Tuesday, October 2, 2007

“Why the Amish Forgave a Killer”

Speech by Professor of History Steven M. Nolt on Monday, October 1, 2007 at Goshen College Convocation, Church-Chapel.


Related links:

In the media:

“One year ago, Monday morning, October 2, a beautiful clear day in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, a non-Amish man backed his pick up truck into the school yard of the West Nickel Mines Amish school.  Inside the one-room schoolhouse were 28 students, and three adult women—the teacher and three visitors that day.

The intruder, Charles Roberts, was a milk truck driver well known in the area. This morning, however, he was heavily armed, and ordered everyone in the school to lie on the floor.  The teacher and one other adult dashed for the door and escaped for help.  Apparently startled that his plans apparently were going awry, Roberts ordered the remaining adults and boys out of the school.  He nailed the door shut and pulled the blinds to darken the room, and tied together the legs of the remaining ten girls, who were still lying on the floor at the front of the room. He told them that he was angry at God—had been for years—and that he could not forgive God and he could not forgive himself.

By this time, police had begun arriving at the school, responding to a phone call the distraught teacher had made after running a half mile to the neighboring farmhouse. Realizing the police had arrived and were asking him, through a bullhorn, to surrender, Roberts himself called 911, telling the responder that he would shoot everyone if the police did not leave. Moments later he opened fire, getting off 13 shots in 8 seconds. The rampage killed five of the girls and severely injured the other five. After firing a shot through a window at the police and shot himself.

Within 30 minutes this event literally became news around the world. Not, we should note here, because male violence against girls was newsworthy—that theme, in fact, was seemingly lost in the reporting that followed or was assumed to be commonplace.  Instead, the story that first flew around the globe was that the last safe the rest of the world had imagined—rural Amish schools—had just been added to the growing list of school shootings sites.

But very quickly the media story shifted from one of lost innocence to one of bewilderment and even consternation. The victimized Amish community, it seemed to many observers, was reacting in strange ways.

Their grief was intense.  But they did not convert their grief and shock into calls for retribution.  True, the killer was dead, but the Amish did not engage in the most common form of revenge we see in contemporary society: attacking his character or degrading his memory. While other neighbors said they hoped he was enjoying burning in hell, the Amish said they trusted he had met a merciful God. Nor did they ever imply that his apparent mental illness was evil or a moral failing—again, as some others did. Instead, they sought to treat him as a fellow human being—troubled, to be sure, but one whose memory warranted respect and whose survivors needed love and compassion.

Within a few hours of the shooting members of the local Amish community reached out in sympathy to his widow, his parents, his parents-in-law, assuring them that they would not scapegoat them for what happened. 

Six days later, when most non-Amish neighbors stayed away from Roberts’ burial, the Amish did not, and ended up being half of the mourners present, and again hugged his family and cried together. They included Amish parents who had just the day before buried their own daughters.

About the same time, the ad hoc Amish committee set up to oversee the money that poured in from around the world for the shooting victims announced that they would be diverting some of the money to a second fund for the Roberts family.
Now this was news.  And it was a story that reporters—and the public at large—was unprepared for. They didn’t know what to make of it.  Forgiveness of this sort was so uncommon.

Some people praised Amish forgiveness, and jumped to apply its example to a host of other social and political issues.

Others denounced Amish forgiveness, condemning it as too fast, emotionally unhealthy, and a denial of innate human need to seek revenge.

Why did the Amish forgive?

For the past year two colleagues and I have been on a quest, both academic and personal, to understand the dynamics of what happened in the wake of the Nickel Mines shooting.  We came to the story as people who knew something about Amish culture and beliefs; we came as parents and a grandparent of young children; we came as people who believe forgiveness is a good thing, but a difficult and complex thing.

But there was a lot about this story that we did not know. Take the phrase “The Amish forgave.”  What did that mean? What was forgiveness in this case? And why forgive?

It turns out that the Amish have a far from simplistic understanding of forgiveness. True, some things were clear from the start: The decision to forgive came quickly, instinctively.  The Amish knew they wanted to forgive, knew it so clearly that they could express it immediately and publicly even if and when they didn’t feel that way. One Amish grandmother laughed when we asked is there had been a meeting to decide if the gunman should be forgiven. No, she and others said, forgiveness was a decided matter—decided long before October 2 ever raised the occasion for forgiveness.

At the same time, this grandmother and others made clear that forgiving is hard work, emotionally, and that deciding to forgive and expressing that desire with words and actions are only a first step.  Many of those close to the tragedy made use of professional counselors and, a year later, continue to work with their grief.

Although the Amish drew on the resources of professionals, they often explained that forgiveness was a long process by citing biblical language: Jesus had said that even small offenses need to be forgiven seventy times seven, they note, suggesting that forgiving takes time and is not a simple once-and-done event.  
It’s important here to clarify what the Amish believe forgiveness is and is not. 

  • It’s not pretending that nothing happened or that the offense wasn’t so bad.
  • It’s not pardon; it’s not saying there should be no consequences for actions.  Had Charles Roberts lived, the Amish no doubt would have supported his prosecution and imprisonment for the sake of everyone’s safety.
  • Instead, forgiveness is about giving up: giving up your right to revenge.  And giving up feelings of resentment, bitterness and hatred, replacing them with compassion toward the offender.  And treating the offender as a fellow human being.

This is hard work, even if the decision to forgive is settled. When a grieving grandfather, asked by reporters less than 48 hours after two of his granddaughters had been slain if he had forgiven the killer, responded, “In my heart, yes,” his words conveyed a commitment to move toward forgiveness, offered with the faith that loving feelings would eventually replace distraught and angry ones.

Speaking the folk wisdom of experience, Amish people told us, “The Acid of hate destroys the contain that holds it.”  And “It’s not good to hold grudges. Why not let go, give it up and not let the person [who wronged you] have power over you.” 

Forgiving may be about self-denial, but it is not self-loathing.  In fact, forgiving, the Amish affirm, is good for you, not just for the person forgiven.

If the Amish explanation of forgiveness is more complicated than many of the popular presentations of Amish forgiveness that suggested they stoically stuffed their feelings in a box, it still begs the question of why?  Why and how could the Amish forgive in the way that they did, in the way that they understand forgiveness?

  1. The first thing they cite when explaining their understanding of forgiveness, perhaps not surprisingly, is theological: Jesus tells us to forgive and God expects us to forgive they say.

They immediately point to Jesus parables on forgiveness and especially to the Lord’s Prayer, with its key line:  Forgive us as we forgive others.
This phrase rings loudly in Amish ears because they pray the Lord’s Prayer frequently. It’s not uncommon in the Lancaster, Pennsylvania settlement for Amish people to prayer the Lord’s Prayer eight times a day, and ten times on Sundays.  The Amish there discourage composing original prayers and use the Lord’s Prayer routinely and liturgically. 

As well, they point out that the line forgive us as we forgive others is the only part of the Lord’s Prayer that Jesus underscores. Immediately following the Prayer, Jesus says:  “For if you forgive others their trespasses your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your heavenly Father forgive your trespasses,” adding emphasis t what the Amish see as a key theological truth.

Indeed, the Amish believe that God’s forgiveness of them is dependant in some way on their forgiving others.  Not that they are trying to manipulate God into forgiving them, but they see their relationship with God and their relations with other people as so closely bound together that they cannot be separated.
Their ability to forgive is dependant on God’s forgiving them, but God’s forgiving them is also dependant on their forgiving others. Forgiveness becomes a sort of religious obligation.

  1. But if forgiveness is a duty, it does not stand alone as a cold command to be born in isolation. Amish forgiveness is supported by hundreds of years of Amish history and culture, hundreds of years’ worth of story telling and cultivating habits that celebrate forgiveness and make the terribly difficult responses at Nickel Mines nonetheless seem normal.

And to the degree that forgiveness involves giving up, forgiveness is central to Amish life every day, even when there is no criminal offense to forgive.  In many ways, the essence of Amish life is giving up.  Giving up self to the group, to God.  From how one dresses to the kind of work on does, Amish life is shaped by riuals and routines of self-surrender.

So if forgiveness is about giving up one’s right to revenge, or giving up grudges, Amish culture has primed its members to give up in a host of daily practices.  That doesn’t make forgiving easy for the Amish. But it does make it something that is part of the rest of life, and not an unnatural act—as it seemed to appear to outsiders whose culture resists giving up and celebrates getting one’s due.

This cultural context also means that for the Amish, forgiveness is not an individual matter.  It was not the job of the wounded girls or shell-shocked boys to forgive. (Their parents say they hope someday those children will feel compassion for Charles Roberts, but they have not press the children on this point.)  Amish forgiveness is collective.  There was not just one victim, but many; many people can forgive. And so the Amish do not have to puzzle over whether it is right for them to forgive on behalf of someone else—an ethical dilemma that has confounded ethicists in individualistically-oriented societies. The Amish forgive on their own behalf because they see the emotional pain as broadly shared, and not the sole burden of those the rest of the world would call “primary victims.”

Although the Amish never anticipated the horror of Nickel Mines, they were prepared to respond long before they needed to.

What does this mean for the rest of us? 

This is a question we wrestled with as we worked with this issue, and one many people have been asking us.  If the Amish response to Nickel Mines was rooted so deeply in the specifics of who they are, culturally, does it mean anything for those of us who are not Amish?
Further, even for the Amish, forgiveness in this case took a particular shape because of the specific nature of this offense: the killer was known to the community, and he was now dead.  Some Amish folks said that it would be harder to forgive Charles Roberts if he were still alive and they had to face him in person. Others said it would have been more difficult to forgive him if he had molested the girls before he killed them.

It doesn’t diminish the terror of the Nickel Mines schoolhouse to note that the situation of forgiveness here is different from situations in which an offense—even a relatively less severe one—is repeated again and again. Such on-going violations pose different challenges to forgiveness.

For these and other reasons, I’m cautious about applying any lessons of Nickel Mines too broadly as a one-size fits all lesson.

But more to the point, I’m cautious because of what we do learn from Amish forgiveness. Amish forgiveness is not an easily transferable technique because it grows out of their collective life and culture.

And that is where the rest of us need to start, if we want to explore the possibilities of forgiveness.  Not with Amish culture, but with our own, and the mini-cultures all of us create as we go about life.  Theologian Miroslav Volf has said something to the effect that if you want to be a forgiving person, surround yourself with forgiving people.

Treating Nickel Mines as an inspirational or motivational story won’t change anything, because forgiveness is too difficult and too complicated to just begin happening because we heard a motivational story.

But it is the case that the stories we tell each day all year, the images we surround ourselves with, the heroes we celebrate, and the communities of friendship and worship to which we give ourselves will do a great deal to shape how we forgive, and the kind of world that makes forgiving so necessary.
Such shaping and reshaping is hard work.  It’s hard to distinguish between forgiveness and pardon; to know when reconciliation is possible and when it needs more time.  Our culture celebrates violence on many levels.  Even more, it insists that the most innate human need is to get one’s due, that your most fundamental right is retribution. In such a setting, giving and forgiving are deeply countercultural.

These are things for which we need discerning communities—the Amish and I recommend Christian community—long before we think we need them.

Last October, one person who began reflecting on forgiveness and community and Lord’s Prayer, was John McCutchen, a nationally-known folk singing who has performed frequently here at the Goshen College music center, and who offered a song as his contribution to the language and images we might take with us into this difficult work.  We’ll end with this song, not because it is the final word on forgiveness, but as one musical offering on the way to taking up the painful, always complicated, but life-giving work of forgiveness.

Following his song you are dismissed."


E-mail this story

Goshen College
1700 S Main St
Goshen, Indiana 46526
phone: +1 (574) 535-7569
fax: 535-7660