Book Reviews

Book Review: Amish Grace by Donald Kraybill – Learning to Approach Life with Grace

I’ve actually tried to review the book Amish Grace by Donald Kraybill three times already. It’s quite a profound book, and my short assessment is that everyone – especially those who call themselves “Christians” – should read this book and keep it in their home next to their Bible. Read it almost as often. I am actually on my fourth time reading through it.

What is so special about Amish Grace? Author Donald Kraybill had already published a number of books on Amish culture and society. It was no wonder that when the Nickel Mines shooting occurred, he was the name that the media turned to for information on a culture that was alien to many of us. Although other books were written about the tragedy since then, he has a unique voice being able to talk to people among the Amish who might not have talked to anyone else due to him already being a familiar figure among them.

If you don’t remember what the Nickel Mines shooting was, in October of 2006, a man entered an Amish schoolhouse in this small rural town. Before the morning was over, he had killed five girls in the schoolhouse, wounded five others, and killed himself.

This differed from other school shootings in many ways. Of course, there are the immediate feelings that nowhere is safe. If a school shooting can occur in a little one-room schoolhouse in the heart of serene Amish Country in Pennsylvania, one of the most unlikely places anyone would think of there being a school shooting, then it can happen at any time to any of us. But what really separated the Nickel Mines shooting from others like Columbine was the response of the community.

For instead of looking for vengeance; instead of crucifying Charles Carl Roberts IV’s family in their quest for satisfaction; the Amish exhibited forgiveness and grace. Their community reached out to the shooter’s family, who had lost a father, a son, a husband, and a means of support when he killed himself as well in that schoolhouse. When money poured in from the “outside world” (the term they use is “English”), a fund was set up for his family as well. Members of the Amish community even attended his funeral.

What was the motivation for this act which seems incomprehensible to those of us outside of the Amish community? In a society where retribution pervades our media and seems to drive the survivors of other violent crimes, this was alien to most of us.

Kraybill does a terrific job of getting to the root of these actions. Without betraying any confidence, he listens to various people in the Amish community, from religious leaders to ordinary citizens. What becomes apparent is that the act of forgiving people who have wronged them is so intrinsic in their society and beliefs that it was the natural course for them to take. By examining their beliefs in a way we usually don’t even examine our own Christian beliefs, Kraybill quite inadvertently holds them up as a model of Christian behavior.

I say inadvertently because the Amish do not believe in wearing their beliefs on their sleeves. Unlike other branches of Christianity which seem to believe that proselytizing is a necessary part of their belief system, the Amish work on their individual faith mostly in private, or in their church districts as a community. They don’t believe in forcing their beliefs on others, but we can most definitely take a few pages from them.

Kraybill and his co-authors have gone to great lengths to respect the wishes of the Amish not to be glorified in their actions. Names have been omitted or changed in many cases. In others, just a first name is used. It’s these actions of respect that have allowed them to peel away a bit of the mystery in the culture and beliefs.

The act of forgiveness for them is based on Jesus’ own actions. Kraybill cites the Bible verses that back up the Amish belief systems. More importantly, she shows the one single thing that is at the heart of everything – The Lords Prayer. Praying forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us… is something many of us have memorized in Sunday School, but we rarely ponder the meaning of that. The Amish take this phrase literally – that we cannot be forgiven by God unless we can forgive others. That is essentially their core belief and has shaped them as a community.

That doesn’t mean everything is sunshine and roses in the Amish community. Kraybill doesn’t ignore parts of their culture that might seem to contradict these beliefs, such as the act of shunning. However, the way he explores it and lays out the reasoning for it makes sense. It doesn’t boil down to forgive and forget, but rather three different actions: forgiveness, pardon, and reconciliation. You can forgive someone and it doesn’t mean you have to reconcile with them. In their definition, forgiving someone means foregoing any acts of vengeance, something that seems alien to those of us in the outside world.

The book is structured well and is easy to read. I hope I never really have to depend on Amish Grace to inspire me in a time when someone has done the unforgivable to my family, but I know I have read it repeatedly in the hopes of shaping my own beliefs, ever-growing as they are. In a world where the so-called representatives of Christianity on the airwaves seem more filled with hate and judgment than love, the views and experiences presented in this book are inspiring. Make it a part of your home library – you won’t be disappointed.