Elizabethtown, Pa. - A year ago, a shooter entered a one-room Amish school in Nickel Mines, Pa., dismissed all but 10 girls, and fired at them execution-style, killing five before shooting himself.
Within hours, the Amish community forgave the killer and his family. News of the instant forgiveness stunned the outside world – almost as much as the incident itself did. Many pundits lauded the Amish, but others worried that hasty forgiveness was emotionally unhealthy.
In dozens of interviews with Amish people since the tragedy, I discovered that the Amish approach to forgiveness is indeed quick and unconventional – but also inspirational to the rest of us.
Members of the Amish community began offering words and hugs of forgiveness when the blood was barely dry on the schoolhouse floor. A grandmother laughed when I asked if the forgiveness was orchestrated. "You mean that some people actually thought we had a meeting to plan forgiveness?"
As the father of a slain daughter explained, "Our forgiveness was not our words, it was what we did." Members of the community visited the gunman's widow at her home with food and flowers and hugged members of his family. There were a few words, but it was primarily their hugs, gifts, and mere presence – acts of grace – that communicated Amish forgiveness. Of the 75 people at the killer's burial, about half were Amish, including parents who had buried their own children a day or so before. Amish people also contributed to a fund for the shooter's family.
For most people, a decision to forgive comes – if ever – at the end of a long emotional journey that may stretch over months if not years. The Amish invert the process. Their religious tradition predisposes them to forgive even before an injustice occurs.
Amish faith is grounded in the teachings of Jesus to love enemies, reject revenge, and leave vengeance in the hands of God. As a father who lost a daughter in the schoolhouse said, "Forgiveness means giving up the right to revenge."
Unlike those who hire lawyers at every turn to protect their rights, the Amish yield to divine providence in the case of an unspeakable tragedy such as the one at Nickel Mines – believing that God's long arm of justice removes that need for human retaliation.
In the Amish view, forgiveness is a religious duty. As a young Amish carpenter said, "It's just standard forgiveness," but he was wrong. Conventional Christian forgiveness posits a God who forgives sinners and urges them to forgive others – to pass the grace on to those who wrong them. The Amish refrain – "If we don't forgive, we won't be forgiven" – shows a different impetus. Their salvation hinges on their willingness to forgive, a powerful motivation to extend grace to others. They cite the Lord's Prayer, and Jesus' story about an unforgiving servant as their motivation. One bishop, pointing to verses following the Lord's Prayer, said emphatically, "Forgiveness is the only thing that Jesus underscored in the Lord's Prayer."
"Forgiveness was a decided issue," one bishop explained – decided, that is, by Amish history and practice over the centuries. When the religious ancestors of the Amish were torched at the stake for their faith in 16th-century Europe, many of them, echoing Jesus on the cross, prayed aloud that God would forgive their executioners.
Despite their front-loaded commitment, the Amish still find forgiveness to be a long emotional process. Though there were no expressions of outright rage or hopes that the gunman would burn in hell, the wanton slaughter of their children did bring deep pain, tears, and raw grief.
While forgiveness means not holding a grudge – "the acid of bitterness eats the container that holds it," one farmer explained – the Amish are clear that it does not free the offender from punishment. Had the gunman survived, they would have wanted him locked up, not for revenge but to protect other children.
In mainstream society, retribution is a taken-for-granted right. Around the world, names of deities are often invoked to fuel cycles of revenge generation after generation.
In refreshing contrast, rather than using religion to bless and legitimize revenge, the Amish believe that God smiles on acts of grace that open doors for reconciliation.
Donald B. Kraybill, distinguished professor at Elizabethtown College, is coauthor of the book, "Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy."