We are coming up on the ten year anniversary of the shooting at the Amish school in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, and I have had a number of articles about the shooting, especially the way that the Amish have forgiven the shooter and embraced his family, come across my Facebook feed.
(I am going to preface this by saying this is not the place to complain about Amish puppy mills. Anyone who does, I will dismiss. I have seen enough of the comment sections around the Internet to know the mere mention of the Amish will bring in people who want to denounce the practice. I don’t agree with puppy mills, and I have my theory about why the practice occurs when it does. But it is in no way central to Amish life and faith, and the discussion does not belong here. )
I remember well when the shooting occurred. I am a Mennonite, and the Amish are like our spiritual cousins. My branch of the Mennonites and the Amish both started out in the vicinity of Switzerland/Southern Germany and Alsace Lorraine. We started out as Brethren together, before the Amish split off over their views on shunning. Over the years we have reconciled, to a certain extent, and while they still view Mennonites as outsiders, they will work with wider Mennonite organizations, such as Mennonite Central Committe and Mennonite Disaster Service. Suffice it to say, the attack at Nickel Mines was widely mourned in Mennonite circles as an attack on our own.
In any case, I believe that our shared history offers me some insight into the forgiveness displayed by the Amish in this case. The Amish (and Mennonites) on some level expect persecution. It is no accident that Amish households tend usually have at least two books, the Bible and the “Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians who baptized only upon confession of faith, and who suffered and died for the testimony of Jesus, their Saviour, from the time of Christ to the year A.D. 1660" (usually just called The Martyr’s Mirror, but that full title really drives things home). Likewise, the hymnal employed by the Amish in their church services, the Ausbund, is made up of songs written by imprisioned Anabaptists (the forerunners of the Mennonites and the Amish) in the dungeon of a castle in Germany.
After arriving in Pennsylvania, things weren’t exactly rosy either. German speaking pacifists did not have an easy time during the world wars. And there has been a steady, low level, number of hate crimes against the Amish, a practice known as “claping” in some places.
In short, the Amish have an expectation that the world will hate them. But their history also teaches them how to respond to that hate. The most beloved story out of the Martyr’s Mirror is that of Dirk Willems, a Dutch Anabaptist who had been imprisoned for his faith. He managed to escape and while he was running across a frozen pond, one of his pursuers broke through the ice. Dirk Willems when back and rescued the man. He was ultimately recaptured and burnt at the stake. Willems story is held up as an example of a Christ-like attitude.
Menno Simons, one of the best known early Anabaptist leaders is best known for a piece called “True Evangelical Faith”
For true evangelical faith is of such a nature that it cannot lay dormant; but manifests itself in all righteousness and works of love; it dies unto flesh and blood; destroys all forbidden lusts and desires; cordially seeks, serves and fears God; clothes the naked; feeds the hungry; consoles the afflicted; shelters the miserable; aids and consoles all the oppressed; returns good for evil; serves those that injure it; prays for those that persecute it; teaches, admonishes and reproves with the Word of the Lord; seeks that which is lost; binds up that which is wounded; heals that which is diseased and saves that which is sound. The persecution, suffering and anxiety which befalls it for the sake of the truth of the Lord, is to it a glorious joy and consolation.
So when the shooting at Nickel Mines occurred, the idea that they would seek to forgive the shooter, and offer aid and comfort to his family was what the Amish did, because it was what they were always taught to do.