Forgiveness: An Amish Lesson for the Rest of Us?

On October 2, 2006, while waiting for my Alternative Dispute Resolution class to begin, I found, on my Yahoo! login page, a headline on the screen: “Six Dead in Amish School Shooting in Pa.” Attached to the headline was an aerial photo of a oneroom school, much like the one down the road from my parents’ farm in Pennsylvania. As soon as I saw the photo, I knew the shooting occurred at one of the many Amish schoolhouses in the community where I grew up.

A law student in Washington, D.C., I called my father in Pennsylvania to hear firsthand what was going on. Through our conversations over the ensuing days, and by reading articles in Lancaster, Pa., Intelligencer Journal,I found the following details about how the Amish faced the brutal violence perpetrated against them with nonresistance and forgiveness.

At 8:45 AM on Monday, October 2, 2006, Charles Carl Roberts IV, a 32-year-old milk truck driver, walked his children to the school bus stop by his home near Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. He returned to an empty house -his wife had already left to attend a prayer group meeting. At that time, Roberts proceeded to write suicide notes to his wife and each of his, three children, all under seven yeas old. Although the note to his wife was cryptic, it contained innuendos to having molested young female relatives 20 years ago, and expressed a desire to repeat the actions. The note also indicated Mr. Roberts’ anger toward God for the loss of his daughter, who had died approximately 20 minutes after her birth nine years earlier.

Roberts arrived at a nearby Amish hardware store and purchased eyebolts, plastic cable, and a box of assorted hardware at 9:16 AM. At 9:51 am, he entered a one-room Amish schoolhouse less than a mile from his home, interrupted the German lesson, and asked a question. Although he refused to look the teacher, Emma Mae Zook, in the eyes, he showed the class a clevis and asked if anyone had seen one on the road. Zook said no but offered that the class help him look for it.

Without comment, Roberts stepped out of the schoolhouse and returned to his truck. About five minutes later, he re-entered, brandished a gun, and demanded that all the students lie down in the back of the classroom. Zook and her mother, who was visiting at the time, looked at one another and darted out a side door. Roberts ordered a young boy retrieve them, threatening that he would kill everyone in the room if they failed to come back. Within a few minutes, Roberts dismissed the boys and remaining adult women from the room.

At 10:36 AM, Zook completed her sprint to a nearby farm and telephoned the police, reporting a hostage situation. While she had been running to reach a telephone (Amish do not allow telephones in their homes or schools), Roberts had barricaded himself in the schoolhouse with ten girls, ages 6 to 13, using the merchandise he had purchased from the Amish hardware store. Within five minutes of the 911 call, police arrived on the scene and began communicating with him.

Apparently feeling thwarted from his plot, Roberts began to panic and told police that if they did not leave within ten seconds, he would begin shooting. Within seconds, the police heard gunfire and attempted to storm the schoolhouse only to be stymied by the blocked window and doors. They gained entry as Roberts turned the nine-millimeter semiautomatic pistol he had used on each of the ten girls onto himself.

The police found that the girls had been shot at close range, execution style. They also found KY jelly and toilet paper on the scene, indicating an intent to sexually molest the children and to remain in the school for an extended period of time. Two girls, Naomi Rose Ebersol, age 7, and Marian Stoltzfus Fisher, 13, were pronounced dead at the scene. One girl, Anna Mae Stoltzfus, age 12, was pronounced dead upon arrival by helicopter to a hospital approximately 20 miles away. Two sisters, Lena Zook Miller, age 7, and Mary Liz Miller, age 8, died the following day. Rosanna King, age 6, was removed from life support after being declared brain dead on October 3, but has since shown signs of regaining consciousness while at home in her parents’ care.

There are often questions raised to those of us who practice nonresistance regarding what we would do if someone were to kill our child, parent, or sibling. The implication in the question is that if we refused to take an opportunity to defend our loved ones against an aggressor, then we are cowardly or unreasonable. However, after the incident in the Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, details emerged about how the Amish girls courageously answered this question. Roberts asked the girls to pray for him, which they did. One of the girls asked if he would pray for them as well. The girls granted their aggressor his wish for mercy and provided it graciously, as lovers of human life and forgivers of sin. Additionally, they reminded him that they shared his fear, subtly pleading that he reciprocate the favor and believing in his power to communicate with God, despite the horrendous act he was committing.

Marian Fisher, the 13-year-old who died at the school, appealed to Roberts to shoot her first, hoping to spare the younger ones. Her sister, Barbie, who survived gunshot wounds to her hand, leg, and shoulder, asked to be shot next. These young girls implemented a selfless tactic as a measure of defense which held true to their beliefs that they should “turn the other cheek.” In response to this action, some people still criticized these innocent children for not responding violently. On the Huffington Post’s Fearless Voices blog, a member wrote:

I would have liked it better if the Amish girls had died trying to wrestle the gun away from the madman rather than sweetly volunteering to be shot next while the others watched – in what way was this sparing the others? Maybe she thought he might run out of ammunition?

This blogger’s posting exhibits dissociation from human emotion and lack of value for basic human life. Not only does the viewpoint characterize the brave acts of children committed to nonresistance as stupid and feeble attempts based on illogical understandings of killers, it also faults them for respecting the life of this abominable man. The notion presented disregards the likely outcome of such action, specifically, that Roberts would have become more confused and panicked (as it appears he did when the police arrived), and would have executed his plan with vengeance. Furthermore, it neglects the fact that Roberts was also a human with feelings, children of his own, and a member of the community. Although he was poised to do one of the most horrendous acts imaginable, the girls still knew that he was a human being and cleverly appealed to his inner person. By appealing to these emotions through nonviolence, the Amish girls increased their own chance of survival by setting up a scenario where he might have been compassionate. The scenario created by Marian’s actions also had the effect of deterring Roberts from molesting the other girls. In the community, there have been reports that her offering herself as a martyr was in immediate response to his attempts to molest some of the younger girls. Her goal, therefore, was to distract him from his plan to molest and kill all of the girls by urging him to gain release by murdering her.

Zook, the school teacher, chose to alert authorities instead of remaining in the schoolhouse to fight Roberts. One could argue, perhaps, that she did this because she believed that she did not have the force or resources to overtake Roberts. However, there were at least three adult women in the schoolhouse and she and her mother had already connected minds by eyeing each other. It appears more likely that Zook knew that combating violence with violence would not be her best role in this situation, and that persons trained in dealing with hostage crises were best equipped to deal with Roberts. It was a very brave act for a teacher to risk leaving the schoolroom where a gunman had already ordered those inside to obey him.

Jonathan Kooker

Jonathan Kooker works in New York and Pennsylvania as an Attorney for the Law offices of Perry Novotny, a firm based in Tel Aviv, Israel. He is a 2008 graduate of Georgetown University Law Center and be currently advises clients in the areas of labor, employment, and corporate law as they relate to U. S. immigration. He also handles appeals for the firm and is committed to the furtherance of alternative dispute resolution practice in the litigation system. He is a member of the East Chestnut Street Mennonite Church in Lancaster, Pa., and is currently working to establish a Mennonite Lawyers Association.