An amazing story of forgiveness:

Nearly four months ago, a milk delivery-truck driver lined up 10 girls in a one-room schoolhouse in this Amish farming community and opened fire, killing five of them and wounding five others before turning the gun on himself…

The Amish and the non-Amish have given the widow of the gunman, Charles C. Roberts IV, and the couple's three children comfort and unconditional support. Neighbors put up a Christmas tree at the local volunteer fire hall and decorated it with toys and gift cards for the family. Soccer players at Solanco High School in nearby Quarryville made it a point to show their encouragement by attending soccer matches played by the Robertses' young son Brice…

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On the wall in a firehouse dining room is a watercolor of the schoolyard painted by a local artist, Elsie Beiler. Its title is "Happier Days," and it depicts the Amish children of Nickel Mines playing, without a care, before the shooting. Five birds, which some say represent the dead girls, circle in the blue sky above.

Ms. Beiler said the fact that she knew some of the victims' families had inspired her to paint the scene and to donate some of the money from the sale of prints to the victims' fund. "I pray for the families of the children," Ms. Beiler said. "And I thought about what a struggle it was for them to live out each day in forgiveness."

This capacity to forgive is rare in America today (think, for example, of the responses that followed 9/11) and I think many, perhaps most, people, including me, would find it difficult to embrace this kind of profound forgiveness. Some will even argue against forgiveness, and for retribution as a healthier and more just response to violence. A story like this also raises an interesting question: is it possible for forgiveness of this type to be practiced in a secular community, or does it require a concept of god and spirit in order to flourish?

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