It happened on a Saturday night, in late March 1969. Two young men, sixteen- and seventeen years old, were driving together toward home. The soft creaking of buggy wheels, the jingle of harness and rhythmic clopping of hooves on paved country road, the only sounds in the stillness of night.
Suddenly, headlights approached. A car raced by, and over the roar of its engine came a loud bang.The one, supposing that the driver had tossed out a firecracker, remarked to the other how loud the noise it had made. The other, bent forward, made no reply. Only then did the first one notice the large hole in the front of the buggy, the flat rock lying on the buggy floor.
I was sixteen and already an outsider when my seventeen-year-old uncle was killed by that stone hurled from the hand of a stranger in a passing car under cover of darkness. For, by the time my cousin, frantic with rage and worry, got his uncle and best friend to the hospital, life had already fled from him. His chest had been crushed by the flying rock.
The grief I witnessed, from my uncomfortable relative/stranger position, the weeping aunts and uncles, the large community outpouring at his funeral—so large that the crowd spilled over into the neighboring farmhouse—was profound, intense, and immediate. But it was not hysterical. The loss was devastating, but there was no vindictiveness, no bitter calls for vengeance.
My family had left the Amish three years before my uncle's untimely death. And for many years my feelings of loss were complicated by the feelings of estrangement that had resulted from my family's defection. Yet even as a teenager bent on leaving the backwardness of the Amish way behind me, the response of my grandparents and their community to this brutally senseless and tragic act of violence made a lasting impression on me. They did not cry out for retribution, did not need justice for closure. To this day, they still don't know who did it. And, as far as I know, the Amish community made no attempt to find the killer. They understood that nothing could bring their child, their loved one, back; understood that whoever did this would have to live with it for the rest of his life.
So I, of all people, should not have been surprised by the Amish response to the Nickel Mines shootings. Indeed, I should have foreseen their refusal to hate. But I was surprised. In fact, I was stunned along with the rest of world. I am a practicing Mennonite and consider myself a pacifist; yet I found myself unable to imagine forgiveness in the face of this horror, this extreme violation of innocence. Even though I had witnessed this kind of reaction before, even close at hand, I was completely unprepared for the immediacy of this offer of forgiveness, the extent of the communal outreach to the killer's family. It felt as foreign to me as to any outsider. I understood just how profoundly alien—despite my early years in the community—the Amish way was to me.
Of the impact on the world the Amish response to the shootings caused, Catholic journalist Joan Chittister observed,
It was the Christianity we all profess but which they practiced that left us stunned. Never had we seen such a thing.1 I wonder. Are the Amish, as Chittister claims, better Christians? Or merely naïve and simplistic?
My reflections on these questions in the weeks since the shootings have led me to consider two distinctive features of Amish culture, which I believe make possible the non-vindictive, non-hateful response that has captured the world's attention.
First of all, their
worldview, by which I mean the underlying, generally unconscious beliefs that construct and influence our ideas of reality, is different. In Beyond the Postmodern Mind: the Place of Meaning in a Global Civilization, Huston Smith outlines three worldviews through which the Western world has traversed: Greco-Roman, Christian, and Modern. The Modern worldview, with its faith in an ordered world comprehensible by the individual and rational mind, accepts as true the Enlightenment ideals of personal autonomy and objective reason. Indeed, American culture has made a fetish of individual rights, including the right to bear arms. Along with individual rights, of course, must come personal responsibility. Justice, then, requires punishment for wrongdoing, usually for one or more individual persons. Our mantra when wrong is done is that someone must pay. Plainly, ours is a retributive view of justice based on the Old Testament model of an
eye for an eye.
The Amish, on the other hand, subscribe to an earlier, pre-Enlightenment view of reality, what Smith calls the Christian worldview, and which he describes as a reality
focused in a personal God. Within that reality, Smith says,
the mechanics of the physical world exceed our comprehension, and
the way to our salvation lies not in conquering nature but in following the commandments which God has revealed to us.2
I would suggest that the ability of the Amish to respond with forgiveness rather than vengeance comes out of this worldview. If God is in charge, and we cannot hope to understand the why of things, then following God's command to forgive becomes, perhaps not so much easier, as simply possible. Instead of asking why, the community wastes no time in coming together to share their grief and offer their forgiveness.
This brings me to the second characteristic of Amish culture that, in my opinion, helps to explain their reaction in Nickel Mines: community. Amish society is based on collective rather than individual values. Living within close networks of kinship and community, Amish individuals do not see themselves as subjective individuals separate from the communities to which they belong. This impacts their view of justice. When the self is communal, then justice, too, becomes a shared responsibility. And, the need for justice shifts from the individual to the community. Furthermore, when one's view of reality has God in charge, the exacting of vengeance can be left to God. This view of reality makes it easier to supplant the Old Testament
eye for an eye with the New Testament
turn the other cheek.
Yet it must be acknowledged—and most Amish I know do this readily—that the Amish depend upon mainstream society for much of their needs, including the benefits of law enforcement and other public institutions. In the case of the Nickel Mines shootings, for example, the Amish are indebted to the local police force and the medical establishment—both arenas in which theydo not participate—for the fact that only five girls died and none were raped. In a sense, then, leaving justice in the hands of God is not to discount the aid rendered by the hands of worldly professionals. This does not, in my opinion, make the Amish response naïve; but it does contextualize their actions.
I have often heard Amish people talk about their way of life as a kind of
protective fence which shelters but does not safeguard them from the evils of the world (i.e., the temptations to which all humankind is subject). This sentiment was echoed by an Amish preacher last fall at my aunt's funeral. He said,
Our way of life does not save us, nor is it the only way; but it does make it easier for us. His words echo in my mind as I contemplate this recent example of radical forgiveness in the face of violence, the witness that, in Chittister's words,
simply refused to hate what had hurt them. I wonder if he might be right. Perhaps the Amish worldview and communal lifestyle does make living out
the Christianity we all profess, easier.
This very public Amish witness has, in a sense, brought me full-circle. It has taken me back to the senseless violence of my uncle's death and my inability, in my ruptured relationship with the Amish community, to make sense of their response to the circumstances of his death. What I realize now is that that rupture had everything to do with my inability to make sense of their way. The culture I embraced when I left the Amish had reindoctrinated me. From where I stand today, my sense is that the Amish view of reality, with its ultimate faith in God, makes the New Testament kind of nonviolence to which I as a Mennonite aspire more plausible. This challenges and humbles me.
These Amish cousins—with whom we Mennonites share a commitment to peace and to living
in but not
of the world—have shown us a radical example of Christian love and nonresistance. Through the lens of our Anabaptist heritage, we recognize this kind of response to violence. But our cultural trappings tend to cloud over that lens, making it difficult at times to know the difference between authentic Christian love and naiveté. The example of Jesus speaking from the cross,
Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing (LUKE 23:34), will never be easy. For my part, I'm indebted to the Amish for showing us that it is possible.