Directly after the terrible 2006 Amish school shooting, many of the Nickel Mines Amish extended their forgiveness to the shooter’s family. That the Amish could do this in such trauma is fascinating and humbling. To forgive in such circumstances is, perhaps appropriately, a controversial moral act.
I’m reading Amish Grace, a scholarly examination of how and why the Amish responded the way they did. According to the book, most of the opinion pieces and editorials from the “non-Amish” — i.e., the mainstream — then approved highly of the community’s response. Some were more critical. This piece in the Boston Globe by Jeff Jacoby, “Undeserved Forgiveness,” written the following Sunday after the shooting, is a widely-cited example:
To voluntarily forgive those who have hurt you is beautiful and praiseworthy. That is what Jesus did on the cross, what Christians do when they say the Lord’s Prayer, what observant Jews do when they recite the bedtime Kriat Sh’ma. But to forgive those who have hurt — who have murdered — someone else? I cannot see how the world is made a better place by assuring someone who would do terrible things to others that he will be readily forgiven afterward, even if he shows no remorse.
Jacoby — whether or not you agree with him — brings up a good point: forgiving as an act is itself morally praiseworthy and blameworthy, depending on the context. Forgiving everyone of every wrong at once is more the role of Professor Pangloss in Candide. I think most Americans would actually find such forthright forgiveness unmerited and perhaps blameworthy in their own community. I think it is a cultural difference, perhaps even an ethic of capitalism that is absent with the Amish: debts — emotional, monetary or other — are not forgiven easily.
So did the Amish err? The shooter was dead, as were his victims. Forgiving him is accepting that which is clearly unchangeable: it is coming to terms with a horrible tragedy. The Amish were not, as some editorials suggested, acting as emotionless robots, merely repeating the teachings of Jesus without an understanding of them.
But something still troubles me: were the Amish too quick to forgive? How could they have come to terms with such an evil act so soon? Was it true forgiveness they offered? The temporality of forgiveness seems important, that one should have some distance from such an emotional ordeal.
How might a utilitarian think about forgiveness? Jacoby wrote, “I cannot see how the world is made a better place by assuring someone who would do terrible things to others that he will be readily forgiven afterward, even if he shows no remorse.” I’m inclined to agree with him, although I don’t see anger as a good alternative. I’m not so sure forgiveness should make the world a better place; it seems less a social virtue than a personal one.
Forgiveness seems most useful in emotionally accepting new conditions and moving forward, in calibrating oneself to a “new normal” (a phrase used by grief counselors meeting with the Amish after the shooting). As backward a people we may think of the Amish, they are able to move forward quickly in a tragedy such as this: they do not dwell in the past to fuel hatred or a desire for vengeance. But they did not forget, either. To forgive is not to forget; it is a way of moving past life’s traumatic peripeteia while still embracing them.