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Amish Grace
by Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt, & David L. Weaver-Zercher
Jossey-Bass  ISBN-10: 0470344040
 

On Monday morning, October 2, 2006, a gunman entered a one-room Amish school in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. In front of twenty-five horrified pupils—15 boys and 25 girls— thirty-two-year-old Charles Roberts ordered the boys and the teacher to leave. After tying the legs of the remaining girls, Roberts prepared to execute them with an automatic rifle and 400 rounds of ammunition that he brought along. The oldest hostage, a thirteen-year-old, begged Roberts to "shoot me first and let the little ones go." Refusing her offer, he opened fire on all of them, killing five and leaving the others critically wounded. He then shot himself as police stormed the building. His motivation? "I'm angry at God for taking my little daughter," he told the children before the massacre.

After the shooting, the media rapidly turned its attention from the tragic events to the extraordinary forgiveness demonstrated by the Amish community. Reporters repeatedly contacted the authors, who teach at small colleges with Anabaptist roots and have published books on the Amish, after the shootings to interpret this subculture. This book contains the answers to the questions why—and how—did they forgive? Its authors present a compelling study of Amish grace. After describing the heartbreaking attack and its aftermath, they establish that five centuries of Anabaptist tradition and a firm belief that the New Testament requires it has embedded forgiveness in their culture. The community's acts of forgiveness weren’t isolated decisions by saintly individuals but instead reflect the sect’s heritage and deep faith.

The authors carefully distinguish between forgiveness, pardon and reconciliation, as well as analyze the complexities of mainstream America's response and the extent to which the Amish example can be applied elsewhere.

Though the crime—shooting innocent schoolchildren in a one-room schoolhouse—was shockingly vicious, even more shocking, virtually incredible, was where it happened, in the heart of Pennsylvania's Amish country, commonly associated with bucolic tranquility, not gun violence. Amish Grace tells the incredible story of this community's reaction to this senseless shooting and explores its profoundly countercultural practice of forgiveness.

The outside world was gravely taken aback by the Amish response of forgiveness. Some in the media criticized the Amish as naive and hypocritical since they shun members of their own community for disobeying the laws of their church. But most journalists simply couldn't understand the Amish concept of forgiveness as unmerited gift. How could they forgive humanly embodied evil?

The story captured the attention of broadcast and print media both in this country and around the world. By Tuesday morning nearly 50 television crews had set up camp in the small village of Nickel Mines, staying for five days until the burials of the killer and his victims. With the blood barely dry on the schoolhouse floor, Amish parents brought words of forgiveness to the Roberts family. Fresh from the funerals where they had buried their own children, grieving Amish families accounted for half of the 75 people who attended the killer's burial. Roberts' widow was deeply moved by their presence as Amish families greeted her and her three children. The forgiveness went beyond talk and graveside presence since the Amish also supported a fund for the shooter's family.

Forgiveness, in fact, eclipsed the tragic story, trumping the violence, itself. Three weeks after the shooting, "Amish forgiveness" had appeared in 2,900 news stories worldwide and on 534,000 web sites.

At times difficult to read, this anguished and devastating account of a national tragedy and a hopeful, life-affirming lesson in how to live is itself a marvel of grace. Amish Grace explores the many questions this story raises about the religious beliefs and habits that led the Amish to forgive so quickly. It looks at the ties between forgiveness and membership in a cloistered communal society and ask if Amish practices parallel or diverge from other religious and secular notions of forgiveness. It also addresses the matter of why forgiveness became news.

David L. Weaver-Zercher, Ph.D., associate professor of American religious history at Messiah College, has published books on Amish life that explore outsiders' fascination with and perceptions of the Amish. He will speak for a half hour, beginning at 1 P.M. in our Meetinghouse, with a half hour question and answer session to follow.

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