October 15, 2006
If the tragedy recently visited upon the Amish at the West Nickel Mines School were visited upon us in one of our public schools, how would we react? Would it be with forgiveness for the unthinkable act, or would the horror continue to infect our lives?The Amish forgave the murderer, and they forgave his family. This forgiveness did not come only from Amish elders; it came from the parents of the innocent, young girls who were shot in their classroom.The tradition of forgiveness goes way back for the Amish, a people who broke from the Mennonites nearly 300 years ago in Europe because of philosophical differences. Amish forebears desired a stricter, more disciplined lifestyle as a reflection of their commitment to high ideals.A Mennonite preacher named Jakob Ammann, for whom the Amish are named, attracted followers, and in the early 1700s, they began to immigrate to the United States, specifically to Pennsylvania, where they settled at the invitation of William Penn. Today there are 145,000 Amish people living in 220 Amish settlements in 22 states in the U.S. and in Ontario, Canada.The tradition of forgiveness for this Protestant, anti-modernity sect goes back to Christ on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” The Amish spoke the same dispassionate words about the gunman who killed their daughters.When the terrors of modernity intervene in the otherwise peaceful lives on a non-militaristic, agrarian people, the sorrow is profound. The killing of the children of the innocent is both perplexing and unsettling. Forgiveness is the only sane way the Amish could address such an emotional surge of grief, which makes them even more of a curiosity.Despite the pervasive inertia of American material life, the Amish are committed to their paradoxical ways. They believe strongly in traditional frontier values of frugality, simplicity, reverence and community … values that are sadly missing from most communities in the US.The Amish don’t buy insurance, and they don’t accept Social Security. They rely instead on one another through barn-raisings, mutual aid, organic farming, a healthy physical work ethic and an undying faith in the ways of their Protestant God. They don’t question or condemn unresolved mysteries; they accept them.”A tractor gets work done more quickly, but horses and the love of hard work keeps us nearer to God,” says an Amish bishop, proclaiming devotion to an organic association with the sacred life force that continues to put food on their tables.”Historically,” says one tract on the Amish, “they avoid all training associated with self exaltation, pride of position, enjoyment of power and the art of war and violence. Amish believe that God is pleased when people work in harmony with nature, the soil, the weather, and care of animals and plants. They live in rural communities and view the city as a center of leisure, non-productive spending, and often as the stage for evil and wickedness.”Not all children born into the Amish life stick with it, and a small percentage flee the constraints of a culture that shuns nonconforming members, holds to patriarchal authority, and views homosexuality as an unacceptable lifestyle. Leaving the fold bears a high price from this harsh, uncompromising culture, though forgiveness offers an eventual safety net.We outsiders – “English,” as they call us – feel sorrow for the Amish in their mourning, but what else can we learn from them? Humility tops the list, an approach to life that belies the ego attachments of image, status, and personal wealth. Perhaps the most important lesson is forgiveness and the recognition of a higher set of values than those found in the superficialities of contemporary life.The Amish act in accord with principles and a strict code of ethics. They seek distance from mainstream American culture in an effort to remain whole and wholesome. Tragically, they must also absorb adversity from the random violence that lies just beyond their humble communities and lovingly manicured farms.Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays.
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