Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Amish Scandal


Forgiveness is maybe what Christians should do every day, but it’s not what Christians do do every day.
Donald Kraybill, on the 5th Anniversary of the Nickel Mines Tragedy

As we approach the 5th Anniversary of the Nickel Mines School Tragedy this weekend, I highly recommend Sheldon Good's report on the unique nature of the Amish community's unflinching forgiveness in the immediate aftermath of murder of their children. Coming just weeks after the 10th anniversary of 9/11 it is haunting and illuminating to juxtapose the Amish response with that of mainstream American Christians to the thousands murdered on that day. The Amish not only forgave the murderer, but attended his funeral and raised funds to care for his widowed wife and orphaned children.

But, surely, there is danger in this kind of automatic response to unthinkable evil. Aren't the Amish flirting with a harmful repression of their anger? Isn't there an appropriate process of grief--one that includes anger and denial? Are the Amish just robots, casting off emotion that is appropriate when the lives of our children are ripped from this world?

Danger indeed. But the Amish (and other Anabaptist communities like Mennonites and Brethren) have consistently placed an obedient practice over fleeting emotion for 5 centuries. I suppose that the most healthy people do both. They place a priority on forgiveness and take their own personal inventory. They identify feelings of rage and hate and voice them in community. They go through their own process of grief while pledging allegiance to reconcilation and empathy.

Indeed, sociologist Donald Kraybill points to 5 distinctives that highlight the Amish Christian witness:

1. Deeds and words
2. Pain, not anger
3. Reconciliation, not revenge
4. Rooted in Christian duty
5. Shaped by faith community

John Howard Yoder has previously identified 3 "scandal factors" that are unique to Christian witness: forgiveness (not revenge), service (not domination) and enemy love (not ethnocentricity). This forms a communal and personal litmus test of what it actually means to be Christian. Most mainstream Christians have adopted simplistic phrases like "not perfect just forgiven" and, quite frankly, find Kraybill and Yoder's distinctives to be scandalous. They believe Christianity to be a belief system dedicated to a renewed heart and appeased guilt so that they can enter the gates of heaven when they die. A lifestyle committed to living out the scandal factors consistently and creatively is almost always construed by mainstream American Christians as "works righteousness" or "working your way to heaven"--depsite Jesus' clear call for all his disciples (then and now) to live his message so radically that it might lead to a nonviolent-but-deadly confrontation with social and political authorities (then and now).

The Anabaptists are often schlepped aside as social misfits by Respectable American Christians who claim their minority viewpoints are too radical to be practically implemented into American society. Most conversations about their pacifism, simple living and downward mobility bring up comical scenarios about what happens to spouses and children when rapists and murderers trample over the Anabaptist's irresponsible refusal to use weapons. But while the Amish forgive unconditionally (as they always have), mainstream American Christianity's approval of war and torture in the name of "Homeland Security" been both disastrous for Christian witness and a built-in recruiting device for al Qaeda murderers.

The Amish response to the killing of 5 of their children on October 2, 2006 was a crystal clear and refreshing glimpse into just how long and high and wide is the love of Christ. Although, for the Amish, it was a humble and dutiful gesture, it was and is irrefutably heroic in the perspective of everyone both inside and outside the Body of Christ. We pray that this weekend's reminder of their witness ripples out of Pennsylvania and infects the rest of us.

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