The Road to Forgiveness
The Witness of the Amish and John Paul II Show That Mercy Can Triumph Over Violence
The Amish are teaching us a powerful lesson of forgiveness today, and Pope John Paul II taught us a similar lesson after nearly losing his life in 1981.
What is the lesson exactly? And are we listening and learning?
Example of the Amish
On Oct. 2, our country reacted with horror as the peaceful and pastoral world of the Amish in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, was shattered. A milk-truck driver — carrying three guns and seething with anger and hatred — stormed a one-room schoolhouse in the town of Nickel Mines.
The gunman, Charles Carl Roberts IV, ordered the boys and adults to leave the school and barricaded the doors with 2x4s. As police closed in, he opened fire on a dozen girls and then committed suicide. Three of the girls died in the gunfire. Two more died later of their wounds. They ranged in age from six to 13.
In a suicide note and cell phone call to his wife, the 32-year-old Roberts made reference to being angry at God for the 1997 death of his infant daughter and said he was haunted by memories of molesting two young relatives some 20 years ago.
Yet, in the aftermath of this horrific tragedy, the Amish are teaching all of America how important mercy and forgiveness are in countering such violence in our society. In fact, nearly two weeks after the violence, Marie Roberts — the wife of the gunman — said that she was "overwhelmed by the forgiveness, grace, and mercy" shown to her family by the Amish following the murders on Oct. 2.
The Amish have said that they have forgiven her husband and have helped set up a fund for the Roberts family at a local bank. Marie Roberts has three children.
"Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need," Marie Roberts wrote in a letter addressed to Amish friends, neighbors, and the local community in Lancaster County, as reported by BBC News.
The prayerful support of the Amish was also in evidence when 75 of them attended the funeral of Charles Roberts in a nearby Methodist church.
The Amish even comforted the Roberts family shortly after the shooting, according to an Associated Press report. Dwight Lefever, a family spokesman, said an Amish neighbor comforted the family hours after the shooting and extended forgiveness to them.
"I hope they stay around here, and they'll have a lot of friends and a lot of support," said Daniel Esh of the Robertses. He is a 57-year-old Amish artist and woodworker whose three grandnephews were ordered out of the school during the attack.
Witness of Pope John Paul II
The example of the Amish is reminiscent of Pope John Paul II, whom the Marians of the Immaculate Conception affectionately remember as the "Great Mercy Pope."
Who can forget the inspiring witness he gave us all when he personally visited his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, in his prison cell on Dec. 23, 1983, and forgave him from the heart?
The press described it as an intensely personal meeting between the two men, with the two whispering into each other's ears, and Agca kissing the Holy Father's hand.
Here was a man who came very close to assassinating John Paul II on May 13, 1981. Yet John Paul II, as the Vicar of Christ, followed the example of the Merciful Savior who forgave His executioners when He prayed from the cross, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Lk 23:34).
Is it any wonder, then, that Pope John Paul II could state with great conviction on Divine Mercy Sunday 1995, "We must personally experience [God's] mercy if, in turn, we want to be capable of mercy. Let us learn to forgive! The spiral of violence, which stains with blood the path of so many individuals and nations, can only be broken by the miracle of forgiveness" (emphasis that of John Paul II).
But, again, are we listening and learning?
Principles for Countering Violence with Mercy
Most of us probably won't face the kind of dramatic, lethal situations that John Paul II and the Amish children encountered. Yet we can consciously foster a culture of peace and mercy — rather than one of violence — in our homes, neighborhoods, and workplaces. Here are three principles to help us get started.
(Disclaimer: These principles do not address the root causes of violence in our society, let alone in our schools. Rather, they are intended to provide some spiritual perspective and practical guidance. For good, thorough information on how to prevent violence in our schools, visit the University of Minnesota Extension Service and see their Web pages at "Preventing Violence in Our Schools".)
Principle #1: Do a check on yourself. Are your attitudes and behaviors helping to foster a culture of violence, or one of mercy and compassion?
"Not all violence is deadly," say the U.S Catholic Bishops. "It begins with anger, intolerance, impatience, unfair judgments, and aggression. It is often reflected in our language, our entertainment, our driving, our competitive behavior, and the way we treat our environment. These acts and attitudes are not the same as abusive behavior or physical attacks, but they create a climate where violence prospers and peace suffers" (Confronting a Culture of Violence, U.S. Bishops' Pastoral, Nov. 16, 1994).
Now I don't know about you, but I can certainly relate to being impatient and seeing it reflected in my driving. As I write this column, I've just finished an issue of the magazine that I edit. The deadlines have been tighter than usual, and I've noticed myself getting impatient with other drivers on the road. At times, I've even caught myself tailgating — especially when I've found myself stuck behind a tourist at the height of the fall foliage season here in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts.
My impatience and irritation could lead to an accident. Perhaps it could even spark an incident of road rage in another motorist. I need to slow down and keep a safe distance between my car and the one in front of me.
When I'm on deadline and working longer hours, it's also far too easy to go home and get upset if the house isn't neat or if dinner isn't ready. At such times, I'm also more likely to focus on selfishly meeting my own needs through resting or recreational reading — rather than making myself available to my wife and three teenaged children. I need to remind myself that I'm called to be a caring husband and a dad first, and an editor second.
For all of us, it really comes down to fostering a spirit of mercy and compassion toward others in all the concrete circumstances of our lives.
Principle #2: Do another check. Have you really forgiven from the heart everyone who has hurt you deeply? Have you forgiven yourself?
Many times people who fall into this category are close friends or family members. We trusted them, and they let us down. It might involve hurt caused by a parent not being there for you on an important occasion — such as your First Communion, Confirmation, or high school graduation. Or maybe it was as serious as verbal, physical, or even sexual abuse.
Whatever the case, unless you really forgive the person from the heart, the hurt is likely to fester, causing deep-seated resentment, anger, and even hatred. Charles Roberts was harboring deep hatred in his heart before he shot the Amish schoolgirls.
For one thing, it appears that he was haunted by the death in 1997 of his prematurely born daughter Elise, who died 20 minutes after being delivered. Elise's death "changed my life forever," he wrote to his wife in a suicide note. "I haven't been the same since it affected me in a way I never felt possible. I am filled with so much hate, hate toward myself, hate toward God, and unimaginable emptiness. It seems like every time we do something fun, I think about how Elise wasn't here to share it with us."
For another thing, during the standoff, Roberts told his wife in a cell phone call that he had molested two female relatives when they were 3 to 5 years old. Roberts would have been 11 or 12 at the time.
In light of all this, perhaps Roberts found forgiving himself the most difficult thing of all. This touches a very important point: You can only love your neighbor as you love yourself. To paraphrase: You can only forgive your neighbor as you forgive yourself. Saint Faustina wrote: "Then I heard these words: If it hadn't been for this small imperfection, you wouldn't have come to Me. Know that as often as you come to Me, humbling yourself and asking My forgiveness, I pour out a superabundance of graces on your soul, and your imperfection vanishes before My eyes, and I see only your love and your humility. You lose nothing but gain much ..." (Diary, 1293). So we see that forgiveness springs from a true knowledge of our own limits and weaknesses, which we claim as our own. It springs from the awareness of our tendency to err against self, others, and even God.
Let's pray for the soul of Charles Roberts and the soul of every human being who has died committing acts of wanton violence. Let's also remember all those, living or deceased, who hurt us deeply.
As we do, let's examine our own hearts in light of what the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us about "forgiving those who trespass against us": "It is impossible to keep the Lord's commandment by imitating the divine model from outside [of ourselves]; there has to be a vital participation, coming from the depths of the heart, in the holiness and the mercy and the love of our God. â€¦ It is there, in fact, 'in the depths of the heart,' that everything is bound and loosed. It is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offense; but the heart that offers itself to the Holy Spirit turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory in transforming the hurt into intercession" (2842-43, emphasis in Catechism).
Principle #3: Live an authentic human life and monitor your use of the media. If you have children who are minors, help them to live authentic human lives and monitor their use of the media.
How many hours a day do we spend on the computer or surfing on the Web? Do we monitor closely the violent content of the TV programs and movies that we watch? Have we become desensitized to violence because of exposure to the media? Do we spend more time talking on our cell or instant messaging colleagues and friends than we do talking directly to our own family members, our spouse and children?
Do we take time out for prayer and reflection every day? Do we also take time to enjoy the beauty of nature, the changing of the seasons? Do we worship the Lord at Mass every Sunday and really take a break from our routine — remembering it is the Lord's Day and a day of rest?
Asking ourselves these kinds of questions gets at the heart of what it means to live an authentic human life, where the emphasis is on staying in close personal touch with God, our family, and the beautiful world we inhabit. It means giving ourselves the space and the time for God and other human beings in authentic and lasting relationships.
My lifeline, in this regard, has been attending daily Mass, feeling free to turn off the car radio on the way home from work, and taking the time each weekday evening to eat dinner and pray with my family. As a family, we also spend Sundays together after attending Mass. Our three teens have given my wife and I grief about this decision. But we hold to our values so that they learn not only obedience, but the importance of family life.
Further, my wife and I made the difficult decision when our children were small not to get cable TV. So, instead of watching network or cable TV, we typically read together or watch a movie on video or DVD. Our kids have given us grief over this decision, too!
In closing, as you seek to live authentically and consider our Lord's command to forgive, please join me in this prayer, using the words of John Paul II: "May the spiral of hatred and violence in our land be broken by the miracle of forgiveness. May that miracle be realized in our own lives as we learn to forgive. Amen."
David Came is the Executive Editor of Marian Helper magazine, the flagship publication of the Association of Marian Helpers, which is headquartered in Stockbridge, Mass.