Lessons from an Amish Schoolhouse

On the wooden floor of a one-room schoolhouse, beneath the blood-stained bonnets of the five dead Amish girls killed this week in Pennsylvania, is the open lesson-book of a closed society.

We force them to meet our violence and fear, and they dutifully give us their love and forgiveness. How can they do that? How many out here, on the “English” side, would respond to such a horrid act without a call for retribution? If Charles Roberts, IV had not taken his own life, it is certain that ordinary Americans would have called for his head to be spiked on the fixed scales of stone Justice.

The Amish community’s swift forgiveness is a lesson in commitment. The Baghavad Gita says that your nature compels you to engage in the challenges of life, even when you don’t want to. For the Amish, putting faith ahead of a desire to do violence is their nature. The great Mahatma Gandhi forgave his assassin because that was his nature. It is past time for us to look at our own natures and see where our commitment lies.

The Jewish community I come from is at once part of society and yet separated from it by millennia of active tradition. The more integrated we become into secular society, the more difficult it becomes to make choices based on faith alone. Indeed, it is the more traditional communities of my people for whom such choices are easiest. They are just following moral precedent and the Torah.

It is a similar community sense of faith that moved the Amish affected by Monday’s tragic events to follow their moral guidance to the doorstep of the family of their children’s killer.

But a sense of commitment need not always be tied to the ways of a religious community. The ACLU, for example, is a civilian agency zealously committed to the enforcement of the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Many of those who want to continue fighting in Iraq are religiously committed to a belief that by doing so, we are ridding the world of terrorists.

Similarly, candidates are committed to getting elected. If not, just like a rabbi eating a ham sandwich, they are probably in the wrong line of business. So our candidates say things to get us to commit to them. They do things to convince us they are part of our community, like showing up at a Greek festival when they’re Irish, or awkwardly donning a yarmulke at an Israel Independence Day celebration. In doing so, they hope to make us feel as if we are a part of their group, that our survival and the survival of what we believe somehow depend on them winning. They call it reaching out, but it is known more cynically as “pandering”.

Mark Taylor, the Democratic candidate for governor of Georgia facing the Republican incumbent, reached way out to the conservative, blood-thirsty community of the Georgia right a couple of weeks ago in just such a gesture of pseudo-solidarity. He has called for the death penalty for repeat sex offenders. Well, I don’t care how much Georgia needs more Democrats in office. The death penalty is something I don’t believe in even in the way it is currently applied. I’m actually very pissed off that the state’s leading Democrat would go so far out there on this one. It may be just politics, but my commitment is to not have my government kill people in the name of justice, even heinous criminals. That’s why I cannot possibly vote for Taylor now. My conscience won’t allow it. My nature compels me to buck my commitment to Democrats getting back the Governor’s Mansion because of this issue. I won’t vote for the incumbent either. Hopefully there’s a better candidate out there.

Admittedly, my attitude is usually laissez-faire when it comes to the ways people choose to behave. As long as no one is being hurt, I’m usually ok with it. Beyond that, I assume people are guided by their commitment to their personal philosophy and their god.

The Amish live for the grace of being able to forgive, a teaching that helps them emulate their Lord. Without the influence of a secular society in their schools and homes, they are more able to follow their commitment. It is easy to know which road to follow through dark times when it is the only one that is lit up for you. Yet that does not diminish the value of the lesson. Love the teaching even if you don’t love the teacher.

For that, the Amish community associated with these gruesome events get my first “Stand Up/Stand Down Award” for standing up to the expected reaction. By doing so, they got us all to examine our own reactions, so that the hate and the evil in the world may, for even a brief moment, stand down.

I invite you to take this lesson and explore your own commitments. Declare them. Indulge in them. But don’t ever, ever devalue or abandon them. The survival of your community, your society and maybe your world depends on it. So do you.


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