In February, Zion’s readers had a sober reminder of a local tragedy followed by a thought-provoking reaction. Our book selection this month was Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy by Donald Kraybill, a professor at ElizabethtownCollege, and his collaborators Steven Nolt and David Weaver-Zercher. In 2006, little Nickel Mines Schoolhouse in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania was the site of horrendous bloodshed as a deranged man shot innocent Amish schoolgirls before killing himself as police broke into the barricaded schoolhouse. The details of the event – how the man planned, what he planned, how he left all the boys go, how the teacher ran for help, the courage of the girls, the killer’s twisted rationale – are all chilling. Our readers again experienced anger, regret, and sympathy as the story brought back emotions they first encountered when the incident occurred.
As horrific as the murder was, however, the story that impacted the national conscience following the event was of a very different nature. The Amish community, including the victims’ families, immediately extended forgiveness to the murderer and members of his family even to the extent of visiting his widow’s house the night of the murder and later attending his funeral. This peaceful reaction to such a violation brought forgiveness into the mainstream media dialogue for the first time in ages and provoked its own firestorm of responses.
Although the recognized journals such as Time and Newsweek (one reader found a 2006 copy from a local library’s archives and shared it with the group) reported both the incident and the aftermath in fairly straightforward ways, newspapers and specialized magazines, television commentators, and radio personalities all contributed views concerning how the Amish could possibly move so rapidly to forgiveness. Professor Kraybill, who has studied the Amish and was a resource person for local media, felt an in-depth report was needed to understand the peaceful response. And so Amish Grace appeared on the scene.
The book offers a glimpse into the daily lives of a group that keeps very much to itself and seems out of pace with modern life to most people. While some of the Amish practices seem eccentric at best (such as not owning or driving a car, using a cell phone for business but keeping it in an out-building rather than the house, using electricity produced by batteries but not from the public grid), the authors show that the practices are based on what the Amish view as appropriate for keeping the nucleus of the family intact and thereby also the community. Theirs is a culture where the community good is paramount and denial of self is the norm. That perspective runs counter to the English world, English being a term for everyone who is not Amish, where fulfilling individual potential is most important.
At the core of their Christian faith, the Amish believe that they must forgive others for God to forgive them. This is ingrained in them from the time they are born; stories used by teachers in their one room schoolhouses enforce this belief through all eight grades. Their sermons dwell on this as they follow the New Testament, and stories of martyrs of the 1500’s are common. Our readers contrasted this perspective on Christianity with our own belief that God’s forgiveness has been given to us so that our forgiveness of others is a gracious response to that act. That said, many wondered at the Amish ability to put aside natural feelings of anger and grief in order to follow this religious tenet. While much of the media marveled at this quick response, the Amish quoted in the book were quick to point out that the will to forgive is what they put into practice immediately. They still struggle for a long time with the debilitating emotions of anger, grief, and despair. Still, their focus on the community good over individual needs gives them a way to put this practice into motion, and this reaction stunned the world.
Readers agreed that forgiveness is much needed in our turbulent world but wondered about the consequences of adopting it as a national policy. Would it work? Would it lead to more open, trustful relations with other countries, or would it lead to the destruction of our own if we were a truly pacifist nation? What about the moral duty to protect our citizens? We concluded that it would not be viable on an international stage with the state of the world today. Indeed, one of the main reasons the Amish manage to live in a separate world from the rest of us is that they have adopted a two-world approach. In their world, retaliation and vengeance have no place, but they fully expect the larger English world to enforce law, order, and justice because forgiveness is not the same as pardon. They believe in consequences to action but are content for others to handle those details.
While finding much to admire in the Amish people’s sincere response to tragedy and their concentration on The Lord’s Prayer,Zion’s readers were not ready to don plain garments and forego common conveniences. Even if we were, the Amish do not actively seek converts! – another difference in our approaches to Christianity. Some of our readers appreciated Amish Grace, but others found it repetitive and the style to be too much like a textbook. It certainly provoked a lively discussion and gave our readers a chance to remember and examine their own ability to forgive. Three readers gave it 2 thumbs up, four gave it 1 thumb up, and four gave it 1 thumb down.