The Amish Culture of Forgiveness
JOE PALCA, host:
Church bells clanged in parts of rural Pennsylvania this morning. It was a week ago today that a local man walked into a small Amish community schoolhouse and there shot and killed five young girls. Five other victims survived. Almost as soon as the awful details of the shooting started to come out, some of the victims' families were already offering forgiveness to the man who shot their daughters. It's hard to understand that reaction, such quick forgiveness for such a brutal crime.
In an op-ed in Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer, Donald Kraybill writes that forgiveness is woven into the very fabric of Amish life. You can find a link to the op-ed at our Web site, npr.org/talk. And we'd like to hear from you. Why and how could they forgive so quickly? Is it sincere, and does it tell us something about the Amish culture in general? Give us a call at 800-989-8255 or send e-mail to email@example.com.
Donald Kraybill is distinguished professor at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College and the author of several books on Amish life, including The Riddle of the Amish. He joins us now by phone from his office. Welcome, Professor Kraybill.
Professor DONALD KRAYBILL (Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies, Elizabethtown College): It's good to be with you.
PALCA: So this was a horrifying crime, and many people have it in their hearts to forgive, but in this case, forgiveness was offered almost immediately. Why, and how could it be so soon?
Prof. KRAYBILL: Well, it's part of the Amish response to hostility. They come out of the Anabaptist tradition in 16th century Europe, which is a martyr tradition. Many of their ancestors were killed and died at the stake, decapitated and so on. And so it's part of their response to forgive the enemy, to forgive the opponent.
They also look to Jesus as the one that they see as their example, and on the cross he says, Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. He instructs his disciples to forgive 70 times seven, and the Amish would also say it's in the Lord's Prayer, where Christians would pray forgive us as we forgive those that we've transgressed - who have transgressed against us.
So in many ways forgiving and forgetting is really part of the rhythm of Amish life, and we see it expressed here in this horrific incident, but in a dramatic way, from the Amish.
PALCA: But it seems to me - I mean, I've read that it's not just forgiveness. There have been - there were Amish people who attended the funeral of this man, and there's even a fund, as I've read, set up not only for victims but for the shooter's family. So this is going beyond just forgiving.
Prof. KRAYBILL: Well, you're exactly right. It's more than just words. On Saturday, when the funeral was held here, there were about 75 people that attended the burial, and at least half of those were Amish people actually coming from the same families who had lost their children less than a week before, and they greeted, personally, the widow of the killer, greeted the three children, and it was just a very touching and moving moment.
And as you indicated, there is a fund set up to receive contributions that will help the family of the killer, in addition to a number of funds that have been set up by the Amish. So this isn't just theoretical forgiveness or a few nice words, but this is really operationalized in very practical ways here by these unusual people.
PALCA: We're talking with Donald Kraybill about an op-ed piece he wrote this weekend saying exactly why the Amish were so quick to forgive the man who shot five children in an Amish schoolhouse. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
So here's the next question. I'm wondering, if - is it all you have to do - if this guy, let's for example say, survived this, didn't die in this incident, and he said, look, I'm really sorry and I'll never do it again, is that enough and does he get forgiveness from that point of view?
Prof. KRAYBILL: Well, the Amish certainly would've also forgiven him if he would still be living. If he would've been imprisoned, I'm sure they would've made some efforts to visit him. But they do have what is often called in religious circles a two kingdom theology, where they don't receive - they don't assume responsibility for meting out justice. In a sense, they would say, well, it's our responsibility to forgive, but it's up to the police and the system of justice to deal with punishment and so on.
They are separatists. They don't hold public office. They don't assume a lot of responsibility for civic order. So on the one hand what they've done is certainly exemplary, but it does certainly raise questions for the rest of us who may have more sense of a civic responsibility in terms of justice and a system of punishment for the larger society.
PALCA: We have an e-mail here from John in Idaho, who writes, Please stop saying that the Amish forgive and forget. There is a difference between forgiving and forgetting. Plenty of research, not to mention practical experience, shows that forgiveness has a positive effect on the person or group doing the forgiving. Carrying a grudge hurts only you and rarely has any discernible effect on the target of the grudge. This is especially true if the target of your anger has died. On the other hand, I seriously doubt that the Amish will ever be able to forget what happened to their community last week.
What do you make of that?
Prof. KRAYBILL: Well, all I can say is that the Amish repeatedly tell me - and this is over a number of years, it's not just around this event - that our policy is forgive and forget. If someone in the Amish community transgresses a regulation of the church - let's say they go out and buy an automobile - and then if the person comes to the church and repents and asks forgiveness and confesses this purchase of the automobile, the Amish would say we're going to forgive and we're going to forget that. We're not going to hold it against the person anymore.
Will it be erased from their memories? Of course not. But they would say it would border on being sinful to keep talking about this and keep repeating this. So they do try to forget, although I'm sure it stays in their memories.
PALCA: I just want to get out one other thing. I want to come back to this notion of something horrendous that can happen and that can happen for a long time, and yet you don't necessarily get expelled from the community as long as you say I'm sorry.
Prof. KRAYBILL: Well, that's right. If there's a major infraction, and if the community challenges you on it - let's say you do something that's a clear violation of their rules - you would be expected to make a public confession to the church. And at that point you would be forgiven and you would continue to live within the confines of a good member in the church.
Now if it was a legal transgression - let's say if it was a theft of property or something like that - then of course you would be subject to the civil penalties and legal - any kind of legal justice that the local police department might bring.
PALCA: Okay, we have time for one more very quick question. Phil in Toledo, Ohio. Welcome to the program.
PHIL (Caller): Thank you. It just seems to me that this is something that all Christians should be doing anyway. I mean, like, I was born and raised Catholic, you know, 13 years of Catholic school - the whole nine - and you know, you were always taught that, you know, Jesus says always forgive, like your speaker was saying - you know, forgive 70 times seven for, you know - forgive people even to his own death. It just seems like we as a society, especially, you know, America being so dominated by Christians - don't really have this process ingrained in us. We have so much of a focus on retribution and, you know...
PHIL: ...making sure that there's - sorry - justice for everything that happens...
PALCA: Phil, let me get Donald Kraybill's quick response, because we're out of time.
Prof. KRAYBILL: Well, I would say the difference here with the Amish is that this is part of their cultural DNA. They aren't individualistic like other Americans are, so the burden doesn't fall so much on the individual to forgive, although individuals obviously are part of the process. But this is more built into the cultural rhythms and the cultural DNA of the Amish community. It's just the way we live and the way we're expected to respond in the face of hostility.
PALCA: All right. We have to end it there. Thanks very much for joining us, Donald Kraybill.
Prof. KRAYBILL: My pleasure.
PALCA: Donald Kraybill is distinguished professor at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College and the author of several books on Amish life, including The Riddle of the Amish. He joined us from his office in Pennsylvania.
You can find a link to the op-ed and all our previous Opinion Pages at the TALK OF THE NATION page at npr.org. And we're podcasting the Opinion Page now. You can download each week's segment at the same TALK OF THE NATION page. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Joe Palca in Washington.