On Monday morning, October 2, 2006, a gunman entered a one-room Amish school in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. In front of twenty-five horrified pupils, thirty-two-year-old Charles Roberts ordered the boys and the teacher to leave. After tying the legs of the ten remaining girls, Roberts prepared to shoot them with an automatic rifle and four hundred rounds of ammunition that he brought for the task. The oldest hostage, a thirteen-year-old, begged Roberts to “shoot me first and let the little ones go.” Refusing her offer, he opened fire on all of them, killing five and leaving the others critically wounded. He then shot himself as police stormed the building. His motivation? “I’m angry at God for taking my little daughter,” he told the children before the massacre.
The story captured the attention of broadcast and print media in the United States and around the world. By Tuesday morning some fifty television crews had clogged the small village of Nickel Mines, staying for five days until the killer and the killed were buried. The blood was barely dry on the schoolhouse floor when Amish parents brought words of forgiveness to the family of the one who had slain their children.
The outside world was incredulous that such forgiveness could be offered so quickly for such a heinous crime. Of the hundreds of media queries that the authors received about the shooting, questions about forgiveness rose to the top. Forgiveness, in fact, eclipsed the tragic story, trumping the violence and arresting the world’s attention.
Within a week of the murders, Amish forgiveness was a central theme in more than 2,400 news stories around the world. The Washington Post, The New York Times, USA Today, Newsweek, NBC Nightly News, CBS Morning News, Larry King Live, Fox News, Oprah, and dozens of other media outlets heralded the forgiving Amish. From the Khaleej Times (United Arab Emirates) to Australian television, international media were opining on Amish forgiveness. Three weeks after the shooting, “Amish forgiveness” had appeared in 2,900 news stories worldwide and on 534,000 web sites.
Fresh from the funerals where they had buried their own children, grieving Amish families accounted for half of the seventy-five people who attended the killer’s burial. Roberts’ widow was deeply moved by their presence as Amish families greeted her and her three children. The forgiveness went beyond talk and graveside presence: the Amish also supported a fund for the shooter’s family.
AMISH GRACE explores the many questions this story raises about the religious beliefs and habits that led the Amish to forgive so quickly. It looks at the ties between forgiveness and membership in a cloistered communal society and ask if Amish practices parallel or diverge from other religious and secular notions of forgiveness. It will also address the matter of why forgiveness became news. “All the religions teach it,” mused an observer, “but no one does it like the Amish.” Regardless of the cultural seedbed that nourished this story, the surprising act of Amish forgiveness begs for a deeper exploration. How could the Amish do this? What did this act mean to them? And how might their witness prove useful to the rest of us?
Talk about inspiring. In a world where tragic events happen regularly, including school shootings, terrorist and sniper attacks, murders, and other crimes, forgiveness does not come easy to many, if not most Americans. Generally speaking, we prefer to hold grudges, stay angry, and plot vengeance. Yet when the Amish suffered their “own version of 9/11” forgiveness flowed freely, grace was extended to the killer’s family, and the country was left stunned at a reaction that, quite frankly, seemed like a foreign concept.
When Charles Roberts entered the Amish school house with his mind made up to take the lives of innocent children, his grief and sorrow had overtaken him. How sad that a man mourning the loss of his own daughter (9 years prior) thought the only way to cure his pain would be to take someone ELSE’S children and then kill himself. That thinking seems backwards to me, but I’m not here to psychoanalyze Roberts’ motives.
Amish Grace focuses on the reaction of the Amish who were mourning the loss of their own children as well as loved ones. In a small community where everyone feels like part of your extended family, the pain was felt by all. Steeped in their religious beliefs that to forgive is divine (and even likening your ability to forgive to your secured salvation), the Amish were able to state their forgiveness in a shockingly short amount of time. Even the Bible says there is a time to love, a time to laugh, a time to mourn, and a time to forgive…
What happened to the mourning? Did they allow themselves the time to grieve over the victims? While I’m sure in the privacy of their own homes, they were saddened, it’s inspiring to think it’s humanly possible to forgive so quickly, if at all. I know people who are holding grudges for far less; families that are still angry at relatives 30 years later, lovers still bitter about a relationship’s demise, parents and children that have not spoken in decades, friends who have let a disagreement destroy their friendship, gangs in cities that lie, cheat and steal, and just the other day there was a news story of a fight that took place over a parking place that ended in death. It seems our culture has grown so accustomed to staying angry. Seeking revenge. Demanding to “get even”. Expecting someone else to suffer because we have.
How unfamiliar then to expect anyone to offer forgiveness to a man that would intentionally take the lives of our young children. What was most disappointing in this book was listening to the accounts of those who doubted the truth to the Amish forgiveness. It made me sad to hear about all of the news stories, critics, and spectators that either doubted the Amish truly forgave, critiqued them for doing so, and/or questioned their intention (as if this was some twisted publicity stunt). Hard as it may be to understand, forgiving those who have wronged us will bring healing much quicker than harboring a bitter spirit. Why then are we so hesitant to offer it?
The book, while repetitive at times, is very inspiring and encouraging. Most of us have forgiveness to either offer someone who has wronged us or to seek for ourselves where we have wronged others. Even if we may not agree with “the speed” of how it’s done, we can certainly learn valuable lessons from the Amish in how to live a peaceful life in harmony with others. After all, Jesus did say we must forgive others so we too may be forgiven. Those sound like words to live by to me.