Shortly after 9/11, an event was sponsored in New York for the benefit of the police officers and fire fighters who had sacrificed so much during that tragedy. I think it was a concert/tribute-type thing, but my memories are now vague. What I remember clearly, however, is that Richard Gere was a celebrity participant, and when he spoke, he suggested that it would be worthwhile to acknowledge that - even when confronted with such horror and grief - peaceful, nonviolent roads might still be walked. Gere was then almost booed off the stage.
In the raw aftermath of 9/11, it was understood that justice and vengeance were the most natural response to an attack on our nation's soil. But it did make my heart sink a bit when I heard peace being booed. Maybe, I thought, one might sit stone silent and make a mental note to never elect Gere to high office, or remark to the guy in the next seat that Gere is better off preaching to the choir in Tibet. But booing peace? I wondered if that were a stunning insight into our national soul, and would we as a people ever opt to, as the John Lennon song goes, give peace a chance?
That, however, is exactly what the Amish in Pennsylvania are doing, having only recently experienced what they call their own 9/11. This community, which doesn't deal with electricity or zippers, immediately and unequivocally chose the path of forgiveness after their daughters were executed in cold blood. Amish families, for example, attended the funeral of the gunman, Charles Roberts. The family of 13-year-old Marian Fisher - who had asked to be shot first, hoping the younger girls might be spared - invited Roberts' widow to the girl's funeral, to encourage healing. Receiving non-Amish neighbors at the viewing of his daughter's body, another Amish father asked if any of them knew the Roberts family, and said, "If you see them, please tell them that they are in our prayers." As donations poured in from around the country to help the families with their medical expenses, the Amish requested that a fund for the Roberts family be created as well.
To be sure, forgiveness as exemplified by the Amish may be more realistically achieved because the scale of violence is small in comparison to something like 9/11. But South Africa tried. In the late 1990s, it created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to tackle the legacy of apartheid. The commission, chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, provided amnesty for some perpetrators of the nation's government-sponsored human rights abuses in exchange for their honest testimony. The idea was that if black and white communities addressed their brutal, shared history in public, airing and accept what actually occurred, together they might build a free and democratic South Africa. Reconciliation was thus favored over retaliation as a building block for the future.
The Pennsylvania Amish are Americans rigidly entrenched in outdated modes of dress and transportation, but ironically, at this critical moment in our country's history, they may have provided a glimpse into our future - a hope for an alternative response to dark times, a hint of how to survive in an extremely violent world. It isn't the easiest path a person, a community or a nation can follow, but is it effective? I wonder, and I do hope.