In October 2006, a mentally unbalanced man attached an Amish school in Pennsylvania, killing six girls and wounding another 5 after a brief standoff with law enforcement officials. It devastated the local Amish community, however they quickly forgave the killer and reached out to his family. One said: “If we don’t forgive him, then God won’t forgive us.” They also said their willingness to forego vengeance didn’t undo the tragedy or pardon the wrong, but was a first step toward a more hopeful future. Time has gone by, and this act is still rather amazing, particularly in a culture that teaches if someone hurts you, you have the right to hurt them back, and you shun everyone associated with causing the pain, forever is necessary.
There were folks at the time who said this was a sign the Amish weren’t civilized, didn’t understand what life is really like. Leaving aside the rest of their lifestyle and beliefs, I think this is one time they got it completely right. It wasn’t an exercise in forgiving and forgetting. They had to tear the school down and build a new one nearby. I’m sure they miss the children and teacher who died, remember them fondly and hope to see them again in Heaven, wish the day had never happened. That’s only human. But they knew they couldn’t live the rest of their lives in Anger. We could learn that.
Every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we say these lines: “Forgives us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” It is the quote that should scare us more than the entire book of Revelation: our forgiveness is directly related to our ability to forgive. Do we really understand we’re asking God to be only as merciful as we are? This is something I struggle with, it scares the heck out of me, and many of you may struggle with as well.
It’s been said Anger can motivate us to work for Justice, to get things right. It’s also playing with fire, because Anger can lead us to lose control, see people as objects to be destroyed rather than hearts to be converted. Anger keeps us up at night, takes our minds off what we’re supposed to be doing, clouds our vision, turns Truth into Propaganda. Justice requires a calm head and an open heart, a readiness to lay aside pain and put the past behind us once things have been set right. Sometimes all we can do in the name of Justice is set aside pain and go forward in a new way.
As we come to the end of Lent, as we continue to examine our consciences, we should keep in mind how we are able to forgive others, and what that forgiveness means to us. It’s not about whitewashing truth, denying wrong, or letting injustice pass unchallenged, but it is about our ability to let go of our pain from the past, and our ability to accept the Mercy from God all of us desperately need.
Jesus reconciles us with God through his Passion, Death and Resurrection. He didn’t act out of a need to get even for the pain given Him, or hold onto injustices of the past. He never asserted the right to Vengeance before his Passion or after his Resurrection. He chose to suffer physical pain and insult, chose to feel despair, but never chose to bear a victim’s Anger. On the Cross, He forgave those who crucified Him.
I know some of you look at the Last Judgement as punishment for Wrong, for getting even, but I think that’s better considered as Justice, setting things Right, rather than retribution for retribution’s sake. Christ knows why we do what we do better than we know ourselves. Even if we accept the Last Judgement as punishment, it’s God who hands it out, not anyone else.
“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Christ’s journey of Holy Week shows how our trespasses are forgiven. If we reflect deeply on this story, we may also find it teaches us how to forgive as well.