Six weeks after the Amish school tragedy, Dale Schrag and I spoke in the Bethel College convocation, reviewing the troubling and intriguing story. I concluded our presentation by posing a series of questions to which I invited students and faculty to respond. Questions and comments were allowed to hang suspended without response. This elicited several dozen thoughtful reflections. I draw here from that convocation presentation.
- The Amish have received much praise for their spirit of forgiveness, but a disclaimer from one Amishman: "Don't make us out as saints. You would have done the same." The words of the Amish have been spare and simple. The Amish should not be burdened with being idealized or idolized.
- The first question: The murderer pointing a gun at a younger girl, an older child stepped forward and begged him, "Kill me." She may have heard the words of Jesus: "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends."? The question: Don't our survival instincts tell us, first, to save ourselves, to protect self? Doesn't this run counter to our integrity, our cherished individualism?
- Within hours of the tragedy, Amish neighbors visited Roberts' widow and urged her to remain in the community. They spoke of forgiveness for the one who killed their children. This violates conventional instincts. And yet we may be haunted by the model of Jesus on the cross who says, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." Earlier Jesus had said, "Forgive seven times? No, seventy times seven." Or bring the issue down to an ordinary schoolroom or playground: forgive a school bully seven times or seventy times seven?
Joan Chittister, a Catholic sister, wrote: "What really stunned the country was that the Amish refused to hate what had hurt them. It was a Christianity we all profess but which they practiced that left us stunned. . . . No, it was not the murders, not the violence, that shocked us; it was the forgiveness that followed it for which we were not prepared. The lack of recrimination, the dearth of vindictiveness that left us amazed. Baffled. Confounded. . . .
Is this forgiveness too idealistic? Make the question tougher: Suppose the killer had sexually abused several of the girls before the killing, apparently his plan? Suppose he had been captured, jailed, and brought to trial? Forgive a killer, unrepentant, who is still alive?
- The Catholic sister challenges us: "You can't help but wonder, when you see something like this, what the world would be like today if, instead of using the fall of the Twin Towers as an excuse to invade a nation, we had simply gone to every Muslim country on earth and said, 'Don't be afraid. We won't hurt you. We know that this is coming from only a fringe of society, and we ask your help in saving others from this kind of violence.' 'Too idealistic,' you say. Maybe. But since we didn't try, we'll never know, will we?"
- When financial gifts were offered, the Amish responded: "Tell them that we are not asking for contributions. We believe that we must take care of each other . But it would be un-Christlike for us to deny the blessing that comes from giving. . . . Many outside our community are grieving. Giving can be an important part of grieving. . . . We will use the gifts to make sure the Roberts family is cared for." Several million dollars in unsolicited gifts have poured in. The Amish have given a substantial portion to the Roberts family. How could the grieving Amish find the grace to think empathetically of others, even the grieving family of the murderer? Did anyone think of sharing gifts with the families of the 9/11 terrorists?
- As the Amish responded to this tragedy, they have voiced no demand for justiceno request for damages or restitution or reparations, no lawsuits. Peacemakers use almost as one word, "peace and justice." Among these Amish there appears to be no or little linkage of justice to peace. Is "justice" too demanding, hard-edged, assertive, in-your-face? Are the Amish intimating a biblical preference for "reconciliation" over "justice"? Do the Amish properly understand the teachings of Jesus when they do not call for justice?
- Here is a group of Amish, fatefully plucked out of hundreds of similar communities, who seem to take up the Cross of Christ so naturally, so instinctively. They do this without benefit of college degrees, learned ethical casuistry, and theological sophistication. Is this wisdom "out of the mouths of infants"? The eloquence of childlike discipleship. Biblical wisdom packaged so simply, so few words. Does this put us college types in our place?
- Observers speak of the Amish gift of handling grief and tragedy. The Amish find comfort in the healing routines of farm, shop and kitchen, visiting and neighborliness. Grief is borne, not individually, but communally. Does this story not speak to us individualists and our yearning to live more closely bonded in a community that cares?
- The Amish teacher, released with the boys from the schoolroom, ran to a neighbor to phone 911, to seek the intervention of police. She seemed to sense intuitively a place for police action in restraining a deranged killer. Here one ponders the tension between, and the overlap, of the claims of the faith community and the secular community.
Those were questions posed to the convocation audience. More could have be presented, such as the following:
- Mennonites today often fault the Amish for failing to be missionaries, to be evangelical. Could it be said that in this instance the Amish are evangelicals unawares? Is their's a non-verbal evangelicalism? One thinks of the words of St. Francis: "Preach the gospel and with words, if necessary." Is there not embedded in this story an invitation "to go and do likewise"?
- Our Anabaptist kinfolk, the Old Order Amish, are sometimes a discomfort to us Mennonites who are more society-accommodating. The general public often lumps Mennonites together with the Amish, equating Mennonites, to their displeasure, with plain clothing, horses and buggies, quaint rural ways, separatist communities. However, as this winsome story of the forgiving Amish is being told and retold, do we not want to nestle closer now to the Amish to share in the glow of public approbation?
- Soon after the tragedy, the Amish and their friends demolished the school and removed all debris so that it could not become a place of haunting memory or focus of curiosity. The debris was deposited in an undisclosed place where no artifacts would survive for souvenirs or sale. Unlike most groups, the Amish have no plans to memorialize the site.
It is sobering to ponder the wide range of questions this tragedy evokes.