The Amish way of forgiveness

By Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt and David L. Weaver-Zercherauthors of “Amish Grace” Scapegoating may be irrational, but it’s … Continued

By Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt and David L. Weaver-Zercher
authors of “Amish Grace”

Scapegoating may be irrational, but it’s understandable and also very common. Perhaps that’s why the upcoming movie on the 2006 Nickel Mines Amish school shooting, set to air this Sunday on the Lifetime Movie Network, adopts that story line. The movie’s trailer portrays an Amish mother showing up at the deceased gunman’s home the day after the shooting to “confront” his devastated wife, holding her responsible for her husband’s deeds.

Only it didn’t happen that way. True, Amish people did show up at gunman Charles Roberts’ home within hours of the shooting that left five girls dead. They also visited his parents and parents-in-law, all of whom lived within a few miles of the West Nickel Mines School.

But the Amish people didn’t go there to express rage or sling blame. They visited the Roberts family because of their compassion for his kin–victims of the tragedy who were also suffering immense emotional pain. One Amish neighbor consoled Charles Roberts’ father with a hand on his shoulder and four simple words: “We love you, Roberts.” A few days later, at Roberts’ burial, parents of some of the Amish girls he had killed showed up and hugged his widow. It was, said one Amish man, “simply the right thing to do.”

We haven’t seen the entire Lifetime movie, which takes its title from our book, “Amish Grace.” But we suspect the movie will conclude with the enraged Amish mother somehow finding within herself the wherewithal to forgive. It’s the kind of ending that will make television viewers feel good, because it mirrors the way many of us think about ourselves: we’d be angry as hell at first, but over time our rage would subside.

Eventually, our reasonable and forgiving side–our good side–would win out.

That may be the way we think about ourselves, but at Nickel Mines, the Amish reversed that pattern. They led with their forgiving side, and began the struggle to make sense of their pain by extending grace. Relying on deeply engrained habits of forgiveness, they extended compassion right away, within hours of the shooting.

Did it make any difference that the Amish reacted that way from the start? Terrie Roberts, the mother of the gunman, thinks so. In our newly released paperback edition of “Amish Grace,” we include an interview with Ms. Roberts. In it, she tells us how the Amish community reached out to her and her kin in the aftermath of the tragedy.
“It is hard to say how I may have reacted had they not offered forgiveness,” says Ms. Roberts. “I just know that their immediate expression had a tremendous impact on my husband and me.”

The Amish response was “the beginning of the healing process,” Ms. Roberts continues. She describes how it compelled her and her husband to visit all the Amish families whose daughters had been shot, and to invite all the mothers and the surviving girls to her home for tea.

Ms. Roberts continues to host teas and swimming parties for the surviving girls, four of whom have resumed relatively normal lives. Her closest relationship, however, exists with Rosanna, the one survivor who doesn’t swim because she’s seriously disabled. To this day, Ms. Roberts visits with Rosanna for several hours every Thursday evening.
Perhaps the real story of Amish grace is as touching as the Lifetime movie version of it. But as we note in our book, the story of Amish forgiveness is not about remarkable individuals finding “within themselves” the ability to forgive. It’s about a community that valued forgiveness and reconciliation so highly before the shooting happened that scapegoating the Roberts family on October 2, 2006, wasn’t even thinkable.

If you want to be a forgiving person, writes Yale theologian Miroslav Volf, “It helps to live in a community that celebrates forgiveness.” That won’t make forgiveness easy, he says, but it will make it easier.

As we reflect once again on the Amish response at Nickel Mines, we couldn’t agree more.

Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt, David L. Weaver-Zercher, authors of “Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy,” now in paperback. The movie “Amish Grace” starring Kimberly Williams-Paisley premieres March 28 on Lifetime.

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  • ddekok

    And where did the natural feelings of fear, anger and rage among the Amish go if they could not be expressed? I’m told that a number of Amish children needed psychological treatment for eating disorders after the Nickel Mines tragedy. You can’t wish away human nature. You can suppress it with an overbearing religion, but it comes out in other ways.

  • los22

    I gained so much respect for the Amish after reading about their response to the tragedy. They are showing the world what Christianity really means. I’ll have to seek out the book “Amish Grace” but clearly the made-for-TV movie missed the point.

  • Eric12345

    There are ways to deal with anger, rage and fear without taking them out on other people, particularly innocent people. The Amish are to be commended for their passion for forgiveness. DDEKOK – Who told you that “a number of Amish children need psychological treatment for eating disorders after the Nickel Mines tragedy?” I’ve not read this. I’m not saying it hasn’t happened, but do you have any evidence of this?

  • apr1185

    Missy Jenkins at missyjenkins.com, who was paralyzed in the deadly 1997 Paducah Ky. school shooting, talks all about forgiveness in her book “I Choose to be Happy.” It’s an amazing read.

  • CmaryC

    I love how the Amish forgive. It is practiced in small daily things and life-shaking events. That approach is not integral to my lifestyle, although I am working toward it. Part of what slows me down is the perception of initiating forgiveness and compromise as being weak. If we want to incorporate forgiveness sincerely and thoroughly, we have to be selfless. We live in a selfish society. How to resolve this?

  • journey1413

    As I have traveled around the country showing the documentary film “The Power of Forgiveness” people never fail to be amazed at the courage of the Amish in their time of unimaginable tragedy.

  • robinottawa

    I’m not a Christian. And I get the feeling you are all saying that forgiving for the sake of being forgiving is somehow good. What’s that about? It makes no sense to me, an atheist. Are you saying Christians should *always* try to forgive as the ultimate good thing to do? What about justice? Will we have justice in society if we all just forgive and not have police and courts? I ask sincerely. Didn’t we have theocracies in the past? Was it better than our (more or less) secular system of justice today? Do you want to go to a priest or minister with your assault complaints, or a justice of the courts. I would suggest that forgiveness is essential not for religious reasons, but for secular reasons. If someone kills my wife or child or friend or neighbour, I have a choice; to live in a society of laws that use reason to judge and deal with the perpetrator, or to think that only god is the judge and I must accept what god causes to happen. For the former, which I support, it requires me to put aside my personal desire for vengeance in order to allow society to function, for the common good. That is not a religious reason for forgiveness – it is a practical one which depends on my trust that the system works for the common good. You *ALL* support that by living with our laws, whether you admit it or not.

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