Amish Forgiveness at Nickel Mines: A series of essays by Dr. Donald Kraybill, co-author of Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy
The tragic schoolhouse shooting of ten Amish girls at Nickel Mines in Southern Lancaster County stunned the world. What was even more surprising was the Amish response of forgiveness in the face of this unprecedented slaughter of the innocent of the innocent. By the end of that awful day in October 2006, five young girls were dead and five others were fighting for their lives in emergency rooms. How would we have responded if these had been our daughters, our sisters, our nieces, or our granddaughters?
The Amish response of forgiveness shocked the world and quickly became the story that eclipsed the story of violence. Within a week of the shooting some 2,400 media stories around the world focused on the courage to forgive in the wake of the horror. Why did the Amish respond with forgiveness? When and how did they forgive? I set out to answer those questions in interviews with some three dozen Amish people in preparation to write the book Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy (Jossey Bass 2007). This essay outlines some of the distinctive aspects of Amish forgiveness.
The second essay, in August, will explore the roots of Amish forgiveness. The most remarkable thing about Amish forgiveness was its speed. I talked with some of the Amish people who, six hours after the shooting, spoke words of grace and forgiveness to the widow of Charles Carl Roberts IV, the gunman who had subsequently killed himself in the schoolhouse. Later that same day, other Amish people went to the home of Charles Roberts’s parents to express forgiveness and support. During the next two days, on television, several Amish people spoke words of forgiveness. To the outside world it seemed like instant forgiveness, and that fact alone led some onlookers to think it was insincere, almost robotic. After interviewing Amish people who were directly involved in this story, I have no doubt that the forgiveness was a genuine heartfelt expression of grace for the families of the man who did the shooting.
One of the fathers who lost a daughter in the schoolhouse and had another one seriously injured said, “Our forgiveness was not in our words, it was in what we did.” What did they do? How did the Amish enact forgiveness? Two days after the shooting the Amish formed the Nickel Mines Accountability Committee to disperse, with fiscal integrity, the financial gifts of goodwill that were suddenly coming from people around the world to help the suffering families. Composed of seven Amish leaders and two outside businessmen, the Nickel Mines Accountability Committee decided to give a proportion of the funds they received to the widow and children of Charles Roberts. In time, the committee received about $4.2 million from generous donors around the world.
One of the most striking expressions of forgiveness occurred at Charles Roberts’s burial on the Saturday after the shooting. Roberts was buried in the Georgetown cemetery, about a mile from the school, beside his firstborn daughter whose premature death nine years earlier he blamed on God and gave as the reason for his murderous acts. Over half of the people in attendance were Amish. They spontaneously decided to attend. Some had just buried their own daughters the day before. After the burial they hugged the widow and the parents of Charles Roberts. It was a remarkable act of grace. The funeral director supervising the burial said, “I realized that I was witnessing a miracle!” The Amish families bestowed other gracious acts of kindness on the family of Charles Roberts. Some sent meals and flowers to his widow. At Christmastime children from a nearby Amish school went to the Roberts home to sing carols.
Another remarkable facet of the Amish response was the absence of anger and rage. One Amish woman said, “When I saw the bodies of one of the little girls at the viewing it just made me mad, mad at the evil, not at the shooter.” In my interviews, I probed for anger toward Charles Roberts but I detected only deep sorrow, not anger. When I asked about Roberts’s eternal destiny, one Amish minister said, “I can only hope for him what I hope for myself, that God will be a merciful and loving judge.” Deep pain and sorrow seared the hearts of the Amish parents. Even months after the tragedy, the memory of the event brought tears to the eyes of many Amish people. “I couldn’t preach in church for several weeks because when I tried, I just cried and cried,” said one grandfather, a minister who lost a granddaughter in the schoolhouse. The Amish are not stoic people; they experience the emotions of pain and suffering like the rest of us.
The Amish response of forgiveness in the wake of the tragic schoolhouse shooting of ten Amish girls at Nickel Mines in Southern Lancaster County shocked the world. Forgiveness quickly became the big story, eclipsing the story of violence. In part one of this series, I described some of the traits of Amish forgiveness. But why did the Amish forgive? I searched for answers to that question in interviews with some three dozen Amish people in preparation for writing Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy.
As I spoke with Amish people in the weeks following the tragedy, I asked, “What led you to forgive Charles Roberts?” I thought that many of them would point to their martyr history and the suffering of their Anabaptist ancestors in sixteenth century Europe. Several did indeed mention their forbears who were burned at the stake for the sake of their religious beliefs. In some cases, the martyrs repeated the words of Jesus as he hung on the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” A few interviewees mentioned Dirk Willems, an Anabaptist martyr who escaped from prison and fled across an icy pond. He glanced back to discover that a guard who was pursuing him had fallen through the ice. Instead of fleeing to safety, Willems turned and rescued his pursuer, only to be recaptured and burned at the stake several days later. Some Amish people cited this story as well as Jesus’ admonition to love one’s enemies as the reason for their forgiveness.
More frequently, however, Amish people referred to the Lord’s Prayer found in chapter six of Matthew’s Gospel. In fact, the first response to my question was, “Well, it’s in the Lord’s Prayer.” Amish people pointed out the statement that says “Forgive us our transgressions as we forgive those who transgressed against us.” In addition, one bishop explained that “forgiveness is the only thing that Jesus underscored in the Lord’s Prayer.” “Look at the next two verses,” he continued excitedly. He was right. Those verses focus on forgiveness. “If you forgive, you will be forgiven. If you don’t forgive, you won’t be forgiven.” For the Amish, forgiveness is not a one-dimensional relationship between an individual and God. Rather, their acceptance of God’s forgiveness means that they need to pass it on to others and, if they balk at forgiving others, they may jeopardize their very salvation. “If we don’t forgive, we won’t be forgiven,” they say.
The Lord’s Prayer holds great significance for the Amish because it is their central liturgical prayer. It is read or repeated at all Amish religious services—worship, weddings, ordinations, baptisms, and funerals. One of the reasons for this is that Amish ministers do not make up their own prayers to use in worship. Composing their own prayers would appear vain and haughty. Thus, beyond the Lord’s Prayer, all the other prayers in Amish services are silent ones or are read from an old Anabaptist prayer book. Defending the use of the Lord’s Prayer, a young Amish carpenter said, “We just think it’s a well-rounded prayer. It has all the basics. And we don’t think that we can improve on Jesus.” Children learn to memorize the Lord’s Prayer both in German and English at a very early age. It is typically recited in Amish schools at the beginning of each school day and was, in fact, recited at the West Nickel Mines School on the fateful day of October 2, 2006.
Rituals that accent forgiveness are featured each fall and spring in the Sunday worship service known as Council Meeting, which is held two Sundays prior to Communion Sunday. The biblical text for the Council Meeting service is Matthew 18. This chapter records the time when Peter, one of the disciples, asks Jesus if forgiving someone seven times is enough. Jesus replies that forgiveness should be offered “seventy times seven.” His point was that forgiveness should be a never-ending habit. Following this exchange, Jesus relates the parable of a servant who is forgiven by a king, but then refuses to forgive a fellow servant. The story ends with a warning: if you don’t forgive, you won’t be forgiven. Amish preachers expound on these texts to encourage their members to forgive each other so that they can celebrate the unity of their community in Holy Communion. If they cannot find harmony, communion will be postponed.
Thus for the Amish, forgiveness is a high and holy virtue that is directly tied to salvation. God’s grace, as they understand it, has some strings attached: it may end unless they are willing to forgive those who have transgressed against them.
October 2, 2008, will mark the second anniversary of the schoolhouse shooting of ten Amish girls at Nickel Mines in southern Lancaster County. The remarkable legacy of this tragedy is the Amish response of forgiveness that quickly eclipsed the violence. Along with two colleagues, I wrote a book about the horrific event titled Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy (Jossey-Bass 2007). In order to write this inspiring story, I interviewed some three dozen Amish people. One of the basic questions I asked all of them was “What is forgiveness?” The whole world was stunned to learn that the Amish quickly expressed forgiveness to members of the gunman’s family within hours of the tragedy that left five girls dead. But what, for the Amish, is the definition of forgiveness?
The most frequent response I received was that “forgiveness means giving up a grudge.” When members of the Amish community spoke to the widow and parents of the gunman who killed himself after shooting the girls, they were, in their words, saying, “We won’t hold a grudge against you. We hope that you stay in the area. We want to continue to be good neighbors to you.” One Amish farmer told me, “Acid corrodes the container that holds it. That’s what happens when we hold onto bitterness.” For the Amish, forgiveness means letting go of grudges, getting rid of bitterness.
An Amish father who lost a daughter in the schoolhouse offered a slightly different definition: “For me, forgiveness means giving up my right to revenge.” His statement points out the countercultural nature of forgiveness. In mainstream culture we assume that each individual has the right to retaliate if someone does them wrong. We talk about “payback time,” “getting our due,” “teaching someone a lesson,” and “hiring a lawyer to milk someone far beyond the value of the damage.” To speak about giving up the right to revenge flies in the face of contemporary cultural values. In this sense the forgiveness extended by the Amish was another example—along with horse-and-buggy transportation and distinctive dress—of the countercultural values of their community.
When we experience an injustice it’s easy to allow rage, resentment, and revenge to fill our hearts. An embrace of forgiveness brings freedom. Until we can move to forgiveness, we are held hostage to events of the past or to the acts of a perpetrator. In other words, we are emotionally obsessed by the fact that someone has wronged us. The Amish would say that we should not wait for an apology from our offender because it may never come. Although it is hard emotional and spiritual work, we should walk toward forgiveness regardless of the offender’s response. If we wait for remorse from him or her, we may be obsessed with rage for the rest of our lives. The journey toward freedom is the challenging emotional work of the victim. Expressions of forgiveness may or may not lead to reconciliation with the offender. Reconciliation requires a voluntary commitment from both victim and offender; forgiveness does not.
One way of defining forgiveness is to say what it is not. It is not forgetting, but rather it is remembering in a new way. The Amish will never forget, nor should they, that awful day in October 2006. But they will remember it and frame it in a new way because of their forgiving response. Forgiveness also does not mean condoning evil or excusing it. Forgiveness is so difficult because evil is taken so seriously. Forgiveness does not mean that the Amish were saying that it’s OK to shoot innocent little girls. Finally, forgiveness is different from pardon, which erases any punishment. Governors and presidents have the authority to erase punishment. The Amish were quick to say that, if Charles Carl Roberts IV had lived, they would have wanted him incarcerated, not out of revenge, but to protect other innocent children. Perpetrators can be forgiven by a victim but still held accountable for their actions. In other words, forgiveness and justice are two different things and should not be confused.
Forgiveness may lead toward emotional and spiritual freedom, but nonetheless it is hard work. Some onlookers thought the Amish forgiveness was too rushed, too instantaneous. They should have grieved more and offered forgiveness months or years later. Forgiveness is woven into the fabric of Amish culture though. It is part of their religious DNA. Forgiveness at Nickel Mines, then, was “a decided issue,” as one bishop put it. Decided, that is, by their history and religious beliefs. The Amish did not need to convene a meeting to extend forgiveness. But even though they expressed it so quickly, it wasn’t easy. One father who lost a daughter in the shooting said, “Every morning, I need to start all over again with forgiveness.” It is hard, but it does lead to emotional freedom.
October 2, 2008, marks the second anniversary of the tragic schoolhouse shooting of ten Amish girls at Nickel Mines in southern Lancaster County. When people remember this horrific event, many of them recall the Amish response of forgiveness that quickly eclipsed the sad story of violence. In order to write Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy (Jossey-Bass 2007), I interviewed some three dozen Amish people. After the book was published, I told the inspiring story of Amish forgiveness in many public lectures. In the question-and-answer periods that followed, I was often asked how the community is doing today. That’s a pertinent question to revisit on this second anniversary.
Ten Amish girls between the ages of six and fourteen were shot in the West Nickel Mines School by a non-Amish neighbor who said that he was angry at God for the death of his firstborn daughter nine years earlier. By the end of that awful day in October 2006, five girls were dead and five were hospitalized with serious injuries from gunshot wounds. Four of them recovered and were back in school several months after the shooting. Although some needed reconstructive surgery and intensive physical therapy, they were able to resume normal lives. In fact, some of them were called miracle children by their doctors because of their remarkable recoveries. One of the surviving five lives at home but continues to need constant care.
Ten days after the shooting, the Amish tore down the schoolhouse. This was not part of a religious ritual of purification as some journalists thought, but a practical response. First, it would have been unconscionable to send the surviving boys and girls back to the schoolhouse where they had witnessed such horror. Second, the schoolhouse would have attracted hundreds, if not thousands, of tourists each year. A few weeks after the slaughter, the site of the old school was sprouting with grass in the corner of a horse pasture.
A week after the shooting, the Amish opened a temporary school in a three-car garage on a nearby Amish property. They soon selected a site for a new school about a half mile from the former one, but this time near several homes. The New Hope School was set back from the main road along the lane of an Amish residence. The new school opened on April 2, 2007, exactly six months after the tragedy. Constructed by Amish carpenters, the new school’s fine craftsmanship is evident from its well-appointed outhouses to its brick walls. On several occasions, members of the state police have come to the new school to play softball and other games with the children, thus allaying their fears and assuring their sense of security.
The teacher, who was twenty years old and in her third year of teaching when the shooting occurred, continued to teach in the temporary school and in the new school until the end of the Spring 2008 school term. Another teacher has now assumed the teaching responsibilities, beginning in the fall of 2008.
Many of the families who had children in the school on the day of the shooting sought the help of professional counselors in the wake of the tragedy. In some cases counselors came to their homes to help both the children and the parents process their grief around the kitchen table. The assistance of professional counselors was helpful in processing the memories and helping the families to move on. Some of the older boys have experienced survivor guilt—wondering why they didn’t do more to try to prevent the tragedy that took some of their sisters. In one or two cases the heavy burden of this guilt required extensive professional care a year after the event. Two of the mothers who lost daughters in the schoolhouse have had the joy of giving birth to new daughters. And for the most part, the parents and others in the Amish community have been able, with God’s help, to move on to what they have called “a new normal.”
The widow of the gunman remarried and move several miles away from Nickel Mines to begin a new life with her three children and new husband. The parents of the gunman visited the home of each Amish family who had children in the school on the day of the shooting. This act of reconciliation, which took considerable spiritual courage, was made somewhat easier by the gracious Amish response of forgiveness shortly after the shooting. The gunman’s parents also invited the Amish families to their home for a picnic in the summer of 2007. In all of these ways, the Nickel Mines community is moving forward in positive ways to a “new normal” way of life.
The story of Amish forgiveness following the schoolhouse shooting of ten Amish girls at Nickel Mines in southern Lancaster County on October 2, 2008, is a story of grace. The remarkable legacy of this tragedy is the Amish response of forgiveness that quickly overshadowed the violence. The Christmas season is a time of good will, peace, good cheer and, above all, grace! The memories of the Amish response teach us timely lessons of grace at this time of year.
Along with two colleagues, I wrote a book about the horrific event titled Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy (Jossey-Bass 2007). To write this inspiring story, I interviewed some three dozen Amish people to learn how and why they responded to the killer’s family with grace and forgiveness.
One of the major issues we faced was how to write a graceful story about a tragedy without exploiting the victims who had suffered the loss of their children. My coauthors and I worried that by telling this story it would appear as if we were taking advantage of the calamity for our own financial gain. At times we almost dropped the idea of writing. But we felt that the forgiveness the Amish expressed was so powerful that it should be shared with other people and, indeed, might inspire others to forgive in the face of violence.
So we decided to consult with some of the Amish families. We proposed giving all our author royalties to the Nickel Mines Accountability Committee, which dispersed the funds contributed from around the world for the medical costs of the Amish shooting victims. The Amish families rejected that idea, saying that they would prefer that non-Amish children who were suffering for whatever reason would benefit. Thus, with the support of the Amish families, we have designated all the author royalties to the Mennonite Central Committee for their worldwide efforts to assist children suffering from poverty, war, and natural disaster. By the end of 2008, we will have contributed over $100,000 in royalties to this cause.
The parents who lost children in the schoolhouse on that awful October day have searched for answers to the hard questions of why God allowed this to happen to them. Why their children? Why the West Nickel Mines School? Some have suggested that perhaps there was a greater purpose hidden in the shadows of the pain that day. In the long search for grace in the midst of this tragedy, some of them have pointed to how the inspiring story of their forgiveness has touched so many other people around the world. They also have found solace in the fact that the proceeds from our book are helping to make a difference in the lives of other children who are victims of tragedies around the world.
One of the questions that we faced in writing this book was what to title it. It seemed at first glance like the primary theme of the story was forgiveness. Yet some questions emerged as we interviewed people and looked deeper into the meaning of the story. Some psychologists have argued that forgiveness can only be transacted between the offender and the victim. In the schoolhouse shooting, the offender was dead. Five of the victims were also dead and the other five were young girls lying seriously wounded in hospital emergency rooms. The parents were in deep grief or at the bedsides of their injured children. Was forgiveness even possible?
Numerous Amish people speaking on behalf of their community, in a kind of spiritual barn rising, spoke words of forgiveness and demonstrated forgiveness toward members of the family of the man who did the shooting. In many ways these were acts of grace and words of kindness. And they were surprising because in many situations there would have been words of revenge and acts of retaliation. Thus we decided to make the main title of our book Amish Grace, rather than “Amish Forgiveness.” The more we have learned about this inspiring story we think it is primarily a story about grace.
Our only regret with the title is that many Amish people did not like it. The Amish reviewers who read a draft of the manuscript all said that they would prefer the title “God’s Grace” because they were only able to do what they did with God’s help and to them the title Amish Grace calls too much attention to themselves and deflects the glory from God. By the time we received their feedback the publisher already had the title in promotion catalogs and it was too late to change. Interestingly some readers have called the story “Amazing Grace,” and perhaps that would be the best title of all and certainly an appropriate one for the Christmas season.
Amish Country News essays (2008)
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