Examining the Amish Forgiveness Response to the Nickel Mines Tragedy

I have always had interest in learning about Amish folks, including their lifestyle and their beliefs, ever since I had originally learned of these people. I was intrigued by their different way of being in this world. Therefore, I had previously taken the time to learn a little bit about their history, and their way of life even before I had learned of the tragic shooting that took place on October 2, 2006 at an Amish school in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, where six people lost their lives and five others were critically injured.

I knew that the Amish people have a heritage of persecution, and I knew also that they are a peace-loving people. The Amish tradition is descendant from the Anabaptist Christian radicals and dissenters of the 16th Century Protestant Reformation period (Who Are The Mennonites, n.d.). They are one of the ‘peace churches’. The Amish broke away from the Mennonite Church (one of the Anabaptist traditions) because they believed that the Mennonites were becoming too ‘worldly’. One of the Anabaptist faith’s key spiritual beliefs is “a forgiving love in all of life (Who Are The Mennonites, n.d.).” Amish faith tradition is based on these same spiritual beliefs of love and forgiveness that their brothers and sisters, the Mennonites, practice.

The immediate forgiveness response of the Amish people, to the tragic happenings on that Autumn day, are a testament to their deep belief in the teachings of Jesus Christ, such that followers of the Christ are to live their lives following his way of peace. The teachings of Jesus the Christ (the Christ is to be understood as ‘the way’) are that of nonresistance , distinct from nonviolent social change, somewhat like, yet different from, the method Mahatma Gandhi used when he led the movement to gain India’s independence from the rule of Great Britain (Kraybill, 2006.). The Amish response to the Nickel Mines tragedy is their testament to Jesus’ teachings, and as such, their generosity toward the family of Charles Carl Roberts IV, the shooter, was not surprising to me.

The Amish response to the Nickel Mines tragedy was that they reached out to the family of Mr. Roberts and immediately offered their condolences, forgiveness, assistance, and even began building community with the family (Kraybill, 2006). Jesus the Christ established a loving and forgiving example for peace-loving children of God to imitate in their own lives, and this is what shaped the response of the Amish people (Kraybill, 2006). This other way of responding to transgression is different from a typically individualistic and western worldview response to transgression, that of retaliation and/or retribution.

Perhaps this other way of responding to transgression is difficult to understand for many of us. In the book Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy (Kraybill, Nolt, & Weaver-Zercher, 2010) the authors quote the father of a slain Amish girl as saying, “There was never a time that I felt angry.” From a non-Anabaptist perspective, this type of forgiving attitude might not seem possible or even healthy. Yet, there is scientific evidence that perhaps “natural selection has endowed the human mind with a ‘forgiveness instinct’ (The Forgiveness Instinct, n.d.).”

A forgiveness instinct may be thought of as “an adaptive solution to problems” in
environments where people are highly dependent on complex networks of cooperative relationships, policing is reliable, the system of justice is efficient and trustworthy, and social institutions are up to the task of helping truly contrite offenders make amends with the people they’ve harmed (The Forgiveness Instinct, n.d.).

A ‘forgiveness instinct’ then, understands that one’s own protection and safety happens in loving community, and it responds to transgression in a way that is likely to build and maintain loving community, even in the expression of violence. Perhaps anger and resentment (those feelings that would fuel retaliation and retribution) are not always the natural human response. Sometimes, it can be understood, that experiencing sadness (without an accompanying anger) and working toward the reconciliation of broken relationships will serve human needs in a much more fruitful way, than could attitudes and actions that might stimulate continued violence.

Knowledge in alternative ways to respond to harm can shape how one responds in such situations. The Amish learn their forgiveness response (‘instinct’) culturally, through their religious teachings and through their family traditions (The Forgiveness Instinct, n.d.). Their response to transgressions is not dependent on others’ actions, such as receiving an apology. In the circumstance of the Nickel Mines tragedy, the Amish acted quickly, reaching out to offer love, forgiveness and a way to heal, where such actions were neither expected nor sought. In these actions, the Amish have been a living testament of the way to peace, as their spiritual tradition has taught them. By their living testament to their faith, the Amish are also teaching how one can ‘do peace’ to ‘the world’.

The Amish testament of faith in loving kindness is a type of living memorial to the life, death and teachings of Jesus Christ. In the Huffington Post, September 30, 2011 article, Amish Memorials: The Nickel Mines Pasture and Quiet Forgiveness, author Donald Kraybill (n.d.) stated, “Memorials reveal the deep values of the people that create them.” Memorials are symbols, and their meanings, or rather how one thinks of memorials and monuments, determines whether they may be beneficial or harmful. To state this in another way, perhaps it is one’s worldview that determines one’s interpretation of, and therefore the principles expressed, though the creation of a memorial.

In some circumstances, memorials and monuments may be used as a way to ‘never forget’ and in this they may act to perpetuate anger and even justify retribution and retaliation. For example, the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in Manhattan, NY is designed to help us to ‘never forget’ concerning the 9/11 tragedy that took place there in 2001. It is clear that the expression of remembrance by this memorial is that of great loss and anger. According to the official 9/11 Memorial website,

The names of every person who died in the 2001 and 1993 attacks are inscribed into bronze panels edging the Memorial pools, a powerful reminder of the largest loss of life resulting from a foreign attack on American soil and the greatest single loss of rescue personnel in American history (9/11 Memorial, n.d.).

We can think of and relate this sort of memorial to the angry actions to the Muslim community that continue to take place as a violent retaliatory response to the 9/11 tragedy. In this way, the reminder (the memorial or monument) may be harmful as it may perpetuate pain, anger and even violence, as a way of ‘honoring’ lost loved ones.

Yet, there are some types of memorials that do not act to perpetuate pain, anger and violence, but instead act to heal and reconcile broken relationships. An example of a healing response to the 9/11 tragedy is a particular Mennonite response. In order to commemorate the lives lost that tragic day, they offer the story of STAR: Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience (STAR: The Unfolding Story, 2001-’11, n.d.). This is a “training program, born from the ashes of 9/11”, that is currently being used as a healing model around the world (STAR: The Unfolding Story, 2001-’11, n.d.). This response, that these Mennonites have created as a different type of memorial, offer healing to those harmed on that fateful day, and it also offers healing to a larger world community in a way that can create a world with a greater degree of healing, reconciliation, and world peace, in addition to remembering lost loved ones.

Another type of memorial that was created in order to intentionally bring about goodness as a response to tragic events is another Amish living memorial. The Amish response to the Nickel Mines tragedy was to tear down the hurtful reminder of the schoolhouse and turn that place back into a pasture (Kraybill, n.d.). They built a different type of remembrance by planting five evergreens there (a living testimony to their five lost loves ones). These trees’ branches reach toward heaven as a way to continually remind their community of the loving and forgiving response that Jesus demonstrated as an example for peace-loving Christians to imitate (Kraybill, n.d.). These five trees remind the community that the forgiving, healing, reconciling response is the response of goodness in the face of wickedness as they remember their loved ones. The Amish living tree memorial is also one that offers the entire world a reminder that there is a way to create peace out of chaos.

The forgiving, healing, peaceful response to transgression creates a space for healing, growth and the reconciling of broken relationships. This worldview is generative, not destructive. The ‘world’ was astonished by the Amish’s immediate actions of forgiveness and reconciliation with the Roberts family. They were able to do this because they were able to recognize a larger perspective than simply their own. They could see that the Roberts family must also be experiencing pain and suffering. They could see that the mainstream culture is also experiencing pain and suffering as it was demonstrated by the violent actions of Mr. Roberts. The Amish loving, forgiving and peaceful actions (even as their hearts ache) puts a stop on the violent reactions that can take place in the aftermath of such a terrible event. As a result of the loving, forgiving, healing, peaceful actions of the Amish, the ‘world’ has become much more interested in learning to live in this way.

References:

9/11 Memorial. (n.d.). 9/11 memorial. [Web page] Retrieved from https://www.911memorial.org/about-memorial

Hershberger, Guy F. (1957). Nonviolence. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 15 January 2014, from http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Nonviolence&oldid=103288.

Kraybill, D. B. (2006). Forgiveness clause. Christian Century, 123(22), 8-9.

Kraybill, D. (n.d.). Amish memorials: The Nickel Mines pasture and quiet forgiveness. [Web page] Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/donald-kraybill/amish-memorials-the-nickel-mines-memorial_b_982144.htm

Kraybill, D. (n.d.). Why the Amish forgave so quickly. The Christian science monitor [Web page]. Retrieved from http://www.csmonitor.com/2007/1002/p09s02-coop.htm

Kraybill, D. B., Nolt, S. M., & Weaver-Zercher, D. L. (2010). Amish grace: How forgiveness transcended tragedy. John Wiley & Sons.

STAR: The Unfolding Story, 2001-’11. (n.d.). STAR: The unfolding story, 2001-’11. [Web page] Retrieved from http://www.emu.edu/cjp/star/sept-11th-commemorative-book

The Forgiveness Instinct. (n.d.). The forgiveness instinct. [Web page] Retrieved from http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/forgiveness_instinct

Who Are the Mennonites? (n.d.). Who are the Mennonites? [Web page]. Retrieved from http://www.thirdway.com/menno/FAQ.asp?F_ID=2

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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