GOSHEN -- One year ago today, Charles Roberts walked into an Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pa., murdered five schoolgirls and killed himself.
The focus of the press was immediate but "it shifted quickly from the loss of innocence to bewilderment that the Amish community had not converted its grief and shock to revenge but rather to forgiveness," said Steven M. Nolt, who spoke Monday morning in the Goshen College Church-Chapel about the crime and why the Amish forgave the killer.
Nolt, a GC professor of history, was one of three experts on the Amish who traveled to Lancaster County and spoke extensively with Amish people in the Nickel Mines area, including relatives of the slain children. The result was a book titled "Amish Grace," which explores the history, theology and culture of the Amish.
"The decision to forgive came quickly," Nolt said. "The Amish trusted he (Roberts) was meeting a merciful God. They looked at him as a fellow human being. They reached out to his widow, his parents and his in-laws."
The response included attending Roberts' funeral and setting aside for his family a share of the money that was pouring in for the Amish families.
"Forgiveness was decided long before forgiveness was necessary," Nolt said, adding that this did not mean the Amish were accepting it fatalistically or saying it didn't happen. They also did not feel that punishment should not have been imposed if Roberts had lived.
"There is a distinction between the commitment to forgive and the emotional process of forgiving," Nolt explained. "The commitment is so much a part of who they are they can express that commitment to forgive right away."
"It is about giving up the right to revenge," Nolt observed, sharing observations the trio heard repeatedly, the gist of which were "the acid of hate destroys the container you store it in" and "forgiving is not just good for the forgiven but for you."
"The Amish don't stoically store their feelings in a box," he said, revealing that many who were close to the tragedy had used counseling and some still were in therapy.
Forgiveness begins with the teachings of Jesus, Nolt said.
"Jesus tells us to forgive. God will forgive us as we forgive others. The Amish feel that God's forgiveness of them depends on their forgiveness of others. Amish forgiveness is a religious obligation supported by hundreds of years."
Every Amish person says The Lord's Prayer eight times a day and 10 times on Sunday, he said.
"In The Lord's Prayer, the emphasis is on forgiveness. This is central to Amish life every day," the speaker declared. "Giving up one's self to God. It is difficult but natural to them. It's not easy, but they work towards it and it's not an individual matter. It is collectively shared in the wider community. They never anticipated the horror, but they were prepared to respond."
"It would have been harder if he (Roberts) was alive or if he had molested the children," Nolt said. "It is not 'one-size-fits-all' forgiveness. It is not easily transferable."
"We have to start with our own culture and mini-cultures," he concluded. "If you want to be forgiving, surround yourself with forgiving people."
The talk concluded with the playing of an original song by musician John McCutcheon, written right after Nickel Mines.
Its lyrical theme was forgiveness.
Contact Marcia Fulmer at email@example.com.
All author royalties will go to the Mennonite Central Committee to benefit children suffering because of poverty, war and natural disaster.
For additional information: www.amishgrace.com