The Amish of Lancaster County, often seen as living in an idyllic but archaic past, have given a powerful example for the future. Their actions since the school shootings that killed five Amish girls provide one of many ways to prevent such tragedies.
Previous school shootings, notably the 1999 murders at Columbine High School, have led to calls for any number of useful, preventive measures, such as tighter security, more federal gun control, antibullying training for young children, more parental vigilance in communities, and closer screening of wayward students. And perhaps, as a result, many shootings have been prevented.
Those Old Order Amish who live a secluded life near the school at Nickel Mines, Pa., have a different idea.
Their faith in the power of forgiveness led them to invite the widow of the nonAmish killer, Charles Carl Roberts IV, to the funeral for four of the slain girls. One Amish woman told a reporter, "It's our Christian love to show to her we have not any grudges against her."
This isn't surprising. It is common for the Amish to invite car drivers who have killed one of their community members to the funeral. Such a compassionate response reveals a belief that each individual is responsible to counter violence by expressing comfort – a sort of prayer in action.
After Monday's killings, the grandfather of one of the slain girls went to the home of Roberts's father, consoling and hugging him, pouring forth a love and innocence of the kind remembered of the girls in the school. "He extended the hope of forgiveness that we all need these days," said a Roberts family spokesman, the Rev. Dwight Lefever of Living Faith Church of God. "'God met us in that kitchen."
Such examples of forgiveness are often inspiring because, to many, they are so difficult and so rare. After previous school shootings, some families of victims have also sought to extend forgiveness to the killers of their children. The Amish, although known for a rigid shunning of members who adopt other ways, are emphatic about forgiveness, perhaps making it easier for them. It's one way they've held their communities together since the 18th century.
Like everyone, the Amish also seek justice for a crime, even as they struggle to forgive. Even so, as Abraham Lincoln said, "I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice."
Such qualities are a corrective to the tendency to see evil as a real possibility and fear of it as necessary. "I don't understand it," said one Mennonite woman, speaking of the shooting, "but it's not from God. He wants us to love one another." Forgiveness helps resist the impression that humans can act like animals. It spreads a sensitivity to the needs of others, especially those whose inner torments might lead to shootings.
Some Amish saw Roberts as someone in need of help. Despite the guilt of his act, he was probably a man who needed to regain his child-like innocence, and heal his anger and the mental demons of the past.
While Roberts is now gone, the Amish example of forgiveness is a reminder that real safety lies less in acting out of fear to prevent violence and more on qualities such as forgiveness that better connect people. Such compassion reduces fears and reaches those prone to violence.