Hi, fellow readers!
Today’s book blog post is about the non-fiction book Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy.
I first heard of this book when watching a Badger Talks presentation entitled “Who are the Amish?” It was hosted by the Augusta Memorial Public Library and presented by University of Wisconsin Professor Mark Louden (who is the author of the book Pennsylvania Dutch: The Story of an American Language). Prof Louden recommended Amish Grace, and I immediately ordered a copy of the book through my local library’s inter-library loan system.
(Note: The English is one of the terms the authors use to represent those outside of the Amish community, and I am using it in my post as well. English does not refer to the country England.)
The topic is heavy, and I felt very emotional when I started reading, to the point I had to take a break and come back a few days later. But once I started reading, it was actually a very quick, informative book.
I was 16 at the time of the tragedy. A junior in high school. I asked my mom if she remembers hearing about it, and she did, but I have no recollection of it. What happened was terrible. With the national attention it garnered, if I did hear about it, I regret to say it didn’t linger in my mind. I don’t want to say the English are used to school shootings, but enough have happened that it’s no longer a true surprise when a shooting is reported. That is a problem in and of itself, and perhaps a post for another day, but the shooting of children from what are deemed a “peaceful community” certainly shook responders worldwide to the core.
In October 2006, a community member entered the West Nickel Mines School with the intent to do harm, ultimately murdering 5 young Amish girls and injuring others before turning a weapon on himself.
In this post, I won’t go into the murderer’s reasons for his actions, but it’s important to know that this person was not well. The Amish members of the community forgave this man, expressing their sentiments to his family and even providing funds for his widow and children, who had lost the main provider for their family.
“In a letter to the editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, an Amish father admitted, ‘Our perceptions of “worldly” and “outsiders” have been challenged and changed. It has been reaffirmed to us that there is much good in the rest of the world.’ He continued his letter by noting, ‘It is reassuring that in spite of our different identities we can still reach out to each other as human brothers and sisters with the same hopes, fears, desires, and feelings in difficult times.'”
Despite the positive proclamations that arose in the wake of the shooting and acts of forgiveness, some felt that the media had portrayed them as people to be venerated because they forgave something so large and awful that it was almost miraculous. As the authors explain, for a community who does not condone the idea of “being put on a pedestal”, this was a unique source of frustration. (They do not evangelize and the authors share that an Amish person in Ohio was prohibited from publicly lecturing about Amish forgiveness following the aftermath of the shooting.) For many English, subsequent articles drew their attention to whether or not this was an isolated event of forgiveness, a public display, or even whether the Amish were so deserving of such praise in light of their own abuse scandals and shunning practices.
“Speaking publicly about faith is not a common practice in most Amish communities. Generally, the Amish do not support or engage in organized evangelistic work; in fact, the Amish are criticized by some evangelical Christians for their lack of missionary zeal. Preferring actions over words, the Amish provide material aid to refugees and disaster-stricken people rather than try to convert others to their views. In their minds, verbal evangelism involves the subtle use of coercive persuasion that focuses on individual conversion rather than community faithfulness.”
When questioning how and why they could forgive so easily, it was clear that forgiveness is not just an idea or an ideal to the Amish community. While it can be difficult to forgive in the absence of forgetting, the authors share quotes from today’s members and stories from the history of Amish faith that show forgiveness is a core principle of Amish culture, in both word and deed. I was reminded of the Zoroastrian tenets “good thoughts, good words, good deeds”. After the shooting, the Amish community prayed, offered condolences and forgiveness, and worked with their English neighbors to form the Nickel Mines Accountability Committee, which processed the gifts and donations received and provided funds to the deceased assailant’s family.
A critical aspect of Amish life is the sense of community. The community worships together, works together, and heals together. The authors share that the mourners wear black not as a symbol of their own status, but as a sign for others in the community that they are supposed to support them (be that cooking, cleaning, or simply presence).
Another interesting thing that was emphasized is that the Amish, while offering forgiveness or asking for leniency in some cases, respect the authority of the courts and the work of police officers. Forgiving does not mean absolving of consequences. But it does help a person heal. (A Google search will reveal the many references and resources for the power and healing of forgiveness).
“The Amish we interviewed confirmed what psychologists tell us: forgiveness heals the person who offers it, freeing that person to move on in life with a greater sense of vitality and wholeness.”
The Amish don’t shy away from the hard questions that the English also have – Can we forgive if we’re angry? How do we grapple with tragedies in the face of God’s will? What about revenge?
For the Amish, revenge and forgiveness do not go hand in hand. We may understand retribution as something we have a right to (and even if you don’t believe that’s the case, I encourage you to think about the Western world’s ideas of vengeance), but the Amish do not. Only through the forgiveness of others will they receive the forgiveness of God.
While this book is not a part of my bibliotherapy/self-development series, it is worth pointing out that one of the grieving rituals some Amish utilize is writing memorial poems about the deceased loved one which are distributed to family and friends. Others compose private memoirs or practice journaling. Composition is a useful bibliotherapy tool, so while the Amish community may not use the term “bibliotherapy” to describe it, I feel that is essentially what it is because it honors the situation while promoting healing.
Amish Grace isn’t Amish 101 – it is entrenched with much deeper meaning than a crash course could ever provide. At the end of the day, while Amish and English may have different cultural upbringings and expectations, we are all people who have the ability to bond through community ties. Those ties strengthen our abilities to weather tragedies.
The Amish were able to forgive not because there was a tragedy, but because forgiveness and working through issues is a central and constant tenant in their faith. The tragedy of the West Nickel Mines schoolhouse brought a larger community together in grief and grace, regardless of their personal ideas about community or individualism.
“Amish and state police officers worked side by side; Amish and non-Amish women prepared and served meals together. As a result, the cultural barriers between the Amish and the English diminished somewhat in the wake of the shooting. Everyone, both Amish and English, agreed that the incident drew them closer together.”
If you have any interest in learning more about the Amish community, I highly recommend this book as well as the links below. Overall, I found the text to be respectful to all involved, and the authors acknowledge that six Amish community members read and critiqued the book. The appendix in the back provides a more informative description of topics such as Ordnung, rumspringa, technology use, and government relations.
- 12 April – live presentation of “Who are the Amish?” (website and Facebook)
- Mark Louden – University website and professional website
- Wisconsin Public Radio podcast – The Amish in Wisconsin
- Badger Talks – website and Facebook