When dozens of Amish men and women showed up on Saturday for the funeral of the Pennsylvania man who had killed five of the religious community's children in a school shooting rampage, news reporters who were unfamiliar with the Christian values of the Amish were dumbfounded.
For the Amish, however, it was essential that they join in the mourning of a human being who, though horrific in his actions, was still, to their view, one of God's children.
In contemporary America, where the biblical requirement to forgive has been all but lost in a rush to lay blame and to punish, the Amish way is, for most non-Amish, so archaic as to be incomprehensible.
But it was not always so.
When Americans took more seriously the teachings of the Nazarene, and the logical policies that should follow from them, the wisest of our forefathers and mothers rejected the path of vengeance in favor of more enlightened approaches to issues of crime and punishment. Wisconsin was in the forefront of that remarkable journey.
Five years after statehood, Wisconsin became one of the first jurisdictions on the planet to completely ban the practice of state-sanctioned murder. The movement to bar capital punishment brought together Christians, Jews and freethinkers, of which the state had many, who argued on both moral and practical grounds for the abolition of the most unforgiving of all punishments. State Rep. C. Latham Sholes, the Kenosha Republican who led the fight for abolition, summed up the sentiments of the time when he said that to allow the state to execute even the vilest of criminals would be to "disgrace the mercy-expecting citizens of the state of Wisconsin."
Now, 153 years after Sholes convinced the Legislature and Gov. Leonard Farwell to implement the ban, Wisconsin has barred capital punishment for longer than any other state or nation.
Most of the rest of the world has caught up with Wisconsin. Only a handful of the planet's most backward nations permit executions. Unfortunately, in the United States, self-serving politicians have used lies and fear-mongering to maintain support for capital punishment and in recent years to spread this darkest expression of the human weakness for vengeance.
On Nov. 7, at the behest of such politicians, Wisconsin voters will be asked to offer their opinion on an advisory referendum that asks whether the death penalty should be enacted in the state of Wisconsin for cases involving individuals convicted of murder.
When I vote "no" on that referendum, I will recall my ancestors who helped to forge this state's ban on capital punishment more than 150 years ago, I will respect the teachings of the Nazarene who was the most famous victim of the death penalty, and I will honor the Pennsylvania Amish for reminding us that it is still possible to act upon those teachings even in a country that has been dragged so very far from its best values and highest ideals.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. His family has resided in Wisconsin since 1823. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2006, Capital Newspapers.