Reviewed by Chris Faatz
In October of 2006 a lone gunman entered an Amish school in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, and took ten girls hostage. At the end of the encounter, five of those girls and the gunman were dead, the other five girls were in critical condition, and the world was in shock. Sure, such horrific events might happen in the world at large, but to the Amish? They, with their quaint buggies and disciplined rural religious life, were outside the mainstream and its pressures -- about as far outside as one could go. Wasn't there any area of American society that was immune to such seemingly random violence? And, in the massacre's aftermath, the questions only multiplied: how could the Amish forgive the assailant of their innocents? What kind of a life made this sort of response possible? And, was this even a responsible approach in the face of such horror?
Fortunately, we now have available Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy by three specialists in the area of Amish studies, Donald Kraybill, Steven Nolt, and David Weaver-Zercher. In this fine and eloquent book, the events of that terrible day are recounted, the response of the Amish is weighed and considered, and the roots of their witness for forgiveness in the face of the seemingly unforgivable are deeply explored.
There are a lot of books on the Amish and on their historical movement, Anabaptism, and many of them are by these three men. Most of these books are academic, sociological accounts of all of the minutiae of Amish (or Mennonite or Brethren) life historically and up to the present. Lately, there has also been a spate of books on the "dark side" of Amish life and culture. Amish Grace is neither of these. Instead you'll find not only the community's response to a terrible tragedy, but the stories, myths, dreams, and traditions that make up the reality of their lives, that give them hope and direction, and that imbue them with meaning. One of the real plusses of Amish Grace is that much of the book is composed of quotes taken out of the voluminous interviews that the authors conducted in the wake of the tragedy at Nickel Mines. They enrich the book immeasurably.
Amish Grace is written in three parts. The first part addresses the events of that terrible day, the Amish response, and reactions to both, particularly by the media. The second part explores the roots of forgiveness in Amish culture, and the third part raises the issues of seeming intolerance within Amish culture (shunning is addressed in detail) and the lessons that Amish forgiveness holds for the rest of the world.
The Amish readiness to forgive the murderer of their children is one of the most interesting and compelling parts of this book. It will come as no surprise that this willingness to forgive is deeply rooted in their faith. It may come as something of a surprise to the secular or nominally religious reader as to how deeply rooted that faith is. In fact, forgiveness is much more than simply a commandment that is blindly obeyed. It is part and parcel of every facet of Amish life, rooted in their prayers, in their customs, and in their history. They draw their lessons of forgiveness from a five-hundred-year witness to the fruits of forgiveness, and to a steadfast refusal to part from a path that understands the term "discipleship" to mean the single-minded attempt to live in a way that as closely follows Christ's example as is humanly possible.
As Kraybill, et al., point out, the scriptures -- and particularly the Gospel of Matthew -- are rife with examples of the call to forgive, ranging from scriptural admonitions to Jesus' example on the cross. One of the most central is the prayer that Jesus taught his followers as being perfect, what we today call the Lord's Prayer. In it are the lines "and forgive us out debts as we forgive our debtors." This, in turn, is followed in the next two verses (Matthew 6:14-15) with: "For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." As the book makes abundantly clear, the Amish are not only aware of these verses, but they integrate them faithfully into every aspect of their lives. In fact, the Lord's Prayer is a central focus of Amish life: it's prayed daily in homes and in schools, in church services and at meals. As one Amish interviewee in this book puts it, referring to this centrality of the Lord's Prayer, "it's really intense."
History speaks abundantly to this teaching of forgiveness, and to its fruits of reconciliation. From the early years of the Anabaptist tradition, when the movement was perceived as heretical by Protestant and Catholic alike, the Amish and their cousins have suffered for their faith. Thousands lost their lives at the hands of the authorities during that time, and their stories are kept vigorously alive in the massive book, The Martyr's Mirror, a centerpiece of contemporary Amish life. In addition, in more recent times, the Amish have, through their actions, given overwhelming witness to this facet of their faith. In events ranging from traffic accidents to murders and rapes, the Amish have forgiven the perpetrators, reached out to their families as also being victims of these crimes and accidents, and done so in a way that minimized publicity in adherence to the gospel admonition of not practicing their faith in a way that brings attention on themselves. As one interviewee put it, "we believe in letting our light shine, but not shining it in the eyes of other people."
The writing in Amish Grace is smooth and engaging, and the stories, anecdotes, and quotes make the text sing. The exploration of Amish faith and culture is done in such a way as to make it come alive on the page; the reader doesn't have to worry about dry and turgid recitation of facts and formulae, or soulless academic prose. For the discerning and skeptical reader, no stone is left unturned, no difficult question left unaddressed. This is a fabulous book, about a unique culture composed of people who spend their lives trying to live in accordance with the demands of a higher law. They don't always succeed, but they try. As such, there's a challenge and -- dare I say it? -- a hope for all of us.
Books mentioned in this post