Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy

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Mr. Weaver-Zercher is associate professor of American religious history at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., and author of the recently-released Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy (Jossey-Bass, 2007).

One year ago, on October 2, the words Nickel Mines became part of the nation’s vocabulary. It was near that Lancaster County village, just after ten in the morning, that Charles Carl Roberts IV carried his guns and his rage into a one-room Amish schoolhouse. Determined to even a score with God, Roberts quickly made good on his commitment. As police surrounded the building, he opened fire on ten young female hostages, killing five of them.

The juxtaposition of Roberts’s actions against the rural landscape on which they took place made the Nickel Mines school shooting a dreadfully captivating story. But even more newsworthy, if the op-ed pages were any measure, was the Amish community’s response: forgiveness, extended to the killer’s family within hours.

In the year since those events took place, I’ve had opportunities to talk with many people about the school shooting and Amish forgiveness. Along with questions about how the Amish could forgive their daughters’ killer so quickly, one issue has emerged time and again: how could the Amish be so gracious to a person like Charles Roberts, and yet remain so judgmental of their own kin who leave the Amish church?

This question, of course, refers to the practice of shunning. In Amish society, when a person joins the Amish church (most members join in their late teens or early twenties), the new member commits to a lifetime of faithfulness. This vow includes the commitment to honor the church’s rules and regulations (the Ordnung). Those who violate the Ordnung are confronted by church leaders and instructed to repent. If they refuse, they are eventually excommunicated (excluded from fellowship) and shunned.

Like many things in Amish life, shunning has captured the imagination of those who observe the Amish from afar—and that imagination is sometimes wrong. Unlike the picture painted in some Hollywood movies, Amish excommunication and shunning rarely happen precipitously or at the whim of authoritarian leaders. Rather, the final decision to excommunicate a church member comes after a long process of confrontation and conversation. In the end, the entire church community (a local congregation of about 75 members) votes to endorse the expulsion proposed by the church’s leaders.

Shunning does not involve severing all social ties. Members may talk with ex-members, for example. But certain forms of social interaction are forbidden, such as accepting rides or money from ex-members, and eating at the same table with them. Members are expected to shun ex-members even within their own household, and those who refuse to do so may jeopardize their own standing within the church. Although shunning is a widely accepted practice within Amish faith, the strictness with which it is applied varies from family to family and church district to church district.

Whatever its severity, however, shunning does appear to contradict the notion so prominent after the Nickel Mines school shooting—that the Amish are a gracious, forgiving people. Some commentators picked up on this inconsistency in the weeks following the shooting, including one whose article was headlined, “Forgiveness—But Not for All.” This writer described a woman’s decision to leave her Amish community to marry an outsider, only to be ostracized by her family and friends. “A terrible killer might be forgiven,” the writer observed, but “a woman in love with an English man could not be.”

How can the Amish, so forgiving in one context, be so judgmental in another? The answer lies in the distinction between forgiveness and pardon. Forgiveness refers to a victim’s commitment to forgo revenge and to replace anger (toward the offender) with love and compassion. Pardon, on the other hand, refers to the dismissal of disciplinary consequences that ensue from the offense.

This distinction between forgiveness and pardon is not unique to the Amish; in fact, it appears as a matter of course in the psychological literature on forgiveness—a literature that’s been pioneered by Robert Enright at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Forgiveness is an act of mercy toward an offender, writes Enright, but granting forgiveness (as defined above) does not necessarily mean that justice will be bypassed. Pardoning an offense may—or may not—accompany the act of forgiveness.

There are many practical applications of this distinction. For instance, a counselor may encourage a client to forgive her abuser, but nonetheless support the victim’s desire to see her abuser restrained. Similarly, a family could forgive someone who murdered their child, and yet continue to believe that the murderer should be imprisoned for life. In these situations, victims could forgive the offender, replacing feelings of anger with compassion, but oppose the lifting of disciplinary sanctions. (This, of course, would have been the case with the Amish community had Charles Roberts not committed suicide after his rampage: they would have sought to forgive him but nonetheless supported his imprisonment).

Within the confines of the Amish church, discipline is not literal imprisonment. Still, the Amish make the distinction between forgiving a wrongdoer in their midst and pardoning that wrongdoer. In their view, a person who takes a vow of church membership, then reneges on that vow, has harmed the community. They may be able to forgive the wrongdoer for his/her rebellious act (their success at forgiveness is mixed, of course), but they will not grant pardon (i.e., release the wrongdoer from discipline) until he/she repents. If the offender doesn’t repent and submit to the church’s Ordnung, discipline in the form of shunning commences and continues until repentance takes place.

For better or worse, the Amish view this practice as a form of love—tough love, to be sure. The Amish believe they have a divine responsibility to judge those who break their baptismal vows, to remind them of what the Amish believe to be the eternal consequences of their negligence. This belief is formed both by their reading of the Bible and from their most valued confession of faith. According to the 1632 Dordrecht Confession of Faith, shunning exists for the spiritual good of the person being shunned, producing both pain and shame with the goal of repentance and restoration to the community.

This, of course, is not a common notion of love in twenty-first-century America, at least as it pertains to the church. From the outside, Amish-style discipline appears harsh, even cruel—the exact opposite of what their response to Charles Roberts seemed to be. Those who have experienced shunning by Amish churches often agree that the Amish are cruel in their treatment of former members.

The Amish response to this charge will never satisfy their critics, but at least their answer is clear. It is also quite logical, at least from a perspective that considers life to be short, eternity to be long, and heaven and hell to be real. For a people who believe choices have eternal consequences, to fail to discipline would not only neglect their God-given responsibility, it would in fact be the unloving thing to do. It may not be as picturesque as a horse-drawn buggy, but this uniquely Amish view of spiritual care is one more example of how the Amish walk out of step with the culture around them.

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Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

The distinction is clear, consistent and forgiveable, especially in view of the overall virtues of the way of life and belief it is part of. As explained in the comments here above, the distinction is also a practical one. I some difficulty, though, seeing it as "logical."

The dictionary definition of forgiveness and pardon is more ambiguous. Forgiveness can EITHER be the giving up of resentment while still exacting punishment, OR it can be to cease to resent and to relinquish claim to requital.

From a purely logical point of view, the Amish distinction in and of itself could be consistently applied to a society than stones people to death by lot, as in the famous short story by Jackson for example, but does so politely and without hatred or ill-will.

Amish society is nothing like that, of course, but DESPITE not due to the forgiveness-pardon distinction

Ultimately, WHAT is forgiven or not forgiven and WHAT is pardoned or not pardoned is more important than whether the unpardoned are nonetheless forgiven or not.

For any given level of pardonability, however, it would seem admirable, though unusual nowadays, to encourage maximum forgivability. And Christian: "as we forgive those who trespass/sin/are in debt against/to us" e.g. no matter what the trespass/sin/debt."

I have sometimes wondered how groups as distinctly different as the Amish can persist intact for so many generations as part of a much larger general society and on a purely voluntary basis. "Shunning" is certainly harsh, but it might be the least bad choice among possible "necessary evils" required to preserve the group distinct and intact.

Again, this practice cannot be fairly judged in isolation, but only in the context of what it is helping to maintain.

David Weaver-Zercher - 10/1/2007

Mr. Wells is correct. The ultimate goal of shunning (as outlined in the 1632 Dordrecht Confession) is to compel the wayward person to repent. Pardon, i.e., the lifting of the church's disciplinary sanctions, is offered only to a person who repents. That person is then reinstated to the community and reconciliation takes place. In these instances, the Amish community (at least in the ideal) "forgets" the offense that led to discipline in the first place; that is, church members are expected to treat the formerly-shunned, now-reconciled person as if nothing had happened. Again, that's the ideal -- the reality is sometimes different.

Guy Wells - 10/1/2007

Not to question Weaver-Zercher's statements, but to wonder if there isn't still more to it: Reformation era anabaptist communities often saw shunning as only one side of a twofold process, the other side of which was reconciliation, in which the shunned member repented and was received back into the communty. Is that not also the case in modern Amish communties?