Amish and Forgiveness
July 26, 2016
One of the tragic events of recent Amish history is the school shooting at West Nickel Mines School in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. A man well-known to the community took ten girls hostage; he shot eight of them and killed five before taking his own life.
Wikipedia says “The emphasis on forgiveness and reconciliation in the response of the Amish community was widely discussed in the national media.” And I would like to add it was not just national attention but worldwide attention. The complete forgiveness offered to the family of the shooter is a thing which still draws attention today. The Amish were so willing to do what was right and carried out total forgiveness setting an example for people everywhere of how we should relate to those around us; especially to those who have done us wrong.
The question that some of us may have asked ourselves, though, is “why is it so easy for the Amish to offer forgiveness to people like the shooter but not to those of us who have left the church?’ I had never thought of that comparison until someone brought it up recently. I received a very interesting answer to the question.
Terri Roberts, author of Forgiven: The Amish School Shooting, a Mother’s Love, and a Story of Remarkable Grace, talks in her book about how the shooting affected her life and that of her family. I was at a conference this past summer where Terri was asked to speak to our group as an author. She brought along with her one of the fathers who was affected by the school shooting. This Amish father, whom I will not name, had two daughters that were shot; one daughter died instantly and the other one survived but is in a wheel chair today.
This Amish man gave a nice speech to the assembled group from his perspective of the whole event. At one point, however, he veered off course and mentioned that many people have asked him why the Amish were so willing to forgive this shooter but yet are so unwilling to forgive those who leave their church.
“We have a very simple answer for that.” he stated. And the way he said it caused me to believe that his words had to have been the answer of the assembled churches of Lancaster County. They had to come up with an answer for this question, but I had never heard it before.
His response was that “if the shooter had lived, we would have still forgiven him, but he would have still faced the full consequences of the law and probably spent the rest of his life in prison. And so it is with those who leave the church. We forgive them, but the bann and shunning are the consequences playing out in their lives.”
He then quickly moved on to the next topic that he wanted to talk about.
So I have a question for all of you who have left the Amish church? Did you at any time feel like you were completely forgiven by the church you left and the church who eventually made sure you were being banned and shunned? No? I didn’t think so. I have not found one person yet who felt that way. I am not saying that there aren’t some, but most of us have felt the coldness, almost bordering on anger and hatred, because of our decision to leave. In the eyes of the Amish, we had the audacity to get up and walk out of their lives, and now we seem happy to no longer be under their control.
What happened? And why did Lancaster County choose to answer this question the way they did? This was the only logical answer they could come up with, which sounds good to them and perhaps to other people as well until you start to think about it. Here are several points to consider:
- The answer of the church is based on flawed logic and an improper understanding of the topic of excommunication in scripture and in the Dortrecht confession of Faith, which the Amish church has traditionally adopted as their own. They may have accepted the document officially, but they do not live by it. The Amish church is governed by traditions and practices that are handed down from generations past. If you try to find Biblical justification for every point of doctrine, it can’t be done. How do I know? When I was still Amish, I set out to write a Standard letter or “Ordnungs brief” that was going to be completely biblical and have a scripture reference for each point. I never got very far; it can’t be done.
So where does this reasoning come from? It is loosely based on articles 16 and 17 of this confession of Faith. Article 16 says, in part, “...in order to distinguish that which is pure from the impure: namely, when any one, after he is enlightened, has accepted the knowledge of the truth, and been incorporated into the communion of the saints, sins again unto death,...” When you read the entirety of Article 16 it is almost impossible to see how a simple act of leaving a church is ‘sinning unto death,’ but that is pretty much what the Amish imply. They believe that if you leave their fellowship, then you are definitely on your way to hell, and they have no option but to shun you, which is explained in the next article, number 17.
- From personal experience, first as a minister in the church for fourteen years and later as one who willingly left the church and has been shunned to various degrees by different people still in the Amish church, I can say that shunning is an act that is carried out against a person or persons with strong feelings. I don’t think we ever encouraged anyone to hate the person who left, but we certainly didn’t allow fellowship of any kind either. We encouraged people to ‘love those banned’ but with a tough love so that they would be convicted to come back.
Now, a person who has totally left behind their faith in God and sinned grievously against God, this is the one that this article is talking about. They have come back, received forgiveness, and have been reinstated into the fold of the Amish Church. But many of us have left because of our faith in God, and because we realize that we can’t serve the idols of the Amish church and God at the same time. We will never go back because we received peace and freedom when we left, and we realized that God is with us everywhere we go. We are the ones that tend to see the Amish church as a cult, and in practice it really is.
- Our friend from Lancaster said that we are forgiven, but we are receiving the consequences of our actions. If that is the case, then why, if any of us were to go back, would we have to seek peace with the church and ‘forgiveness’ with them to be received back into the church. This doesn't make sense if we are already forgiven? Somehow two plus two is not adding up here, and we are coming up with an "answer" that is short of the real answer.
- I believe that it is very important for us to totally forgive them. Forgiving them frees us up before God, and we can live in perfect peace with God. It also, in our hearts and minds, releases those that we have often felt wronged us (and they probably did). But forgiving them unconditionally also doesn’t free them from their consequences before God, and it releases God to deal with them directly. One result of this is that I am seeing more and more people leaving the Amish because ‘things back there just don’t make sense, and they just don’t add up anymore.’ They don’t; they won’t, and they can’t.
- Even though theoretically the reason for banning and shunning is based on those two articles and random verses of scripture (like in 1 Corinthians 5), I believe the real reason the Amish practice this on those of us who leave is because they have no other tools with which to punish those of us whom they perceive as breaking their standards. If people were to willingly obey the standard, they wouldn’t need to have a punishment in place for those of us who walk away from it. But the very reason that they have to use a punishment for not keeping their rules is a symptom of something that is very wrong with the basis of what is called Amish faith.