Forgiveness at core of Amish beliefs
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The idea of forgiveness is at the heart of the Amish culture and belief system. It is also the lens through which many in the Amish community are viewing the tragedy that unfolded Monday morning inside a one-room schoolhouse in Lancaster County.
Like everyone else, Amish people are struggling to come to grips with the shootings of 10 Amish schoolgirls by milk truck driver Charles Carl Roberts IV. But if their deep faith in God and strict adherence to biblical principles of pacificism set them apart from the mainstream American culture, they also help the Amish make sense of an act that defies reason.
"It is terrible that somebody did this, and my heart aches for anyone involved, for the children," said Andrew Troyer, who lives in an Amish settlement near Conneautville, Crawford County, and runs a family rope-making business. "But I feel the most sorry for the person who did it, and I'll tell you the reason why -- because he can't get forgiveness no more, what's done is done. After death, there is no more change."
Mr. Troyer quoted a verse from the Book of Matthew, Chapter 6, which says if a man does not forgive another's trespasses against him, his own trespasses will not be forgiven by God.
"Our blood-red sins He will wash white as snow," said Mr. Troyer. "Forgiveness is a choice, but it is not an option if we want to be saved."
Turn-the-other-cheek, love-your-enemies pacificism is inextricably linked to nearly every aspect of Amish daily life. Some Amish people use guns to hunt, and most agree with the bumper-sticker sentiment "Guns Don't Kill People, People Kill People." But Amish do not believe in using guns against humans, not in self-defense -- not even pretending to have a gun, said Mr. Troyer.
"If I'd have seen this guy [Roberts] walking into the schoolhouse, mind you, I'd have tried to stop him," he said. "It wouldn't be a sin to hold him down and take his weapon. We would not shoot him, though. Thou shalt not kill. I'd want to talk to him and tell him about the word and the savior; then he could make his confession to the Lord and live a righteous life."
The Amish are Anabaptists, a Christian theological movement that grew out of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. One of its central tenets is adult baptism -- the belief that baptism should be a conscious choice undertaken by adults, a public confession that one is "born again" in their faith.
But that doesn't mean that the un-baptized schoolgirls who died at Mr. Roberts' hands are not saved, said Mr. Troyer. Baptism is only the outward ceremony that displays someone's inner conversion.
"The baptism itself doesn't save someone, Jesus Christ saves us," he said. "A sinner can't be baptized and think he gets a ride to heaven."
According to Amish belief, said Mr. Troyer, young children are innocents, not "accountable" until they reach a certain age. They follow the direction of their mother and father, come to learn right from wrong, and then, by age 10 or 11, make the choice to live for God or for Satan. But as long as they are believers, they will be saved.
"They read the scripture, they knew of God, their parents had devotionals every day -- they were taught and trained to know God," he said. "The children who died in this, God has them in his hands; the word of God says so. They're in heaven."
Mr. Troyer's community of 50 to 60 households has been labeled New Order Amish; they embrace certain technologies, such as the telephone, as long as they function to hold families together. They rely on horses and buggies and ride bicycles, using taxi service for long distances. Following the slow extinction of small farms, they have adapted well to cottage industries.
In keeping with the principle of separation of church and state, most Amish people do not vote. They will pray for leaders to make the right decision, said Mr. Troyer, which they believe is more effective than voting.
"We consider ourselves pilgrims and strangers going through this life on Earth," he said. "Our citizenship is not here on Earth."
If Amish communities view themselves as separate from the worldly kingdom, some outsiders have come to share this view and see Amish people as easy targets, taking advantage of their non-resistance. But here again the Amish faith comes into play.
Mr. Troyer said he has at times felt vulnerable to the violence of mainstream society, but relies on an all-seeing God that is in control over Satan.
"He can control the other side far more than I can; he can guide bullets that miss by 1/16 of an inch," said Mr. Troyer. "I'm far more concerned that I'm right with God, that's far more protection than 1,000 guns loaded in self-defense."
Each Amish community has its own cemetery, and funerals happen wherever there is available space, said Mr. Troyer. Sometimes they clear out a large workshop and set up portable benches, sometimes they use a schoolhouse -- although he doubts that after the schoolhouse massacre in Paradise, the community there will choose such a venue.
After the service, a procession of horses and buggies will make its way out to the cemetery, where community members will pay their last respects. Husbands and wives are always buried side by side. At many Amish cemeteries, there is a separate row for small children.
First Published October 4, 2006 12:00 am