Amish Grace and the Rest of Us
Other factors made this forgiveness story distinct, even within Amish life. The Nickel Mines Amish had neighborly ties with the gunman's family, relationships they hoped to mend and keep in this small town environment. Additionally, the scale of the offense meant that no one person or family had to bear the burden of forgiveness alone. The wider Amish community, in a spirit of mutual aid, carried one another along. Moreover, the enormity of the evil made the Amish more open to the possibility that the shooting might have a place in God's providential plan. Together these factors help to explain why some Amish people suggested that forgiving Charles Roberts was easier than forgiving a fellow church member for a petty, run-of-the-mill offense.
Again, we are not minimizing Amish generosity in the face of this horrific shooting. We are suggesting however that the uniqueness of Amish cultureand the details of the tragedyshould chasten us as we apply the Amish example elsewhere. The Amish do not simply tack forgiveness onto their lives in an individualistic fashion, nor do they always forgive as quickly and as easily as media reports seemed to suggest. For these reasons, Amish-style forgiveness can't be strip-mined from southern Lancaster County and transported wholesale to other settings. Rather, the lessons of grace that the rest of us take from Nickel Mines must be extracted with care and applied to other circumstances with humility.
Extracting Lessons from Nickel Mines
Although the Amish approach the task of forgiveness with rich cultural resources, they also approach the task as fallible human beings. In that respect the Amish are like the rest of us, and we are like them. This point should be obvious, but some people assume the Amish have access to otherworldly resources that the rest of us have not found. To be sure, that assumption contains some truth: the God the Amish worship fully expects human beings to love their enemies and forgive their debtors. Nevertheless, the ability to forgive is not restricted to the Amish, or to Christians, or to people who believe in God. To forgive may be divine, as Alexander Pope suggests, but if so, it's a divine act that is broadly available to the human community.
Indeed, in the course of writing this book, we encountered stories of forgiveness that were every bit as moving as the Nickel Mines story: stories of people shot and left for dead, people whose children were abducted and harmed, people whose marriages were shattered by unfaithfulness, people whose reputations were destroyed by so-called friends. Most of these people had no connection to the Amish and few of the cultural resources the Amish bring to bear when they face injustice. And yet they forgavenot quickly or easily, but eventually and for the good of all involved.
Psychologists who study forgiveness find that, generally speaking, people who forgive lead happier and healthier lives than those who don't. The Amish people we interviewed agreed, citing their own experience of forgiving others. Some said they were "controlled" by their offender until they were able to forgive; others said the "acids of hate" destroy the unforgiving person until the hate is released. Coming from members of a religious community that emphasizes self-denial, these comments show that the Amish are nonetheless interested in self-care and personal happiness. Forgiveness may be self-renouncing in some respects, but it is not self-loathing. The Amish we interviewed confirmed what psychologists tell us: forgiveness is a gift to the person who offers it, freeing that person to move on in life with a greater sense of vitality and wholeness.