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amish graceThe inspirational true story of forgiveness

The movie ‘Amish Grace,’ is based on the Book ‘Amish Grace – How forgiveness transcended tragedy.’ It is a powerful account of the 2006 true story of a mentally unstable man taking Amish schoolgirls hostage and killing several of them. It takes place in an Amish Community in Pennsylvania, and recounts the tragic events of bitterness and revenge, and how this affected the lives of not only the Amish Community, but also a Journalist and a grieving ‘Englisher family’ (non-Amish).

Ida (played beautifully by Kimberly Williams-Paisley), an Amish mother of two young girls is forced to come to grips with the implications of her faith after tragedy strikes. She finds herself hurled into conflicting feelings of anger and doubt and feels like an outsider in her own community.

Equally moving is the portrayal of the family left behind after the perpetrator takes his own life. The distraught wife says at one point in the movie: ‘he chose hell over living with his own family.’ Her grief in the wake of the tragedy turns into amazement when she experiences the forgiveness extended to her by the Amish Community.

Woven in between these characters is a Journalist, whose assignment it is to cover not only the story of the shooting incident, but also to find out more about the Amish faith and if their response of forgiveness is genuine or forced. She discovers that their simple, but genuine, faith extends clemency even in the worst of situations. What makes this come to life for her is that she witnesses Ida’s struggles with forgiveness and how she ultimately makes peace when she finds out how her own daughter had already made peace just before she was murdered.

The Amish people, along with the Mennonites and Brethren communities, have a common history dating back the 1500’s. Originally they were protégées of Ulrich Zwingli’s teaching on Reform and particularly accepted the practice of adult baptism as a profession of faith. This was considered a radical alternative to infant baptism and thus they were given the name ‘Anabaptists’. Zwingli ultimately disassociated with them as they advocated the separation of Church and State. The group was not prepared for the persecution that ensued due to their radical assertion that the only true Church was a church of gathered believers who had been baptised by immersion and thus daring to separate the indissolubly linked citizenship through infant baptism. The act of adult baptism symbolized this and they became a staunchly separatist movement.

Due to severe persecution and the loss of able leadership, the movement became somewhat disorganized. In order to try and bring about unity to the sect, the leaders gathered in 1527 and decided upon seven points of agreement. These included believers’ baptism by immersion; the practice of mutual church discipline (the ban); the Lord’s Supper in place of the Mass; separation from Roman Catholic and Protestant churches; the role of Ministers (shepherds); rejection of violence (the sword) and rejection of oaths.

Further disagreements ultimately caused the separation of the group into what is today known as the Amish, the Mennonites and the Brethren faith. All three of the assemblies took part in a migration to America in the 18th Century. The American Revolution was in many ways a time of testing for the three groups. All were Christian pacifist groups who took literally Christ’s teaching: “Blessed are the peacemakers”; “Turn the other cheek”; “Do not resist the evil one.” Their faith taught them to be obedient to governing authorities except in matters that conflicted with what they understood to be God’s Law. After the American independence, the challenge was to find their identity. Just how sectarian, how nonconformist, how German, or how American were they to be if they were to grow and prosper in the new Republic?

Today, the Amish are generally separated into ‘the Old Order’ and ‘the New Order’. The Old Order refuses motor vehicles, public utilities such as plumbing and electricity, educate their youth only up through 8th grade, meet in homes for worship and dress in very plain clothing. The new order accepts mainstream Protestant form of ministry such as Missions and Sunday school and a moderate amount of technologies. The Mennonites too have varied groups, some more conservative than others. But all of the groups are known as ‘plain people’. Their primary calling is to be a separated people of God, without blemish. Those members who fall into sin, or forsake their faith, must be dealt with and if all attempts fail they are shunned. This is done not just to bring the offender to repentance, but also to protect the whole of the church. The purity of the church must be safeguarded at all cost.

Due to the legalistic and separate way in which the Amish communities live, they are accused of believing in salvation brought about by works. Closer examination of their faith however reveals they believe ‘Christ purchased Redemption for the whole human race’. Belief in Christ is, however, inseparably linked to obedience to Christ, but plain people do not ignore the importance of James 2:20, “Faith without works is dead.” Included in this principle is the belief that as Christ forgives us our trespasses, so we must forgive others. The practical outworking of this faith is demonstrated in the movie when the elders forgive the perpetrator’s family for the shooting of their children. This is not to be confused with lack of justice. The belief that all sinners will ultimately stand before God as their Judge is clear, but the personal forgiveness of sins committed against us is essential.

When observing the Amish Communities, it is easy to be critical of the legalism that seems to be such an integral part of their lives. Yet a deeper understanding of them reveals a genuine faith and desire to serve and honour the Lord. So while we may not agree with many aspects of these plain people, a study of them serves us well. It helps to remind us of how much we have compromised on issues of holiness, standards of dress, attitudes of forgiveness, piety, generosity and hospitality in our church communities. How much stronger would our own congregations be, if we returned to a simpler and more humble way of life?

The movie Amish Grace will move you deeply, and the message of profound grace is sure to inspire.

Lenora Hammond

Frontline Fellowship
P.O. Box 74 Newlands 7725
Cape Town South Africa
Tel: 021-689-4480
Fax: 021-685-5884
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