The news of a deranged killer in a one-room, Lancaster County, Amish schoolhouse gunning down innocent girls horrified the world. But the story that followed the tragedy was even more gripping. The parents and grandparents of the slain children had rushed to the homes of the killer’s family to express their own condolences and to let them know that they had completely forgiven the murderer.
Why were the Amish so quick to forgive? Three of America’s foremost scholars of Amish society have published an outstanding book that analyzes the reasons behind Amish forgiveness as it played out in October 2006 around Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania.
Within hours of the shooting, parents and grandparents who had lost children were offering to help the family of the killer. After all, his family members were also victims, they reasoned. In addition to words, they gave financial assistance at a local bank that established a fund for the killer’s family, and they attended his funeral to show their support. As an Amish woman said on a national television show, “We have to forgive him in order for God to forgive us.”
In the days following the tragedy, people began asking how the Amish were able to be so forgiving. Some outsiders thought that they must have quickly gotten together to decide what to do. This brought chuckles to the Amish. “It’s just what we do as nonresistant people. It was spontaneous. It was automatic. It was not a new kind of thing,” one bishop said as he emphasized the spontaneity of their offerings of grace (p.49). Their forgiveness grew out of their faith, not out of church dictates.
But the Amish soon became uncomfortable with all the media focus on their spontaneous expressions of forgiveness. They were more concerned about God’s evaluations. They believe that they should live their lives in humility, and avoid manifestations of vanity. A father of one of the murdered children said, “God is the one who should get the blessing in this when it’s all over and done. It should be God, not us.” Parents of another slain child wrote, “It is only through our faith in Jesus Christ that forgiveness is possible. He is the one who deserves praise and glory, not us Amish (p.50-51).”
Some critics complained that the Amish acts of forgiveness were somehow wrong. One writer commented that, while it may have been deeply moving to witness the Amish expressions of grace, “hatred is not always wrong, and forgiveness is not always deserved.” This writer quoted Ecclesiastes that “there is a time to love and a time to hate,” and he also cited Psalm 97, “let those who love the Lord hate evil.” Another writer referred to the Amish forgiveness of their daughters’ killer as “disturbing.” That writer believes that the Amish acceptance of their fate, plus their pacifism, suggests that they “inhabit a hopeless universe where senseless massacres are accepted (p.56-57).”
The authors emphasize that the Amish belief in forgiveness is based, not only on the well-known verse in the Lord’s Prayer that enjoins people to forgive if they expect to be forgiven, but also on the two verses in Matthew that follow the prayer. According to Matthew 6:14-15, Jesus re-emphasized that if you forgive people their trespasses, then God will forgive you; if you don’t, the Lord won’t either.
Thus these people, who accept the Sermon on the Mount literally, believe that if they expect to be granted salvation by the Lord, they must forgive others. The father of one of the murdered girls said, “forgiveness means giving up your right to revenge” (p.116). The Amish commitment to forgiving others is an integral part of their worldview, not a discrete element that can be separated out for analysis. The Amish themselves discuss it in the context of their other beliefs, such as humility, love, submission, compassion, and acceptance.
Many non-Amish question how they can be so forgiving of a murderer and yet shun their own wayward members. The authors carefully explain. Forgiveness, for them, is unconditional, while breaking church rules requires repentance and a pardon. An unrepentant rule-breaker, however, may be disciplined through ostracism—shunning—from the full activities of the group. They see no conflict between forgiving a deranged killer and pardoning—or disciplining through shunning—their own members who have violated the rules of their community.
Could other societies, such as mainstream America, emulate the Amish? The authors answer cautiously. All of the Amish beliefs are deeply woven into their history and culture, and as such are not easily transferable to other societies. Mainstream American society, based on consumer capitalism, liberal democracy, and individualism, could not easily adopt the values of the Amish. While the peaceful Amish acceptance of forgiveness may be inspiring, it comes out of a worldview that the mainstream society would have a hard time accepting.
American sports fans obsess about getting revenge on opponents on the playing field; lawyers make fortunes from vengeful lawsuits. The authors suggest, however, that the mainstream society could work toward a forgiving culture as well, even without necessarily following the Amish model. But it would take more than the efforts of lone individuals, they argue. While the Amish have constructed a culture that emphasizes forgiveness along with their other beliefs, the rest of us may be able to strive for such values as well.
The authors conclude, “the challenge for the rest of us is to use our resources creatively to shape cultures that discourage revenge as a first response (p.182).” The challenge would be to create a society in which we treat our adversaries as human beings rather than as enemies. Wisely, the authors do not propose concrete ways to achieve those kinds of ends, but they suggest, tantalizingly, that the answers will be derived from the values, images, and stories that our society emphasizes.
Kraybill, Donald B., Steven M. Nolt, and David L.Weaver-Zercher. 2007. Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass