Amish Forgiveness

BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: Tuesday, October 2, is the first anniversary of the atrocity in an Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, where a gunman murdered five girls and severely wounded five others before killing himself. And then another shock for many: The Amish community forgave the killer and reached out compassionately to his widow.

There’s a new book coming out next week called AMISH GRACE: HOW FORGIVENESS TRANSCENDED TRAGEDY. One of the authors is Steven Nolt, a history professor at Goshen College in Indiana and an expert on Amish life.

Professor Nolt, welcome. How could the Amish forgive something as atrocious as those murders?

Dr. STEVEN NOLT (Co-Author, AMISH GRACE and Professor of History, Goshen College, Indiana): Forgiveness is central to Amish theology. The Amish believe, in a real sense, that God’s forgiving them is in some ways dependent upon their extending forgiveness to other people. For them this is also about following Jesus, about doing what Jesus said, what Christ taught in the Lord’s Prayer, which is a central text for the Amish: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

ABERNETHY: But why are the Amish seemingly so much better able to do this kind of thing than other Christians?

Dr. NOLT: In a lot of ways, this is built into their cultural DNA. They have a 300-, 400-year history of responding to wrong in this way. They have examples, and they also do it as a community. They don’t view forgiveness as the responsibility of the specific individuals who have been wronged. It’s something that’s shared by the entire community.

ABERNETHY: You’ve written that the Amish think that the act of forgiving wipes away feelings of revenge and hate. But might not that kind of thing repress something that’s important to get out and therefore not be very healthy?

Dr. NOLT: Yeah, when the Amish talk about forgiveness they talk about it in a couple of ways. What we heard right after the Nickel Mines shooting was a decision to forgive, wanting to say publicly we are committed to forgiving. We’re committed to reaching out compassionately to the family. The Amish are quite aware that forgiveness is — the emotional side of forgiveness is a process. It’s a difficult process. It’s something that certainly wasn’t over in five or 10 days after the shooting. It’s something that’s still going on now. So I don’t think their forgiveness in early October meant that they felt that forgiveness was complete.

ABERNETHY: In some cases, confession and contrition are considered necessary before there can be forgiveness. Now, obviously, that couldn’t happen here because the shooter was dead. But, in general, do the Amish believe that?

Dr. NOLT: No, they don’t. They make a distinction between forgiveness and pardon and reconciliation, and it’s possible that for pardon or for reconciliation to take place you need to have a two-way relationship. But forgiveness they see as something that they extend regardless of the stance of the offender.

ABERNETHY: Are there any signs that what the Amish did a year ago, this extraordinary act of forgiveness, is having effects in the wider world?

Dr. NOLT: Well, I just think the interest in the wider world in this story, in taking forgiveness seriously — not necessarily imitating what the Amish did exactly but in thinking about forgiveness as a complex and difficult but important process and trying to apply that to our own lives, our own context — has really been a heartening development.

ABERNETHY: Steven Nolt of Goshen College, many thanks. His book, with his two co-authors, is AMISH GRACE.