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TCC Reads: Amish Grace

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 Amish Mourning

Looking for a book for Lent? Anna Keating recommends Amish Grace.

On October 2nd 2006 Charles Carl Roberts IV walked into a one-room Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, shooting ten little girls and killing five, before taking his own life.  Over half of those in attendance at his funeral were Amish.

The killing and its aftermath prompted three scholars of Amish history and culture, Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt, and David Weaver-Zercher, to write the book Amish Grace, which details the shooting and the Amish community’s acts of forgiveness and love towards the shooter’s surviving family.

Amish Grace is a series of first person accounts of the tragedy, as well as a history of the Amish people.  In the book, Kraybill, Nolt, and Weaver-Zercher argue that the practice of forgiving one’s enemies is deeply rooted in Amish spirituality. From the first Anabaptist/Mennonite martyrs who forgave their murderers as they were being executed, to the centrality of the Lord’s Prayer in Amish worship, forgiveness is an everyday part of Amish life.

The Amish interpret the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus’ prayer, in particular the words, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” to mean strictly that in order to be forgiven, one must also be forgiving.

No Amish minister or church instructed its members to offer forgiveness to the killer or to extend kindnesses to his widow. These actions were born of a lifetime of practice.

In a world where violence provokes violence, and public figures issue ersatz apologies as part of public relations campaigns, rather than as authentic statements of contrition, let alone forgiveness, it is moving, indeed, to read about a community who offers and seeks forgiveness, and attempts to follow Christ; especially when this community has so often been the victim of violent crime.

Shortly after the shooting, the Amish of Nickel Mines Pennsylvania, brought food to the gunman’s widow, sat with her in her mourning, and forgave the man who had killed their children.  Not only did they say, “We forgive you,” they lived it, recognizing the gunman’s widow in word and deed as a fellow victim and human being.  What’s more, no Amish minister or church instructed its members to offer forgiveness to the killer or to extend kindnesses to his widow. These actions, the author’s suggest, were born of a lifetime of practice.

On the day of the shooting, Marian, a thirteen year old girl, quickly assumed leadership of the younger girls in the schoolhouse, and like the Good Shepard, did everything she could to protect them.  Realizing that Charles Roberts planned to kill them all, and hoping to save the little ones in her care she said, “Shoot me first.” This wasn’t a matter of intellectual assent.  It was formation.  She was formed to follow Christ even in the face of evil.

This book offers a challenging portrait of the Amish and Anabaptist traditions of discipleship, that is, the idea of not just worshipping, but also personally emulating the person of Jesus, from his courage, to his nonresistance, to his utter forgiveness of us all.

It also asks difficult questions about when, if ever, such forgiveness is warranted, but in the end, the authors seem to suggest that forgiveness is different from pardon. Forgiveness, they argue, works to heal both forgiver and forgiven, while not necessarily exculpating the offender from punishment or responsibility.

In a culture where vengeance is the heroic norm, such unmerited forgiveness and grace, freely given, seems strange indeed.

The Amish are sectarian Christians, and we live in an age that is, perhaps rightly, deeply concerned about religious fundamentalists of all kinds.  And yet, there are certain teachings of Jesus that are given in plain speech, and do not lend themselves to a glut of interpretations.  However dangerous fundamentalism may be, there is also a danger in interpreting the teachings of Christ so broadly that they come to mean nothing at all.  After all, how many ways are there to correctly interpret Christ’s command to  “love your enemies” or to “do good to those who hurt you,” let alone Paul’s exhortation in Romans to, “be not overcome of evil, but to overcome evil with good”?  Perhaps we have a great deal to learn from our Amish and Mennonite brothers and sisters about Christian witness.

– Anna Keating