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murder in the amish countryside
what's god got to do with it?
by alex b (@Lexistential)

Fresh vegetables. Horse buggies. One-room schoolhouses close to open roads and farms, with lifestyles centered on church picnics and churning butter instead of TiVo. No one would ever guess that an idyllic setting in the Amish countryside would ever bear witness to a killing spree. Nor would anyone automatically think the victims would be a group of little girls.

Yet all of these elements came together last Monday, when the ugly side of modern life touched the Amish community. 32-year-old milk truck driver Charles Carl Roberts IV took a group of Amish schoolchildren hostage, and after separating the boys from the girls, executed five of the girls and wounded several others. Soon after, Roberts took his own life.

Articles have started to appear about Roberts’s pedophilic motives and mental illness. News reports mention that Roberts brought guns, ammunition, supplies for a siege, and KY Jelly to the schoolhouse. However, as far as any explanations from Roberts himself, it’s a question of God. According to Leroy Zook, the father of several surviving victims, Roberts told the children "he was angry at God." Furthermore, Roberts also told the children "...that they were supposed to pray for him that he wouldn't do this."

Disgust filled my stomach when I read Roberts’ remarks. What the hell does God have to do with this?

I always hate it when someone cites God during a high point the way a referee throws out a red card at a soccer game. For when God is invoked and referred to in an argument or conflict, someone usually does it with the intention of adding a white patina of righteous legitimacy—and to shift issues to a plateau where explanation is no longer required. Accountability, in turn, becomes a moot and nonexistent point. After all, it’s God. It’s Holy, Cosmic, and Beyond Human Peanut Comprehension. You can’t argue. Need I say more?

But that’s the thing—more is required. According to my occasionally inebriated football-watching Catholic priests, God requires a great deal out of all of us. He equips us with good minds and good hearts—and asks us to go out into the world with those gifts and live a conscientious life.

In addition, in line with His commandments, he asks us not to abuse His name, or turn it into a defunct Visa card.

Unfortunately, all the worst people invoke God’s name for all the wrong reasons. Bomb-toting holy rollers in the Middle East state they fight for Him; thanks to them, I know that area of the world as a place where a culture of hate is succeeding admirably. Terrorists flew planes into New York five years ago with shouts and propaganda claiming to fight a holy war against American infidels; thanks to that God-coated strike, among other things we encounter extra airport security and intrusive laws.

However, I can’t—and won’t—entirely pin a screwy sense of religious righteousness on Islamic cultures. For we Americans also have our own God-fueled and Christianly great sense of rightness going. Uniquely nutty and warped concepts of God run rampant in the Republican Party, Ann Coulter’s writings, and neighborhood zealots who kill doctors in front of abortion clinics.

Frighteningly enough, they can even reside in the Amish countryside.

But on a comforting note, God seems to be invoked for the right reasons aside from dysfunctional ones. News of the killings has inspired the nation, Canada and other countries such as Argentina, Germany, and Vietnam to donate money to Penn State Children’s Hospital to assist Amish families with mounting medical bills. While Capital Blue Cross has volunteered to donate $500,000, twenty missionary churches in Africa have each pledged to give $1 each.

What is even more remarkable is that the Amish belief in forgiveness remains steadfast in spite of the killings. The victims’ families invited Charles Carl Roberts’s widow, Marie, to the funerals of their daughters. Leaders of the Amish community have also insisted that some of the money be directed to a fund for Marie Roberts and her children. Rita Rhoads, an Amish midwife who had assisted in bringing two of the victims into the world, said, "How could you hold a grudge against the wife, the family?"

In addition, Rhoads stated that the father of one of the victims had spoken of how God had helped his daughter. "He said there was a battle between good and evil on Monday, and good won," Rhoads said. "He felt that way because the shooter was killed before he was able to carry out all of his plans."

Perhaps in the aftermath of Monday’s events, we can look to the Amish as an example of how to invoke God in our lives. Though we mock Amish for their simplicity and criticize the insulated nature of their lives, they now stand as victims of tragedy who refuse to be further victimized. We will most likely never choose to shun the trappings of modern life or adopt a rigid agricultural existence, but we can afford to study a couple pages in their playbook.

Hopefully, in the process of studying the Amish, maybe I can figure out how to invoke God in my life in a better way. For if the Amish can forgive a shooter who was ready to prey on their children, then I too can step up and be a much more forgiving person who can let go of grudges quickly and move on in an easier, healthy manner. I don’t want to pray for a pedophile sick and motivated enough to tote KY Jelly to the schoolhouse along with a gun, nor do I want to extend mercy to anyone who harms me, or my family and friends. But perhaps this is where God’s got something to do with it, and where I can afford to learn. Violence may be an unavoidable element that truly reflects human nature, but forgiveness is what separates us from animals.

I don’t expect to figure out my spiritual answers in the course of writing an article, or if ever, in the next few years. But in the meantime, I’m going to say a prayer. Not only will I say it for five little girls who didn’t have a chance to enjoy the bloom of young womanhood, but I will also say one for a pedophile whose earthly suffering can no longer cause any harm. May Naomi Rose Ebersol, Marian Fisher, Mary Liz Miller, Lena Miller, and Anna May Stoltzfus each encounter heaven; may the spirit of Charles Carl Roberts IV likewise know peace. For if the Amish can forgive, then so can I.


An expert in coloring outside the lines while reading between them, Alex B has a head for business, bod for sin, and weakness for ice cream during all seasons. Apart from watching Bravo marathons and enjoying haute bites here and there, she writes about TV, pop culture, and coloring outside even more lines. She sneaks Tweets via @lexistential.

more about alex b


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lisa r
10.7.06 @ 5:01p

A very well-written take on the situation. I live Lancaster, and I can tell you that this week's events have been eye-opening, frightening, sobering--and have truly united a community of disparate beliefs, religions and ways of life.


alex b
10.8.06 @ 2:00p

When I heard about the tragedy, a great deal of it saddened and frightened me. But when I read that Roberts had the nerve to point a finger at God to morally justify- and hence, excuse- himself, I couldn't believe it. No matter what religious practice, God isn't meant to be a convenient "Get Out Of Jail Free" card invoked for absolution.

I really find it inspiring that the Amish stand by their practice of forgiveness. As you mentioned, half the mourners at Roberts' funeral were Amish. Though one can argue about how "backwards" they are, their attitude of forgiveness seems pretty darn progressive to me, especially in a modern world where people routinely hold grudges and throw hissy fits over remarks, relationships, and the like. To see the Amish community invoke God to practice forgiveness instead of pointing fingers is amazing.

lisa r
10.8.06 @ 3:33p

I think what I admire most, after the strength of their faith, is their ability to avoid being absorbed into the surrounding culture--they've changed very little over the centuries. The dresses are shorter, they wear black sneakers, and they've added a few modern things to their life (the weed whackers, for instance). But they've avoided electricity except where required by law (in order to sell fluid, or drinkable, milk, they must chill it, so milk houses have electricity and they use vacuum milkers). Some even have avoided that--there's a sect of Old Order Amish in Ohio that refuse to use electricity, so their milk can only be sold for cheese production.

They have "phone booths" on the property, but do not have them in the house, and rarely have cell phones unless they have a business that requires it. The reason for not having phones in the house is that they believe waking hours should be spent productively. Chatting on the phone is not considered productive--something that is hard to argue with. What's allowed and what isn't allowed varies by community, and is determined by the elders and bishops of the communty.

alex b
10.8.06 @ 7:12p

I admire the staunch nature of the Amish culture, but I don't necessarily admire their decision to shun the modern world. I accept it as one of the tenets of their culture, but I don't find it admirable or particularly virtuous.

However, what I find terrific is that they practice what they preach. You may not like their choices, but there are generally no suprises. I also like their tradition of rumspringa- at least they allow members of their community to have a choice about participating in the modern world.

lisa r
10.8.06 @ 9:36p

I think that was what I was trying to get across--that their ability to maintain their faith despite the enticements of our world.

alex b
10.9.06 @ 3:10a

The staunch nature of Amish culture and tradition seems to be helpful in instances such as this killing, for they can derive an immense amount of comfort in the continual nature of their traditions. But I would also imagine being so staunch would pose its own share of mind-boggling questions, especially in regard to the modern world next door. Which technology is acceptable over another? Which tradition doesn't seem threatening? Which seems most likely to upset the apple cart?

Heck, in their eyes, we're probably a bunch of weirdos. (And they would have valid reason for thinking so).


watashi wa
12.10.06 @ 8:37p

The spirit of forgiveness in the Amish community comes with its side effects. At first glance, I think its an admiring belief that they have but you'd have to look very closely at their history and way of life to know the reason behind the spirit. The Amish people submits their lives to God and churches so much that half it seems to have become a blind faith. Its a strict and repressive lifestyle they live by their faith. Not that I've anything against people believing God. I too am a believer. But taking a faith to the extreme as mentioned in this write-up may result in disasters.

An example is in a news of a rape victim in the Amish Community. (Here's the link: http://abcnews.go.com/2020/story?id=2365919&page=1) The girl was raped over and over by her brothers who were given punishments and forgiven many times by the church leaders for their crimes. When forgiveness is granted, the amish people are expected not to pursue hatred nor revenge. Thus this girl continued to suffer under the abuse of her brothers who did not repent. The church wouldn't hand them over to the laws as they believe in handling laws themselves. This girl escaped when she was older and reported to the police. Strange thing is when the brothers were arrested, the amish community saw the girl as the one who was being evil, in that she was unforgiving. Yea.. so this is what I mean by the side effects of their faith that looks perfect on the surface.



lisa r
12.12.06 @ 6:05p

No one who lives here in Lancaster (hopefully) is blind to the problems in the Amish community. Some of the sects have unbelievably strict ordnungs, their version of community by-laws. The local paper has regular stories of children who die in farming accidents. Episodes of barn burning occur occasionally, and sometimes Amish are involved in that. Human nature isn't governed by faith or a particular way of life. And some of them have questionable business practices, just like the "English".

However, their faith sometimes makes them an easy mark. Quacks and shysters in the nutritional supplement and alternative medicine worlds prey on them. Less than ethical businessmen and women take advantage of the fact that the Amish don't believe in suing anyone. Pranksters think it is amusing to use Amish farm animals and outbuildings for target practice. Joyriders think nothing of tearing up farm fields with ATVs and SUVs. Reckless drivers make no effort to take extra care when passing buggies loaded with children, and think it is funny to try to spook the horses.

This city has built its tourism industry on large-scale voyeurism. You can't swing a cat around here without hitting a tour bus full of gawkers and lookie-loos. The Amish faith may have its flaws....but we "English" can't afford to cast the first stone against them.

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