In her recently published book, The Acting Person and Christian Moral Life, Darlene Fozard Weaver provides a thoughtful, challenging, and theologically astute analysis of the Christian moral life. Having examined recent trends and debates concerning Christian ethics from both Catholic and Protestant theologians, Weaver highlights the inattention as well as the lack of serious theological analysis given to moral actions. Where personal moral actions have been discussed—for example, the critical dialogue in contemporary Catholic circles between “traditionalists and revisionists”—moral culpability takes center stage in ways that continue to downplay or obscure the crucial and too often bifurcated relation between (1) sin as a power, force, and orientation, and (2) individual sinful acts. Weaver applauds contemporary Catholic theologians who have drawn our attention back to sin as a power and personal orientation, as well as those who have cautioned against past and present theologies of sin that encourage or promote legalism. However, Weaver argues that a robust theology of sin must not de-emphasize personal sins and the role they play in our moral development and our relationship with God and others. Speaking to these concerns in the latter part of chapter two, Weaver writes: “attention to sins makes a theology of sin more concrete without losing sight of the power of sin or of sin’s roots in the person’s orientation. It recognizes that the person negotiates her relationship with God in the acts she performs” (59).
In addition to Weaver’s clarity and non-polemical tone, another attractive feature of her book is her aptly chosen “real life” stories, illustrating her theoretical insights and adding existential depth and affective energy to her analyses. For example, in chapter six, where she discusses the important differences between forgiveness and reconciliation, Weaver provides a fascinating and theologically sensitive commentary on the tragic school shooting in Nickel Mines in 2006. The horrific event occurred on October 2, 2006, when gunman Charles Roberts entered an Amish school, shot ten female students—killing five of them and seriously wounding the others—and then proceeded to take his own life. “Within hours of the shooting, an Amish minister and several Amish men went to visit Robert’s wife and children to express their forgiveness, and another Amish man went to see Roberts’s father” […] At Roberts’s funeral, half the attendees were Amish” (162). As Weaver explains, the Amish believe that forgiveness is commanded by God, and thus the community’s immediate forgiving response to Roberts’s acts of violence is understood as a willful act of obedience. This is no way suggests that such a response was effortless or that those who chose to forgive did not struggle with intense feelings of anger, sadness, and the like. Forgiveness is not a one time act; rather, it is process, even a struggle that continues throughout one’s life. Weaver brings the point home by recounting Herman Bontrager’s commentary on the features distinctive to the Amish community’s way of practicing forgiveness.
“[F]or the Amish forgiveness is immediate rather than forestalled until the victim is emotionally ready to forgive. Forgiveness in this remains something to live into. The emotional dimension of forgiveness is directed and facilitated by practice. Moreover, as Bontrager notes, the practice of forgiveness is corporate and communal. ‘The community assumes the responsibility to forgive. […] In an offense of this magnitude Amish would never expect the individual alone to extend instant forgiveness. The community took responsibility to practice forgiveness knowing that the individual victims were too crushed to do it’” (163, Bontrager, “Limits of Forgiveness,” 7).
Bontrager also recounts a powerful scene he witnessed two years after the shooting in Nickel Pines. He was visiting an Amish family in Nickel Pines—a family whose eight-year old daughter, Rosanna, permanently disabled as a result of two of Charles Roberts’s bullets fired at her head, was being held by Charles Roberts’s mother. As Bontrager explains, Roberts’s mother comes weekly to read to Rosanna, “[s]he [Mrs. Roberts] gives care, and hopes for healing for her own wounded heart. Mary Liz and Christ, though weeping for themselves and for Rosanna, offer Mrs. Roberts hospitality, a space to mourn her son” (164; Bontrager, “Limits of Forgiveness,” 13).
Through this story of a concrete Christian community’s experience of tragedy and loss, we come to understand profound communal dimensions of forgiveness and how both forgiveness and reconciliation are volitional actions into which we grow and heal in community and communion with others.
Although I have provided a very incomplete “mini-review” of Weaver’s book, she has gifted us with a balanced, scholarly, and challenging study of what it means to be an acting person in relation to God and others and “to better understand how, by our acting, we involve ourselves with God—our first and final good—and the material and social goods that make up the proximate end of human life” (195).