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Amish Grace Reconsidered (Commentary)

Dec 14th, 2011 | By | Category: Features, Front Page

amishOn October 2, 2006 a local dairy truck driver entered the West Nickel Mines School, an Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. By the time the incident ended, he had shot ten girls, killing five, and eventually turning the gun on himself. The incident received considerably national attention. On the fifth anniversary of the Nickel Mines shootings, Elizabethtown College sponsored a conference in commemoration of the event. The conference, “The Power of Forgiveness: Lessons from Nickel Mines”, explored the moral dilemmas arising from violence and the potential power of forgiveness for personal healing and the restoration of relationships. Conference presenters included the mother of the shooter and the authors of Amish Grace, the book exploring the tragedy and the practice of forgiveness and the related phenomena of grace, pardon, justice, and reconciliation.

Subsequent to the initial reporting of the tragedy and the health of the survivors, the media turned their attention toward the response of the Amish community toward the shooter and his family. Although anger and sorrow was part of their response; retribution, revenge, hatred, and “justice” was not. Rather the response embraced forgiveness, grace, and reconciliation. “The remarkable response of the Amish community….stunned (my emphasis) the larger world” (liner notes from Amish Grace). Although the incident itself and the Amish response are significant and important stories, the story of more enduring salience is the larger world’s inability to comprehend the Amish community’s response to the tragedy.

The larger world’s preoccupation with the Amish response to the tragedy is suggestive of much more than just a cultural difference. It is that, but it is also more. The preoccupation illustrates the predominance of a vocabulary of motives in the larger world that embraces retribution, revenge, and what has come to euphemistically be called “justice”. It also suggests the existence of a weak vocabulary of motives embracing a graceful response to non-intimates when a “wrong” has been perpetuated. If one carefully deconstructs the language of victims who are seeking “justice” for being wronged, it is quite apparent that it is motivated by revenge and retribution, although it is usually expressed using the language of “justice”. The deconstruction of the concept of justice here suggests a literal interpretation of the biblical edict, “an eye for an eye”, implying that harm must come to the perpetrator, rather than compensation to the victim, as is the frequent interpretation of this text.

For those of us in the larger culture, this is something worthy of some thought and reflection. However, if we conclude that some change of values is in order; it will not be an easy feat to accomplish. The cultural response to a wrong is deeply embedded in a larger culture and set of meanings and practices. It is not an isolated value. The set of readily available ideals and responses (vocabulary of motives) that we generally employ in everyday life are taken-for granted and are not accompanied by a desire to evaluate. When one individual takes a detour from the norm and behaves in the Amish manner with respect to these matters, the larger cultural context serves as a rubber band, snapping the cultural norm back to its original state. With respect to a matter such as this, change will only come with repeated practice and a compelling force to encourage that practice. The Elizabethtown College conference was a small step in the disruption of the normal. It may have been a significant event for the participants, but almost certainly of little consequence to the larger culture.

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