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Andrea Useem, creator and publisher of ReligionWriter.com, is a freelance journalist and editor based in Northern Virginia who specializes in writing about religion. Andrea holds a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, as well as a Bachelors degree in religion from Dartmouth College. Previously, Andrea worked as a freelance journalist in Eastern Africa for four years; she has also lived in Muscat, Oman. She is married and has three sons.

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The Power of Someone Else’s Forgiveness: Nickel Mines and 9/11

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 

There Are 6 Responses So Far. »

  1. 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. 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.

  3. We love to love the forgiveness of the Amish because we are too afraid to try it for ourselves, yet we sense that that it represents the greater good. We admire them for it, still working on developing the faith to try it for ourselves.

    As I analyse my efforts to forgive, I’d say that I use it in my heart, try to return to that spot periodically when I become aware of my need to do so, but fail to offer physical, real, demonstratable actions to back up the thought. The Amish have found a way to demonstrate their forgiveness through action. I wonder if that makes it possible to avoid the emotional flip-flopping that I experience.

  4. I have read the Koran. It is so sad that people will teach others to hate & kill innocent pepole just because they don’t believe their way. Joseph Smith went through that very thing. It is up to Jesus Christ to judge ALL persons, so I say, let that happen. He can do a perfect job at it, as we can not. So I do not judge my enemies, I just ask Father In Heaven to take care of them for me & He always does. That is the way I live my life, letting Father In Heaven do the judging. I am a convert to the TRUTH & am sure happy I have the TRUTH. I say all of this in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen. Thank you.

  5. When we think of miracles, most of us think of healings under the power of the priesthood. but there is another, even greater miracle- the miracle of forgiveness.

    The essence of the miracle of forgiveness is that it brings peace to the previously anxious, restless, frustrated, perhaps tormented soul. In a world of turmoil and contention this is indeed a priceless gift,
    (Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness, Pages 362 - 363)

  6. I am thankful for this reminder forgivness is not only possible and also expected. I had never thought of it before but it is necessary for all of us, not only those whose lives were lost in the murder on September 11, to forgive those who caused such devestation because they altered all of our lives. Mass murder is a terrible evil and we need to feel sorrow for those who have been the cause of such evil I can’t even imagine the judgement that will come upon them when they meet their Savior as they will some day.

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