Thursday, October 05, 2006

Prepared Hearts

I've been trying to wrap my mind around the lead in a NY Times article on the recent tragedy in the Amish community. Here it is:

The Amish whose children were executed by a milk deliveryman in their rural Pennsylvania schoolhouse had, until Monday, lived in a world where they were largely insulated from violence and singularly unprepared to respond to it.

But their strong faith and community ties may prepare them unusually well to cope with it, experts on the Amish say.

Here's what I'm grappling with. It's true that within such a close-knit, rural community, a community that has chosen to not "keep step with" the times, violence of this sudden and ravaging nature is thankfully rare. I think it probably makes sense to say that the community is "largely insulated" from violence. But "singularly unprepared" to respond to it?

Um, no. With all due respect, that's just what this community was not. They were neither singular nor unprepared. In fact, you might say that in their forgiving, loving and communal response, what they're modeling for all the rest of us is how we can be "corporately prepared" to respond to violence. And I actually think that the rest of the Times article mostly gets that, as you can see from the sentence that follows immediately after the "singularly unprepared" line.

Maybe what's confusing to the secular world is that such a quiet response, a communal coming together to weep and hold one another, to take food to one another's homes (and to the home of the widow and children of the shooter), to quietly but actively forgive, doesn't look like a "response" as we're conditioned to understand response. (I think we tend to confuse "response" with "react.") Note that "act" is a big part of the word "react." We don't always understand what can look like passivity (but note that "passivity" and "passion" are connected words too).

But I think this community is acting. Not hastily, not out of the heat of the moment, but slowly and groundedly out of a deep rooted understanding of life and God. They are living out their response to horrifying tragedy based on hearts that are prepared: prepared to yield, to trust, to mourn, to forgive.

It's amazing to see the marvelling going on as people try to grasp how someone could be willing and able to forgive in a circumstance like this. One Amish woman explained simply that she could not do it if she didn't have Christ in her heart. I'm glad people are marvelling, because what we're witnessing is the supernatural action of the Holy Spirit on hearts that are willing and yielded, and that is indeed a beautiful thing. And perhaps more rare than it should be in our world.

There's also something that seems fundamentally sound, sane and healthy about the fact that these people really are mourning. The mothers who lost children in this attack will wear black for a year, according to one story I read. That may seem old-fashioned and odd to those of us who are slaves more to fashion sense than to heart sense, but one has to wonder if that outward, visible sign of what's going on inside will not be a real help to those grieving mothers. Among other things, it makes their lives signs for the whole community, reminding them of the fragility of life and the necessity to grieve. I know we don't know even a fraction of the story of the man who killed these children, but from all accounts at least one small part of his spiritual and emotional breakdown came about because he once lost a child himself. One wonders if he was ever able to properly grieve the loss of that little one. One wonders if he had ever been taught to grieve. So many of us are just taught to stuff it down, or to acknowledge it only fleetingly or with some embarrassment or guilt if we go on too long without "getting on" with life.

There is a time to weep and mourn, as Eccelesiastes reminds us. And yes, time for comfort and laughter too. I would imagine the Amish community will be more ready to comfort and to find joy in the weeks and months ahead because of their ability to grieve and forgive today.


Erin said...

Very nice reflection. It seems the modern world has mixed feelings regarding the Amish - on the one hand, people are fascinated and love to drive through Amish country and observe their way of life, and on the other hand there's a sense of, "How can anyone live like that? They must be nuts!" I think there is a wisdom and beauty to the Amish community that could stand to rub off on the rest of us... And as you say, while violence is not something they have to face very often, they seem well equipped to deal with the difficult days ahead.

Beth said...

Good observation, Erin...I think that's one reason the coverage of this terrible event has seemed a little uneven. You're right, people admire the Amish but at the same time, think they're a little bit crazy.

Odd, isn't it, when the way they've chosen to live seems so much more sane than the way of life that many others have chosen!

Beth said...

Oh -- one more note. :)

I probably should have mentioned somewhere in this posting (but don't know if I'll go in and edit) but I think the gist of the "unprepared" comment had to do with how "cut-off" they were from technology. No metal detectors, no cell phones to call for help, etc.

I suppose in that way, one can say they were "unprepared." But then it's sobering and kind of sickening to realize that we have to spend so much time and effort in this contemporary, crazy world, "preparing" for this kind of violent emergency. I still think I'd rather have my daughter in a one-room schoolhouse with a teacher raised in the community than in a huge, overcrowded school full of metal detectors.