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
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
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.