Forgiving a mass murderer: the Amish

Forgiving a mass murderer: the Amish

I want to tell you a story about forgiveness.  It’s begins with the murder of five Amish school girls, and the critical wounding of five others, at a one room Amish school house in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, USA, on October 2, 2006. 

The girls, the oldest of whom was thirteen, were murdered by a demented local man named Charles Carl Roberts IV, who brought with him to the schoolhouse a semi-automatic pistol, six hundred rounds of ammunition, a shotgun, a stun gun, plastic ties to use as handcuffs, sexual lubricant, and a board with nails to barricade the school door shut.  The teacher managed to slip out the side door almost immediately and ran for help; three policemen arrived within minutes.  Ten more police arrived several minutes later.  Negotiations were brief.  Hearing shots from inside they stormed the school.  Roberts had shot himself in the head, but not before shooting the ten girls.  

That evening, three Amish men went to visit Amy Roberts, Roberts’ widow, who was staying with her parents.  “We just talked with them for about ten minutes to express our sorrow and told them we didn’t hold anything against them,” said one of the Amish visitors (Kraybill, p 44).  Several miles away, an Amish man went to see Carl Roberts’ s father, spending about an hour with him.  A spokesman for the Roberts family later said “He stood there for an hour, and he held that man [Mr. Roberts] in his arms and said, `We forgive you.'”  Presumably Mr. Roberts’ father did not need forgiveness in any of the ways we ordinarily understand the term today, but perhaps that was not as important as the visit and the holding. 

Acts of forgiveness and grace by the Amish continued.  The parents of several of the slain children invited members of the Roberts family to attend their daughters’ funerals.  When Charles Roberts was buried, more than half of the seventy-five mourners were Amish.  Most impressive, perhaps because it required that forgiveness be organized by thought, the Nickel Mines Accountability Committee, which received thousands of dollars in donations from all over the country and the world, decided to delete the name “Amish” from the committee, and direct a significant portion of the donations to the Roberts family for the support of Roberts’ widow, and the education of the Roberts children.  Many Amish also contributed to the Roberts Family Fund established at a local savings bank.

When asked why they forgave so rapidly, all the Amish cited the example of Jesus.  While many aspects of the life and death of Jesus were mentioned, most prominent was the parable of the unforgiving servant. A servant who owed much (a staggering amount), was forgiven by his king, but did not forgive a lesser servant, who owed the forgiven servant far less.  “In anger,” said Jesus, the king “handed [the forgiven servant] over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (Matthew 18: 23-35).  The lesson that you must forgive in order to be forgiven is explicit in Matthew 6: 14-15, Mark 11: 25, Luke 6: 37.  It is implicit the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6: 9-13; Luke 11: 2-4).   

With so much media attention directed to their acts of extraordinary forgiveness, the local Amish leaders wrote to their local newspaper to explain.

There has been some confusion about our community’s forgiving attitude, [but] if we do not forgive, how can we expect to be forgiven?  By not forgiving, it will be more harmful to ourselves than to the one that did the evil deed. (Kraybill, p 44)

Reading about the extraordinary forgiveness offered by the Amish in this case, as well as a number of other cases, one has no sense that forgiveness is being offered out of fear, religious blackmail (forgive or go to Hell), or anything other than a deep commitment to a particular religious identity, an identity organized around the principles of non-resistance, forgiveness, discipleship, caring, and martyrdom.  Or as one Amish woman put it, “You mean some people actually thought we got together to plan forgiveness.”  The Amish did not plan forgiveness because it was woven into their everyday lives. 

The Amish are not perfect.  Certain aspects of the mass murder actually made forgiveness easier.  The murderer was not Amish, and was clearly deeply disturbed, if not insane.  He was dead, and his family was not complicit.  On the contrary, they were ashamed and deeply wounded by Charles Roberts IV’s act.  The Amish seem to struggle more with forgiveness when the offense occurs within Amish families, especially when it involves child abuse (Kraybill, p 113)    .

Far from perfect, the Amish are unusual in that they truly believe their salvation is bound up with their willingness to forgive others, and that deeds, not words, are the measure of one’s faith.  The result is not an anxious toting up of sins on one side, acts of forgiveness on the other.  The result is a community and way of life in some ways the opposite of that, one in which forgiveness comes with awesome speed, and frequently with genuine good will.  This is the result, I believe, of the way in which community and tradition humanize an otherwise not terribly generous and gracious theological doctrine: forgive or be tortured in Hell. 

A different interpretation of forgiveness: prolepsis

There are other Christian interpretations of forgiveness.  My favorite is the proleptic interpretation of forgiveness.  Prolepsis means assuming or acting as if something anticipated has already happened.  It is prevalent among Methodists and Lutherans, or at least among those who think about such things. 

In the proleptic interpretation, forgiveness serves not primarily to absolve guilt, but to remind us what communion with God and each other can be.  Why is communion so central?  Because we are already forgiven.  The forgiveness has happened.  What we have to do is live up to our forgiveness, not just by forgiving others, but by living a life worthy of discipleship and Christ’s sacrifice.  We are already forgiven, we do not need to earn it, but we need to learn how to behave in its light.  This is the real meaning of communion. 

Living up to our forgiveness is the opposite of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called cheap grace.

Cheap grace is not the kind of forgiveness of sin which frees us from the toils of sin. Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves.  Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance . . . . When he spoke of grace, Luther always implied as a corollary that it cost him his own life, the life which was now for the first time subjected to the absolute obedience of Christ . . . . Luther had said that grace alone can save; his followers took up his doctrine and repeated it word for word. But they left out its invariable corollary, the obligation of discipleship. (Bonhoeffer, pp 47, 53)

From a Christian proleptic perspective, repentance doesn’t precede forgiveness.  We are already forgiven, but the gift is not cheap, for we have to know, act, and live as though we earned it in order to be worthy of what we have been given through Christ’s sacrifice.  The doctrine is different from that of the Amish, which stresses salvation through forgiveness, but as the practice of the Amish suggests, doctrine may be less important than the community it is practiced in. 

Conclusion: Most Christians and the Amish

What makes the Amish so extraordinary?  The close community they live in, and the tradition they come from. The Amish stem from the Anabaptists, who were persecuted by the Lutherans and other protestant denominations during the Reformation.  As a result, they have a long history of martyrdom, to which the dead girls were quickly assimilated, particularly the oldest, Marian, who according to the surviving children stepped forward and said “shoot me first.” 

Most Christians probably believe in a combination of the two doctrines.  Christ suffered and died so that we might be forgiven.  But, we still have to forgive others, as the Lord has forgiven us.  I also imagine that most Christians don’t think about the details of forgiveness very much.  That’s not bad.  Doctrinal inconsistencies don’t matter very much as long as they don’t lead to “cheap grace.”  Too often they do.



Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of DiscipleshipMacmillan, 1963. 

Donald Kraybill, et al.  Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy.  Jossey-Bass/Wiley, 2007.

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