Amish Grace and the Rest of Us
The Amish Are Not Us
If there's one thing we learned from the Nickel Mines story, it's this: the Amish commitment to forgive is not a small patch tacked onto their fabric of faithfulness. Rather, their commitment to forgive is intricately woven into their lives and their communities-so intricately that it's hard to talk about Amish forgiveness without talking about dozens of other things.
When we first broached the subject of forgiveness with Amish people, we were struck by their reluctance to speak of forgiveness in abstract ways. We did hear forgiveness defined as "letting go of grudges." More frequently, however, we heard responses and stories with forgiveness interspersed with other terms such as love, humility, compassion, submission, and acceptance. The web of words that emerged in these conversations pointed to the holistic, integrated nature of Amish life. Unlike many of their consumer-oriented neighbors, the Amish do not assemble their spirituality piecemeal by personal preference. Rather, Amish spirituality is woven together by a community of saints that stretches back for centuries.
To hear the Amish explain it, the New Testament provides the pattern for their unique form of spirituality. In a certain sense they are right. The Amish take the words of Jesus with utmost seriousness, and members frequently explain their faith by quoting Jesus or other New Testament texts. But the Amish way of life cannot be reduced simply to taking the Bibleor even Jesusseriously. Rather, Amish spirituality emerges from their particular way of understanding the biblical text, a lens that's been shaped by their pacifistic martyr tradition. With the martyrs hovering nearby, offering admonition and encouragement, the Amish have esteemed suffering over vengeance, Uffgevva over striving, and forgiveness over resentment. All Christians can read Jesus' words in Matthew's Gospel"forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors"but Amish people truly believe that their own forgiveness is bound up in their willingness to forgive others. For them, forgiveness is more than a good thing to do. It is the thing to do.
All of this helps us understand how the Nickel Mines Amish could do the unimaginable: extend forgiveness to their children's killer within hours of their deaths. The decision to forgive came quickly, almost instinctively. Moreover, it came in deeds as well words, with concrete expressions of care for the gunman's family. For the Amish, the test of faith is action. Beliefs are important, and words are too, but actions reveal the true character of one's faith. Therefore to really forgive means to act in forgiving ways-in this case, expressing care for the family of the killer.
In a world where the default response is more often revenge than forgiveness, all of this is inspiring. At the same time, the fact that forgiveness is so deeply woven into the fabric of Amish life should alert us that their example, inspiring as it is, is not easily transferable to other people in other situations. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but how does one imitate a habit that's embedded in a way of life anchored in a 400-year history?
Most North Americans, formed by the assumptions of liberal democracy and consumer capitalism, carry a dramatically different set of cultural habits. In fact, many North Americans might conclude that certain Amish habits are problematic, if not utterly offensive. Submitting to the discipline of fallible church leaders? Forgoing personal acclaim? Constraining intellectual exploration? Abiding by restrictive gender roles? Declining to stand up for one's rights? Refusing to fight for one's country? Could any set of cultural habits be more out of sync with mainstream American culture?