Amish forgiveness explainedBy Katie Funk Wiebe
On my desk are Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy by Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt and David L. Weaver-Zercher, published by Jossey-Bass, 2007, 232 pages, $24.95; and Forgiveness: Legacy of the West Nickel Mines Amish School by John L. Ruth, published by Herald Press, 2007, 147 pages, $9.99.
On Oct. 2, 2006, Charles Carl Roberts IV carried guns into an Amish schoolhouse in West Nickel Mines, Pa., and killed five girls and wounded five others. The world was astonished to hear immediate words of forgiveness from the Amish, a group of people often considered out of sync with American culture. How was this possible? Instant forgiveness doesn’t seem right or even natural in the face of such meaningless destruction of life.
Though they were highly lauded for their ready forgiveness — and received expressions of sympathy as people donated about $4 million for medical expenses and a new school — the Amish were also criticized for being too quick to forgive.
How many people would really want to live in a society in which no one gets angry when children are slaughtered? Their immediate forgiveness made it seem as if an evil did not occur. Did they really forgive? And why can’t they forgive their own members who break the rules of the Amish church?
The writers of both books agree that the key to understanding Amish forgiveness is understanding their faith. While the killer premeditated his act, the Amish have internalized the biblical teaching of forgiveness. Forgiving is part of their understanding of salvation. To be forgiven, one must forgive.
The Amish focus on practice rather than doctrine, on acting rather than speaking. They resist speaking in evangelical terms of “being saved,” believing such vocal affirmations are a sign of pride.
The Amish focus attention on the words and actions of Jesus. The Lord’s Prayer is said at every church service, memorized by children at an early age and repeated daily. Therefore Jesus’ command to forgive is embedded in their thinking at an early age.
The core value of Amish culture is community rather than self. Therefore, they shun publicity that brings attention to individuals. At baptism, the Amish agree to place themselves under the authority of the church and to obey the church’s rules. A proud heart is to be disdained.
Amish Grace presents the facts of the shooting gleaned from dozens of interviews and a careful analysis of its impact on both the Amish and general society in an easy-to-read journalistic style. It is a thoroughly researched account of the shooting and its aftermath in the Amish community and general populace. It shows that forgiveness was not a random act but an integral part of Amish faith.
Ruth’s Forgiveness has less detail about the actual events and looks at the tragedy from a greater distance. It is more reflective and meditative than analytical, written in a literary style enriched by allusions to writers such as the ancient Greek dramatists, Herman Melville and contemporary writer Kathleen Norris. Ruth also adds comparisons to the Hutterites and Muslims.
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