is associate professor of American religious history, chair of the Department of Biblical and Religious Studies, and co-author of Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy. He attends Harrisburg First Church of the Brethren, where he serves on the board of the Brethren Housing Association, a transitional housing program for women and children. He and his family also helped start a house church that meets in their home on Sunday evenings and includes Messiah students as well as community members.
Forgiving what we can't forget
“It’s just standard Christian forgiveness, isn’t it?” That’s how one Amish man responded last fall when we asked him to describe Amish forgiveness. We were talking to him just weeks after a shooting at the West Nickel Mines Amish School took the lives of five Amish girls and wounded five others. The quick extension of forgiveness to the killer by the Nickel Mines Amish community surprised many observers—and raised many questions. As scholars of Amish life, we were eager to learn more.
Many religious traditions consider forgiveness a virtue, but Christianity has awarded it a particularly high place. This esteem is rooted in Christianity’s understanding of God as One who absorbs evil and willingly forgives sinful human beings. Jesus asked God to forgive those who nailed him to the cross (Luke 23:34), and the Apostle Paul observed that, in the midst of Jesus’ suffering, “God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor. 5:19). Throughout the New Testament, Christians are urged to follow Christ’s example by extending grace to their offenders. Leave vengeance to God, Paul writes, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21).
The centrality of forgiveness to the Christian tradition, when combined with the fact that the majority of Americans identify themselves as Christians, raises an interesting question: Did the keen public interest in the grace of the Nickel Mines Amish stem from the fact that their forgiveness differed from other understandings of forgiveness, or did it arise from the Amish community’s willingness to practice what other Christians only preach?
Most Amish people we interviewed did not see their response to the school shooting as anything extraordinary. In fact, many of them were surprised that outsiders were making such a fuss over it. In the course of our research, however, we did find some things that set the Amish understanding of forgiveness apart from other prominent Christian understandings.
First, it’s important to note that the Amish definition of forgiveness is not unique to them. Though definitions of forgiveness can be complex, the most generally recognized definition we found in forgiveness literature was this: forgiveness happens when a victim (or victimized community) forgoes the right to revenge and commits to overcoming bitter feelings toward the offender. Many people who have studied forgiveness define it this way, and so do the Amish—though they often use simpler language, like “letting go
of a grudge.”
Still, even though Amish definitions of forgiveness are rather typical, they did express views on forgiveness that set them apart from most North American Christians. First, the Amish saw no problem with extending forgiveness quickly —in this particular case within hours of the shooting. Though some admitted to us that they struggled with bitter feelings toward the killer for a long time (sometimes quoting Jesus’ words about the need to forgive “seventy times seven”), they all agreed that committing themselves to forgiveness quickly—even immediately—was the right thing to do.
Interestingly, some Amish people we interviewed, including some parents of slain children, insisted that they never experienced anger toward their children’s killer. (This, of course, complicates the notion of forgiveness, which assumes by definition that a victim harbors bitterness.) Although this lack of anger struck some observers as strange, psychologists have long noted that both the experience and the expression of emotions are shaped by cultural conditioning. More specifically, cross-cultural psychologists have documented the tendency of collectivist cultures, which stress the goals of communities at the expense of individual freedoms, to discourage anger as an emotion.
To be sure, not every Amish person we interviewed was ready to deem anger an entirely inappropriate emotion. They all agreed, however, that anger was a dangerous emotion, often citing Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:21–22). In opposition to some who would argue that the suppression of anger inevitably results in deeper emotional problems, the Amish response at Nickel Mines suggests that anger can be navigated in multiple ways.
One other aspect of Amish forgiveness that struck us as unique pertained to their motivation for forgiving others. Time and time again our Amish informants pointed to the Lord’s Prayer, in particular the petition, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matt. 6:12, KJV). They also noted Jesus’ words that immediately follow the Lord’s Prayer: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:14–15).
Taking these words literally, the Amish believe that forgiveness from God hinges on a willingness to forgive others. Many Christians put the emphasis elsewhere, con-tending that Christians should forgive others because God has forgiven them. The Amish would not disagree with that assertion, but they are far more likely to embrace the literal meaning of Jesus’ words. In conversations, sermons, and essays, Amish people told us again and again: to be forgiven, we must forgive.
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