Amish Grace--Kraybill, Nolt, and Weaver-Zeicher

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Let's dispense with the review--we would all do well if everyone would get this book, read it, and think about it. Even if some come to reject its propositions, it is worth facing them and thinking about them, particularly in Lenten time. The book is short, well-written, and a superb study and analysis of the Amish response to the Nickel Mine massacre that resulted in the death of 5 Amish schoolgirls and the wounding of an additional five. On the contents of the book, I have little more to say than that it moved me and really got me to thinking. It is the result of that thought, meager though it may be that I want to spend a little time and space sharing.

The book is primarily about the primacy of forgiveness in Amish theology (if the word theology can be used for something as diffuse as the traditions and practices of the Amish--from the book, I get the feeling that the Amish themselves would repudiate any such high-flown name for the thought behind the practice). One of the first points that occurred to me is that we all would do well to put a little more literalism into our reading of the Bible. The authors point out that THE central prayer of the Amish faith is the "Our Father" in its traditional protestant form (forgive us our debts. . ., for thine is the Kingdom and the Power. . . ). And they regard as a clause of chief importance in this prayer, "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." As Catholics we pray this prayer everyday at Mass, and every morning and evening in the Liturgy of the Hours. And yet I don't know very many Catholics who realize that the prayer is also a contract of sorts. The contract is reinforced by the verses that come immediately after it in the Gospel of St. Matthew.

Matthew 6:14-15

For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

The two verses that follow immediately upon the prayer emphasize one aspect of this all-encompassing prayer. When we pray, "Forgive us our debts (trespasses) as we forgive our debtors (those who trespass against us)," we are uttering the words of a contract, the essential word of which is "as." In the measure that we are willing to forgive, so we shall be forgiven. In some sense our forgiveness is contingent upon our willingness to forgive others.

For most people most of the time forgiveness doesn't seem to be much of a problem. Often it is easier to forgive trespasses against ourselves that it is to forgive trespasses against our loved ones. Put yourself in the place of the Amish parents in Nickel Mines. Would you have been able to forgive the perpetrator after only two days? Would you have been able to welcome his family into your house "forgive" them (read the book to understand this concept) and continue to do business with them? Would you have set aside part of the money flowing into the community to help rebuild your lives for the widow and children of the person who killed your child?

One of the points here is that no individual Amish person was called upon to do this. The forgiveness tendered was tendered from the entire community and as such was part of the mutual aid that the Amish offer each other and their neighbors in times of distress and disaster. The Amish community was able to forgive and thus the individual members of this community were able to express this forgiveness substantively. They were able to forgive because they understood that forgiveness is imperative and our own forgiveness is, in some mysterious way, contingent upon the forgiveness we are willing to offer.

The book also touched upon the difference between forgiveness, pardon, and reconciliation. And these differences are critically important--because the Amish could neither pardon nor have reconciliation with the culprit. They opted instead for reconciliation with the family. If this does not seem remarkable, I point to the long history the human race has of blood feuds and other "blood debts."

I have nothing profound to say about this matter. It is all said, very clearly, in the Scriptures. There are those who argue that the only one who can forgive an offense is the one who has been offended--in this case the girls who were killed. And yet, there is a sense in which forgiveness is communal, particularly when the community self-identifies as community.

The Amish are not one of the "once saved always saved" group of Christians. Rather, they seem to see their own forgiveness as contingent upon the forgiveness they offer. This makes them willing to try. One of the points of the book is that forgiveness is not easy--in fact, at times, "it takes a village." The forgiveness in the Nickel Mines community came because the community was committed to forgiving the offense, but that did not mean that it was easy for any inidividual or family. Over and over again, they pointed out that they had to forgive and forgive and forgive and forgive. This seems to be part of the meaning Jesus spoke when He said we must forgive our enemies seventy times seven times. In difficult situations, you forgive and still the bitterness and the desire for restitution arises. You forgive again, and still the human part of you hurts and desires some surcease from the pain--surcease we bring ourselves to believe that comes from revenge.

Forgiveness and community--community and forgiveness. There is so much depth here and so many parallels to our own faith and life. When you read about the Amish, you realize that their voluntary adult baptism and oath to the community very much parallels the entry into orders of our own religious. It is not for nothing that the Amish are the "Old Order." The promises made to renounce self and to serve God and others first are very reminiscent of the aspirations each of us would like to live.

So, these are some of the thoughts spawned by the book. It makes for good Lenten reading--thought-provoking, to some probably aggravating--but very much worthwhile and very much reinforcing what a real community is--both for good and for ill.

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Let's encourage people to take up & try the discipline of the Liturgy of the Hours at least for Lent



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on February 12, 2008 8:05 AM.

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