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 Bible—or even Jesus—seriously. 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.

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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?

Many observers missed the countercultural dimension of Amish forgiveness, or at least downplayed it, in the aftermath of the Nickel Mines shooting. Outsiders, typically impressed by what they saw, too often assumed that Amish grace represented the best in "us." Few commentators did this as crassly as the writer who equated the faith of the Amish with the faith of the Founding Fathers. In his mind, the Nickel Mines Amish were not acting counterculturally; they were simply extending a long American tradition of acting in loving, generous, and "Christian" ways. Other commentators, eager to find redemptive lessons in such a senseless event, offered simple platitudes. Rather than highlighting the painful self-renunciation that forgiveness (and much of Amish life) entails, they extolled Amish forgiveness as an inspiring expression of the goodness that resides in America's heartland.

We are not suggesting that the Amish response to the shooting was not praiseworthy. We contend, however, that the countercultural value system from which it emerged was too often neglected in the tributes that followed in the wake of the shooting. As if to drive home the depth of this cultural divide, ministers in one Ohio Amish community soon forbade a member from giving public lectures on Amish forgiveness. Ironically, the very value system that compelled the Nickel Mines Amish to forgive Charles Roberts constrained a member's freedom to talk about forgiveness with curious outsiders. No, the Amish response at Nickel Mines was not so much the "best of America" as it was an expression of love by a people who every day challenge many of the values the rest of us hold dear.

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The Perils Of Strip Mining

If some observers detached Amish forgiveness from its countercultural weave, others severed it from its social context—drawing dubious lessons the Amish could teach the world. For instance, numerous writers cited the Amish example at Nickel Mines to score points against the violence so prominent in U.S. foreign policy, particularly the Bush administration's war on terror. Many of these critiques contrasted the Christianity of President Bush with the faith of the Amish, and then asked readers which one Jesus himself would endorse. From a rhetorical standpoint, the contrast worked well, though its proponents failed to mention that the two-kingdom Amish would never expect the government to operate without the use of force. Even as the Amish use their own disciplinary procedures to prune unrighteousness within their churches, they expect the government to restrain evildoers in the world, often by force. For that reason, it's unlikely the Amish would encourage a U.S. president to pardon someone like Osama bin Laden.

Of course, it's possible that these commentators were not talking about pardoning terrorists (releasing them from punishment), but rather about forgiving them (replacing rage with love). Still, in their quick application of Amish forgiveness to complex, entrenched conflicts, many pundits neglected a key point: the schoolhouse shooter was dead and his offenses were in the past. As horrible as the shooting was, it was a single event that dawned unexpectedly and ended quickly. Contrast this, for instance, with the centuries-long history of oppression of African Americans, the calculated extermination of six million Jews, or the fear that families living amid ethnic conflict experience every day. Offering forgiveness is much more complicated, and much more challenging, when the offenses occur repeatedly. Even minor offenses—demeaning comments from a supervisor, for instance—can obstruct forgiveness when they continue day after day.

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.

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Again, we are not minimizing Amish generosity in the face of this horrific shooting. We are suggesting however that the uniqueness of Amish culture—and the details of the tragedy—should 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 forgave—not quickly or easily, but eventually and for the good of all involved.

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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.

Still, if the Amish provide evidence that forgiveness heals the forgiver, they provide even more evidence that forgiveness is a gift to the offender. Forgiveness does not deny that a wrong has taken place, but it does give up the right to hurt the wrongdoer in return. Even though Charles Roberts was dead, opportunities to exact vengeance upon his family did not die with his suicide. Rather than pursuing revenge, however, the Amish showed empathy for his kin, even by attending his burial. In other words, the Amish of Nickel Mines chose not to vilify the killer, but to treat him and his family as members of the human community. Amish forgiveness was thus a gift to Charles Roberts, to his family, and even to the world, for it served as the first step toward mending a social fabric that was rent by the schoolhouse shooting.

These acts of grace astounded many people who watched from afar. Living in a world in which religion seems to nourish vengeance more often than curb it, the Amish response was a welcome contrast to a barrage of suicide bombings and religiously fueled rage. What is less clear is whether the rest of us saw the Amish response as something to emulate, or as just a noble but impossible ideal.

Perhaps the answer to that question lies somewhere in the middle. Perhaps we were awed, and truly impressed that the Amish sought to counter evil with a loving and healing response. At the same time, we may know that, had our children been the ones gunned down in the West Nickel Mines School, our response would have been rage rather than grace. It's an honest perspective, but also a problematic one, because it assumes that revenge is the natural response, and forgiveness is reserved for folks like the Amish who spend their lives stifling natural inclinations.

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We often assume that humans have innate needs in the face of violence and injustice. For instance, some who said that the Amish forgave Charles Roberts "too quickly," assumed that Amish people had denied a basic human need to get even. But perhaps our real human need is to find ways to move beyond tragedy with a sense of healing and hope. What we learn from the Amish, both at Nickel Mines and more generally, is that how we choose to move on from tragic injustice is culturally formed. For the Amish, who bring their own religious resources to bear on injustice, the preferred way to live on with meaning and hope is to offer forgiveness—and offer it quickly. That offer, including the willingness to forgo vengeance, does not undo the tragedy or pardon the wrong. It does, however, constitute a first step toward a future that is more hopeful, and potentially less violent, than it would otherwise be.

How might the rest of us move in that direction? Most of us have been formed by a culture that nourishes revenge and mocks grace. Hockey fans complain that they haven't gotten their money's worth if the players only skate and score without a fight. Bloody video games are everywhere, and the ones that seemed outrageously violent ten years ago are tame by today's standards. Blockbuster movie plots revolve around heroes who avenge wrong with merciless killing. And it's not just the entertainment world that acculturates us into a graceless existence. Traffic accidents galvanize hoards of lawyers, who encourage victims to get their "due." In fact, getting our due might be the most widely shared value in our hyper-consumerist culture. "The person who volunteers time, who helps a stranger, who agrees to work for a modest wage out of commitment to the public good … begins to feel like a sucker," writes Robert Kuttner in Everything for Sale. In a culture that places such a premium on buying and selling, as opposed to giving and receiving, forgiveness runs against the grain.

Running against that grain, finding alternative ways to imagine our world, ways that in turn will facilitate forgiveness, takes more than individual willpower. We are not only the products of our culture; we are also producers of our culture. We need to construct cultures that value and nurture forgiveness. In their own way, the Amish have constructed such an environment. The challenge for the rest of us is to creatively use our resources to shape cultures that discourage revenge as a first response. How might we work more imaginatively to create communities in which enemies are treated as members of the human family and not demonized? How might these communities foster visions that enable their members to see offenders, as well as victims, as persons with authentic needs? There are no simple answers to these questions, though any answer surely will involve the habits we decide to value, the images we choose to celebrate, and the stories we remember.

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In fact, forgiveness is less a matter of "forgive and forget" than forgive and remember—remembering in ways that bring healing, as Miroslav Volf writes in Free of Charge. When we remember, we take the broken pieces of our lives—lives that have been dismembered by tragedy and injustice—and re-member them into something whole. Literally forgetting an egregious offense, personally or publicly, may not be possible, but all of us can and do make decisions about how we remember what we cannot forget.

For the Amish, gracious remembering involves habits nurtured by memories of Jesus forgiving his tormentors while hanging on a cross and of Dirk Willems returning to pull his enemy out of the icy water. When thirteen-year-old Marian said "shoot me first" in the schoolhouse, and when adults in her community walked over to the killer's family with words of grace a few hours after her death, they were acting on those habits. And just as surely, their actions at Nickel Mines will be recounted around Amish dinner tables for generations to come, creating and renewing memories about the power of faith to respond in the face of injustice—even violence—with grace.

In a world where faith often justifies and magnifies revenge, and in a nation where some Christians use scripture to fuel retaliation, the Amish response was indeed a surprise. Regardless of the details of the Nickel Mines story, one message rings clear: religion was not used 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.

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Excerpted from Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy by Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt, David L. Weaver-Zercher (September 27, 2007, $24.95 cloth) by permission of Jossey-Bass, a Wiley Imprint.

Related Elsewhere:

Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy is available from and other retailers.

News from Nickel Mines about the community a year after the shootings includes:

Exclusive: interview with slain Amish girls' families | In the year since the Amish school shootings, the girls' families have struggled with grief, anger and fear to reach 'a new normal.' Here, they describe that challenging journey. (Lancaster New Era)
Amish share massacre survivors' stories | One shooting survivor depends entirely on her family for care and is fed through a tube. Another just endured surgery to repair a damaged shoulder and arm. A third suffers lasting vision problems. (Associated Press)
Amish stoically endure scars of massacre| No events will mark the anniversary. "Each day," said a report, "brings … pain, grief and questions." (The Philadelphia Inquirer)

Philip Yancey and Stan Guthrie wrote about the tragedy.

Other articles about the Amish are available in our special section.