As We Forgive
The horrific killings of
five Old Order Amish girls in a Pennsylvania schoolhouse October 2 afforded
the news media an opportunity to portray the famously old-fashioned
religious sect as the living embodiment of the Christian message.
In a first-day story, “Seclusion shattered by school slayings,” USA Today
focused on a motif of disruption. “Cruel world intrudes on Amish,” announced
the Baltimore Sun. “No refuge in Paradise,” said the Irish Times.
In the week-long whirlwind of worldwide media attention, there were stories
to be done on the killer, Charles Carl Roberts IV, who turned his gun on
himself as the police were closing in; on the recent spate of school
shootings; on school killers in general, on school safety and gun control.
But at such moments, attention also must be paid to questions of theological
significance. These days, mainline Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish clergy
have a tendency to gesture at the inexplicability of evil in the world,
perhaps citing the Book of Job. Evangelicals seek out reasons to turn the
tragedy into an occasion for spreading the Good News.
But because this was the Amish, the lesson was all about forgiveness.
On October 3, USA Today reporters Thomas Frank and Alan Levin turned
to David Weaver-Zercher, a professor at nearby Messiah College, who
predicted that the Amish would “‘reach out’ to the gunman’s widow. ‘They’ll
try to express their forgiveness,’ he said, ‘and sense that in some ways,
this woman is a victim.’”
On October 4, Pittsburgh Post Gazette reporter
Caitlin Cleary found a local informant to expatiate on the theme.
“‘It is terrible that somebody did this, and my heart aches for anyone
involved, for the children,” said Andrew Troyer, who lives in an Amish
settlement near Conneautville, Crawford County, and runs a family
rope-making business. “But I feel the most sorry for the person who did it,
and I’ll tell you the reason why—because he can’t get forgiveness no more,
what’s done is done. After death, there is no more change.”
“Mr. Troyer quoted a verse from the Book of Matthew, Chapter 6, which says
if a man does not forgive another’s trespasses against him, his own
trespasses will not be forgiven by God.
“Our blood-red sins He will wash white as snow,” said Mr. Troyer.
“Forgiveness is a choice, but it is not an option if we want to be saved.”
In her October 6 report on the funeral of four of the girls, Post Gazette
reporter Ann Rodgers found Rita Rhoads, a Mennonite nurse-midwife, to
fill her in.
“The stoic faces the Amish present to the outside world gave way to open
grief in their homes, she said. ‘They are human, they are crying, they are
“Yet they profess certainty of a hope greater than their grief. ‘They have
peace because their daughters are in heaven and they have forgiven the
shooter,’ she said.
“According to Ms. Rhoads, on Monday evening a grandfather of one of the
girls called on Marie Roberts, the widow of the killer, to express the
forgiveness that is at the heart of Amish spirituality. Mrs. Roberts later
sent a message to the local Amish bishop, asking permission to visit the
community after the funerals.
“‘He was overjoyed,’ Ms. Rhoads said, adding that the bishop is a
grandfather to some of the shooting victims. He said he had hoped that the
Roberts family would come to visit, she said.”
In a web exclusive story, Newsweek’s Lisa Miller compared the Amish
to the heroic desert fathers of early Christianity, whose “ideal was,
through discipline and restraint, to be like angels and to live as closely
as possible to God.”
“[T]he Amish will gather their community around them, they will forgive
those who have trespassed against them, and they will trust their faith in
God to carry them,” the Toronto Sun editorialized October 9.
On October 16, Post Gazette columnist Ruth Ann Dailey noted that it
had been “a roller coaster month for the commodity of forgiveness on the
American pop-cultural stock exchange.” After a week when it was at a
premium, pre-election politics-as-usual had “sent the value of forgiveness
tumbling back to its pre-Amish levels.”
What to do but imagine an interview with the world’s great expert on the
subject. Among God’s pronouncements, Dailey postulated:
“[M]y greatest work was through the Amish. They make
themselves so available to me. Their forgiveness, the way they reached out
to the killer’s family, the scholarships they’ve established for his
children—that’s where I am.
“And honey, I have to tell you, the media that you right-wingers love to
criticize got it right this time. The story of the week was not violence,