By 10:25 a.m., Roberts was backing a pickup truck to the front of the one-room Amish schoolhouse, then entering it with a handgun and shotgun. He barricaded the front door with wooden boards, ordered the girls to line up against the chalkboard while he ordered the boys as well as a pregnant mother and three parents with infants to leave. The girls - between the ages of six and thirteen - recognized the danger they were in. Two sisters, thirteen and eleven, requested that they be shot first so the others might be spared. Meanwhile, Roberts had called the police and also made an emotional, raving call to Marie, who called 911. She was horrified by her husband's call, and horrified to discover four suicide notes in their house.
By shortly after eleven, ignoring the pleas of a police dispatcher, Roberts began rapidly firing his shotgun at close range into the backs of his ten small victims' heads. Five died (including the eleven year old sister who'd begged him to shoot her and her sister first to save lives.) Next, he turned the gun on himself, a suicide.
Isn't it strange, isn't it sad, that these true stories of innocent hostages and murder don't shock us as much as they used to? Violence in every place that once was considered safe is reported to us by the media on an almost daily basis. We are disturbed, grief-stricken, cynical, depressed by the horrors that have become usual - almost ordinary - in an increasingly perverted society.
What isn't usual or "ordinary" however is the way the Amish farm families and friends of these innocent school victims responded to the murder and injury of their community's children. The Amish are often ridiculed for their horse-drawn buggies, avoidance of modern conveniences, and quaint, nineteenth century garb. But for the Amish, the values of simplicity, belief in God, trust in God's Will, and lovingly forgiving others as Jesus forgives us, as well as the values of strong families, socializing with relatives, and building community, imbue their daily lives with deep, spiritual meaning which is extraordinary. Especially since the families of some of the victims were on Roberts' milk route.
"On the day of the shooting, a grandfather of one of the murdered...girls was heard warning some young relatives not to hate the killer, saying 'We must not think evil of this man.' Another Amish father noted 'He had a mother and a wife and a soul and now he's standing before a just God.' A Roberts family spokesman said an Amish neighbor comforted the Roberts family hours after the shooting and extended forgiveness to them. Amish community members visited and comforted Roberts' widow, parents, and parents-in-law. One Amish man held Roberts' sobbing father in his arms, reportedly for as long as an hour to comfort him. The Amish have also set up a charitable fund for Roberts' family." (Wikipedia article on the shooting.)
Jacquie Hess, Marie Roberts' aunt, and her father, visited the home of one of the murdered girls, and was overwhelmed by the kindness with which they were received. "They are a more forgiving community than what we are ourselves," she said, "and we need to be a little bit more like they are."
When Jesus teaches us "Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy," the Aramaic/Hebrew word he uses is "chesed" - and translating it with the word "mercy" doesn't begin to do justice to its extraordinary meaning.
William Barclay, in his "Daily Study Bible," says "Chesed, mercy, means the ability to get right inside other people until we can see things with their eyes, think things with their minds, and feel things with their feelings."
"How often do we do that?" asks Fr. James Martin, commenting on Barclay's definition of this incredible level of empathy. "Anyone who gives others the benefit of the doubt, tries to identify with someone on the opposite side of the theological or political spectrum, or forgives after being horribly wronged, is often seen as naive, lacking in self-respect, or, worse, a traitor. 'You're forgiving him?' Today, too, many respect not mercy, but revenge."
Yet Mercy is Who God is. And, says Pope Francis, "Jesus is the Face of the Father's Mercy. These words might well sum up the mystery of the Christian faith. Mercy has become living and visible in Jesus of Nazareth, reaching its culmination in him. The Father, 'rich in mercy' (Ephesians 2:4), after having revealed his name to Moses as 'a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness (Exodus 34:6), has never ceased to show, in various ways throughout history, his divine nature....Jesus of Nazareth, by his words, his actions, and his entire person reveals the mercy of God. We need constantly to contemplate the mystery of mercy. It is a wellspring of joy, serenity, and peace. Our salvation depends on it." (from "Rich In Mercy.")
How often do we contemplate our own personal histories in which God has shown us His mercy? When has God been merciful and gracious to us, slow to anger in spite of our turning our backs on Him, loving us faithfully when we have wandered away from Him? How well have we extended the mercy given so freely to us so that through us God's mercy flows over others? How well do we remember that it is the merciful who will receive God's mercy? "Forgive us our sins (debts) as we forgive others" is the Divine Way that mercy and forgiveness work. We cannot receive mercy full-heartedly unless we have given it full-heartedly.
Marie Roberts, widow of killer Charles Carl Roberts 1V, wrote an open letter to the Amish community. She was overwhelmed that the Amish community, in addition to comforting her family, and inviting her to one of the victim's funerals, had also sent about thirty members to attend her husband's funeral. Marie wrote to the Amish to thank them for their forgiveness, grace, and mercy:
"Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need. Gifts you've given have touched our hearts in a way no words can describe. Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world, and for this we sincerely thank you."
How well this precious Amish community understands "chesed/mercy" as Jesus teaches us. They were able to get right inside the Roberts family's heads, to see the situation through their weeping eyes, to feel the pain in their tortured hearts, even to understand and live out the prayer of Jesus on the cross by praying it for a man who remained a sad and twisted mystery to everyone: "Father, forgive Charles Carl Roberts 1V; he didn't fully understand what he did...."
How well these Amish teach us how to mercifully walk with the broken! How well they understand that Mercy is not something that God has, but something that God is.