Wednesday, September 7, 2011

“Amish Grace”: A Story that can never be told too much

On October 2, 2006, a truck backed into the front door of an Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County. The man who came out of the truck was someone that all of the students knew. He was the man who picked up the unpasteurized milk from their parents’ farms.

Charles Carl Roberts IV had been a tormented soul and he had planned to take out his torment on the female students of the school. He had bought all the supplies he needed. He had written suicide notes to everyone in his family. He went into the classroom initially with a rusty metal object in his hand. He asked the children if they had seen an object like it in the road. The children, respectful and trusting of adults, said they’d help him look.

He went back to his truck and came back with a semi-automatic pistol. He ordered everyone to lie down facedown in the front of the room. Seeing the gun, one of the adults ran out to get help at a nearby farmhouse. From there, she called the police.

Back in the schoolhouse, Roberts sent one of the boys to go get the adult that fled and he tied up all of the girls. One of the girls heard a voice she later attributed to an angel who told her to run. She escaped before Roberts had the chance to tie up her legs. Roberts ordered the rest of the adults to leave and then he ordered all of the boys to leave. His intention was to molest the girls, but state troopers had soon surrounded the school. He tried to order all of the troopers off of the property but the troopers would not comply. So he skipped that part of his plan and shot at all of the girls, killing five, putting one in a coma, and injuring the other four. He then killed himself.

Later that same evening, people from the Amish community went to see Roberts’ widow, children and parents to let them know that they were not to blame and to share their sorrow. The parents of several of the victims invited Roberts’ family to the funerals. Many family members of the victims went to Roberts’ burial to show their support and love to the family. As donations came in to support the victims of the shooting, the Amish community shared the money with the Roberts’ family. When people in the media asked the Amish if they had any anger toward Roberts or his family, repeatedly the Amish people said they had forgiven them.

As the book “Amish Grace” explains, the reasoning behind the Amish willingness to forgive is long and complicated. For one, the Amish take literally the Bible’s command: that if you do not forgive, God will not forgive you. The 18th chapter of Matthew is frequently used in Amish services especially twice a year when they have a time of penance and reconciliation before their big communion service. In that chapter, Peter asks Jesus how often he should forgive, and Jesus says seventy-seven times. Also, this is the chapter of Jesus’ parable where a king forgives a debtor his debts. This debtor goes on to refused to forgive the debts of another person and so the king punishes him. Jesus says that this is how God works also. That if we refuse to forgive, God will not forgive us.

They also have a sense of the absolute power of God. God will deal with the perpetrator as He wishes; there is no reason for the victim to curse them. Not that they don’t agree with law enforcement. They will plead for mercy for those who have been arrested for crimes against them, but they do not argue that law enforcement doesn’t have the right to punish them. They will not seek revenge on their own, however. God will do with the evil-doer as He wishes. 

As Jesus prayed for his executioners, the Amish believe we are to pray for our persecutors as well. While they leave the criminals to the mercy of God, they do pray for God to be merciful toward the criminals. They make it a point to see the criminal as another human being. Just as the Amish have faults, so do everyone else. They do not feel as if it is their place to judge.

The Amish faith has a long history of persecution and martyrdom. These stories of martyrdom have an overarching theme of forgiveness and acting gracefully. One in particular that is shared in the book is the story of Dirk Willems. He was arrested and he escaped. As he ran, the guard went after him. He and the guard ran across a frozen pond. Willems got safely to the other side, but the guard fell through the ice. Willems actually goes back and rescues his captor. He ultimately gets executed for his trouble. As he is burned at the stake, he cries out loud repeatedly for God to forgive his executioners.

Another major idea discussed in the book is that the Amish do not have the secular American idea of the individual; they stress the community over the individual. They don’t encourage independence in the way that we typically do. They don’t encourage the questioning of authority or individuality. Instead, they have a strong sense of community where they support each other through thick and thin. They depend on one another for everything and they are very closely knit.  In a society where community is of the utmost importance, forgiveness becomes an important virtue for living together cooperatively. If being a part of the group is the most important thing, you cannot have grudges or hatred breaking the community apart.

This book was outstanding. I highly recommend it for everyone and anyone. We all have people in our lives we have not forgiven. This book gave me the encouragement I needed to list those people and start to work towards forgiving them. The story of this community in Lancaster County cannot be told often enough.

I know I’m supposed to be a forgiving person, but it is hard. I can only imagine how hard it was for these people to be so kind to the family of the gunman. This idea of forgiveness is not only an Amish idea, it’s a Christian idea. “They will know we are Christian by our love.”   

What do you think about this story? What do you think about forgiveness?

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