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.