Fathoming Forgiveness

The shooting at a Lancaster County, Pa. school last fall killed five girls, spotlighting the Amish community and a professor who has made a life's work of knowing their culture

Q&A--Donald B. Kraybill


Just before dawn on Oct. 4, 2006, Enos Miller, an Amish man with a long gray beard, walked past the school where two of his granddaughters had been fatally shot two days before.

A television reporter approached and asked him if he had forgiven the gunman.

"In my heart, yes," said Miller, his voice wavering.

"How is that possible?" she asked.

His answer: "Through God's help."

Miller's words - emblematic of the community's response to the tragedy - quickly became international news. How could the Amish so quickly forgive the man who killed five of their daughters and wounded five others?

Donald B. Kraybill, a professor at Elizabethtown College in Lancaster County and an expert on Amish culture, was asked this question countless times in the days following the shooting. Through decades of working with this reclusive and deeply religious community, Kraybill knew that forgiveness was central to their identity as Christians.

But the daily spiritual struggles of the Amish - how they managed to reject anger, submit to their understanding of God's will and reach out to the shooter's family with compassion - only became evident to Kraybill weeks after the shooting as he interviewed religious leaders, neighbors and the parents of the slain girls for the book he co-authored, "Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy."

"Forgiveness is really part of their cultural DNA," Kraybill said in an interview. "It is embedded in a religious tradition that reaches back to their martyr history. They have the simple intention of following the teachings of Jesus in a conscientious way."

Kraybill, who was raised Mennonite on a Lancaster County farm, is known as one of the nation's pre-eminent scholars on the Amish, having worked among them for more than 20 years. After the shooting, he received a barrage of phone calls from reporters seeking information on everything from Amish schoolhouses to burial rituals to beliefs in the afterlife.

"The Amish in many ways are really misunderstood by the outside world," said Kraybill, adding that their reticence and complicated relationship with technology compounds the problem.

A convert to the Church of the Brethren, a religious group that, like the Amish, traces its roots to the Anabaptist movement in 16th- century Europe, Kraybill said that he tries to serve as a bridge between the Amish and mainstream society.

"I see my role as a cultural interpreter," he said. "I try to explain to the larger world the riddle of Amish culture. ... how a tradition-oriented group like this is not just surviving, but thriving." Membership in the church, which usually does not accept converts, has grown exponentially in the past decades because the Amish raise large families and more than 90 percent of Amish choose to be baptized in the faith at adulthood, Kraybill said.

After the shooting, Kraybill said he received several calls from publishers looking for an "inside the killer's mind type of thing."

But Kraybill wanted to write about forgiveness, a topic he found more compelling than the shooter's descent into madness. He figured that readers would, too - by his count, forgiveness was the subject of more than 2,400 news stories in the days after the incident.

"The more I thought about it and talked with Amish people, the more I realized that the forgiveness story had trumped the story of the violence," he said.

Kraybill, who joined forces with Steven B. Nolt and David L. Weaver-Zercher to write the book, conducted most of the interviews with relatives of the Amish himself. In dozens of conversations, conducted in living rooms, workshops and garages, he learned of the myriad ways in which the community helped the family of the gunman - who committed suicide after shooting the girls - through their grief.

One Amish man embraced the gunman's parents for more than an hour as they wept on the day of the shooting. Parents invited his widow to their daughters' funerals. When the gunman was buried, more than half of the mourners were Amish, Kraybill said.

"How many of us could bury our daughters and then reach out to the family of the man who shot them the next day?" he said. "To have the power and the courage to do that is just powerful. The funeral director said to me, `I realized I was watching a miracle that day.'"And the actions continued weeks after the shooting. Amish people donated money to a fund established for the gunman's widow and children. They visited her and brought gifts of food. Relatives of the girls who were shot gathered with the gunman's family at the local firehouse and put their arms around his widow when she cried.

Sitting at his kitchen table, the father of one of the slain girls had this to say to Kraybill: "Our forgiveness is not in our words, it's in our actions; it's not what we said, but what we did."

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