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By Daniel Burke
Religion News Service

Religious sects across the globe wage wars of endless retribution. Revenge fantasies fill American movie theaters. Legal courts are crammed with people seeking settled scores.
So last October, when the Amish community of Lancaster County, Pa., immediately offered forgiveness to the family of Charles Roberts, the gunman who murdered five Amish schoolgirls and shot five more, a stunned world had some questions.
What compelled the Amish to forgive the murderer so swiftly? Was it really that easy for them? Were the Amish living up to Christian ideals, or skating dangerously close to naivete?
A new book by three scholars of Amish life, “Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy,” examines these questions in detail.
Drawing on interviews with Amish men and women in Lancaster, as well as explorations of Amish theology and modern psychology, authors Donald Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt and David Weaver-Zercher explain how the Amish practice forgiveness and why it’s so central to their lives.
Some things about the Amish are obvious to outsiders — the horse and buggies, the beards and bonnets. But this reserved community, rooted in Europe’s Radical Reformation, tends to practice its faith in private.
That all changed when the media glare shone on Nickel Mines, a Lancaster County village.
Cameras caught the Amish community in various stages of grief. But as “Amish Grace” reports, they also might have found the Amish putting their faith into action.
Parents of several of the murdered girls invited the killer’s family to attend their daughters’ funerals. More than half of the 75 mourners at the murderer’s own funeral were Amish. Amish neighbors visited Roberts’ widow, bringing flowers and meals to her home, and donating money to help the family get along. They visited the Roberts home again to to sing Christmas carols.
“I am overcome with sadness that Roberts’ life ended without the opportunity for repentance,” says the mother of one of the slain girls in the new book.
The authors found that the Amish community’s forgiveness of Roberts was not an isolated incident. Such acts of grace permeate more than three centuries of Amish history.
“When forgiveness arrived at the killer’s home within hours of his crime, it did not appear out of nowhere,” the authors write.
“Forgiveness is woven into the very fabric of Amish life, its sturdy threads having been spun from faith in God, scriptural mandates and a history of persecution.”
The Amish formula of forgiveness, however, flips mainstream ideas upside down, according to the authors.
Many psychologists and religious counselors say that forgiveness comes at the end of an emotional journey, when someone finally finds it’s the best way to ease the pain, Kraybill explained in an interview.
The Amish, in contrast, start with the decision to forgive and then work on the emotional process afterwards, he said.
“In their culture there is a predisposition toward forgiveness.
They’ve already made the decision — before anything happens to them — that they’re going to forgive.”
That predisposition is set by a sense of religious duty.
Contrary to mainstream Christian theology, which asserts that Christians should forgive others because God has forgiven sinners, the Amish believe that people receive forgiveness from God only if they forgive others.
The Amish take their cues for this idea of forgiveness from the parable of the unforgiving servant and the Lord’s Prayer.
The parable, from the Gospel of Matthew, describes a servant, who, after the king forgives his debt, persecutes a fellow servant who owes him money. Amish ministers read and preach this parable before spring and fall Communion services each year, according to the authors.
Last year, Amish children in households around Nickel Mines and Amish families attending church would have heard the parable, along with sermons on forgiveness, on Oct. 1, the day before the shooting, according to “Amish Grace.”
Moreover, the Lord’s Prayer, with its injunction to “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,” is the first thing many Amish children learn. As adults, Amish men and women hear the prayer in their minds or ears as many as eight times a day.
Jesus follows the prayer in Matthew’s Gospel with another encouragement to forgive.
“Forgiveness is the only thing that Jesus underscores in the Lord’s Prayer,” an Amish elder explains in “Amish Grace.” “So you see, it’s really central to the Lord’s prayer. It’s really intense.”
That doesn’t mean, though, that the Amish forget or pardon someone’s trangressions, or that forgiveness comes easy to them.
Had Roberts not killed himself, it is highly unlikely the Amish would have asked a judge to pardon him, said one Amish man from Lancaster, who asked not to be identified in keeping with Amish custom.
They have might asked that he be spared a death sentence, he said.
At the same time, many Amish are still working through feelings of anger and grief.
“We have a battle with forgiveness,” says an Amish farmer in the book. “It’s hard to forgive, but we can’t be forgiven if we don’t forgive, so we really try hard to overcome that.”
Their humble theology discourages the Amish from questioning God.
They may not understand God’s will, but they don’t doubt divine wisdom.
And they trust that grace is a two-way street to glory.
“In Amish life, offering forgiveness placed one on the side of the martyrs, indeed on the side of God,” the authors write. “It is the spiritually courageous thing to do.”
Copyright 2007 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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