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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Today is the anniversary of a tragedy--the despicable murder of children at an Amish school near Nickel Mine, PA. As I stated in the aftermath of that terrible day, it is a stark reminder of the devaluation of young women's lives in our culture. For all parents, all brothers and sisters, all aunts and uncles, all grandparents and godparents, it is a day to remember the gift of knowing and loving, and of being known and loved by a girl. As I reflect on that day, I am always brought to tears. God's gift of two girls and a boy to the marriage of Everly and Mike is wealth immeasurable.
In an NPR story yesterday, I was deeply moved to hear of the work being done among the grieving in southeastern Pennsylvania. Jonas Beiler, who lost his own daughter nineteen years ago in a tractor accident, emerged from that grief to become a family counselor among the Amish. The story paid close attention to his discussions of how families can work through their grief. The gospel shone brightly in his comments, such as these:
Tragedy changes you. You can't stay the same. Where that lands you don't always know. But what I found out in my own experience if you bring what little pieces you have left to God, he somehow helps you make good out of it. And I see that happening in this school shooting as well. One just simple thing that the whole world got to see was this simple message of forgiveness.
That work of God is a work of grace. When people become formed in virtue, they develop habits which guide them through their routine activities, but also guide them in their times of crisis. Habits of virtue regularly practiced become the structural elements of a community's identity. Thomas Aquinas says that this is true of human nature broadly, inherent in the design of humanity by a loving God. Yet he adds that when humanity unites itself to God in faithful relationship, the virtues become infused with grace to go beyond the mere morality of human striving. An article in yesterday's Philadelphia Inquirer examined this aspect of the Amish community of Nickel Mines.
The Amish famously avoid publicity, and they are even more protective of their privacy now. The school was closed yesterday and will remain closed today, and there will be no public ceremony or commemorative event. Privately, the Amish will observe the occasion by visiting each other's homes, talking, eating, praying, sharing memories of the departed children, and exchanging cards featuring poems of appreciation.

The way the Amish are handling the anniversary is of a piece with their behavior throughout. F. Scott Fitzgerald once defined style as "an unbroken series of perfect gestures." That could be said of the Amish response. But those gestures, undergirded by faith and moral resolve, surpassed mere style and became displays of grace. . . .

Hours after the shootings, several Amish, acting on their own, walked to the homes of the shooter's widow, parents and parents-in-law to express sympathy and offer forgiveness, by proxy, to the killer. One Amish man held Roberts' sobbing father in his arms, reportedly for as long as an hour, to comfort him. When Roberts was buried, about 30 members of the Amish community attended and mourned. When a local bank set up a fund for the Roberts children, the Amish contributed. The Nickel Mines Accountability Committee, which was organized to handle contributions to the community, gave some of its funds to Marie Roberts.

"Over the centuries, the Amish have learned that hostility destroys harmony and that if there are ill feelings among people, you have to confront them," says Herman Bontrager, an insurance executive who serves as spokesman for the accountability committee. "Forgiveness is a very important part of that. It's a decision that you're not going to let your life be controlled by vengeful thoughts, which are destructive for the self and for the community."
The article interviews the three authors of a new book about the events, aftermath, and community of Nickel Mines, Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy. All three are quoted in the following excerpt.
The Amish tradition of forgiveness is "in their cultural DNA," says Donald B. Kraybill, a coauthor of Amish Grace and a professor of Anabaptist and Pietist studies at Elizabethtown College.

"So much of Amish life is about submitting individual will to the will of the group and the will of God," says Steven M. Nolt, a coauthor of Amish Grace and a professor of history at Goshen (Ind.) College. "For them, there's a clear connection between that lifelong process of sacrificing and giving up and what one needs to do in the process of forgiveness - give up grudges and the right to revenge."

In dealing with sorrow, the Amish are helped by distinctive rituals of grieving. As they readily admit, however, they are not saints. They fail and they sin like the rest of us, and they do not want to be put on pedestals. Nor is practicing forgiveness easy.

"The Amish people struggle with this as well," says David L. Weaver-Zercher, another Amish Grace coauthor and a professor of American religious history at Messiah College in Grantham. "It's too simple to say the Amish forgive and other people don't, but in these kinds of awful situations, they have a habit they fall back on, and that's the habit of seeking to move beyond grief, pain and anger by offering forgiveness."

While researching the book, Kraybill never heard any expression of vengeance toward the killer, he says. "None of the Amish said, 'I hope he rots in hell. I hope God punishes him.' When I asked about that, they said, 'God is the judge. The killer's eternal destiny is in God's hands.' One Amish man said to me: 'I wish for the killer in his eternal destiny the same as I wish for myself,' meaning that he hoped God would be merciful."

Some moved beyond forgiveness to what Kraybill calls "remarkable empathy." A father whose daughter was among the slain said to him, "Can you imagine how painful it must be to be the father of a killer like this? That would be 10 times more painful than what I went through."
I can spend endless pages and hours trying to describe virtues to students, but unless they can see it in me, in someone else, or hear or read of it in stories like this, the descriptions fall dead to the ground. Here is a story of forgiveness, of grace, of love, of caring. It challenges all of our everyday pettiness in relationships. It shames our pecking orders and our struggles against every imagined slight and insult. It offers us hope that people can love one another through the worst of times. Tell it over and over again so that we can imagine how to love one another.

1 comment:

Julian Couch said...

I read this again after reading it in St. Louis at the CCDA conference. I wrote a term paper for a class on Black Theology in Spring of 2006. In it I stated that racism was not dead and then set out ot prove such but outling the covert ways in which racism is experience in the black community. This peice on the DA in Jena just seems to add more credence to my argument. In that same vein the earlier article posted about the DUke Lacrosse case also can be viewed as covert racial language as well. To say that the case is a precedent for the worse misuse of prosecutorial conduct is, in my opinion, a negation of the injustice in cases such as the Jena 6 case and others throughout history. The sad reality of the Duke Lacrosse case is the forgotteness of the incident of name calling using the "n" word before allegations of rape were lodged. Perhaps the DA and the police were overzealous in their investigation, but I really do believe that something happened and hope what is done in the dark does eventually come to the light.

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