2007 1:23 pm

    True healing comes only through forgiveness. I know all this and it is logical but the real test comes in finding HOW to do that. With such raw wounds, prayer, faith and patience are key in the process. One cannot imagine the pain and suffering these people have been through but at least they are trying to heal the best way that they know how…through forgiveness.

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