Monday, February 2, 2009

Grace-Full People

Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy
by Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt, and David Weaver-Zercher

We got a Wii game system for Christmas, which we all love to play with. It has proven to be a good opportunity to begin teaching our older son S. about sportsmanship, because initially he is not very good when he starts trying to learn a new game (neither am I). When he gets frustrated, E. and I remind him that to get good at anything you have to practice it over and over. It has to become habit. No one expects him to get a high score at a game he has never played before. S. and I have to learn to be gracious losers, because E. has more athletic ability than either of us, and picks up the games much more quickly than we do. But oh the victory when we finally beat him at something...very sweet!

But I digress. It is the need for repetition, for making a conscious effort at something until that effort becomes unconscious, that Amish Grace reminds us of. The writing in Amish Grace is a little plodding at times, but my sense is that the writers (all three are scholars of Amish history and culture) are not going for musical prose. They want to tell a story straightforwardly and shed light on a way of life that is unique. Both of these they do very successfully. The fulcrum of the story is, of course, the tragic shooting that took place in a one room Amish school in October 2006. Five little girls were killed, and another five tragically wounded. The shooter was a non-Amish local man who was known in the community. After killing the children, he committed suicide.

When the Amish school shooting occurred, many people in the US were astounded that within hours of the tragedy, members of the Amish community were reaching out to the killer's family and offering words of comfort and support. The Amish also were clear that they forgave the man who did the killing, Charles Roberts. It is difficult to wrap our heads around this kind of grace, when we live in a culture that seems to have a bottomless thirst for vengeance. The authors of Amish Grace show us that forgiving was not a "decision" on the part of the Amish people - anything other than forgiving was not an option. It simply did not occur to them not to forgive. Their history and way of life are so steeped in humility and mercy that extending grace is just part of who they are - they did not see themselves as especially magnanimous. They believe that they are doing what any follower of Jesus Christ would do. They have practiced forgiveness to the point that it is woven into the fabric of their lifestyles and personalities.

Amish Grace gives us some helpful insight into the process of their forgiveness. There were non-Amish journalists and op-ed writers who at the time said that the Amish forgave "too quickly." But as one Amish woman expressed it: "The first step of forgiving is expressing the will to forgive." They do not see forgiveness as something that happens instantaneously and is done. It is clear that forgiving was not simple or easy for them. Many in the community - especially the parents who lost daughters - struggled with a long time with feelings of rage and grief (no doubt they still do). However, the Amish people make a clear distinction between forgiving and forgetting. They see forgiveness as understanding that all people are children of God and bearing no one any ill will, but they do not feel that forgiving someone obligates us to have a relationship with them. In fact, several Amish acknowledged that it was probably easier to forgive the shooter because he himself had died. They did not have to cope with him continuing to occupy the same planet that they do. Furthermore, while Amish forgive they do believe that the state has the responsibility for criminal prosecution and that the state should fulfill that responsibility. had the killer lived, the Amish would not have felt any cognitive dissonance between forgiving him as a fellow human being and believing that he be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and pay for his crimes.

Other people, in the aftermath of the shooting, wondered why the Amish went to the killer's widow, Amy Roberts, as well as to his parents, and said "We forgive you." People raised questions about why the Amish would offer forgiveness to people who were not culpable for the crime, but were victims themselves. The Amish have a broader conception of what it means to forgive. They did not hold Charles Roberts' wife or parents responsible for what had happened, but they wanted to make it clear that they understood the awkwardness of the situation in a small community and that they held no grudge against Roberts' family. The Amish even went to far as to give some funds that had been donated to their community to Amy Roberts so that she could begin to rebuild her life. In one of the most powerful statements of forgiveness, about 40 Amish people attended Charles Roberts' graveside burial service.

The Amish believe in living a simplified life, but they are complex people. Amish Grace calls all of us to examine our own beliefs about forgiveness and to think honestly about what we could and could not forgive. I can think of some grudges that have slithered around in my own heart for way to long. I know the Amish are not perfect - I recently read a troubling article about a large number of puppy mills owned by Amish. In spite of their simple ways, though, in many respects they are much more evolved than the rest of us. As theologian Diana Butler Bass expressed it: "How would things have been different if the Amish had been in charge after 9/11?" We could argue over if things would be better or worse, safer or less safe, more or less secure. One thing we know is they would be different.

Reverent Reader


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