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Forgiveness: A Legacy of the West Nickel Mines Amish School

(Herald Press)

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Amish Leave Legacy of Forgiveness

By John Ruth

CBN.comIt is unspeakably hard for any community to lose its children.  The mere mention of names like Columbine or Virginia Tech produces visceral, almost universal responses of outrage and fear—even for those whose only connection to the tragedies was through the evening news. 

In October 2006, the world watched, horrified, as the effects of human rage played out in the most unthinkable of settings—a one-room schoolhouse in the Amish hamlet of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania.  The sickening details of the attack provoked a nationwide sensation, but the remarkable reaction of the Amish community was, perhaps, the most surprising element of the story.  In his new book, Forgiveness: A Legacy of the West Nickel Mines Amish School (Herald Press, 2007), author and Mennonite minister John Ruth offers an inside perspective on the response that stunned the world.

The symmetry of equally radical anger and forgiveness at Nickel Mines is so exquisite that it compels attention.  On October 2, 2006, Charles Carl Roberts IV, a 32-year-old milk-tank truck driver and father of three, barricaded himself and ten young girls into the Nickel Mines School.  Giving deadly expression to a secret rage he had harbored for years after the death of his first child, he gunned down all ten of his hostages before turning his weapon on himself.  Five of the girls would not survive.

Forgiveness offers an inspiring explanation of the events that followed.  In the wake of overwhelming loss, the stricken community at Nickel Mines, even the devastated parents of the victims, captivated the media with their immediate expressions of forgiveness for Roberts and concern for the well-being of his family.  

“The Amish approach to life centers on forgiveness,” Ruth emphasizes.  “Is anger a necessary response to outrageous loss?  The Amish, born with the same capacities as any other humans, would not think so.  Startled by the depth of the world’s sympathy after the Nickel Mines tragedy, they wondered why so many found their attitude intriguing.  Aren’t Christians to live in, not merely idealize, forgiveness?”

Revenge is one of the oldest and most recognizable human stories, which is why the rest of the world was so awed by the Amish reaction when the lives of their innocent daughters were senselessly snuffed out.  For their part, the residents of Nickel Mines have never paid much attention to the rest of the world.  In the words of one Amish father, “What happened on the other side of the world yesterday is in the newspaper today.  If you read it, then you’re bound to be thinking like the others.”

Forgiveness recounts the history and spiritual tenets of the Plain people, who have demonstrated time and again their belief that obedience to Christ’s command, “When you stand praying, forgive,” is neither optional nor theoretical. 

As a Mennonite minister whose insightful documentaries on the Amish have appeared on PBS and then featured on 60 Minutes, Ruth paints an beautiful but balanced picture of a culture that is romanticized by some, viewed as “backwards” by others and misunderstood by almost everyone.

“It isn’t mainly for their faults or strangeness that the world finds the Amish interesting,” Ruth contends.  “They lay down in the American landscape a marker of old-fashioned faithfulness and love, which was thrown into relief globally by their response to unspeakable tragedy.”

Ruth recently discussed his book.

Many people will never see an Amish community unless they purposely go out and look for one.  Is the Amish way of life fading from the American landscape? 

Actually, just the opposite is true.  There are Amish communities in 21 states.  In Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, south of the county spanning Lincoln Highway, there had been no Amish presence until the 1940’s.  Now their fat barns, multigenerational houses, and Purple Martins have redrawn the landscape.  In Bart Township, lying between Eden and Paradise, PA, they are actually a majority.  The Amish often find and buy out-of-state farmland before the neighbors there know it’s for sale.  Consider, also, the presence of the Old-Order Mennonites, spiritual cousins to the Amish who also travel by horse and buggy.  Clearly, the Amish way of life is alive and well in America.

While they may look saintly from some perspectives, you encourage readers of your book not to sentimentalize the picture of Amish society.  What are some real aspects of the Amish life that might surprise people?

The Amish certainly don’t see themselves as saints, and there is valid grist for critics.  Ancient good can look very uncouth to modern observers.  There are farmers who raise puppies in stacked kennels like “livestock,” provoking animal rights proponents to public demonstration.  Gender roles are so specific that an Amish boy asks an “English” man pushing a lawnmower if his wife is sick.  No children, even the quota of natural geniuses, are educated beyond the eighth grade.  When family abuse such as appears in any society occurs among the Amish, they sit on it intramurally, dealing with it by bishop rather than police authority.  The point is that they are real people living real lives, not characters in a Currier and Ives dream or a Williamsburg reenactment, and most often they shy away from the media and the tourists’ cameras that would interrupt their peaceful existence.  Readers or TV viewers should consider that when the Amish faults are depicted on page or screen, it is usually, though not always, through or about persons who have had personal difficulties and are uncharacteristically ready to divulge the details.

Is it really easier for the Amish to forgive those who have wronged them?  Their immediate forgiveness of the attacker and concern for his family and their reserved demeanor in the face of such tragedy would cause some to wonder what they are truly feeling.

Certainly, the entire community experienced pain and profound sadness, particularly the parents whose precious children were killed.  Six months after the loss of his two daughters, one Amish father could barely bring himself to go out to his fields.  One mother, upon recognizing the body of her slain daughter, needed assistance to remain standing as her knees buckled beneath her.  Forgiveness is never easy, not even for the Amish, who have had centuries of practice.  Although they have shown an extra measure of forgiveness, their parental tears are as salty as anyone’s.  The basic attitude toward the Nickel Mines attacker was expressed at the shooting itself by one of the Amish grandfathers, the reluctant subject of a television interview.  With the camera unseen behind him, he had been asked whether he had forgiven.  “In my heart, yes,” was the murmured reply.  And when the interviewer persisted, asking how that was possible, the answer was equally terse: “With God’s help.”  Yet another question brought from an Amishman the explanation: “We have to forgive because Christ forgave us.”

The Amish read the same Bible as other Christians.  Why do they come to different conclusions about the use of force or violence in relationships with others, even when they have clearly been wronged and would be justified by the world for demanding “justice”?

The Amish are a people of the Sermon on the Mount, found in chapters 5-7 of the Gospel of Matthew.  They view all Scripture through the prism of the Teacher, Christ, who said, “You have heard it said…but I say to you.”  This is the new Joseph who forgives his brothers.  He is the Son of God of Israel who loves us “like a father pities his children.”  They see the greatest statement of all on the theme of forgiveness in the crucifixion story.  As human spite is doing its absolute worst, the response is one of the “victim” asking God to “forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  For Amish and their co-believers, this is not simply a moral phenomenon to be marveled at, but a revelation of what we are called to.  Forgiving love, without counting the cost, is to be their norm.  It is not a devotional ideal but a command to be obeyed. 

The topic of forgiveness is addressed repeatedly in the New Testament.  “Have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind.  Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing.” (I Peter 3:8-9)  How much plainer, the Amish must wonder, could the New Testament Scripture be?  What is the mystery here?  What’s really strange is why Christians in general do not hold each other accountable for the behavior so plainly described.

Neighbors of the Amish at Nickel Mines have described them as “more submissive” than ordinary folks.  How does this trait apply to their ability to forgive?

They forgive from a stance of yieldedness, or “giving-up-ness.”  They first believe; then comes the willingness to accept from God the capacity to forgive.  As an Amish minister observed, we don’t argue with the sun for coming up.  We relate to the seasons by accepting them in their sequence.  For the Amish, submission, as a way of relating to reality, is also a way of knowing.  Whatever happens, happens because it has been specifically foreordained in God’s providence.  As one minister put it: “Who are we to say what God ‘must’ do?”  There is a sense that what had happened need not be replayed in a scenario that imagines the reversing or changing of what is now history.  What has happened needs to be let go, leaving it in trust with God, while hoping always that an evil thing need not be repeated.

In accepting the mind of Christ, they covenant with him and each other to forget, not the particulars of what has happened, but the possibility of getting satisfaction, by our own definition, for our resentment.  When they say “forgive and forget,” it’s not that they will try to mentally erase what has happened.  What they forget is the imagination of the right to have emotional payback in a trespasser’s punishment.


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Interview courtesy of The B&B Media Group.


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