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October 5, 2007

Bill Moyers on the grace of the Amish

BILL MOYERS: In a time of war and rumors of war, of violence and calls for vengeance — with so many people feeling helpless before unwelcome events — I want to recommend a book — one I could scarcely put down when I started it last weekend. This is it, AMISH GRACE, by Donald Kraybill, Steven Nolt, and David Weaver-Zercher.

Each of these men has written extensively on the people most of us know only by name or by the odd photograph - the Amish.

They may look all the same to outsiders — with quaint old-world practices brought over from Europe in the 1700s, and a distinctive way of life drawn from their reading of the Bible. But one year ago this week we learned from the Amish something profound about a people who refuse to be defined by the evil that assaults them. AMISH GRACE is that story.

The Amish often read the words of an old German hymn when they bury their dead.

In the small community of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, this time last year they had need of words that comfort and mourn...

Five little girls had been buried in their simple white dresses...

Five others were in critical condition, their survival uncertain...

Among people bound by strong ties of family, faith, and tradition, whose children do not watch violent movies, video games, or television, ordinary life had been upended by wrenching horror...

On a cloudless October morning. Under a blue sky that reminded some people there of 9/11. The school bell called the children in from play.

Their teacher, Emma, read from the Bible, the children stood and recited the Lord's Prayer in German, then sang hymns in German and in English.

'Death often comes quickly,' said one of the hymns…. . 'He who today is vigorous and ruddy, may tomorrow, or sooner, have passed away.'

At around 10:15, a local milk truck driver named Charles Roberts IV, entered the school house bearing a small arsenal and a grudge against god.

After ordering the girls to lie face down on the floor, he called his wife on the phone and told her he was angry at god for the death of their firstborn daughter, Elise, nine years earlier. In execution style, Roberts began firing his semi-automatic pistol into the little girls lying on the floor. As police crashed into the school, he shot himself dead.

The media descended on Nickel Mines and the story circled the globe. As the Amish mourned and buried their children they were showered with messages and gifts from all over the world.

But what proved most helpful, we learned, was something hard to describe - 'a common painful thread' that drew the families together. The authors of Amish grace say the community had been prepared by thick habits of 'mutual aid', rooted in the New Testament commandment 'to bear one another's burdens'"

Then, 'with a swiftness that startled the world,' the stricken amish did something remarkable — they forgave the killer, Charles Roberts, and reached out to his widow and children.

Three Amish men showed up one evening, to express their sorrow. Another called on the killer's father and for an hour held him in his arms. When Roberts himself was buried, next to his daughter, more than half the mourners at the cemetery were Amish. It was, one of them said, simply the right thing to do.

ANNOUNCER: "Have you already forgiven?"

AMISH GRANDFATHER: "In my heart, yes." ANNOUNCER: "How is that possible?"

AMISH GRANDFATHER: "Through God's help." TV COVERAGE: The Amish have forgiven the shooter...

BILL MOYERS: Amish forgiveness became the talk of the world. Not all of it sympathetic. One columnist called it 'undeserved forgiveness' because the amish were forgiving someone who hurt others.

But Amish grace is not cheap grace. The people and their ways may appear simple but they defy simplistic judgments. Their faith was born in suffering centuries ago, when their forebears called for a voluntary church free and separate from government and were martyred by the thousands at the hands of Protestants and Catholics alike. Grief is no stranger to the Amish, and healing has never been easy.

But one of the grieving fathers said, as they had released the killer, they had released themselves from anger and from bitterness. But not from pain.

A year after the killings in Pennsylvania, the old school has been torn down and replaced with one named 'New Hope'.

Three of the surviving five girls are back in class with the same teacher. On October 2 the school was closed and silent for the day, in remembrance.

On the anniversary of their loss, the community once again spoke to the larger world, in a statement saying that 'forgiveness is a need help from your community of faith and from God, and sometimes even from counselors, to make and hold on to a decision to not become a hostage to hostility.' Hostility, they said, 'destroys community.'

That's it for the JOURNAL. I'm Bill Moyers.

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