As the first anniversary of the West Nickel Mines Amish School killings approaches, we're again reminded of the outstanding forgiveness of the Amish community. This example is particularly relevant today where there's a need to forgive Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 students and faculty members, as well as himself, at Virginia Tech in April earlier this year.
The Amish people say explicitly that it is God who gave them the power to forgive the man who killed and wounded their children. Right now, this same divine power is available to each one of us to forgive and be forgiven.
The prayer Jesus taught his followers, the Lord's Prayer, includes a petition to God for forgiveness. It's recorded in the Gospel of Matthew this way: "And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors," and Jesus goes on to say, "If ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you" (6:12, 14).
The words "debts" and "trespasses" are used interchangeably. To me this says both sins of omission – debts – and sins of commission – trespasses – can be and need to be forgiven.
These verses also say that being forgiven and forgiving others are inextricably bound. We must forgive others – all others – if we would be forgiven. To me that means we can't carry a chip on our shoulder even when we've been badly wronged, and we can't indulge in retaliation, either.
Mary Baker Eddy, who founded Christian Science, was often maligned unfairly, publicly and in the press. One reason she founded this newspaper was to set a standard against what was then called "yellow journalism." Prior to founding the Monitor, she had faced all kinds of hateful accusations and threats against her life, but she was still able to write, "I say it with joy, – no person can commit an offense against me that I cannot forgive" ("Message to The Mother Church for 1902," p. 19).
She went on to say that meekness is our armor. To me this means that meekness dispels even righteous indignation over an offense. With our armor of meekness on, we may find that in situations that call for forgiveness of others, there is also a need to forgive ourselves for real or imagined mistakes.
So often the first lament when a tragedy happens is that somehow it could have been prevented. And sometimes we feel personally, "I could have done something to have prevented this." Maybe we could have, but that isn't always the case. So it's important to practice self-forgiveness in the face of every tragedy. Right here is God's forgiving power. While it can be helpful in any situation to look at what we might have done better, it's essential that through God's help we forgive ourselves.
As we intermingle in society, situations occur that make us seek God's forgiveness. While it is God who forgives sins, this doesn't mean that the Supreme Being knows us as sinners. To understand that God is "of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity" (Hab. 1:13), is to realize that as His likeness we also are pure and free of evil inclinations. Feeling this purity enables us to reject evil we may have done and makes it easier to ask for forgiveness.
Genuine forgiving includes forgetting, so there will be no evidence of either the debt or transgression remaining. There is an old saying that forgiving heals wounds and forgetting heals their scars.
While there remains a need to forgive the killer and those who might have prevented the killing at Virginia Tech and others involved in senseless killings, we can look forward to the day when those wounded, physically and mentally, will be freed from the haunting scars that would deface their being.
God's forgiving power is available to all, and we can trust this power to give us the grace to reform and to ask for forgiveness when we have done wrong. And the same Love will empower us, with genuine kindness, to forgive others who have injured us.