Canadian Mennonite
Volume 10, No. 20
October 16, 2006


A test of faith

The Amish of Lancaster County, Pa., spiritual siblings of the Old Order Mennonites of Ontario’s Waterloo County, have managed to live with intrusion and insult for decades—the kind of taunting against which detective John Book (played by Harrison Ford) struck back in the 1985 Hollywood film Witness. But this assault—the binding and execution of little girls at school—is a violation so deep that it will test their faith to the point that some will, privately, not survive it.

We have only begun to learn of the deep mental afflictions that drove 32-year-old Charles Roberts to murder five female children in cold blood and seriously injure others. He appears to have recognized a hard-wiring problem in his brain that drove him to sexual assault; he constantly mourned the loss of an infant daughter. His mission on Oct. 2 was to be his final assault on the Providence that had permitted all this, among people who prize faith above all else.

The media—satellite trucks, hairspray and makeup in tow—did as they did at Montreal’s Dawson College not a month ago: They focused on killer and motive, leaving the victims to be dealt with another day. As they now turn their lenses, microphones and notebooks in the other direction, they will be perplexed by the simple resolve of the devastated families to grieve, to close ranks against a prying and cynical world, to lift their eyes upward in painful supplication and, eventually, to forgive.

At work will be the same theological imperative that drove the family of Elmira, Ont., hockey star Dan Snyder to make their peace with Dany Heatley after the NHL player crashed his Ferrari, killing his passenger and teammate.

Oct. 2’s events in that tiny schoolhouse near Nickel Mines, Pa., are an ugly, bloody testament to the reasons the Amish and their Anabaptist cousins, the Hutterites and some Mennonites, believe so firmly in separation from the world. It is not because of fear, or the wish to shelter themselves from violence and temptation, or to establish an earthly Utopia. It is so that when violence and temptation descend on them with all the force of an equine-borne apocalypse, they can muster the strength and resolve to survive it together, one leaning on the other, leveraging their commonality, simplicity, humility and grace to stand firm and faithful to their beliefs against a murderous onslaught that would tear any of the rest of us to pieces.

Although they do not wish for it, they come by martyrdom honestly. Dozens of early Anabaptists were drowned or burned at the stake in the 16th century, as the Roman Catholic Church attempted to eradicate the upstart sect that preached a theology that contained no priestly intermediary, adult baptism upon a self-aware confession of faith, and a simplicity that ignored the icons, sacraments and liturgies of the established church.

As they pursue their lives of faith, the Amish have come to expect that, periodically throughout history, the ills of the world will visit themselves upon their community. It will cost them dignity and sometimes death. But dignity is carried by the vain, and death is a passage to a different type of life.

As a Mennonite, myself, I know that in their boundless grief and profound loss, they will remember again why they chose to separate themselves from the world.

—Larry Cornies

The author is the Maclean-Hunter chair of communication ethics at Ryerson University in Toronto; he attends Valleyview Mennonite Church in London, Ont. and is on Canadian Mennonite’s board. A longer version of this editorial first appeared in The Globe and Mail.

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