Amazing Amish Grace

I just finished reading the book "Amish Grace" on the shooting a couple of years ago at an Amish school in Pennsylvania. Since we don't have cable and don't watch much TV news, I missed much of the hoopla beyond the basic facts: a non-Amish neighbor of the school burst into the school, made the boys leave and tried to molest the girls. The police arrived, however, and the gunman shot several of the girls and then shot himself. Within hours of the tragedy, the Amish community said they forgave the killer and extended a lot of help to the killer's family. I also remember the trite columns written in the aftermath of the tragedy: that we should all emulate Amish generosity
, that the Amish had such large families that the death of a few children didn't affect them as much, that the Amish were repressing their anger.

The book, written by three scholars with a long background in research on Amish traditions, goes beyond the triteness. It turns out forgiveness is an integral part of the Amish culture. For example, when children fight, they are taught to say not only "I'm sorry" but to reply "I forgive you." The Amish understand the Lord's prayer differently from most Christians. Many Christians start from Martin Luther's "from Grace alone" to understand the words "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors" to mean that God has forgiven us, so we should forgive those who wrong us. However, the Amish understand the words of the Lord's prayer to mean that "if you don't forgive, God will not forgive you." And because a typical Amish person reflects on or recites the Lord's prayer four or five times a day and because they spend a whole month focusing on Matthew 18 which deals with a parable on forgiveness, forgiveness is an integral part of the Amish makeup. They learn to forgive everyday, and so it was quite easy to know what do in the wake of the shooting at Nickel Mines.

The authors also dismiss much of the trite commentary by pointing out that commentators failed to distinguish between the words "forgiveness", "pardon" and "reconciliation". I didn't realize the difference until they pointed it out. To forgive is to say "I'm hurt (otherwise there is nothing to forgive), I will not forget what you did, however in spite of what you did, I will treat you with love and respect." Thus, after forgiving someone who abuses them, an Amish person may take steps to ensure that the person doesn't get a chance to abuse them again. And that is quite logical. Pardon, on the other hand, is limited to people in authority. An pardoned offense is one that is made to not have happened. Forgiveness is a personal act; pardoning is an official one. Forgiveness may lead to reconciliation (where the offender apologizes and tries to repair the relationship). Forgiveness is necessary for reconciliation, but reconciliation is not necessary.

And finally, forgiveness is not a one-time act. The Amish know that acts of this magnitude will continue to hurt for a long time. They take Jesus' admonishment to forgive "seventy times seven" times. They know they that will have to forgive the gunman in their hearts many, many times.

All in all, an amazing book and well worth your time.


  1. Sounds like a great book. To me, forgiveness is the single most important thing that Jesus taught. Too bad that most fundamentalist Christians seem to ignore the concept. On nearly every hot button topic - immigration, health care, capital punishment, etc. - they are so focused on what they consider Justice that they forget all about Mercy.

    Gandhi said: "I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ." I guess he didn't meet many Amish people.

  2. As I was writing this, I thought to myself: "this post is a Briggs' comment bait" :)

  3. Ah, you know me too well my friend. If I knew more about bridge, or pygmy hippos, maybe I wouldn't be so predictable. :)