Can Unforgivable Violence Ever Be Forgiven?
October 2nd, 2010

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It was exactly four years ago today that one of the most brutal, senseless, and unforgivable acts of violence in U.S. history took place. And that day also brought one of the most extraordinary responses to unspeakable violence our culture has ever known.

The schoolchildren had just returned to their classroom from recess on the morning of October 2, 2006, when a 32-year-old milk-truck driver named Charles Carl Roberts backed his pickup truck up to the front of an Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. We may never be able to understand what possessed Roberts that day, but we do know, to our horror, what he did.

He walked into the classroom holding a 9mm handgun. He then ordered the male students to carry items from the back of his pickup truck into the classroom. These items included a shotgun, a stungun, wires, chains, nails, tools, and a bag which included sexual lubricant and flexible plastic ties. There was also a wood board with many sets of metal eyehooks intended to be used for securing his victims.

Roberts ordered the female children to line up against the chalkboard. He then released the male students, a pregnant woman, and three parents with infants. One female student managed to escape, leaving behind 10 hostages, all of them girls.

The teacher, who had somehow also managed to escape in the confusion, immediately raced to a nearby farm and called 911. Within a few minutes, police and emergency medical personnel began to arrive. As they did, Roberts was using plastic ties to bind the arms and legs of the schoolgirls he held hostage. A group of state troopers approached the schoolhouse, but Roberts threatened to shoot the girls if they did not leave immediately. The police backed off.

A police negotiator, using the bullhorn on his cruiser, spoke to Roberts, asking him repeatedly to put down his weapons and come out of the school house. He refused.

Barely more than 30 minutes had elapsed since Charles Carl Roberts had first driven up to the schoolhouse when the shooting began. He shot all 10 of the schoolgirls execution style, in the back of the head. When the shots rang out, the police immediately rushed the building, but the shooting stopped just as they broke through the windows and began to force their way inside. Roberts had killed himself.

Three girls died at the scene, and two others died in the next sixteen hours. Five others were left in critical condition, struggling for their lives. The victims ranged in age from six to 13.

Janice Ballenger, deputy coroner in Lancaster County, told the Washington Post that she counted two dozen bullet wounds in one child alone. “There was not one desk, not one chair, in the whole schoolroom that was not splattered with either blood or glass,” she said. “There were bullet holes everywhere, everywhere.”

There is probably no way most of us could comprehend the grief and horror that this unspeakable brutality caused the Amish community and the families of these innocent victims. There are no words that can even begin to express the violence and its devastating toll.

But somehow, these people did not respond with hate. They did not cry out for revenge. Their hearts were filled with unimaginable grief, but they sought and found ways, miraculously, to turn their misery toward compassion.

Impossibly, the Amish actually reached out to the family of the gunman. The afternoon of the shooting, the Amish grandfather of one of the girls who had been murdered publicly expressed forgiveness toward the killer. That same day, Amish neighbors visited the Roberts family to comfort them in their sorrow and pain. One Amish man held Roberts’ sobbing father in his arms for nearly an hour, comforting him.

The Amish didn’t hold a press conference. They didn’t cast blame or prepare to file lawsuits. Instead, though their hearts were filled with grief and shock, they reached out with compassion to the killers’ family.

Marie Roberts, the widow of the killer, was one of the few outsiders invited to the funeral of one of the Amish girls. Amish mourners were the majority of those gathered at the funeral of Charles Carl Roberts. And the Amish later set up a charitable fund for the family of the killer.

The story became the subject of national attention. Many reporters asked, “How could these people forgive such a terrible, unprovoked act of violence against innocent children?”

It’s a good question. Part of the answer stems from how deeply devoted the Amish are to the teachings of Jesus, who taught his followers to forgive others, to place the needs of others before themselves, and to find peace in the reality that God can bring good out of any situation.

This is who the Amish are. This what they do. They try to meet evil with good. When they are harmed, they seek to forgive. They do their best to embody Martin Luther King’s recognition that “forgiveness is not an occasional act; it is a permanent attitude.”

The Amish are a people of few material possessions. I’ve heard it said, by someone obviously not drawn to these people, that they have made self-denial into a lifestyle. But could they have an inner power that is beyond the comprehension of those of us caught up in the rat race of the modern world?

Which brings up another question. We live in a world where forgiveness is often seen as a sign of weakness, a world where revenge and retaliation are taken for granted as an appropriate response to evil. Could the Amish be showing us another possibility?

The Amish may be the Michael Jordans of forgiveness. Their capacity to forgive may seem superhuman to the rest of us. But is it possible that Amish forgiveness and grace have something to teach us?

I think it’s something that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have understood, and Gandhi, too. They taught that the most effective way to counter violence was not to condone it, nor to react in kind, but to respond to it with creative nonviolence. They knew that an eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind. They taught that you can hate the sin, but you must try to love the sinner.

Becoming merciful rather than hateful is difficult work, and can seem all but impossible for those who have been taught to nurse fantasies of revenge against those who have harmed us. We do not live in a culture where forgiveness is given much value. We identify justice with payback. We have highly developed capacities for blame.

But might there be something in the Amish example that can be an antidote to the brutality and meanness of the world? If we are moved by their example, could it be because they remind us of our own capacities for mercy?

I don’t want to sound too high and mighty here. I can get as angry as the next person, and I think that a capacity for healthy and constructive anger is a necessary part of our emotional wholeness. Sometimes injustice needs to be corrected, and there are people in the world from whom we, and our children, need protection. And yet, there is something in the Amish example that strikes me with its beauty.

Maybe the Amish can remind us of this: Yes, there is unimaginable anguish and violence in the world. But when all is said and done, love might still have a strength that hate can never defeat.

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3 Responses to “Can Unforgivable Violence Ever Be Forgiven?”

  1. Edpeak says:

    “Martin Luther King & Gandhi could only succeed under Western (Christian) run countries. The same people living under Muslim & Communist run countries would last no length of time.”

    This is the line we hear over and over again from our ‘leaders’ but have you bothered to look into that facts?

    Have you heard about a guy named Andrei Sakharov? He was an outspoken dissident in the USSR, and guess what? He did last a “length of time” to put it mildly.

    And if western leaders are wo with “the spirit of Christ” why do they send massive amounts of military aid, diplomatic protection, etc, to help dictatorial, human-rights abusing MUSLIM dictatorships like Saudi Arabia? Or dictatorships like those in Qatar, Kuwait, etc? When it’s time to pound on one’s chest about Iran, our leaders want us to believe it’s because they are for democracy, and it’s those “Bad Islamic countries” they are against..and they hope we forget about Saudi Arabia and other such countries which our leaders aren’t just not “against” they are outright *supporting* them. Same with the brutal torturer and dictator of Iran the Shah which the CIA helped put it. If leaders are against dictatorships why actively support one after another, including in Islamic countries? It is the Islamic people who are the victims of us when our leaders help prop up and keep in power such dictators, thus giving misery to the Muslims living under the Washington-backed dictatorships.

    Then to add insult to injury, other countries are bashed and the reason giving is those “bad” folks are Muslim” and “that’s why they are bad”

    Can you name the most populous Islamic country? Most Americans can’t. It Indonesia. Guess who supported the dictator Suharto? Guess who gave the green-light to invade and commit genocide in East Timor, real actual genocide with 1/4 of the entire population murdered? Washington, that’s who.

    If these parts of history were not deliberately hidden from the American people we’d all know to fall over laughing when we hear “our leaders are against dictatorships and for human rights and for democracy”

    ..and we’d fall over laughing or crying too when we hear this nonsense “the West versus Islam” No it’s not, the West is happy to actively support Islam when it’s a “cooperative” dictatorship, it’s not only supported, but funded, and armed, like Indonesia back then and Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and Qatar and others today.

    If the country is “cooperative” to Washington’s hegemony, it will be supported by Washington, whether it’s democratic or a brutal dictatorship. If it’s independent and refusing to shine Washington’s shoes, it will be demonized, isolated, CIA-subverted, or just economically strangled until it cries “uncle!”

    Meanwhile the nonsense about how “different” we are and how “wonderful” our leaders are with Gandhi and MLK (never mind the outright murder of Fred Hampton and others by our ‘so nice’ leaders) all of that are convenient myths so we can continue to swallow the line about how “unique” and different we are.

    The problem with this isn’t the syrupy narcissism so much as it lets our leaders distract us from the mass-murder of millions (Vietnam to scores of other countries) and thousands of our own soldiers that die for empire. The myth lets us say “oh, mistakes were made, but our country and our leaders are so special and nice, that, well, abuses are isolated” and then we go back to sleep and another atrocity, another month, another year, another decades of wars, civilian-bombing, kidnap and torture of civilians without trial, with indefinite detention, carpet-bombing, bombing of civilian cities etc, can and does continue. Wake UP!!

  2. Rob says:

    Wow! As always.. great insights John! You are a real credit to humanity and are one of the few people on the planet that I call a true mentor!

    It’s apparent that one thing we desperately need is to shut off our tv’s and have intelligent discourse about the events in our lives and our communities in order to move forward with evolving and break this cycle of devolving.

    Thank you very much for all you do!

  3. Leonardo says:

    Martin Luther King & Gandhi could only succeed under Western (Christian) run countries. The same people living under Muslim & Communist run countries would last no length of time.King in America & Gandhi in British colonel India succeeded because there was enough of the Spirit of Christ still in the rulers.

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