Underneath the bonnets and straw hats

Amish straw hats JPGIt's very hard to write a column about one subject when your mind is locked on another. So I did something I rarely do yesterday. I switched column topics, even though that meant trying to do extra reading, research and telephone work during a day when I had classes to teach in the morning and the afternoon. I write at night and ship the column to the bureau at dawn on Wednesdays. It's that "lead time" thing, you know.

The goal, of course, was to write about the Amish tragedy. It was clear that new details would keep coming out all week, but I still thought there was ground to cover from the very first day or two of the story. I knew that the media would, of course, leap into stories linked to "theodicy," and that's valid. That is part of the "why" question, after all.

But I was haunted by the question of justice. I know enough about the Amish and the Mennonites to know that this was the other half of the discussion that would be looming in the background, coupled with forgiveness. But who to talk to on such short notice? You can talk to academic experts on the Amish and what they believe, but this rarely gets you inside the minds under those straw hats and bonnets, let alone inside their hearts and souls.

So I decided to try to reach Johann Christoph Arnold of the Bruderhof Communities. This is a Christian group that is very similar to the Amish and the Mennonites in many ways, in terms of European roots, traditions and beliefs. However, they are not opposed to modern technology, especially not the Internet (thus the website link above). I have talked with Arnold in the past and, thus, I hoped he would take my call in such a stressful time. Sure enough, the Bruderhof communities had already sent volunteers down to Lancaster County, Pa., to help counsel and help the Amish handle the media storm. The Bruderhof were also highly involved in helping survivors of the Columbine High School massacre. Like the Amish, the Bruderhof folks do not fit easily into media stereotypes.

Arnold was able to give me some time between my classes. That led to a column that began like this:

The helicopters kept making circles in the air so that the cameramen could keep showing the dairy farms and country roads, the bonnets and wide-brimmed straw hats, the horse-drawn buggies and the one-room schoolhouse framed in yellow police tape.

Soon the facts started going in circles as police recited a litany about 600 rounds of ammunition, a shotgun, a semiautomatic pistol, a stun gun, explosives and, later, the killer's sick collection of chains, clamps, hardware and sexual aids. Witnesses said Charles Carl Roberts IV was angry with God, angry with himself, haunted by guilt, fed up with life and driven by a hellish grudge.

Then journalists began asking questions that went in circles, the questions that nag clergy as well as state troopers. Why? Why the Amish? How could God let this happen? How can justice be done now that the killer is dead?

"Like everyone else, I could not believe what I was seeing on my television," said Johann Christoph Arnold, senior elder of the Bruderhof communes. While sharing many beliefs with the Amish and Mennonites, the Bruderhof ("place of the brothers") embrace some modern technology. Still, these movements share European roots in pacifism, simple living and an emphasis on the sanctity of human life.

"The Amish are our cousins so I know some of what they must be feeling," said Arnold, in his thick German accent. "I know these parents are hurting, I know they are asking questions, but I know that they know the answer is forgiveness. ... Tragedy and pain can soften our hearts until they break. But if we trust God this will help us to feel compassion."

And here is the end:

In this case, the gunman left suicide notes that showed that he was driven by guilt and a grudge that he would not surrender. It appears that Roberts could not forgive God and could not forgive himself.

In the end, this killed him and through him this grudge killed others.

"If you hold a grudge, it will live on in your heart until it leads to violence of some kind," said Arnold. "If you do not forgive, then you cannot be healed. Forgiveness can heal the forgiver as well as the one who is forgiven. This is what the Amish believe. It will take time, but this is what they now must strive to live out for all the world to see."

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