I was one of the few non-Amish welcomed into the very private Amish mourning rituals for five slain school girls in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Few from the outside world will ever see up close these extraordinarily private and pacifistic people as they deal with the enormous suffering of losing their children to a brutal act of violence.
While they live differently, the Amish are the first to dispel any notion they are better than us. One “preacher” told me, “You English (their term for the non-Amish) sometimes think we’re perfect; we’re not. We’ve got all the problems you have, and we have bad people, too. It could have been an Amish that did this.” Still, it is at times of great suffering and loss that the best of what the Amish are truly shines.
As I visited in the victims’ homes, sat on the mourning benches, talked with the families about the details of that terrible day, and watched one mother tenderly care for her daughter’s damaged body, I was struck by how prepared they were for this. Not simply in a technical sense, but in a deeply spiritual, philosophical and moral sense. The Amish were well rehearsed for this tragedy.
This religious movement began five centuries ago under fierce persecution. Over that time they have carefully lived out and preserved a strict way of life based on their interpretation of Jesus’ words in the Gospel, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth. But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matthew 5:38- 39)
The Amish know this commitment leaves them vulnerable to precisely the kind of harm that befell their children on October 2, 2006. So, they have used their historic silence and cloistered existence as a shield against a hostile outside world. Sadly, that shield proved ineffective against a threat as close as a neighborhood milk truck driver. But they have a backup for such a failure. It was epitomized in a scene I will never forget, when a grandfather stood at the foot of his own murdered granddaughter’s coffin and said, “It is important to teach our children not to think evil of the man who did this.” It was a remarkable act of generosity; one expressed earlier when Amish emissaries went to the killer’s family offering complete forgiveness and an invitation to the funerals.
What I learned from the Amish by watching and listening to them were three things that until now have been mere theory for me, if I knew them at all.
First, I learned to look for a reason to be thankful, even if it’s in the very worst of circumstances. One Amish leader pointed out as he wept, “More children could have died, but they didn’t; that’s a reason to thank God.” A family member said, “The girls could have suffered something worse than death. We thank God they didn’t.” A bishop said, “This has brought the community together, both within the Amish and outside. That’s something to thank God for.”
Second, faith and family are the bulwarks against evil, the balm for even the greatest pain and suffering and the strength to carry on after the worst interruptions of our lives. Though warmly received by the Amish, I felt at all times like an intruder, because I knew this was a time they relied completely on the most intimate relationships they have; and for the Amish, that’s saying a lot. The talk was constantly of God and prayer and love. It was so pronounced it was palpable. The mother tending to her daughter as the girl lay in an open coffin, said with a teary smile to the many children around her, “See, she’s with God in heaven now.”
And finally, I observed, first-hand, the power of forgiveness. When I visited the home of shooter Charles Roberts, I saw this amazing principle in action: in the almost supernaturally generous extension of immediate forgiveness by the victims’ families; and, in the humble way the Roberts’ accepted this gift. Others in the Roberts’ circumstances might have refused such an offer, whether out of guilt, or shame, or simply their own pain, but the Roberts humbly accepted. An Amish leader explained the importance of this by saying, “God has offered us forgiveness for our sins in the work of Christ on the Cross, but we must accept that gift to enjoy it. Once we’ve accepted it, then we can share it in small measure with others.” Because the Roberts’ accepted the gift, they can continue to share it, and this cycle of forgiveness will go on to heal this community much faster than one embroiled in hatred and vindictiveness.
These are lessons our world needs badly right now. If we learn these lessons and benefit from them, we will have the private, mysterious Amish to thank.
Rob Schenck, President of the National Clergy Council and founder, Faith and Action in the Nation’s Capital
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