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Tuesday, October 10, 2006


Another Face of Religion

"Grace in grief"

Regular viewers of the Newshour on PBS are familiar with essayist Anne Taylor Fleming. Her commentaries -- whether about social mores or the problems of aging -- reflect awareness and compassion. On October 6th she spoke about the murder of Amish school girls. Among the thousands of words printed about the subject, nothing comes close to illustrate the goodness and strength of the Amish community. It gives us hope.

We have spent our week as heartbroken voyeurs of a way of life foreign to almost all of us, the simple life of the Amish: no cars, no cell phones, no electricity. A life so unfathomably simple to so many of us, quaint, kids in hats, women in bonnets, horse-drawn buggies.

But what is most unfathomable of all is something that became apparent this week as the Amish community struggled with the ghastly schoolhouse murder of five young girls by a deranged, distraught father who then took his own life.

The modern media world descended en masse into this rural enclave, as if dropped back through time, poking and prodding the grief of the families and the community as a whole. And what they found and what we heard from that community was not revenge or anger, but a gentle, heart-stricken insistence on forgiveness; forgiveness, that is, of the shooter himself. The widow of the shooter was actually invited to one of the funerals, and it was said she would be welcome to stay in the community.

The tender face of religion

In a world gone mad with revenge killings and sectarian violence, chunks of the globe, self-immolating with hatred, this was something to behold, this insistence on forgiveness. It was so strange, so elemental, so otherworldly.

This, the Amish said, showing us the tender face of religion at a time and in a world where we are so often seeing the rageful face. This was Jesus' way, and they had Jesus in them, not for a day, an hour, not just in good times, but even in the very worst.

The freedom contained in Jesus' teaching of forgiveness, wrote the German philosopher Hannah Arendt, is the freedom from vengeance, which includes both doer and sufferer in the relentless automatism of the action process, which by itself need never come to an end.

We have seldom seen this in action. So many tribes and sects in a froth of revenge, from Darfur to Baghdad. And, here in this country, so many victims and victims' families crying out in our courthouses for revenge.

To this, the Amish have offered a stunning example of the freedom that comes with forgiveness, a reminder that religion need not turn lethal or combative. I, for one, as this week ends, stand in awe of their almost-unfathomable grace in grief.

I'm Anne Taylor Fleming.


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