The National Catholic Review
On Oct. 2, 2006, the unthinkable occurred. Ten Amish girls were gunned down in a schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania.

A community known for its gentleness, religious faithfulness and rejection of modern technological society had been severely violated. As astonishing as this story was, what followed captured the attention of the country even more. Within six hours of the shooting, Amish leaders reached out to family members of the killer, Charles Carl Roberts IV, and let them know that they forgave him.

Some skeptics thought the Amish to be too innocent to understand the realities of the world, where revenge is a commonly accepted response. Others thought the Amish too quick and maybe disingenuous in forgiving so soon. To forgive a murderer for this crime seemed beyond human, they thought.

The authors of Amish Grace, who are scholars of Amish life, culture and spirituality, compiled this book in a very short time to address such questions about why the Amish acted as they did. They divide the book into three parts. In the first part, they set the scene and tell the story of the shooting. Then they discuss Amish spirituality and answer questions that were raised about the authenticity of the community’s faith response. Finally, they reflect on the meaning of forgiveness for the Amish as a witness to non-Amish Americans.

To the Amish this act of forgiveness was not a surprise. It was as much a part of their spirituality as breathing. Their tradition of forgiveness is a heritage from their 300-year-old history, during which their ancestors, the Anabaptists, were persecuted and tortured by Catholic and Protestant religious authorities who objected to their belief in a second baptism. Those Anabaptist martyrs forgave their persecutors even as they were burning at the stake—and just as Jesus did during his crucifixion.

The Amish accept the limits of their humanity and recognize its capacity to commit evil or misguided deeds. Thus, a typical Amish attitude about forgiveness is that “we have to forgive others so that God will forgive us.”

Forgiveness is a way of keeping their small community together when a hurt is done either inadvertently or deliberately, especially since they live together most of their lives. Their practice of humility, submission and patience “provides them with an enormous capacity to absorb adversity, forgo revenge and carry on—gracefully.” Consequently, forgiveness opens everyone to grace; and when grace unfolds, everyone and everything is changed. For the Nickel Mines community, that grace included the mourners, the family of the perpetrator, the victims’ families and the community. In this highly publicized story, even hard-core skeptics were moved to awe and admiration of the Amish.

Forgiveness is by no means easy, even for the Amish. They understand that it is fundamental to their spirituality and must be extended to others continuously—just as Jesus said, “seventy times seven.” The Lord’s Prayer in particular encapsulates the substance of their faith and spirituality. “Thy will be done,” means “submitting to God’s perfect will” rather than fighting or striving against God.

The community’s leaders, for example, went to the killer’s home to offer them reassurance that they held no ill will toward them for what Roberts had done. Such a visit was a ritual obligation; but the community, including the families of the victims, continued contact with the Roberts family. They did this because they recognized that living together in the same small community of Nickels Mines required it.

The Amish are not fatalistic. They believe in free will and know that people make choices. Roberts’s attack on the schoolgirls was not God’s will; Roberts made an evil choice. Likewise, people can respond to such a tragedy either by forgiving the perpetrator or carrying out vengeful retaliation. If one chooses the former, the gift of God’s grace may unfold and compassion be aroused. If one chooses the latter, there is bitterness for life.

This attitude toward free will does not mean that individuals in the Amish community did not suffer after the deaths of the schoolgirls. It did not prevent the other children from having bad dreams or keep the families of the dead girls from grieving. It did mean, however, that the community acted together through forgiveness and then trusted that God would give them the grace of seeing some good from the tragedy.

It is important to note that the Amish do not condone bad behavior or seek to relieve offenders from the consequences of their crimes or indiscretions. They leave punishment for crimes of violence to the state. So if Charles Roberts had lived, the community would have expected the state to punish him for his crime—but the community still would have forgiven him. They were unconcerned with God’s judgment of him.

Amish Grace is academic in tone and structure and a bit dry. In many ways it reads like a primer on Amish life and spirituality, but it engages the reader and provides a convincing and comprehensive study of the dynamics of forgiveness. Authentic faith is difficult to achieve. The outstanding example of forgiveness by the Amish community of Nickel Mines—typical of Amish communities—gives us hope that human beings can in fact transcend the tragedies in their lives without revenge.

Throughout, the authors prompt readers to reflect on and expand their own capacity for forgiveness. In these days of war and retaliation, what an incredible grace the Amish have given us.

Olga Bonfiglio is a professor at Kalamazoo College in Michigan and the author of Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq (Global Visions, 2005).