Amish Family
Weekly Edgework #109 - October 24, 2006

The Best and the Worst

None of us remain untouched by the recent mass murder by Charles Roberts in an Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. The whole incident and its aftermath have brought to light both the best and the worst of our human condition, and more specifically, of how the Christian faith is practiced.

The quote of that week, flashed across newspapers and television screens, was, “We will forgive.” Three simple words spoken by Amish elders when they visited Marie Roberts, wife of the murderer. What a breath of fresh air! Usually the quote of the week is reserved for a faux pas made by a politician or someone’s pronouncement of anger, hate or revenge. But these three words were unique. They pierced the hearts of millions because they offered us all a ray of hope. They were like three small candles lit in a deep, dark cavern.

We know that members of the Amish community feel pain, anguish and loss as acutely as any of us do. After all, they are human like the rest of us. And no doubt the scars created by this tragedy will remain with those directly affected as long as they live. Yet, incredibly, as if by reflex, their first public statement was a promise to forgive. Not only that. Families of the slain girls invited Marie Roberts to their children’s funerals. Then they requested that all relief monies intended for Amish families be shared with Roberts and her children. And finally, in an amazing gesture of reconciliation, about thirty members of the Amish community attended the funeral of the killer.

This unusual response by the Amish community represents the best of what the Christian faith has to offer a broken and bleeding world. I must confess I take some delight in the knowledge that these simple, farm folk and I have emerged from the same religious root system. We find our common denominator in the Anabaptist movement that swept across Europe in the early 16th century. But I am also ashamed at the way evangelicals in general, and fundamentalists in particular, have often considered these folks to be outside the realm of Christian faithfulness. Many voices from my past keep telling me that these people should be the object of our evangelism – that they need to be rescued from their darkness and brought into the light of mainstream evangelical faith.

Really? Should we ask them to join the evangelical majority that picks up guns at the slightest provocation and provides the backbone of an American foreign policy rooted in fear and revenge? Would that be a step closer to the way of Christ? I hardly think so. Instead of seeking to convert the Amish, the Christian community would do better to take notes on their way of discipleship under fire. What would happen if Christians around the world would begin to imitate the Amish way of forgiveness and reconciliation?

I was intrigued by the dream Diana Butler Bass articulated in a column I picked off the internet. She asks some thought provoking questions:

What if the Amish were in charge of the war on terror? What if, on the evening of September 12th, 2001, we had gone to Osama bin Landen’s house (metaphorically, or course, since we didn’t know where he lived!) and offered him forgiveness? What if we had invited the families of the hijackers to the funerals of the victims of 9/11? What if a portion of The September 11th Fund had been dedicated to relieving poverty in a Muslim country? What if we dignified the burial of their dead by our respectful grief?

Provocative questions indeed! Even preposterous! And yet, for one long, drawn out week this fall, the world got to see the outline of “another way” – a way that offers hope and healing for us all. Could it perhaps be the best way after all?

Unfortunately, this week also brought to light the worst that conservative Christianity can dish up. I listened with shock and dismay to the story, broadcast on “As It Happens” on CBC, of how members of an independent, fundamentalist church near the Nickel Mines Amish community had planned to demonstrate at the funerals of the slain Amish girls. Their “act of faithfulness to God” would have been to appear at the funerals with placards reading, among other things, such hateful words as, “Your girls are burning in hell!” It took some extra-ordinary bargaining by a creative individual to thwart these bizarre plans.

However, what really took the wind out of my sails was the sudden realization that, apart from a desire for waving placards, the ideology of this church matches that of many evangelical churches throughout North America. Indeed, while they might consider the Amish somewhat quaint, they would also consider them less than Christian. And yes, at least in some of these churches adult members would be saying to one another in hushed tones, “Those poor girls are now suffering in hell because no one taught them to pray the “sinner’s prayer” like our leaders have taught us.” And, tragically, some would even be using the news of this event to scare the youngsters of their community – as young as three or four years old – into the arms of Jesus in order to avoid the same horrific destiny.

Ah yes, the best and the worst! On the one hand I am proud of my ancestral connections to the Amish who demonstrated in this event the best of what Christianity has to offer the world. I am inspired to emulate their actions in my own life – to live counter-culturally according to the values of God’s Kingdom. The Amish have projected an image onto a global screen depicting how the world could be a better place if we all followed their example. On the other hand, I blush to think that, except for a few minor details, many within the evangelical movement with which I have identified myself were shaped by the same ideology as that of the church on the edge of Amish territory in Pennsylvania. Another good reason why I must strive to leave the worst of Christianity behind and continually reach toward what is best within its bosom.