On Oct. 6, 2006, five Amish girls were shot and killed and five wounded in their one-room schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. The intruder killed himself after shooting the girls.
Since this horrific, invasive betrayal 17 years ago, mass killings have almost become daily norm, but this one was so shocking then and I’ve never forgotten it.
Shocking for four reasons
1. Why innocent girls? I couldn’t help thinking about my three girls aged 14, 15 and 26 at that time.
2. Why the Amish? Who could be more undeserving of such tragedy than a peaceful people who aim to stay separate from this world and its evil?
3. The killer, Charles Roberts, age 32, was non-Amish but known by the Nickel Mines community as a good neighbor and father.
4. Most shocking—Amazingly, the victims’ families and Amish community immediately offered forgiveness, including to Terri Roberts, the gunman’s mother!
Could you have forgiven as these families did? I would’ve wanted to.
What can we learn about forgiveness from the Amish “Happening”?
Long before being blindsided by this tragedy, the Amish had decided to be forgiving no matter what—both individually and collectively.
Jessica Watters interviewed parents and survivors 10 years after "the Happening". Several parents shared how the legendary Amish decision was not as easy in practice as in principle. John Fisher, whose 13-year-old daughter Marian was murdered, said it takes time for each person’s emotions to catch up with the principled, intended mercy. His wife Linda added, “It’s not a once and done thing. “It is a lifelong process.” Aaron Esh Jr., the oldest of the boys who were all allowed to leave, after first being ordered to lie down on the floor along with the girls, said it was a struggle to stay constant. “You have to fight the bitter thoughts,” he said. The boys wrestle with survivor guilt over not being able to save their sisters.
According to survivors, Roberts said he was angry with God for allowing his baby daughter to die despite his prayers. Yet, the families of his victims had a far more forgiving response to their own grief. Christ Stoltzfus had to deal with the sudden shock of learning that one of his daughters was dead and one wounded. He chose to forgive. “But you see,” he said, “it’s a journey. I still made that immediate choice in principle. But it took me a few years until I could feel that I really meant it inside me, to forgive Charlie.” When finally able, he said, “I felt a great weight falling off me. I felt lighter.”
The Amish believe that harboring anger and resentment is corrosive and must not lead to holding grudges or developing a root of bitterness. “It will eat you up,” cautioned Aaron Esh Sr. He said the bereaved parents started to look at forgiveness as “the one good thing that can come out of this tragedy.” Forgiveness “is so ingrained in our heritage that it’s part of our character.”
Who of us wouldn’t want forgiveness to be a part of our character?
Could Corrie Ten Boom forgive her guard?
The Amish comments about a great weight being removed echo those of Corrie ten Boom after surviving a Nazi Ravensbruck prison camp, and later being confronted by one of her guards asking her for forgiveness. Her captor said he had become a Christian and knew God had forgiven him for the cruel acts he did, but he wanted to hear it from her lips. He approached her in a Munich church in 1972 where she was speaking about God’s forgiveness. He held out his hand.
Corrie says, "I stood there—I whose sins had every day to be forgiven—and could not. Betsie [Corrie's sister] had died in that place—could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?"
Seconds seemed like hours as Corrie wrestled with “the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.” “I had to do it—I knew that," Corrie shared. "The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us . . . Still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion—I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart."
In her pain, Corrie prayed silently: “Jesus, help me! . . . I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.”
When she prayed, Corrie's whole perspective changed. "And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. 'I forgive you, brother!' I cried. 'With all my heart!' For a long moment, we grasped each other’s hands . . . I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then. And having thus learned to forgive in this hardest of situations, I never again had difficulty in forgiving: I wish I could say it!"
Louis Smedes wrote: “To forgive is to set a prisoner free, only to discover the prisoner was you.”
An old saying goes that unforgiveness is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die.
The Bible demands forgiveness
Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Matthew 5:7). This is a Beatitude, not a platitude. Christ’s Sermon on the Mount is Christianity 101.
The Bible is not wishy-washy! As Ten Boom was well aware, “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15). There is no wiggle room! No excuses. No exceptions.
Pay rapt attention to David’s simple testimony about God’s merciful nature in Psalm 86:5—God is “ready to forgive.”
The father of the Prodigal Son pictures God the Father. That he saw his son coming from afar off indicates that he had been ever watching for his son to return. God doesn’t have to ponder or agonize. Jesus Christ was slain from the foundation of the world for us while we were yet sinners. Our salvation hinges on the fact that They have already made up Their minds to be forgiving.
Will we choose to forgive?
On the day of the killings, the Amish community took food to Roberts’ widow.
Six days after the shooting, families who had just buried their daughters attended Roberts’ funeral.
Aid that poured in from round the world was diverted to the killer’s family, even though many victims faced huge medical bills.
Terri Roberts, the gunman’s mother, and many of the families who were affected by what her son did, have become friends.
The Amish and Corrie Ten Boom faced situations where it was not easy, but forgiveness followed, in the process of time, the choice to do it.
For the sake of our physical well-being . . . and especially our spiritual well-being, I hope we have determined to forgive no matter what challenge might come our way. We can count on the Father and Jesus Christ living in us through the Holy Spirit to help us make it happen.