Ten years ago yesterday, a man named Charles Carl Roberts IV shot ten students in a school near Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, then committed suicide. Five children died; five eventually recovered.
Sadly, episodes like this have become almost familiar in American society, but this mass murder was unique. Not only did it take place at a one-room Amish schoolhouse in rural Lancaster Country, but the victims’ family and neighbors answered terrible tragedy with astonishing kindness. Within hours Amish visitors were comforting Roberts’ wife, children, and parents, making clear that they had forgiven his actions.
That response inspired three scholars who had spent their lives studying this remarkable religious group to write the book Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy. For the 10th anniversary, one of them helped Washington Post reporter Colby Itkowitz understand a depth of forgiveness that seems impossible to most of us:
Steven Nolt, a professor of Amish studies at Elizabethtown College, said that for most people, forgiveness and acceptance come at the end of a long emotional process. But the Amish forgive first and then every day work through the emotions of it. This “decisional forgiveness” opened a space for Roberts [the shooter’s mother] to offer her friendship, which normally in their situation would be uncomfortable, he said.
Itkowitz learned that the reconciliation has continued to the present day. When Roberts’ mother was treated for Stage 4 breast cancer last December, one of the massacre’s survivors cleaned her home and Amish children arrived in a school bus to sing Christmas carols.
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All of this came to mind five days ago, when we were getting a guided tour of Amish farms and businesses in Lancaster County from, well, Steve Nolt.
Knowing my interest in the American history of Pietism, Steve took us to the Mennonite meeting house where Martin Boehm, co-founder of the United Brethren, started his career as a preacher. As we were leaving, I looked across the field to see children come out of an Amish schoolhouse for recess. While we watched them play baseball, I asked Steve how far we were from Nickel Mines. “About fifteen minutes,” he said.
I’m sure I’d watched the news coverage in 2006, but I had forgotten about the incident until three years later, when I belatedly stumbled across Amish Grace. My wife and I were expecting our twins, and I remember sitting on the floor of a now-closed Borders bookstore: weeping quietly as I imagined learning that my own daughter had been shot, doubting that I could have forgiven that sin so readily.
I often give the lecture on the origins of Anabaptism in Bethel’s first-year Christianity and Western Culture course, and for several semesters, I told the story of Nickel Mines as a way of illustrating how the Anabaptist commitment to living as committed disciples of Jesus Christ produces a very different kind of Christian witness than what we had seen from magisterial Protestants and Roman Catholics in the Reformation era. I typically read from the Sermon on the Mount, which Steve and his co-authors point out is central to Amish worship:
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
Or I lead the class in an old Anabaptist prayer that I came across by way of Scot McKnight: “We pray, O loving Father, for all Thy children who are in need. Especially do we remember the sick and the weak, the sorrowing and troubled, and those who suffer for Thy name’s sake. We also pray for our enemies and for those who mistreat us, for they do not realize what they are doing.”
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Most of my students simply find the Amish unfathomable, but others are intrigued that people could be so dedicated to living after Jesus’ example. And no small number of young evangelicals I’ve known have been drawn to the larger Anabaptist tradition, for the reasons my Anxious Bench colleague David Swartz recently pointed out:
After centuries of relying on sky-high Amish birthrates for church growth, Anabaptism has exploded in just several months. The surprising converts include a lot of conservative white evangelicals who are not known for their pacifism, simple living, or belief in the separation of church and state. Nonetheless, many are suddenly preaching the limits of partisan politics….
Not having a good candidate is not new for most Anabaptists, who found themselves the target of every civic authority in the sixteenth century. Even today, certain sensibilities place Anabaptists outside conventional political discourse and behavior.
David argues that Anabaptism, unlike either side of the political spectrum, rejects civil religion, amoral Realpolitik, “unbridled consumerism,” and anything less than a “consistent-life ethic.” While the Amish largely detach themselves from American politics, David assures evangelicals that following Anabaptist ethics “is not to reject citizenship entirely. Anabaptists, always searching for third ways, insist on more creative approaches. After all, there are other ways of being political besides voting: practicing citizenship on a local level, adopting a more global than national identity, allying with social movements like #blacklivesmatter.”
It’s a move that I find attractive myself. But I think that the story of Nickel Mines might suggest two points that those considering the Anabaptist (if not Amish) way should consider:
First, while the Amish response in 2006 was indeed a shining moment of Christian witness, the Amish and other Anabaptists have been as likely as any other Christians to find scandalous the notion of unmerited grace. I have a friend raised in the Mennonite tradition whose family is still divided by generations-old schisms resulting from shunning. And without grace, the Anabaptist emphasis on social justice risks becoming just another kind of pharisaical legalism.
Second, what struck me most in reading Amish Grace was the prevalence of words like memory, tradition, and community. Those acts of forgiveness in October 2006 resulted less from individual decisions made in the moment than from communal instincts rooted in collective memory and trained by shared religious experience.
Too many of the disgruntled evangelicals I see contemplating Anabaptism act like they’re just trying on clothes, some of which they might add to their ensemble. They like some of what they’ve read of Anabaptist ethics via John Howard Yoder (or, more likely, via Yoder as distilled by Greg Boyd), but their experience with evangelicalism has left them acutely sensitive to the hypocrisies that arise from any attempt at sustaining Christian community — and disinterested in acknowledging or cultivating their roots in any particular Christian tradition, all of which reveal their inevitable tensions and shortcomings upon the slightest historical examination.
And yet I’m not sure that the Anabaptist vision can be realized without making commitments to community and tradition. As Steve and his co-authors put it in Amish Grace:
Amish people must do [the] hard work [of forgiveness] like anyone else, but unlike most people, an Amish person begins the task atop a three-hundred-year-old tradition that teaches the love of enemies and the forgiveness of offenders. An Amish person has a head start on forgiveness long before an offense ever occurs, because spiritual forebears have pitched in along the way. (p. 140)