Monthly Archives: September 2011

What a little schoolhouse taught an Oxford professor

Years ago, I was up late one night channel surfing when I came across a lecture being given by Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist, atheist and humanist. I had heard about Dawkins but this was the first time I’d heard him speak. I believe the venue was Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Virginia which struck me as an odd location for his brand of lecture– but maybe it was a tactical decision. He spent a lot of his time criticizing religion, Christianity, peoples of faith, and lampooning the story of Abraham and his son Isaac found in the book of Genesis.  It was actually pretty disgusting and several member of the audience got up and walked out—something this Oxford scholar apparently cherished. He went on to espouse the incarceration of parents who abusively teach their children traditional values and biblical principles, people like me.


Curiously, the very week that he was speaking at this college, a tragedy had unfolded in another little town further north in Pennsylvania, a town where tradition had staved off technological progress for centuries, a town where children are taught a literal interpretation of the Bible and to actually believe it, a town where the people should be rounded up and incarcerated according to the pronouncements of Dr. Richard Dawkins.

On October 2 2006, Charles Carl Roberts IV entered an Amish schoolhouse in this other little town of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, and took ten girls (ages 6-13) hostage eventually shooting them in the head execution-style. Five were killed, the other five wounded seriously. The details of the story can be found on Wikipedia under “Amish Schoolhouse Shooting”.  I could never forget the event, especially watching the county sheriff beside herself, weeping, while interviewed on air by a news reporter.

The part of the story that’s pertinent to Richard Dawkins has to do with the aftermath. In response to this heinous crime against their community what did these people of faith do?  What did these simple adherents to the literal biblical text do?

Here are quotes from the account on Wikipedia:

  • Shortly before Roberts opened fire, two sisters, Marian and Barbie Fisher, 13 and 11, requested that they be shot first that the others might be spared. Barbie was wounded, while her older sister was killed.
  • On the day of the shooting, a grandfather of one of the murdered Amish girls was heard warning some young relatives not to hate the killer, saying, “We must not think evil of this man.”
  • I don’t think there’s anybody here that wants to do anything but forgive and not only reach out to those who have suffered a loss in that way but to reach out to the family of the man who committed these acts.
  • 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 the family of the shooter.
  • About 30 members of the Amish community attended Roberts’ funeral.
  • Marie Roberts, the widow of the killer, was one of the few outsiders invited to the funeral of one of the victims.

The schoolhouse was torn down and new one built at a different location. No lawsuits, no memorials, no national commemorations for this tragedy, probably no psychiatrists and social workers. You may hear about it again as the fifth year anniversary draws nigh, but maybe not.

I am tempted to ask Dr. Richard Dawkins how such behavior exhibited by the Amish community factors into his worldview; how in a world without God and propelled by a selfish gene could such a thing be imagined let alone committed. But I would fear any materialistic explanations would profane this sacred story – a story of humbling supernatural forgiveness few of us could exhibit.  I’m not sure what other sort of proof would convince Dr. Richard Dawkins of, at least, the possibility of God. But since this is a spiritual issue and not an intellectual one, I’m not sure it would matter to him anyway.