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Donald Kraybill opened the annual conference of the Peace and Justice Studies Association in Elizabethtown, PA, on September 27 with an exciting speech about the Amish and their patterns of forgiveness. The first half of his presentation focused on the factors that shape and preserve Amish community identity, an appropriate topic for a conference with the overall theme of “Cultural Identity in a Mass Culture World.”

Mainstream culture, he explained, emphasizes the importance of individualism, but the Amish do not share that ideal. In the Amish value hierarchy, Jesus Christ comes first, followed by the Amish community, and followed, last, by individuals. The Amish emphasize the importance of self-denial, submission, obedience, humility, and yieldedness. They shape their identity, Kraybill indicated, through religious rituals—baptism, confession, excommunication, and shunning, each of which he described briefly.

He then reviewed some of the distinctive identity markers of the Lancaster County Amish. One is their unique language, Pennsylvania Dutch, a German dialect that they spoke hundreds of years ago when they left the Rhineland area of Germany. Another is their conservative dress—they are quite conscious of the fact that their clothing communicates who they are. Horses and buggies also serve as identity markers, and they help to slow them down so they will not lose contact with their homes and communities. The lanterns in their homes and the absence of electricity are also symbolic identifiers that keep them disconnected from the outside world.

The private schools run by the Amish help transmit their culture, protect them from adopting mainstream values, and limit the development of friendships between mainstream and Amish children. The church districts do not run the schools—they are run by committees of Amish fathers who live nearby. The schools do not teach Amish religious beliefs, however—the parents feel that they should be taught in the homes.

The Amish also mark their identity by limiting interactions with the mainstream society. Marriages must be within the group—unless the non-Amish partner agrees to join the church. They do not accept public offices, though they are allowed to vote, and they do not serve in the armed forces. They tend to have dense social networks—a typical Amish person may have 75 cousins. Their recreation usually consists of group activities with other Amish people. Kraybill said that 90 percent of the employed Amish in his county are either self-employed or work for another Amish person.

During the second half of his presentation, he reviewed the Nickel Mines tragedy, the first anniversary of which was on Tuesday, October 2. He focused on the widely reported forgiveness that the Amish displayed immediately after the shootings. He and two co-authors, Steven M. Nolt and David L. Weaver-Zercher, have just published a book on the subject called Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy (watch for a future review of the book in this website). It was released just a few days before the conference.

Kraybill briefly reviewed the drama that unfolded last October. A deranged man barricaded a one-room schoolhouse, shot 10 Amish girls, five of whom died, and then shot himself as the police stormed the building. As Kraybill and his co-authors worked on their book, they interviewed numerous Amish people about their reactions to the killings. The authors found that the Amish were surprised at the international media attention, which had focused on the way they had quickly, and spontaneously, forgiven the dead killer, his wife, and his family.

Even as Amish fathers and grandfathers were learning that their girls were dying in regional hospitals, they were already on the way to visit the families of the killer to express their sorrow and forgiveness, to hug and console them for the tragedy that had struck them all. As one Amish man told Kraybill, “Our forgiveness is not so much about our words, but about what we did.” The amazing aspect of the story was that they did not wait to talk or think about it—they forgave the killer within hours. One Amish man commented, “Think about the father of the killer.” How badly he must feel about what his son just did. Half of the 75 mourners at the funeral for the killer were Amish people.

Kraybill explained why they were so quick to forgive—and why they were amazed at the international media attention. After all, isn’t forgiveness what Jesus requires, they asked him? The Martyr’s Mirror, one of the major works about their history, is an account of the executions of Anabaptists in 16th century Europe, most of whom went to the stake asking God to forgive their enemies for what they were about to do. That was the tradition that Jesus had established, they felt.

The Amish argued to Kraybill that Jesus himself emphasized the importance of forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer. They pointed out that the idea of forgiving those who trespass against us is the only passage of the Lord’s Prayer that Jesus repeated, as if to emphasize and re-emphasize to his followers the idea (see Matthew 6: 14-15). If Jesus so focused on forgiveness, how could they dispute it? They believe that they must forgive in order to be forgiven by God for their own sins.