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Monday, October 09, 2006

Forgiveness, Righteous Anger, and the Amish

Some of us -- particularly Dan Markel -- have thought and written about mercy, forgiveness, retribution, and punishment theory.  All of these topics seem especially timely, given that, a week ago today, Charles Carl Roberts took 10 young girls hostage, tied them up, shot them, and then killed himself.  Five of the girls -- all of whom were Amish -- were killed.

Although the news-beast has been largely content with its Foley-scandal diet, there have been a number of editorials, stories, and blog posts on the religious beliefs of the Amish (for example, here, here, here, and here), and on how they are helping members of the girls' communities not only to cope with the horror of the girls' murders, but also to forgive their murderer.  CNN, for example, reported:

A grieving grandfather told young relatives not to hate the gunman who killed five girls in an Amish schoolhouse massacre, a pastor said on Wednesday.

"As we were standing next to the body of this 13-year-old girl, the grandfather was tutoring the young boys, he was making a point, just saying to the family, 'We must not think evil of this man,' " the Rev. Robert Schenck told CNN.

"It was one of the most touching things I have seen in 25 years of Christian ministry."

At the same time, it is worth asking whether, however inspiring or "touching" we find the example of the Amish, we do or should want to emulate them in this case.

Rod Dreher, of the Dallas Morning News and the "Crunchy Cons" blog, had this column on Friday:

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 so defiled – there is no more precise word – by news of the mass murders that took place there this week. 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 this week.

No, that would be the revelation that the Amish community, which buried five of its little girls this week, is collecting money to help the widow and children of Charles Carl Roberts IV, the man who executed their own children before taking his own life. A serene Amish midwife told NBC News on Tuesday that this is normal for them. It's what Jesus would have them do. . . .

I don't know about you, but that kind of faith is beyond comprehension. . . .

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 has 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.  . . .

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 have turned this 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.

Dreher is right, of course, that the ability of the Amish, in this situation, "to forgive, to love, to heal, and to redeem" is inspiring and humbling.  (Here is a blog post of Dreher's on the same subject.)  At the same time, I have to admit to mixed feelings with respect to the question whether we should all react, or even want to react, as the Amish are reacting.  Consider this, from the conservative editorialist Jeff Jacoby ("Undeserved Forgiveness"):

I can't deny that it is deeply affecting to see how seriously the Amish strive to heed Jesus' admonition to return good for evil and turn the other cheek. . . .

But hatred is not always wrong, and forgiveness is not always deserved. I admire the Amish villagers' resolve to live up to their Christian ideals even amid heartbreak, but how many of us would really want to live in a society in which no one gets angry when children are slaughtered? In which even the most horrific acts of cruelty were always and instantly forgiven? There is a time to love and a time to hate, Ecclesiastes teaches. If anything deserves to be hated, surely it is the pitiless murder of innocents.

To voluntarily forgive those who have hurt you is beautiful and praiseworthy. . . .   But to forgive those who have hurt -- who have murdered -- someone else? I cannot see how the world is made a better place by assuring someone who would do terrible things to others that he will be readily forgiven afterward, even if he shows no remorse. . .

I wish [the Amish] well, but I would not want to be like them, reacting to terrible crimes with dispassion and absolution. ``Let those who love the Lord hate evil," the Psalmist writes. The murder of the Amish girls was a deeply hateful evil. There is nothing godly about pretending it wasn't.

And this, by John Podhoretz:

I am a modestly observant Jew, not a Christian, but I can certainly see the beauty and the moral seriousness that would follow from attempting to hew as closely as possible to Christ's example of unconditional love and forgiveness. All the same, this story disturbs me deeply — because there can be no question that anger can be as righteous as forgiveness. I'm not sure I would want to be someone who succeeded in rising above hatred of those who murder children. Does this mean that those who harbor hatred of child killers have somehow achieved a higher level of Godliness than those who succeed in banishing such hatred from their hearts? That seems to be a necessary corollary of the idea that it is heroic to "instruct the young not to hate," and that seems very wrong to me.

I have blogged a number of times about Jeff Murphy's work, particularly "Getting Even:  Forgiveness and its Limits."  This post has already gone on too long, but it seems to me that Murphy provides some deep-thinking -- thinking that is animated by Murphy's Christianity -- that is consonant with Podhoretz's and Jacoby's reservations.  What do others think?

Posted by Rick Garnett on October 9, 2006 at 09:53 AM in Criminal Law | Permalink


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After discussing this with my comrades and being unable to convince any that merciless forgiveness is an oxymoron, I wish to retract my statement until further thought.

Posted by: Jim Green | Oct 10, 2006 3:16:59 PM

First, I am not familiar with Murphy. Nevertheless, I must say even though mercy and forgiveness may be distinct by definition, mercy, I think, is the fulfillment of forgiveness. This isn't to say that the state, as a separate entity, should do what it must, but if an individual truly forgives someone how can they possibly not show mercy? Merciless forgiveness must be an oxymoron.

As an aside, I'd like to meet the defendant who feels forgiven while responding to a complaint seeking punitive damages.

Posted by: Jim Green | Oct 10, 2006 1:54:55 PM

the answer to your question is usually yes because forgiveness is generally defined as attitudinal whereas mercy is tied to actions (Murphy, among others, makes this distinction). So an attitude of forgiveness (and indeed a desire for reconciliation) is compatible with seeking compensatory damages in a civil suit. Indeed, one may even think A can forgive B but still pursue punitive damages against B in a civil suit because A might think B should have to internalize the harms he has caused to A and potentially to others who have escaped detection. And to carry the point further, A might seek punishment for B's actions and still forgive B for having done so, because of a belief that experiencing punishment is part of what one must endure to actually merit forgiveness from the victim. Anyway, just some thoughts.

Posted by: Dan Markel | Oct 10, 2006 12:40:36 PM

Good call. I should not have written without knowing the facts.

But, regardless of the particular beliefs of the Amish, the theoretical point still seems quite easy to articulate: A victim can forgive and love a wrongdoer while hoping and urging the State to punish that person.

Somewhat related (I'm curious what you think Matt): Can a victim forgive a wrongdoer and still seek civil damages against them? It is not as easy to make the public/private distinction there.

Posted by: Jim | Oct 10, 2006 12:17:08 PM


I haven't read the case and do not know the details, but the Amish may have refused to participate not because they oppose punishment but because they don't want to involve themselves with the outside. In fact, I'd be stunned if they instantly forgive and refuse to punish members who commit violent crimes against other members.

Posted by: Matt Evans | Oct 10, 2006 12:04:59 PM

Actually, Jim, there have been documented instances where the Amish are opposed to punishment. In 1993, the district attorney in Wayne County, Ohio prosecuted a case against a driver who killed five Amish children. The district attorney received little support from the Amish families, and the Amish's bishop refused to allow the Amish eyewitness to testify. (

In the same article, which I should note is from the Legal Affairs (a now-defunct magazine) article, "The Gentle People" from the January/February 2005 issue, outlines a major problem of incest in Amish community with the perpetrators going unpunished. I don't raise this to engage in Amish bashing, and I mourn for the tragedy at the Pennsylvania schoolhouse. But let's not think of the Amish as a sinless, innocent community. It has its own significant issues, and its insularity against the outside world is not a positive thing when it comes to sex crimes and Gelassenheit.

Posted by: Jed Sorokin-Altmann | Oct 9, 2006 7:24:10 PM

Like Jim, I don't see the dilemma. Though I'd try to forgive my child's killer, I'd still insist that the perpetrator be "brought to justice." Public punishment isn't incompatible with personal forgiveness.

Posted by: Matt Evans | Oct 9, 2006 6:37:26 PM

It is difficult for me to see why this is a complex issue. The State will punish regardless of whether the victims forgive or not. Nothing suggests the Amish are opposed to punishment or that their version of forgiveness entails the wrongdoer going free. Also, why would someone think that the Amish love "the pitiless murder of innocents"? Surely they hate this evil act even while refusing to hate the person inflicting tho act.

Posted by: Jim | Oct 9, 2006 2:43:29 PM

I second Dan's initial comments here, as it reminds me of what's taking place as regards the International Criminal Court and the various truth commissions. I think we need to be clear as to the different forms of justice: retributive (criminal), transitional, social and political, reconciliatory, ethical and philosophical (e.g. classical Greek), theological, and so on. While there may be no hard and fast boundaries, these are all important distinctions, and we should not fuse or blur them, at least until we're clear as to the rationale animating the difference. While a judge at sentencing may exercise some measure of mercy, I think Dan is absolutely correct that 'the state lacks moral standing to confer forgiveness or mercy in a way that respects the equality of persons under the law.' In addition to Dan's work, there is a nice essay by Robert Solomon that addresses the law's capacity for sublimating and transforming the desire for vengeance: Robert C. Solomon, 'Justice v. Vengeance: On Law and the Satisfaction of Emotion,' in Susan A. Bandes, ed., The Passions of Law (New York: New York University Press, 1999): 123-148.

Truth commissions, for instance, seem to work best *in conjunction with* criminal justice mechanisms, not so as to replace them. Helena Cobban, for one, has vigorously argued against the International Criminal Court, placing faith for instance, in the Rwandan case, in the gacaca court system, a civil justice mechanism the Rwandan state has attempted to adapt for criminal justice ends (by way of staving off the ICC). I think Helena is profoundly and provocatively mistaken. At Opinio Juris, Christopher Le Mon has a post on this subject, and I've commented there if anyone is interested: http://www.opiniojuris.org/posts/1159770436.shtml

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Oct 9, 2006 11:52:07 AM

Rick, a wonderful collection of thought-provoking excerpts. Thanks. I may try to find an hour or two to reflect more deeply on this set of events and how it relates to some of the work I've done (which is in some places an ugly step-child of Murphy and Hampton's work in this area), but here's a quick stab. My first sense is that we need to unpack what the "we" is here in terms of thinking about whether "we" should be inspired by the Amish example here. My sense is that we can and ought to draw sharp lines between *private* mercy and forgiveness, which can be heroic and redemptive (as well as slavish too), and *public* mercy and forgiveness--ie, what the state's institutional actors attitudes and actions are. As the blog post you cited initially indicated, and in "Against Mercy," to my mind the state lacks moral standing to confer forgiveness or mercy in a way that respects the equality of persons under the law. This is what makes me allergic to theories that endow victims' with material power over the sentencing outcomes of offenders whose crimes are readily provable by the state. All that said, I see nothing wrong with the Amish community's struggle on an individual or social-group level to be as faithfully merciful as they can be. After all, such efforts at forgiveness and mercy can be evidence of magnanimity or servility, depending on the circumstances. The notion that some are suggesting -- ie, that vengeful anger or rage is appropriate (as opposed to understandable) -- seems misplaced though. It is one thing to vindicate one's self-worth and that of others through the "cool retribution" of the state's impartial hand, or through private litigation in the civil justice system. It is quite another to teach or extol the value of hatred as such. (This was, I think, the signal error of some of Murphy's prior work on "retributive hatred" in this area; I don't think he still holds those views.) Anyway, hopefully more to come. Great post.

Posted by: Dan Markel | Oct 9, 2006 11:10:15 AM

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