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Issue Date:  November 2, 2007

By Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt and David L. Weaver-Zercher
Jossey-Bass, 237 pages, $24.95
The forgiving Amish


When a gunman shot 10 girls in an Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania in October 2006, the first reaction was horror. A second response quickly followed: People were dumbfounded that the Amish could reach out to the killer’s family and offer forgiveness.

In Amish Grace, the authors seek to solve that puzzle by exploring the roots of Amish spirituality, focusing on the meaning of forgiveness.

They succeed admirably. Although the authors are college professors, they avoid academic jargon and write crisply, weaving in background about this small Christian sect centered in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana.

On a peaceful Monday morning, Charles Carl Roberts IV, a 32-year-old milk truck driver well-known in the community, entered an Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pa. He forced 10 girls to lie on the floor, and then shot them before killing himself. Five girls survived. Roberts said he was angry with God because his infant daughter had died minutes after her birth nine years earlier.

Almost immediately, Amish people sought out Roberts’ widow and parents to offer “forgiveness and gracious concern.” At Roberts’ funeral, more than half the mourners were Amish.

The response at Nickel Mines was not an isolated act of forgiveness. The book cites other tragedies, such as the time four teenagers hurled objects at an Amish buggy and killed an infant girl. After the teens were arrested and tried, the girl’s family asked the judge for mercy, saying the assailants had suffered enough.

Forgiveness is a core tenet for the Amish, based on their understanding of the New Testament. They cite the words of Jesus on the cross: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

The Amish are part of the Anabaptist tradition, which taught that youths should not be baptized until they were teenagers, a belief that infuriated Christians who baptized infants. Beginning in the 1520s, civil authorities in Europe, with the support of Catholics and Protestants, persecuted Anabaptists as heretics. Some 2,500 were burned at the stake or beheaded.

Fundamental to Anabaptist belief is the concept of discipleship, or following Jesus. The authors compare that belief with the Roman Catholic emphasis on the Eucharist and Pentecostal belief in the work of the Holy Spirit.

Amish Grace offers a nuanced discussion of forgiveness, noting there is much misunderstanding about the concept.

Forgiveness for the Amish means letting go of resentment and offering the wrongdoer compassion, benevolence and love. “It is not pretending that a wrong did not occur,” the authors note, “it is not forgetting that it happened, and it is not condoning or excusing it.”

Amish children attend their own schools but receive no formal religious instruction. Values are transmitted through stories and example. The practice of forgiveness is passed along “through cultural osmosis.”

Even for the Amish, forgiveness is not always easy. Raw emotions such as anger can linger long afterward.

After the Nickel Mines tragedy, some people accused the Amish of being hypocrites for offering forgiveness to the killer’s family while at the same time shunning people who have left the Amish fold. The practice stems from the Amish belief that baptized adults commit themselves to the community for life. If they flout Amish rules, they may be excommunicated and shunned. It is a misconception that shunning involves the severing of all social ties. The Amish continue to talk to shunned individuals, but do not invite them into their homes for meals or other celebrations. The community continues to hold out hope that offending members will return to the church.

To some outsiders the Amish seem strange. They do not attend school beyond eighth grade, refuse military service and reject much of modern technology, including television. But they rarely divorce or get into trouble with the law. Few are unemployed or homeless, and none lives on government welfare.

Professors Kraybill, Nolt and Weaver-Zercher have written a superb book -- a model of clear, forceful writing about a tragedy and its aftermath. They have an obvious affection for the Amish yet ask tough questions, weigh contradictions and explore conundrums such as how a loving God could permit schoolgirls to be massacred.

In the final chapter they ponder whether we can learn anything from the Amish.

“Regardless of the details of the Nickel Mines story,” they write, “one message rings clear: Religion was used not to justify rage and revenge but to inspire goodness, forgiveness and grace. And that is the big lesson for the rest of us regardless of our faith or nationality.”

Bill Williams is a freelance book reviewer in West Hartford, Conn.

National Catholic Reporter, November 2, 2007

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