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Spring 2008 · Vol. 37 No. 1 · pp. 143–45 

Book Review

Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy

Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt, and David L. Weaver-Zercher. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2007. 237 pages.

Reviewed by Larry A. Dunn

With Forgiveness and Amish Grace we are given two volumes that not only provide an account of the extraordinary response of the Amish to the 2006 Lancaster County tragedy which took the lives of five school children, but also help interpret a deeper understanding of Amish culture and faith as context for that response. Both works, by authors with a significant history of involvement with the Amish, also serve to mediate between Amish notions of forgiveness and the “English” world that reacted to them with admiration, surprise, skepticism, and critique. Each invites the reader to a rich exploration of faith and forgiveness beyond their application to the Nickel Mines situation.

Both works have been well received. A third, fictionalized account of the shooting also exists and is not considered here. The subtitles of the books provide an early indication of the care with which each has approached the subject. Helpfully, Ruth identifies forgiveness as a legacy and not the legacy of these events and the many possible meanings they evoke. The authors of Amish Grace comment directly in their final chapter on their struggle to choose the verb between forgiveness and tragedy (redeemed?) in their subtitle, well aware of the power of a single word to define events. They have chosen wisely. Ironically, conversations with those close to the publication indicate that it is only the title of this work that the Amish have any difficulty with, though not with the verb transcended or the subtitle at all; typically, they would have preferred God’s Grace.

Forgiveness, Mennonite historian, author, and film-maker John L. Ruth’s volume, is the shorter of the two and as such is more accurately self-described as a “meditation” on, rather than an analysis of, this event. The twenty chapters are short, most less than ten pages in this small-sized volume. Ruth takes the first six chapters that make up a third of his book to recount the story of that shocking October day. Here one finds a bucolic but not sentimental picture of Southeastern Pennsylvania’s Bart Township, not only as context for the innocent Amish victims but as the home of killer Charles Roberts.

In that section, Ruth’s chapter delving into a more speculative explanation of the attacker’s psyche (“Whence Rage?”) is perhaps his least effective. Roberts’ attack is portrayed as a calculated but irrational act of misdirected vengeance born out of unresolved anger that has become all too familiar to the American landscape of violence. However, an equally familiar perception of this attacker as a good father, neighbor, and shy but otherwise “nice guy” provides the final contrast to a situation for which no sense can ultimately be found.

But it is the Amish response of forgiveness, offered only hours after the attack, that becomes the focus for the rest of Ruth’s book. This response took not only the form of words but, over the next days and weeks, deeds, including reaching out to the shooter’s widow and family. Each of Ruth’s subsequent chapters uses explorations of scripture, historical accounts, the tradition of hymnody, and practices of community as foundational to making sense of the meanings that might come from such events.

Along the way, questions are asked that provide answers about the life and lifestyle of our Anabaptist cousins (Where is the forgiveness in the practice of “shunning?”) and challenge us to examine our own faith and life (How is it that Christians of any tradition can see such forgiveness as “foreign?”). Ruth presents a picture that helps the reader understand that what seems extraordinary to the outsider is woven into the fabric of what it means to be Amish; such forgiveness is even reasonable in this light (at least as “reasonable,” he argues, as vengeance seems to the dominant culture). As for all groups, such accounts provide insight into the complexity and inner logic of Amish culture, an understanding that would be flawed if it portrayed the Amish as anything other than people who experience real pain and anger, or forgiveness as something that comes easy or is exclusively theirs.

A fuller range of Amish life and culture is even more apparent in the exploration provided by Kraybill, Nolt and Weaver-Zercher in Amish Grace. Here we also have a retelling of the story along with a broader and deeper examination of the shooting and subsequent responses (and not only those of the Amish). The reader of this volume is led through a more careful (though not overly academic) analysis of Amish ideas and practices where sociological, psychological, and theological perspectives on forgiveness are explored without ever straying far from their relevance to the tragic event.

Grace is divided into three parts of roughly equal size; four if one counts an afterword that brings the story up to the date of the publishing deadline, the usual acknowledgments, and an appendix where one can find a discussion of the broader Anabaptist community and issues of Amish life about which there are typically questions (e.g., the Ordnung, Rumspringa, use of technology, and government relations). Ruth’s book also addresses such issues, but at times seems to draw the reader away from the Nickel Mines account. The “Little Stories” chapter that concludes Forgiveness almost goes too far in that direction before Ruth’s short but pertinent closing “Coda” points the way back.

Kraybill and his co-authors take the first five chapters to describe the Nickel Mines Amish and recount the shooting and its aftermath. One notices differences between this account and Ruth’s, most of which are minor discrepancies, while others offer expanded details that provide insight into the ordeal experienced by Amish family members having to navigate the outside world in their attempt to learn about, and then mourn, the fate of their children. I was particularly struck by the additional perspective provided by accounts of non-Amish acts of goodwill toward the community that led some Amish to acknowledge that they “might have underestimated the potential goodness of outsiders” (34).

The full array of outside reactions presented in chapter five nicely frames the subsequent four chapters of part two, which discuss the ways in which forgiveness is part and parcel of Amish character; a virtue that flows naturally from a collective history where persecution and martyrdom are a familiar part of a faith heritage that both displays and nurtures an ethic of nonretaliation and love of enemy. The authors emphasize forgiveness as an everyday, if not easy, practice which makes even the most extreme encroachment of the outside world on Amish life seem like merely one more opportunity to give witness to a spirituality where one’s relationship with others and God is defined by and dependent on such acts of grace.

The final section of Amish Grace takes the reader into a deeper exploration of the meaning, application, and implications of forgiveness for Amish and non-Amish alike in the world today. In these last four chapters the authors discuss the key place of conflicting motivations, emotions, processes and ethical challenges of forgiveness, presenting perspectives from a select body of social, psychological, and theological research. Never disconnected from the issues raised by the Nickel Mines event, the chapters address such distinctions as that between unconditional forgiveness and pardon that help make sense of deeds such as the offering of emotional and financial support to the perpetrator’s family, and Amish attendance at Charles Roberts’ gravesite service comprising more than half of the mourners.

Kraybill, Nolt, and Weaver-Zercher also consider more familiar issues of grief, questions of justice and divine providence, judgment, accountability, and salvation. Not ones to use the Nickel Mines situation as a platform for their own agenda, the authors of Amish Grace aptly manage to prod the reader to draw lessons from this profound witness for our own responses to the violent world in which we live; a world of suicide bombings and religiously fueled retaliation where acts of forgiveness are dismissed as foolishness. In a way that these authors’ other works on Amish culture have not fully been able, Grace presents the idea of Amish life and faith not in terms of strange dress or seemingly contradictory practices, but in terms of an extraordinarily countercultural expression of that which is familiar to many but practiced by few.

Larry A. Dunn
Professor of Peacemaking and Conflict Studies
Fresno Pacific University, Fresno, California

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