On Oct. 2, 2006, the Amish were catapulted into the national spotlight when a non-Amish man entered a one-room schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Penn., and shot 10 young female students, killing five.
People had heard about the Amish before, of course. Many had seen "Witness," read about the Wisconsin v. Yoder Supreme Court case or watched "Devil’s Playground." But the Nickel Mines shooting offered outsiders one single event to latch on to, to study, dissect and report on what would come to define the Amish.
It wasn’t the event itself that helped define them, but what happened just hours after the shooting took place when an Amish man walked into the nearby home of the shooters’ parents and said, “We will forgive you.”
The non-Amish world was dumbfounded. Some saw it as a meaningless gesture -- an offering of words that the Amish surely couldn’t yet comprehend or truly believe. Others saw the gesture as superhuman -- an example of a people better than the rest of us, able to forgive easily and readily even in the most terrible of circumstances. Everyone seemed to view it as an event to define the Amish.
Initially, the director, David Belton, and I thought we would start and end the film with Nickel Mines. We’d start with the drama of the event and hear the story as a prologue that would end with the statement of forgiveness and leave everyone asking, “Who are these people?”
We’d then launch in to the film to answer that question, jumping back in time to tell the history of the Amish and forward to show the Amish today before ultimately ending with the rest of the Nickel Mines story, the culmination of who the Amish are.
We soon realized the problem with that structure. You can’t understand the Amish through one single event, no matter how revealing that moment might seem to be.
Because that’s the thing about the Amish. They’re not a big moment kind of people.
They’re a day in, day out kind of people.
People often ask if being Amish is a way of life or a religion. The difficulty in answering that question is that the Amish don’t separate the two. Their way of life is their religion.
In our film, anthropologist Karen Johnson-Weiner puts it this way: “Theirs is not an intellectual faith, it’s a lived faith. In a very real way because everything they do is guided by their ordnung, by their beliefs. In a way they’re always in church.”
When an Amish woman gets up in the morning and puts on the same cut of dress in one of the same five colors she’s always worn, does she think she’s doing it because somewhere in the Bible it says that’s what she is to wear? Of course not. But what she is doing is showing through that small gesture that she believes in and submits to the community of which she is a part. That community has decided together that this dress and these colors are helpful in leading a Christian life. Or perhaps more accurately, they have decided that a life focused on the latest styles and fashions or other ephemeral worldly trends will not help her be a better Christian.
The Amish are a Christian group who believe that the message of the Bible is to follow Christ’s teachings and live a Christ-like life. As one Amishman said to me, “Christ said ‘follow me,’ not ‘study me.’”
To the Amish, that doesn’t mean follow the parts that are convenient. Surely a horse and buggy is not the most convenient mode of transportation. But to the Amish, limiting themselves to traveling only as far as a horse can carry them ensures the community remains close and connected. The horse and buggy, like the dress, is a choice and a symbol of the submission that the Amish believe God asks of them on a daily basis.
Which brings me back to Nickel Mines. To the Amish, Nickel Mines was not an ordinary day. But it was just a day. And on that day, the Amish did what they try to do every day. They wake up and make choices that show submission to God’s will.
The man who walked over to his neighbor’s home wasn’t going over to make some grand gesture. He was making a gesture to God that he would forgive. He hadn’t forgiven and forgotten already. But by making that statement, he was opening the door to forgiveness.
And the next day, that man, the families of the victims of the shooting, and thousands of other Amish would wake up, put on the same style of clothing they wore the day before, and make the choice to forgive.
WATCH clips from 'The Amish,' which premieres on the PBS series American Experience on Tuesday, Feb. 28 at 8 p.m. ET:
Callie Taintor Wiser is the producer of 'The Amish,' which premieres on the PBS series AMERICAN EXPERIENCE on Tuesday, Feb. 28 at 8 p.m. ET (check local listings).