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Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy

On October 2, 2006, at 10:30 am, Charles Carl Roberts entered a small one-room Amish school house in rural Pennsylvania, intending to rape the ten young girls in attendance. He dismissed the boys and the adults present and began tying up the girls. Alerted by a 911 call, the state police arrived on the scene within minutes. Roberts, realizing the he would be unable to complete his initial plan, lined up the girls on the floor and gunned them down in rapid succession. Hearing shots the state troopers broke through the windows and witnessed Roberts turning the gun on himself.
As news of this tragic incident made the wire services and was picked up via satellite and broadcast worldwide, all eyes were focused on Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. But within a day an event occurred that many found even more shocking. The families of the slain girls announced they had forgiven the killer. As they made contact with the killer’s family to assure them that there was no ill will towards them, media attention shifted from the shooting tragedy to a story that journalists had not set out to cover.
The Christianity that believers profess but which the Amish actually practiced left the world stunned. The controversy that arose from the actions of the Amish community led to a national discussion that encompassed many of the societal issues facing today’s world.
Is forgiveness a virtue? What value does forgiveness have in today’s society? Is it emotionally healthy? Does forgiveness involve stifling emotional pain? Should forgiveness be only for the properly deserving or repentant? What should be our response toward terrorists? What if our nation had responded with forgiveness following 9/11? These questions and others like them were debated on panel shows, and written about in commentaries and editorials around in the country.
Scholars Donald Kraybill, Steven Nolt and David Weaver-Zercher, the authors of Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy, have taken the questions that arose from these discussions and placed them in the context of Amish life and beliefs. The story they narrate is both simple and complex. Reporting the facts of what occurred before, during and after the shooting, they slowly and carefully explain both the actions of the Amish community and the reasons behind those actions. Although the book was authored by three individuals, who chose to use the collective “we” in their narration, the story flows smoothly as one voice.
The authors have each authored many books and articles on Amish history and culture and each had knowledge of and close relations with the Amish community prior to the killings. All three were intimately involved in the aftermath of the tragedy and physically present in the Amish community for many weeks thereafter. They were privy to the emotions and intimate feelings of the families involved and have used individual stories to weave a factual, engaging and coherent narrative.
An underlying question asked and addressed throughout the book is the nature of grace as understood within the Amish community. Was the forgiveness evidenced so rapidly following the Nickel Mines killing situational, or was it systemic? The authors conclude that the community’s commitment to forgive was made long before the event occurred, and for that reason they could immediately declare their intent. By deliberately reaching out to the family of Charles Roberts with gracious words and acts the community affirmed that they would not allow his negative behavior to control their attitudes.
The book is divided into three sections, a recounting of the actual event, an extensive theological treatise on the nature of forgiveness and a discussion of broader implications of forgiveness for the Amish and for the rest of society.
This reader found the middle section of the book which dealt in depth with the nature of forgiveness especially helpful by defining the theological words used in discussing the event. Pardon releases an offender from punishment while forgiveness forgoes the right to revenge. Amish forgiveness, however, does not mean that the community pardoned the behavior of the killer. While they believe that they must respond with grace, love and compassion to those who act with malice they do not believe that forgiveness excuses the wrong doer nor does it free the offender from the consequences of his actions, including criminal prosecution. For the Amish, forgiveness means that they deny themselves the right to hold a grudge. They do not deny wrong has taken place but they give up the right to hurt the wrong doer in return. By refusing to harbor animosity toward the offender, they leave open the possibility of the restoration of relationship and the reestablishing of trust.
The authors make clear that this response “is not a small patch tacked onto their fabric of faithfulness. Rather, their commitment to forgive is intricately woven into their lives and their communities.” For them, forgiveness is more than a good thing to do, but it is central to their faith. They are a people who take the words of Jesus with utmost seriousness, and their nonviolent traditions have shaped their way of life.
To their credit, the authors also chose to discuss the dark side of forgiveness with the community. They documented incidents in Amish life when forgiveness led to sad consequences as in cases of domestic and sexual abuse which led to inaction thus multiplying the pain of victims.
The authors close the book by asking many questions of their own. Is good more powerful than evil? What should be our response to violence individually and collectively? Is revenge a learned or a natural response? When does self-renunciation become emotional damaging to a forgiving person? How can we create communities in which enemies are treated as members of the human family and not demonized? Their reflections on these and other questions in the context of the tragedy of October 2006 invite their readers into a continued dialog on forgiveness and grace.
Finally, of interest to this reader was the information in the appendix. There the authors trace the emergence of the Anabaptist movement from the 1600s down to the life and culture of its modern followers. We as Adventists share much with our Amish and Mennonite brethren. We, too, have a unique lifestyle and attempt to be in the world but not of the world as we live out our religious beliefs in daily practice. However unlike Adventists, the Amish have no paid clergy, no central organizational structure, and no advanced educational system. They have developed a remarkably stable society with little crime, homelessness or unemployment. They do not evangelize or try to convert others to their beliefs; nevertheless their numbers are doubling every 20 years simply by keeping their own children in the faith.
Donna J. Haerich writes from St.Altamonte Springs, Florida.
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