Posted by: counselorcarmella | September 15, 2011

Book Review: Amish Grace

I just finished  reading “Amish Grace:  How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy.”  I was familiar with the case this book discussed, and have always been fascinated with the Amish. This was a short, but thought provoking, read.  I think anyone who has struggled with holding a grudge, resentment, bitterness, and the need to forgive offenses, whether  large or small, could benefit from  reading  this book.  Though most of us will never face these particular circumstances, the issue is a universal one.  Issues around trauma an grief are also addressed to a lesser extent. Despite the heavy subject matter, the book was very readable and  interesting. 


This book  described the Amish community’s response to  the shooting of 10 young girls at a local school in 2006.  The shooter killed himself after shooting the girls and stated in  a suicide note that he was angry at God  for  the death of his infant daughter and wanted to “get even” by  harming  other young girls.  One family lost two daughters. Five of the girls died.  This story was made into a  LifeTime movie by the same name.


Just as it  happened in 2006, when the story broke, this book looked at how the Amish approach and emphasize forgiveness and larger issues around the topic of  forgiveness in general.  The forgiveness angle became the   focus of the story in the media, as the Amish response was contrasted with  the rage and  lashing out that might be expected. By contrast, the Amish community expressed concern for the shooter’s family, even attending his funeral and  reaching out to his wife, children, and parents.  They understood that this family had lost a loved one, as well, and that they should not be held responsible for his actions.   


Over and over, members of the Amish community expressed the necessity of  forgiving Charles Roberts for his actions that day.  To the Amish,  forgiving those who have wronged us is a matter of obedience to the  teachings of the Bible. The Amish believe that, as Christians, they must forgive to have  unbroken fellowship with God.   They believe we’ve all committed wrongs and that  we must forgive those who wrong us because God has forgiven us for the ways we’ve wronged Him and other people. They also believe forgiveness is essential  to  being able to heal and move forward without being weighed down by even more negative  emotions. They admitted to anger, grief,  and  feelings of sadness, but were clear about what they  had to do in the face of  such horrific events.  They  drew on their beliefs about  God’s ultimate goodness,  the afterlife, and   the spiritual  qualities of compassion and grace to  get through a very dark and tragic time in their community. 


Some critics said the Amish forgave too quickly and that this would repress or short circuit their normal  grieving process.  My view after reading it was that,  rather than being distracted by  feelings about the shooter and making him the focus,  forgiveness allowed them to focus more on  their  loss and the loved ones they were having to say goodbye to. It seems that the Amish have builtin rituals to help them grieve and  some of them did take part in local support groups and grief counseling, as well.  The community rallies around the  grieving family, not just for the first couple weeks but for months after a death to provide  physical, emotional, and spiritual support.  The families  would get together to talk and process their feelings of loss, anger,  and even spiritual struggles.  They drew strength from each other. When someone  dies, one common ritual for the Amish is that   family members often write poems expressing their feelings for the deceased loved one and honoring that person’s life. They  don’t believe  life ends when  our souls  depart from our bodies.  In this situation, they  focussed on the idea that the  girls were safe and no longer in pain.  They also  focussed on being thankful for the time they had with  their daughters, sisters,  and friends.  They  believe the girls lost their lives for some greater good that may not be understood here on earth. 


Other critics said  it was unnatural not to want revenge and justice.  The Amish viewed   Charles Roberts as disturbed (which he clearly was). If he had lived, would they have wanted him to receive help or punishment or both?  It was pointed out that forgiveness does not mean pardon, and that when someone has done wrong, they are still expected to deal with the consequences. They also  mentioned that  forgiveness doesn’t always mean  reentering into a relationship with the person who has committed the wrong. A lot about that depends on what was done, how  repentant and committed to change that person is, and  if  an ongoing relationship would be wise or healthy for all involved. Forgiveness does not always mean reconciliation.  It also doesn’t mean denying negative emotions or pretending that everything is  fine when it isn’t.   


There is so much I could say about the topic of forgiveness.  It is definitely not an easy  concept to  sort out or to put into place.  I talk with clients about it a lot and  this often means grappling with the questions more than coming up with good answers.  I certainly know that forgiveness is easier said than done. I also know it is not  condoning what someone else did. Forgiveness is about accepting that something happened that shouldn’t have. It is about  not continuing to be a “victim.”  When we hold on to hatred or anger, the person who wronged us is allowed to continue  making us miserable.  Why continue allowing them to have power when they’ve done enough to  cause us problems already?  Forgiveness is about  not getting upset anytime thoughts of that person come to mind. It is about   letting go of ill will towards that person and trusting that they will be dealt with  by the One who created them, the Universe, karma, or whatever.  Its trying to understand why that person  did what they did.  Insight is not excuses, but it can help us to put certain behaviors into a context.  I think  that, sometimes, the choice  to forgive has to be made over and over.  It can often be a process, not a  one time thing. 


The Amish community chose to tear down the school where the shooting happened and build a new school. The  name of the school is “New Hope.”  This seems to have been very therapeutic for  them, to put work into rebuilding. It is a sort of  symbolism of what they were trying to do as a community, I think.  The authors indicated that some of the  children  involved in the  event still have physical   challenges. Some still have nightmares or other  trauma related responses.  Some adults are traumatized, as well.  One example given was that hearing helicopters overhead reminds many of them of the day of the shooting when helicopters came to  transport the injured girls to  nearby hospitals.  They face the lingering sadness and any difficulties as a community, and  support each other in these struggles. I wish more  people had strong community support such as that described in  “Amish Grace.”


The authors point out that the Amish aren’t perfect and that some of their customs   have been questioned at times.  They are fallible humans and no more noble than anyone else. Still, there are a lot  of things we can  learn from the Amish about practicing forgiveness as  an ongoing process, support in grief, and  how shared values  can help a community  stand strong during  times of tremendous stress and loss.




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