Violence and forgiveness in an Amish community

For weeks now, on my long runs up toward Bear Creek summit I have seen a great grey owl. In the very early morning and late into the evening, it…

For weeks now, on my long runs up toward Bear Creek summit I have seen a great grey owl.

In the very early morning and late into the evening, it hunts open country on both sides of the highway. It is unusual to see this bird so often.

Today I saw it for the last time.

Lying in a shallow ditch on the west side of the road, it appeared to have been hit by a vehicle.

The image we hold in our mind of these great birds is keen wide eyes, always searching, blinking, their round flat faces rotating as an evolutionary response to finding food and avoiding surprises.

The eyes on this owl were shut tight, little more than narrow slits hid deep in ringed facial disks; it’s face flat up against a weak morning sky.

I stared down at it as a large flat bed truck sped down from the summit.

Then, for just a moment, in a strong gust of wind, a single wing lifted and stretched out into the tall grass.

I hoped against reason the bird would take flight and sail out onto open country. But there was no life left here. The wind was doing what elevator and depressor muscles once did.

I sat down a few metres away and gazed at this insensible bird.

My mind insisted on inventing the sights and sounds of this great bird hitting the car, then the ground, tumbling against the grey morning light.

There, along the roadway, my mind conjured up a flood of images of senseless violence and death:

The horror of 9/11; innocent women and children caught in the idiocy of the Iraq war; Canadian soldiers dying in order to wipe clean the folly of Afghanistan; Afghanis dying for the same reason; school children gunned down by a tall boy in a dark green trench coat, T-shirt pulled tight over his young eyes, pure and jolly young girls molested then murdered on a still morning in Amish country.

All the violence in the world is here and now fixed to this lifeless bundle of grey and white flight feathers, to this great supple neck that will soon grow stiff.

How do we make sense out of all this violence splashing against our lives?

Some of it is unintentional, of course, accidental, neither significant nor noteworthy, just a fluke of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. That is what brought down this clever boreal hunter.

But other acts of violence are so orchestrated and vengeful they defy logic and compassion.

In a moment’s notice and without hesitation George W. Bush launched a pre-emptive and unilateral military campaign against the Iraqi people, his way of soothing the pain of 9/11.

His actions remind me of the villain in Kevin Costner’s film Waterworld. When cornered by an unknown enemy this man shouts to his followers, “Well kill something.”

And they do.

George Bush did and continues to do just that.

Stephen Harper is now chasing the same tainted red herring.

In the name of peace and as a preface to reconstructing a very old and multifarious culture, Canadians, he figures, must do the unforgivable – kill something.

And Charles Carl Roberts, in his rage against a difficult and seemingly irreconcilable past, thrust himself into a one-room Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, and killed something: six girls between the ages of six and 13.

The owl has always had a significant and varied role in our cultural history.

A bird associated with wisdom and helpfulness in early Greek mythology, it became the purveyor of darkness and evil by the Middle Ages.

Neither of those two notions comes to mind as I sit here next to this dead bird.  Rather I see her as an integrated part of our long and complex evolutionary history.

These magnificent birds have been with us for 30 to 50 million years.

They have changed little in all that time.

Our cultural response to violence has also changed very little.

Our ‘hair-trigger of emotional-discontent’ all too quickly has us eager to march off to war and kill something.

The Amish, however, have a much different view of things.

The families of all six slain children were immediate and universal in their response: Forgive the killer, bury their dead, begin the process of sympathetic grieving and quietly re-enter their community of friends.

For them violence begets more violence; forgiveness alone brings closure, harmony, and rightful continuation.

They have, according to Amish scholar John Hostetler, “No rational for self-defence or for defending their possessions.”

Hostility toward the Amish does not stir the ugliness of retaliation.

The Amish do not see themselves as the centre of the world; they are on its periphery, important to the success of civilization but expendable.

Buddhist writer Pico Iyer, reminds us: “See yourself as the centre of the world and every small problem in the workplace becomes a cataclysm; see yourself as part of a much vaster canvas than you’ve imagined, and the problem can look like an opportunity.”

The killing of six young children, the war in Iraq, and the combative “peacemaking” in Afghanistan, when seen as a part of the larger canvas, are opportunities.

These are opportunities to turn our heads completely around, open our eyes wide to the world of possibilities, and take flight in the direction of building a world in which we kill nothing.