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Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy- A Book Review by Sutton

AMISH GRACE:           


   Donald Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt, 
   & David L. Weaver-Zercher

Reviewed by

   Geoffrey W. Sutton

The horrific slaughter of Amish children attending school in the Old Order Amish community
of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, garnered international attention in October, 2006. When
the Amish responded with forgiveness and reconciliation, people were doubly shocked. Christian teaching and psychological research on forgiveness can appear as sterile narratives until tragedies upend everyday life. The authors of Amish Grace offer informed readers the kind of details and analyses that allow Christian clinicians and researchers to consider how Christian virtues and psychological research on forgiveness and reconciliation may be integrated.

The authors explore the virtues of grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation as they review the
Amish response to the tragic school shooting of October 2, 2006 in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, USA. Following an account of the shooting and the sequellae, the authors devote five of their 13 chapters to aspects of Amish forgiveness. Readers will find useful resources in the endnotes and Appendix. Each of the authors has published on Amish culture. Donald Kraybill is a distinguished professor and senior fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College. Steven Nolt is a professor of history
at Goshen College, and David Weaver-Zercher is an associate professor at Messiah College.

In Part One, the authors revisit the school shooting narrative with an emphasis on the
responses of the Amish toward their community victims as well as the family of the shooter
who committed suicide. In addition to explaining how the varied responses fit within Amish
traditions, the authors explored the reactions of various North American pundits who both
praised and criticized the Amish response. A quote from a father whose daughter died revealed his perspective on the Amish worldview: “Our forgiveness in not in our words, it’s in our actions; it’s not what we said, but what we did. That was our forgiveness (p. 52).”
Although forgiveness is part of the broad Christian tradition, the authors explored the
Amish distinctiveness in Part Two. They noted the long-term cultural habit patterns that stem
from a literal interpretation of Matthew 6:14-15. That is, “The Amish believe if they don’t forgive, they won’t be forgiven” (p. 95). The personal ramifications can be seen in another quote: “By not forgiving, it will be more harmful to ourselves than to the one that did the evil deed” (p. 95). Given the force of their interpretation of Scripture, the power of tradition, and the pressure of conformity among a small interdependent community, it seems untenable that
anything other than a forgiveness response would have occurred.

In Part Three, the authors compare Amish forgiveness to the models presented in the scholarly works of Robert D. Enright and Everett L. Worthington, Jr. (See for example Enright, 2001; Worthington, 2006). The authors appear well aware of leading psychological definitions of what forgiveness is not as well as the distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation. Next, the authors employ these psychological conceptualizations to answer some critiques of the Amish response. For example, one critical theme was the speed of the Amish response coupled with the lack of evidence for strong negative emotions. In contrast, the authors cited interview evidence that the Amish did feel intense emotions including anger as predicted by psychological models. Later, the authors show how Worthington’s distinction between decisional and emotional forgiveness can account for the quick and seemingly restrained public forgiveness response of the Amish whilst feeling strong negative emotions that persisted much beyond the time of the overt media coverage of the expressed forgiveness. One may of course wonder about applying the concept of decisional forgiveness when members of a community act in unison to follow a cultural pattern. 

Amish Grace is a well-written perceptive analysis of the Amish perspective on forgiveness and
reconciliation. In addition to the insights into Amish forgiveness, the authors offer an analysis
of psychological models of forgiveness and provide a basis for discussions of the integration of faith and psychology. Readers may wish to consider that, in the Amish view, forgiveness is an expression of community and is tightly wedded, if not blurred, with notions of reconciliation. In my view, the authors did not quite capture this forgiveness- reconciliation nuance, which is similar to the overlapping forgiveness-reconciliation conceptualization Volf described in Giving and Forgiving (2005; Sutton, 2009). For anyone interested in exploring forgiveness and reconciliation contextualized by violence, Amish Grace is a must read.


Sutton, G. W. (2011) [Review of the book Amish grace: how forgiveness transcended tragedy by D. Kraybill, S. M. Nolt, & D. L. Weaver-Zercher]. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 30, 258-259.  Academia Link    Research Gate Link 


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