Three years ago, coinciding with a rash of post-9/11 deaths from respiratory and circulatory ailments about five years after the attacks, my brother-in-law David succumbed suddenly to an incredibly aggressive form of leukemia. He had been in the ash cloud emanating from Ground Zero on 9/11, and my wife Suzanne suspects his death was 9/11-related. As she’s the one with medical training, I usually accept her judgment in such matters.
Do I forgive the 9/11 terrorists? It’s a question I can’t remember asking myself before this week after screening the upcoming Lifetime TV movie Amish Grace. Inspired by the nonfiction book of the same name, the film is based on the real-life Amish school shooting in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania in the fall of 2006.
The gunman, Charles Carl Roberts, left behind a wife and three children, but was apparently haunted by the death of a newborn daughter nine years earlier. Perhaps it was to punish God for his daughter’s death that he walked into the one-room Amish school and dismissed the boys and adults before shooting ten girls between the ages of 6 and 13, half of whom died. When police intervened, he turned the gun on himself.
What happens in the schoolhouse isn’t shown onscreen, though late in the film there is an inspiring first-person account from one of the survivors. Like the book, subtitled How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy, the film focuses not on the crime but on the response of the Amish community, which captured the nation’s attention and was much discussed by an often baffled, occasionally critical media. Within hours of the shooting, the Amish reached out to Roberts’ widow, assuring her of their forgiveness to her husband and their lack of ill will for her. When Roberts was buried, dozens of Amish were in attendance.
While the Christian ethos of forgiveness is still on some level widely honored as an ideal in the U.S. today, it is not well understood, and uncomfortably coexists with equal or greater acceptance of an ethos of vengeance, one celebrated in far more movies than forgiveness.
Amid widespread genuflecting to Amish forgiveness, some voices raised uncomfortable questions: Is it healthy or right to forgive so readily and completely, without first passing through necessary stages of grief and anger? Is forgiveness meaningful or desirable where there is no sign of remorse or wish for forgiveness? We are all familiar—perhaps too much so—with the gap between our ideals and our behavior. The Amish actually expect each other to live their beliefs with integrity.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Amish Grace offers a fictional account of what must have been a very real struggle with grief and anger. Bereaved mother Ida Graber (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) already wrestles with Amish mores over the “shunning” of her sister, who left the flock after being widowed in order to marry an “English” man. How, Ida demands, can they offer forgiveness to a murderer, yet ask family members to cut off one another for such offenses? For Ida, forgiving the killer is tantamount to betraying her daughter—yet a powerful revelation toward the end suggests that this is the opposite of the truth.
Ida’s husband Gideon (Matt Letscher) stoically insists that God demands forgiveness, and argues that the alternative only punishes themselves. “I will not make my heart a battleground of hate and love. It’s too painful,” he cries. Amish Grace gradually finds a thoughtful balance between Ida and Gideon, sympathetically cross-examining both points of view.
Then there’s the killer’s widow, Amy Roberts (Tammy Blanchard, Bella). Devastated by the revelation of this unfathomable side of her husband, Amy is perhaps more lost and desperate than any of the Amish victims. “I thought we had a good life, and I would have bet money Charlie thought so too,” she laments incredulously. “He actually chose going to hell over staying here with me.” Amy can’t imagine forgiving Charlie herself, and is utterly at a loss to understand the Amish grace extended to Charlie and her.
A subplot involving a TV news crew investigating the sincerity of Amish forgiveness is the film’s most notable weakness. These outsiders are meant as bridge characters mediating between the audience and the Amish, but their merely journalistic investigative curiosity about the facts of the case is an obvious screenwriting foil. A more effective approach might have been to give the journalists complacent, dismissive assumptions about the Amish, about whom they presumably know little or nothing, and then gradually challenge and overturn those assumptions over the course of the story.
It’s a forgiveable flaw in an earnest film that gets better as it goes, with the most insightful revelations and the best scenes in the last act. Amish Grace is a commendable celebration of a Gospel mandate more often honored with lip service than with actual commitment. If I do not forgive the 9/11 hijackers, I have no right to call myself a follower of Jesus. It is as simple as that.