On the morning of October 2, 2006, Charles Roberts backed up his truck to the front door of the West Nickel Mines School, a one-room Amish schoolhouse in Bart Township, Pennsylvania. He entered once and spoke to the teacher, went out, and came immediately back in carrying a 9mm handgun. Roberts proceeded to take hostages: 10 girls - ranging in ages from six to thirteen. Over the next 45 minutes, law enforcement arrived but the situation worsened. Two of the older girls, realizing their almost inevitable fate, requested to be shot first that the others might be spared. However, at approximately 11:07 that morning, Roberts opened fire on his victims - killing five and severely wounding the others – before finally taking his own life.
As horrific and unimaginable as the malicious act of violence was, the shooting wasn't really the thing that shocked the nation. We see so many shootings on the nightly news that we've almost become calloused to them. What made headlines on every television station and newspaper stand for weeks was the almost immediate response of the Amish community…the response of forgiveness.
The same day of the shooting occurred, a grandfather of one of the girls who was killed spoke to those in his family saying, “We must not think evil of this man. He had a mother, a wife, and a soul.” Mere hours after the tragedy, members of the Amish community sought out Robert’s widow and parents to express their forgiveness and provide comfort. It’s reported that one of the men in the community held Robert’s sobbing father in his arms on the floor for an hour. 30 members of the Amish community attended Robert’s funeral, bringing gifts and condolences.
The public response to the swift and compassionate acts of forgiveness was widespread, and often critical. One writer for the National Review condemned the stance of forgiveness by the Amish people, saying, “In this case, anger is more righteous than forgiveness.” Another writer claimed that the community failed to honor the dead by such a quick extensions of mercy. “Forgiveness,” he wrote, “is not always divine. Sometimes justice is.”
That statement might illustrate an underlying belief in our society: in the presence of forgiveness there is an absence of justice. Or, in other words, people tend to believe that in the face of real pain or wrongdoing – the kind of gut-wrenching and heart breaking offense that leaves the hair on the back of your neck on end – that the only good, right, sensible, or even just response is one of anger, bitterness, and hatred. Forgiveness shouldn't even be part of the equation, but rather a response of repaying pain for pain, hurt for hurt, scar for scar, eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.
When we go to the movies, we all like to see the sinister bad guy fall to his death. We really like it if there is some sort of ironic twist where the individual gets paid back for all the wrong they committed. We certainly don’t want to see the villain receive forgiveness, mercy, or compassion before the credits roll. It just wouldn't make sense to us, because that's not the way the world is supposed to work!
But it is the way God works. It’s God’s justice, which honestly operates on a completely different level than our own. Our idea of justice seems to revolve on repaying evil for evil, wrong for wrong. It focuses on whatever pain you’ve caused in someone’s life, and sees that the same be done to you. Yet, the kind of justice that we see floating around Christ throughout the gospels in the things that He said and the way that He lived was a just that sought to respond to personal offense and wrong doing with forgiveness, compassion and mercy. Jesus seemed to emphasize responding to unbelievable pain with unexplainable love (see Matthew 5:38-48).
The world says to hate, be angry, and harbor bitterness against those who hurt us. God says to forgive. Why? Simply on the basis that God has forgiven us. Because God continues to forgive us every single day. Because God chose to use forgiveness to completely change the course of human history through the cross. That God, seeing our failures, mistakes, and disobedience, chose not to throw those things back on us, but rather took them on Himself and sacrificed Himself that we might receive forgiveness.
If we don't think that reality justifies our need to forgive other, we might need to reread Matthew 18:21-35, especially the warm-fuzzy tagline that Jesus throws onto the end: "And so my Father will do the same thing to you if you do not forgive your brother and sister from your heart." We need to begin to wrap our minds around the truth that, while God's love toward us is unconditional, God's forgiveness towards us is not. Our forgiveness is conditioned upon our willingness to forgive others (look it up in Matthew 6:14-15). We are called to forgive as freely and as completely as our heavenly Father has forgiven us.
For those who claim the name of Christ, forgiveness is not an option. Forgiveness is a requirement. It is essential and necessary - like the air in the lungs and blood in our veins. And like so many other things that Jesus calls us to, our ability and willingness to forgive is what makes us different than the rest of the world around us. While the rest of the world chooses to respond to hurt, pain, and offense with anger, bitterness, and revenge, we choose to respond with love, compassion, and forgiveness. That's what will make the world stand up and take notice.
And that's what makes us sons and daughters of God (Matthew 5:45)