When evil hits home, it hurts. The natural reaction is horror and anger. Yet recently we have seen a surprisingly different reaction to evil. On October 2 an armed intruder entered an Amish school house in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, shot ten girls –five fatally- and then turned the gun on himself.
But the simple, close-knit community immediately forgave the killer and reached out with love to his widow and children. This amazing reaction startled the entire readership of the national and international press. One Lancaster County Amish man made the point, “In forgiveness there is healing.”
The horror begins
On October 2 a little after ten a.m. Charles C. Roberts IV, a 32-year–old married milkman and father of three, entered the one-room school holding a 9mm handgun, and dismissed the boys and some adults with small children. One of the adults raced to a nearby farm and called 911. Roberts bound the girls by the ankles and lined them up before the blackboard before barricading the doors.
When the state troopers arrived on the lane outside, Roberts called 911 on his cell phone and told the dispatcher, “If you don’t get these police out of here, I’m going to start shooting.” Police traced the phone and called Roberts, who didn’t answer. Before police could take any further action, Roberts fired one shot after another in rapid succession.
Death of the innocents
The motive, according to rambling suicide notes left to his wife and children, appears to be grief over the 1997 death of an infant daughter and guilt over imaginary events of twenty years ago. Five young girls, ages 7-13, died in his fatal rampage. Five others remain in serious condition.
The shocking story, of course, received global news coverage. Yet to the world’s amazement, Amish leaders issued a statement that they forgave the killer and offered condolences to his family even before they made the funeral arrangements.
No greater love than this
Still another story of grace under fire was yet to emerge from Lancaster County. According to a report from Barbara Fisher, a wounded victim, her sister, 13- year-old Marian Fisher, asked the gunman to shoot her first. Another of the older girls said, “You can shoot me second.”
A Mennonite housewife explained they were probably hoping the younger girls would be spared, or rescued in time, adding, “It really showed a tremendous amount of courage. It’s really amazing that girls of that age would offer themselves up. I know a lot of adults who wouldn’t do that.”
Days of mourning
The Amish are descendants of German immigrants of the Anabaptist faith. They reject all modern conveniences, even automobiles, in their effort to live out the Gospel in simplicity.
Late in the same week as the shootings, a horse-and-buggy Amish funeral procession headed down Mine Road toward Bart Cemetery near Georgetown, Lancaster County. In the bright October sunshine, preceded by two mounted police officers, a cortege of dozens of dark horse-drawn carriages made their way in somber dignity through the tranquil countryside to a hilltop graveyard.
The cemetery route required that the funeral parade pass directly by the gunman’s house. The Roberts’ family members did not retreat within, but sat outside in silent tribute to their neighbors who had so quickly offered them words of forgiveness.
But the charity of the Amish community went far beyond words.
Forgiveness in action
Backing up words with action, the Amish community manifested the depth of their charity.
In an initial neighborly gesture, the grieving Amish families offered food to Roberts’ survivors “because they too had suffered a loss.”
Additionally, the parents of Marian Fisher invited relatives of Roberts to their home. On the night of October 3, Marie Roberts and her family accepted, and were met with embraces. Not only that, but dozens of Amish neighbors came to the funeral of the quiet milkman who killed five young girls and wounded five more. When Roberts was buried behind a small Methodist Church, over half of the 75 mourners were Amish.
And there’s more. Amish do not carry commercial insurance, but self-insure for major medical expenses with a fund called Church Aid. Reportedly, two-thirds of the community take advantage of this service. Because of privacy issues, hospital officials would not make public if the families involved were insured. However, despite Amish reluctance to accept financial aid, a world-wide collection has been established to aid with medical expenses, and has attracted a wide divergence of contributors: large corporate donors such as Wal-Mart, and a $1 donation from 20 churches in an impoverished African diocese. Amazingly, Amish leaders requested such a fund also be set up for the gunman’s wife and family.
Is it any wonder the world sat up and took notice of this simple community of believers?
“It’s the love, the forgiveness, the heartfelt forgiveness they have toward the family. I broke down and cried seeing it displayed,” commented Bruce Porter, a fire department chaplain from Morrison, Colorado, who had come to Pennsylvania to offer help and attend the burial.
In a letter released October 6, Marie Roberts summed up the impact of this profound witness of Christian charity. “Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need. The forgiveness you’ve given has touched our hearts in a way no words can describe…. Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world, and for this we sincerely thank you.”
What the Amish did was not easy. We can be sure of that. Their acts required that they draw deeply from their humanity and from the strength that only God can give. What they did was not just natural. It was supernatural. They found the strength in Jesus Christ, in his love. We can ask ourselves if we are capable of this kind of love. Do we believe in Christ’s love enough to do this too? Do we show mercy and love in our daily lives? Or do we hold onto resentments and grudges when we are offended by our siblings, classmates, or others?
Christians live a different kind of values from just what comes naturally. Yet their action makes this world a better place. They bring peace and healing to a world that needs this so much. They help those who have been wounded by evil to believe they are still deeply loved by God.
One fateful October morning, evil shattered the outward peace of an Amish community, but it could not destroy the internal peace of a devout people willing to accept the Christian challenge to love their neighbor. They have shown us what forgiveness is – a powerful way to show charity, to affirm the divine spark in every person, to imitate Christ, and to remind us how forgiveness overcomes evil by healing its effects and bringing peace of heart to both giver and receiver. Their example challenges us to live Christian charity in a heroic way as well.
Do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good. (Romans 12: 21)
Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
The victor will thus be dressed in white, and I will never erase his name from the book of life but will acknowledge his name in the presence of my Father and of his angels. (Revelation 3:5)
“Being a Christian means having love. That is unbelievably diffi cult and at the same time incredibly simple.” (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, What It Means to Be a Christian, p. 72)
“Forgiveness… is first of all the wholly personal center of all renewal. But because forgiveness touches the very core of the person, it gathers men together and is also the center of the renewal of the community.” (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Called to Communion, p.153)
2262 In the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord recalls the commandment, “You shall not kill,” and adds to it the proscription of anger, hatred, and vengeance. Going further, Christ asks his disciples to turn the other cheek, to love their enemies. He did not defend himself and told Peter to leave his sword in its sheath.
1829 The fruits of charity are joy, peace, and mercy; Charity … is benevolence; it fosters reciprocity and remains disinterested and generous; it is friendship and communion…
2447 The works of mercy are charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor in his spiritual and bodily necessities. Instructing, advising, consoling, comforting are spiritual works of mercy, as are forgiving and bearing wrongs patiently. The corporal works of mercy consist especially in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead.
819 Furthermore, many elements of sanctification and of truth” are found outside the visible confi nes of the Catholic Church: “the written Word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope, and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, … Christ’s Spirit uses these Churches and ecclesial communities as means of salvation, whose power derives from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church. All these blessings come from Christ and lead to him, and are in themselves calls to “Catholic unity.”
SAINTS AND HEROES
ST. STEPHEN MARTYR – (DIED AROUND AD35)
When the first Christian community grew rapidly, the need was seen to have a group of men help the apostles in some aspects of their service. These men were ordained the fi rst deacons. Among them was Stephen. His ability to publicly explain and defend the Christian faith caused the anger of some of the Jews who dragged him outside the city of Jerusalem and stoned him.
As he was dying he cried out, imitating the words of Christ, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” He was the first Christian martyr. His feast day is December 26.
ST. CLAUDINE THEVENET – (1774-1837)
Foundress of the Congregation of the Religious of Jesus and Mary. Claudine saw her two brothers executed during the chaos of the French Revolution, and as they were carried off, they told her, “Forgive, Glady, as we forgive.” The words impressed her heart deeply and shielded her from vengeance, bitterness, shame, and discouragement. She felt a special burden to help people discover the reality of God and his love and forgiveness. With the encouragement of a holy priest she launched into what would become her lifelong project: forming shelters and schools and houses of “providence” that could give young girls the skills and faith they needed to live decent lives in society and have a good Christian infl uence on those around them. She faced tremendous diffi culties and setbacks, but at the end of her life the religious congregation she had founded really started to grow. At the time of her canonization in 1993, 1800 sisters lived and worked in 180 communities on all five continents.
Barricading – shutting in or keeping out with a barrier or obstruction
Charity – the love of God for humanity, or a love of one’s fellow human beings
Compassion – sorrow for the sufferings or trouble of others, accompanied by an urge to help
Cortege – one or more persons (or cars, ships, etc.) accompanying another or others to give protection or show honor.
Descendants – persons who are offspring, however remote, of a certain ancestor, family, group, etc.
Diocese – the district under a bishop’s jurisdiction
Divergence – a becoming different in form or kind
Fateful – having important consequences; signifi cant; decisive
Somber – earnest and solemn; grave
Supernatural – beyond the natural; of, involving, or attributed to God
Tribute – something given, done, or said, as a gift, testimonial, etc., that shows gratitude, respect, honor, or praise
1. Discuss what Jesus said about lukewarm faith (Because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will vomit you out of my mouth. (Rev.3:16)
- a. Elicit some examples of half-hearted faith and vibrant faith.
- b. Since so many people profess to be Christians, why is the Amish response to evil so startling to most people?
- c. In her letter quoted in the article, Marie Roberts said the forgiveness of the Amish community “changed the world.” What does this statement mean? Remind students of the worldwide coverage of the initial tragedy.
2. One possible explanation for the strong faith of the Amish is the value of a likeminded community.
- a. How does one’s circle of family and friends affect behavior?
- b. Draw out from students suggestions for ways to find friends who support them in faith.
- c. What are some of the qualities one should seek out in a friend?
3. The article illustrates that God brings good even from great evil.
- a. What are some examples from their own experience or news reports that support this conclusion?
- b. What practical steps might we take in our own lives to overcome evil? Point out that small instances of injustice can cause evil to triumph.
- c. What small thing might a young person do in his own home to bring about a more Christian atmosphere? In the classroom? In the community?
4. Some observers suggest that the answer to classroom violence is to arm all teachers.
- a. Why would this not be the Christian response?
- b. What are some more sensible means to creating a safe school environment?
5. In order not to unduly alarm students, it could be pointed out they are much more likely to be injured from unsafe driving habits than from a school shooting.
- a. The instructor might also encourage discussion of sensible ways to deal with a rude driver. How could a Christian attitude discourage “road rage?”
- b. Most of us would not like to give up modern conveniences, but how should we use technology as practicing Christians? How is an everyday activity like driving related to our Christian faith. How about our computer and cell phone use?
6. Marian Fisher was willing to sacrifice her own life in the hope the younger ones might be spared. What do you think prompted her to such heroic action?
- a. How would it be possible for someone so young to have so strong a faith?
- b. How do you think she reacted in small, everyday matters requiring sacrifi ce?
- b. Have students known of any similar examples of heroism?
- c. What are some examples of much smaller acts of kindness that help us overcome selfishness?
1. Describe a situation in your life when you decided to forgive someone who had offended you. How did extending forgiveness make you feel? How did it affect the one forgiven? Remind students we can make a conscious decision to forgive even if our emotions and will are at odds.
2. Describe the “ripple effect” of acts of kindness and acts of cruelty. Offer at least three concrete examples of each.
Coleman, Bill, The Gift to be Simple, Chronicle Books, 2001
Rensenberger, Susan, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding the Amish, Alpha Books, 2003
Trager, Wolf, From Dawn to Dusk, Llumina Press, 2003