Rod Dreher is a writer and senior editor and blogger at The American Conservative and author of several books on religion, politics, film and culture. The views expressed here are his own.
Is there any place on earth that more bespeaks peace, restfulness and sanctuary from the demons of modern life than a one-room Amish schoolhouse? That fact is no doubt why so many of us felt defiled – there is no more precise word – by news of the mass murders that took place there. If you’re not safe in an Amish schoolhouse ... And yet, as unspeakable as those killings were, they were not the most shocking news to come out of Lancaster County.
No, that would be the revelation that the Amish community, which buried five of its little girls, collected money to help the widow and children of Charles Carl Roberts IV, the man who executed their children before taking his own life. A serene Amish midwife told NBC News that this is normal for them. It’s what Jesus would have them do.
“This is imitation of Christ at its most naked,” journalist Tom Shachtman, who has chronicled Amish life, told The New York Times. “If anybody is going to turn the other cheek in our society, it’s going to be the Amish. I don’t want to denigrate anybody else who says they’re imitating Christ, but the Amish walk the walk as much as they talk the talk.”
I don’t know about you, but that kind of faith is beyond comprehension. I’m the kind of guy who will curse under my breath at the jerk who cuts me off in traffic on the way home from church. And look at those humble farmers, putting Christians like me to shame.
It is not that the Amish are Anabaptist hobbits, living a pure pastoral life uncorrupted by the evils of modernity. So much of the coverage of the massacre dwelled on the “innocence lost” aspect, but I doubt that the Amish would agree. They have their own sins and tragedies. Nobody who lives in a small town can live under the illusion that it is a haven from evil. To paraphrase gulag survivor Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the line between good and evil does not run along the boundaries of Lancaster County, but through every human heart.
What sets hearts apart is how they deal with sins and tragedies. In his suicide note, Mr. Roberts said one reason he did what he did was out of anger at God for the death of his infant daughter in 1997. Wouldn’t any parent wonder why God allowed that to happen? Mr. Roberts held onto his hatred, purifying it under pressure until it exploded in an act of infamy. That’s one way to deal with anger.
Another is the Amish way. If Mr. Roberts’ rage at God over the death of his baby girl was in some sense understandable, how much more comprehensible would be the rage of those Amish mothers and fathers whose children perished by his hand? Had my child suffered and died that way, I cannot imagine what would have become of me, for all my pretenses of piety. And yet, the Amish do not rage. They do not return evil for evil. In fact, they embody peace and love beyond all human understanding.
In our time, religion makes the front pages usually in the ghastliest ways. In the name of God, the faithful fly planes into buildings, blow themselves up to murder the innocent, burn down rival houses of worship, insult and condemn and cry out to heaven for vengeance. The wicked Rev. Fred Phelps and his crazy brood of fundamentalist vipers even planned to protest at the Amish children’s funeral, until Dallas-based radio talker Mike Gallagher, bless him, gave them an hour of his program if they would only let those poor people bury their dead in peace.
But sometimes, faith helps ordinary men and women do the humanly impossible: to forgive, to love, to heal and to redeem. It makes no sense. It is the most sensible thing in the world. The Amish turned the occasion of spectacular evil into a bright witness to hope. Despite everything, a light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.