catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 48, Num 1 :: 2008.10.01 — 2008.12.15


Amish Grace

Amish Grace, an account of the tragedy that occurred October 2, 2006, in the Amish community near Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, provides us, first of all, with a detailed account of the few minutes in which a deranged gunman shot ten young girls in their schoolhouse – five of whom died, five recovered. But it does so much more. It gives us, initially, a leisurely account of the idyllic setting of the landscape in October, describes the way of Amish life, and provides us with some background to the deranged killer, Charles Roberts. And then the gruesome account of the action itself, as Roberts proceeded to wreak his anger and frustrations on innocent lives. 

But the narrative does not stop there. In the wake of the horror of this event, the Amish community acted in a way that set the whole world astir – that got everyone informed about the tragedy to debate the appropriateness of the Amish response. The community declared to the world, within a day of the event, that they had forgiven Roberts for this atrocity. And the debate about this action took on a life of its own. The sub-title of the book – chosen with great care, the authors inform us – How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy, points us to the heart of this very fine study of grace in action and challenges the rest of us to reflect on the meaning of forgiveness and on such collateral matters as the culture we have appropriated in sharp contrast to the Amish way of life.

The book is, in fact, a primer for the history, the traditions, the indoctrination, the fears, the sometimes amusing compromises the Amish make with continuity and change. In preparation for this book, these authors spent a great deal of time consulting the Amish as they sought to understand their mindset and deeply rooted attitudes. They have done us a great favor by presenting the results of their studies and reflection. There must be some school somewhere where a course could be offered in what this book accomplishes. What better pedagogy than to contrast the known with an alternate perspective? The book could actually serve in a religion course, for the authors are theologically aware of all the questions raised by such a tragedy and the surprising response – surprising to those who were not aware of the role forgiveness plays in the life of the Amish community. The authors report that forgiveness is central to the Amish faith. No other practice can compare with the reservoir of attitudes which prompt forgiveness. The Amish take Biblical texts about forgiveness very seriously – Jesus’ words on the cross, for example, and Stephen’s, the martyr, who asked that the sin of those who were stoning him would not be laid to their charge. And there are the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, and the Lord’s Prayer itself. Whereas in other Christian traditions believers are prompted to forgive because Christ has forgiven us, in the Amish hermeneutics, forgiving others has a meritorious value; it is the condition for receiving forgiveness for the believer. 

The Amish were perplexed when their action drew reactions of surprise from all corners. They asked, Is our belief about forgiveness so at odds with the Christian tradition everywhere and always? The question raises many complex issues. One needs to understand the cultures in which forgiveness is exercised. For the Amish, the attitude is nurtured by a number of streams. It is nurtured by the history of the martyrdoms which their cause triggered during the Reformation, as recorded in a thousand-page book, Martyrs’ Mirror. It is nurtured by their deeply ingrained habits of uffgevva – the practice of self-denial, of suppressing emotions of revenge, of non-violence, of non-resistance. And it is nourished by their theology of the two kingdoms – the kingdom of this world, and the kingdom of our Lord. A great chasm exists between the two for the Amish. Yes, the secular powers have their role to play, and they are obliged to play it. But the church has its own role to play. And that role is to remain detached from the secular world. The Amish do pay taxes, but not to social security; that would be a denial of their responsibility to care for their own with dignity and compassion. They refuse military service, they refuse to take oaths, they refuse to avail themselves of the technology which will weaken the family and community structure. (The authors do report that the Amish were quite overwhelmed at the prompt and caring response of the police and ambulance crews and found ways to express their gratitude.)

A myriad of questions came to the fore. Can you forgive someone who is dead? The beneficiaries, of course, were Roberts’ family. The Amish realized that the wife and children of Roberts were also victims, and reached out to them in compassion, even sharing some of the funds (four million dollars) that were collected for the community. Would one wish to live in a country where rage at such atrocities was not permitted? Should President Bush have forgiven the perpetrators of 9/11? At what point does one’s self-renunciation become emotionally dangerous? Can “pressed forgiveness” have adverse effects on one’s personality? Was their response to evil a proper one? Well, what the casual questioner overlooks is, again, the counter-cultural force of the Amish movement. 

For mainstream Americans, the important values are individualism, creativity, concern for personal achievement and identity. For the Amish, the values are the community – people acting in selfless ways, doing good anonymously, blending in with the woodwork. Such folk have a head-start when it comes to reaching out in selfless ways. It is of a piece, say, with raising a barn for a neighbor whose barn has been destroyed. In the context of all these attitudes, taught by osmosis, and daily practice, and song, and the regulations embodied in the Ordnung, the generous spirit of forgiveness and compassion to the killer’s family should not be all that surprising.

The authors have not yet done with the Amish response. The Amish raise many of the questions that arise naturally as people try to come to terms with disasters: Did God will this event, or only permit it? Can any good come from it? (The world-wide attention given to this tragedy and the response made it easier for some of the parents to accept their loss). Other theological matters come up – and in the context of the Amish community itself. They are very human, as they themselves admit. Marriages turn sour, abuses occur, disputes over inheritance arise. It seems almost as if they are harder on their fellow believers than on the outsiders – the English, as they call them. For these situations, they summon the word pardon rather than forgiveness. The offender must repent or face excommunication. Interestingly, the Amish have adopted the Canons of Dordt as their creedal confession and follow the rules about discipline and re-admission on condition of repentance. They exercise this discipline, they claim, out of love – and that, of course, requires further definition. But they believe very firmly that improper deeds and attitudes have eternal consequences, and that coming down hard on some recalcitrant member is, indeed, a way of reclaiming him or her for eternity. They carry this out in the spirit of compassionate care. 

The authors correctly point out the challenge with which the Amish confront us. Our culture eschews grace, preferring “getting even,” plotting revenge, sanctioning grudges, and affording the tort lawyers a busy profession. Is such a condition really that much healthier than the disposition to forgive – even at the risk of doing so prematurely? 

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