On October 2, 2006, Charles Carl Roberts, a man “angry with life … angry with God,” walked into a one-room Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania and took everyone inside hostage at gunpoint. He forced the boys to unload a strange assortment of supplies from his pick-up truck—guns, lumber, chains, nails, a change of clothes, plastic ties and rope, and KY Jelly. Then he lined up ten young girls by the chalkboard, ordered everyone else out of the building, barricaded the doors, tied the girls up, and, after a couple of fevered calls to his wife and to police, began shooting, execution style. Five of the girls were killed, the rest were wounded, and finally, Roberts killed himself.
The media sensation that followed wasn’t a surprise—after all, “if it bleeds, it leads”—although the added horror of a gunman targeting quiet, Pennsylvania Dutch-speaking Amish girls as young as six years-old seemed to echo a new depth in the well of human depravity. But what really kept the story in the public eye longer than usual was a deeper, more thought-provoking shock: the repeated statements from the Amish that they weren’t angry, and their offers of forgiveness to the dead gunman and help to his family. These included:
‘Does anyone want to live in a society that doesn’t get angry when innocent children are slaughtered?’
A grandfather crouching by slain Marian Fisher, 20 bullets in her body—one of two girls who pleaded with Roberts to “shoot me first”—and telling the other children, “You must not hate this man.”
The Amish community—including the parents of those who had died—visiting the killer’s wife and child, offering forgiveness and financial help. Many later attended a memorial service for Roberts.
An Amish woman interviewed by CNN, stating quietly but confidently, “Oh no no no, definitely not, we’re not angry. We just don’t do that here.”
The national conversation that followed—was it a brilliant example of Christian love in action? Was it psychologically warped? Both?—was epitomized by two opinion columns published a week after the shooting. Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe (“Undeserved Forgiveness”) understood the Amish commitment to turning the other cheek as Christ did, and yet, he countered, “…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.”
In The Dallas Morning News, Rod Dreher (“Amish Faith Shines, Even in Tragic Darkness”) was more appreciative: “What sets hearts apart is how they deal with sins and tragedies…. [S]ometimes, 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.”
And, in a Beliefnet column, Dreher expressed the awe—maybe even envy—felt by fellow Christians when he asked: “Could you do that? Could you stand over the body of a dead child and tell the young not to hate her killer? I could not. Please, God, make me into the sort of man who could."
So, is anger good or not? Perhaps we should excuse the confusion, since you can find different answers to that question throughout Christian tradition.
We chant psalms that are nothing if not angry: “Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand? Take it from the folds of your garment and destroy them!” (Ps 74:11). The prophets of the Old Testament spent most of their time expressing God’s anger at Israel for committing idolatry. And Jesus himself was righteously angry at the moneychangers for cheating the poor pilgrims who came to do sacrifice in the Temple.
The passions, like anger, are both gifts and attachments.
On the other hand, we also have Jesus’ radical fulfillment of the Jewish law: "You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, 'You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.' But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment….” (Matt 5:22) Abba Agathon, a third century monk known for his holiness, states flatly, “A man who is angry, even if he were to raise the dead, is not acceptable to God.” And the Catholic tradition names ira, or wrath, as one of the seven cardinal sins.
Clearly, according to Christian tradition, there are times to be angry, and times when we’re called to overcome anger.
Cultivating anger looks like a splendid idea if the alternative is apathy. I know of a university that hosted a “protest day” in a desperate attempt to rouse students from indifference. Each student was encouraged to stand against what they believed was wrong in society. Did these students learn to “admonish the sinner” in useful ways? I doubt it. But I can understand the motive behind such extreme measures. Apathy shouldn’t be taken lightly. Widespread indifference makes it possible for human dignity to be trampled, rationalized, tortured and violated. When the culture of death makes headway, it’s usually not because the majority of people actively support the evil. It’s because they’re indifferent—they’ve lost their sense of righteous anger.
One way to overcome apathy is by being willing to see the world through God’s eyes, and seeing rightly means getting angry about injustice. Christians are angrier than realists or cynics, says Duke University theologian Gregory Jones, because Christians see the world ravaged by sinful choices, rather than the world of splendid beauty and goodness God created. That disparity between what is and what should be makes us angry. Righteous anger is how human beings say “No, it’s a sin. God does not want this!”—an echo of the words of 12 year-old martyr and saint Maria Goretti, whose courage in the face of violence is remarkably similar to the stand taken by some of the Amish girls. Anger can be, perhaps, the grace of lucid vision. Jeff Jacoby recognized this when he asked “does anyone want to live in a society that doesn’t get angry when innocent children are slaughtered?” Do we want to say humanity was created to silently consent to this kind of abuse and suffering?
But anger is a response, not a cure. It is diagnosis, not healing. It is a first move to holy sight, and too much of this medicine kills the patient. As the apostle Paul says, “Be angry, but do not sin.” (Eph 4:26)
Anger can easily slide from prophetic witness to a tool for hatred and killing, and move from sacred discontent to a power beyond our control. The ancient desert fathers—who chose to live a life set apart, like the Amish—were well acquainted with this misdirected passion, “the demon” of unrestrained anger. Living in solitude in the desert did not vanquish opportunities to get angry; on the contrary, the lack of external distractions was intended to make their inner lives and temptations that much more obvious. The words of Abba (later Bishop) Ammonas tell us how difficult, and necessary, it is to live without being beholden to anger:
Abba Ammonas was asked, "What is the ‘narrow and hard way?’" (Matt 7:14). He replied, "The ‘narrow and hard way’ is this, to control your thoughts, and to strip yourself of your own will, for the sake of God. This is also the meaning of the sentence, ‘Lo, we have left everything and followed you.’ (Matt 19:27)… I have spent fourteen years in Scetis asking God night and day to grant me the victory over anger."
Most of us are loath to admit the real trouble with anger: anger feels good. Deliriously good. We feel righteously indignant. We feel deeply. We feel strong. We are alive, aware, on watch. And there are so many, many injustices, personal and global, worth our just wrath. It isn’t until later—and not much later—that the anger corrodes into something more like bitterness. Prophecy becomes acrimony. Taking a stand becomes self-interested pride. Anger at an act becomes hatred against a person. And we become so attached to the power of anger, we leave no space for the power of God.
Righteous anger is how human beings say 'No, it’s a sin. God does not want that.'
When righteous anger is ordered to God, it is permissible and even right. But when the high of being angry tempts us to claim power that isn’t ours, power that is God’s alone, we fall into the grip of sin.
The passions, like anger, are simultaneously gifts and attachments. Another desert father, Abba Zosimas, presented the passions as such: “…inasmuch as He is good, God has given us to profit from everything [the passions]. However, we become attached and misuse God’s gifts to destruction through our evil choice, and are therefore harmed.” And in the case of anger, the damage is extensive. How many people are murdered “in the heat of passion,” as they say? How many battles (gangs, ethnic groups, religious groups, nations) rage because of a desire for vengeance? How many marriages corrode because angry spouses use the words they know will most hurt? How many parents and children have door-slamming, window-rattling arguments that defy reconciliation? This anger is not the power of love, as some ethicists would put it, but a grave sin against caritas. We accept a gift—the recognition that “God does not want this!”—and twist it into the oldest sin of all: wanting to be God, desiring and savoring that power, using it without anything approaching infinite wisdom.
So much of resistance to forgiveness is about power: clutching to grievances rather than letting go of the power of the past to move to a healed future. This does not mean we should cease defending what is good against evil, detailing compensation, recompense, apology: all those things are desirable and right, as a matter of justice. But if we recognize that the other is, indeed, a human being, created in God’s image, part of the Mystical Body of Christ, desired for salvation by a loving God, and a sinner like me: then forgiveness is about surrendering the power of corrosive anger, and yielding to the healing power of God. Forgiveness is the work of God, and we choose to enter into it or not. It is recognition that God has the ultimate power here: not the murderer, not the victims, but the One who created them both.
Trusting God to heal, not clutching at power for vengeance, was the shock of Nickel Mines. That was the fascination that transcended the blood and carnage. We saw there was a choice to be made; that could be made: not a choice between anger or apathy, but a choice between clutching to power that destroys or yielding to the God of life. As the original desert father and font of monasticism, Abba Antony of Egypt, said: "There is only one war left to fight, and that is the battle for your own heart.”
Letting go may well be foreign to our soil: the earth of our souls as well as the land of our nation. It takes the historically much-persecuted Amish to show us this strange light. If you are part of a culture accustomed to power and privilege, you don't have practice in ceding control. You can get angry and not bear any obvious consequences; you have the power, so who will call you on it? The very prevalence of the phrase “anger management” belies an ethos: anger is a power we can control completely on our own.
Anger can easily slide from prophetic witness to hatred and killing,
I remember last October’s fascination with forgiveness like this: millions of people sitting around, staring at the television, mumbling “that's incredible…” and shaking their heads. Translation: that's admirable, but I have no idea how they do that, and I know I couldn't. Indeed, given how reporters reacted to the Amish lack of anger and their practice of forgiveness, I suspect they felt the same way.
Admiration is a strange creature, and we experienced a lot of it as a nation that week. Søren Kierkegaard, the 19th century philosopher and no fan of vapid niceties or indifference, scribbled in his journal: “The ethical truth of the matter is just this–that admiration is suspiciously like an evasion.” And in Practice in Christianity, his pseudonym asserts: "What, then, is the difference between an admirer and an imitator? An imitator is or strives to be what he admires, and an admirer keeps himself personally detached, consciously or unconsciously does not discover that what is admired involves a claim upon him, to be or at least to strive to be what is admired." The Amish community of Nickel Mines did not “admire” Christ that day—they imitated him. We then began a great debate as to whether dropping anger and offering forgiveness was something to admire (could we? should we?) or something to imitate. Admiration kept the challenge of the Amish behind television screens and computer monitors: two conveniences the Amish never touch. But now, as we remember, at a distance of 365 days, maybe we can begin to take the next step beyond admiration.
Luckily there is a common Christian practice in giving up ultimate control, in moving from admiration to imitation to participation in God’s life: the risky assent to prayer. Prayer is not an activity we manage or control, but an encounter with the Holy Spirit to which we respond. It’s not an anger management program, but a constant openness to God's grace that can transform anger into compassion, and blow away the excess like dust. Prayer risks transformation, to become like the One whom we love: the merciful God of Jesus Christ. Prayer yields temptation to power at God's feet, and completes the Ephesians admonition against all sins contrary to love:
The Amish community did not ‘admire’ Christ that day. They imitated him.
“you should put away the old self of your former way of life, corrupted through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new self, created in God's way in righteousness and holiness of truth…. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun set on your anger, and do not leave room for the devil…. All bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling must be removed from you, along with all malice. (And) be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ.” (Eph 4:22-4, 26, 31-2)
Life has continued for the Amish community in Nickel Mines. The school was destroyed, the land is grazed. A new school was built nearby. Some of the girls still suffer significant injuries. A recent news article revealed that the young boys in the schoolhouse that day are suffering serious guilt, wishing they had reacted differently, despite the threat of Roberts’ gun. Yet the community's commitment to forgiveness stands, and is reaffirmed daily. I suggest we pray for them. Love in action is a harsh and terrible thing compared to love in dreams, as Dostoyevsky wrote. There is nothing admirable about it. But much for Christians to imitate.