Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy

Title: Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy
Author: Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt, David L. Weaver-Zercher
Publication Year: 2008
Pages: 237
Genre: Nonfiction
Count for Year: 52

How I discovered

While I had heard of the book previously, I didn’t really discover it until I heard one of the authors, David L. Weaver-Zercher, associate professor of American religious history at Messiah College, speak at the college earlier this year. I was there with a friend who is on the alumni council, and we were attending a banquet honoring scholarship award winners where Weaver-Zercher was the keynote speaker. His subject: the events of Oct. 2, 2006 when 10 Amish schoolgirls were shot, five fatally, in an Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pa. I was so moved by his presentation that I picked up a copy of the book autographed by all three authors.

The setup

The remarkable response of the Amish community to the horrific shooting of ten schoolgirls at Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, in October 2006 stunned the larger world. Amish Grace tells the incredible story of this community’s reaction to this senseless shooting and explores its profoundly countercultural practice of forgiveness.

Outsiders often hold a stereotypical view of the Amish as a stubbornly backwards people– a view rooted in the picturesque images of buggies, beards, and bonnets. But there is much more to know about the Amish as a people as we discovered after the Nickel Mines incident. The community’s collective and radical act of forgiveness– the loving and compassionate response to the shooter and his family– gives us insights into what the Amish are and how they live their faith.

Amish Grace explores the many questions the story raises about the religious beliefs that led the Amish to forgive so quickly. In a world where religion spawns so much violence and vengeance, the surprising act of Amish forgiveness begs for deeper consideration.

— from the book jacket

Who could forget what the Amish community did after that day? Not only did they forgive the shooter — which admittedly might not have been that difficult to do since he killed himself– but they also forgave his family by attending his funeral, even outnumbering the family that attended. However, what Kraybill, Nolt and Weaver-Zercher do is get behind the why in a way only three scholars of Amish culture could do: with historical background that shows the reasons the Amish acted as they did in those days, weeks, months and now even years following the shooting.

Really, what they practiced the authors show was not really new for the Amish and is was that that they had been practicing since the 1500s, as evidenced by the story of Dirk Willems. Willems

…was arrested in 1569 for being baptized as an adult and allowing forbidden religious gatherings to be held in his home. Jailed in a palace-turned-prison, Willems escaped by knotting rags into a rope and lowering himself out of a window of the castle. But his getaway would not be easy. A guard noticed the prisoner’s flight and began pursuing him, apparently with the mayor in tow. As they ran, Willems came to a frozen pond, and although he made it safely across, the ice was beginning to break with the spring thaw. The hapless guard fell through the ice, however, and began to sink. Fearing he would drown, the guard cried out for Willems to turn back and rescue him.

At this point, Willems could keep going or turn around to save the man. Of course, perhaps not surprisingly in light of what we now know about the Amish, he stopped, turned around and rescued the man. However, the mayor insisted that Willems be burned at the stake, which he was. As he was being burned, he cried out and was heard more than seventy times by residents of a neighboring village.

“Seventy times!” the Martyrs Mirror study guide underscores. “Peter asks Jesus if he should forgive one who sinned against him seven times, and Jesus said not seven times, ‘but seventy times seven.’ Dirk forgave his enemies many times.

The authors don’t stop there, though, with the story of what forgiveness means to the Amish. In the third part of the book, they explore what forgiveness means not only to the Amish, but also to the rest of us– or what it can mean if we but practice it.

In a world where faith often justifies and magnifies revenge, and in a nation where some Christians use scripture to fuel retaliation, the Amish response was indeed a surprise. Regardless of the details of the Nickel Mines story, one message rings clear: religion was used not to justify rage and revenge but to inspire goodness, forgiveness and grace. And that is the big lesson for the rest of us regardless of our faith and nationality.

All I have to say that is “Amen.”

My final analysis: 4/5. While I thought the book was very good, especially with its inclusions of an appendix on the Amish of North America, end notes and further resources for reading, I didn’t think it was quite as poignant or good as Left To Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust by Immaculee Ilibagiza with Steve Erwin but I think that was because that book was told in the first person whereas this one was in the third person. All in all, though, I highly recommend both books for a different perspective on forgiveness.

For more information on this book, visit its website here.

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2 responses to “Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy

  1. Pingback: Saturday’s Me and You: 9/20/08 « An unfinished person (in this unfinished universe)

  2. Good review. I think Amish and Mennonites came from or were connected with Anabaptist. But surely the point of this is grace and forgiveness .