On Oct. 2, 2006, a gunman entered a quiet, rural one-room Amish schoolhouse in Bart Township, Lancaster County, Penn. Five young girls were killed, and five others were grievously wounded. The rest of the story — the part of the story that commands a stunned silence — is what the Amish community did within hours: Amish family members went to the home of the gunman’s parents and offered comfort to the family.
The Amish families did not go out and arm themselves with guns. They did not build fences and add security cameras, locks and guard dogs. They did not shake their fists and rage and demand answers. They did not legislate or file lawsuits.
They met their tragedy head-on and chose grace.
Grace — a funny, old-fashioned word, like grandma’s gingerbread or sarsaparilla. Grace is more than being a good neighbor raking your elderly neighbor’s leaves or turning off your cell-phone ringer at the library.
Grace is more than “speaking truth to power.” Grace shuns power.
Grace is what lets us transcend ourselves as humans and, for a small, shining moment, become all that is good.
Grace is like artistic inspiration: Nobody knows where it comes from or why. But when grace does appear, it is unmistakable. All heads turn when grace walks in the room.
Books have been written and movies made about the story of the Amish families. The Lifetime movie premiere in 2010 broke network-viewing records. And yet, no one I told this story to remembers it. In the storm of modern life, we have been made to forget the story of grace.
Salman Rushdie, in “Joseph Anton,” his memoir of the fatwa years, says the most important question is, who controls the story?
Kids in school have learned that violence is the story. We have been fighting wars for their whole lifetimes. They have been taught that if you don’t like someone, simply put them on the no-fly list or the kill list and drop a drone bomb on their heads.
They watch the mean-spirited adults who surround them — the administrators who bully teachers, the cops who stop and frisk, the Wall Street crooks who steal with impunity, the talk radio hosts raging for dollars — and simply do as they are taught: When you have a problem, stand your ground and fire away.
Do we have the courage to write a different story, a story of grace?
Finding the courage
Attempting grace is hard — very hard. The hardest thing we can do.
Writing a new story means stepping out of line. It means not going quietly. It means facing down snarling dogs and water hoses with a song, as the Freedom Riders did.
It can mean the surveillance state following your every tweet and coffee date as the Occupy folk learned.
It can mean living with death on your shoulder, as Rushdie learned.
To rewrite our story of grace, we need to put aside the Cowardly Lion costume and find ourselves some courage.
At first, it can be a small amount of courage: A phone call to a member of Congress. A letter to the editor. Saying hi to the homeless vet standing in the rain with the cardboard sign.
When you realize you are still breathing and haven’t been eaten alive by the fear-monster, you can work your way up to bigger and more courageous moments: Unplugging your teenager from Facebook and actually having an honest conversation. Standing down the coal trains that are threatening to turn our paradise into the next dust bowl. Rallying your entire high school teaching staff to strike against worthless standardized testing.
It can be done. The Amish did it in the face of their most grievous loss.
The game of more guns, Tasers, tear gas, smart bombs, violent escalation, angry speeches and restrictive laws can never be won. But a person, a family and a community that chooses to write a different story will always win. Ask Gandhi, King or Mandela.
Grace: It can appear — but only if we invite it in.
Finding the strength
So, after courage, we need strength. Not more violence, not passivity, but the third storyline of opening the door to grace.
Strength to get squashed like a bug by the bullies and the powerful — and to stand up again the next day and the next.
Legislation won’t write our story of grace. Even Moses’ God couldn’t accomplish this with the Sixth Commandment of “Thou shall not kill.”
We can’t physically protect ourselves from all tragedy — you might as well try to fence in the Grand Canyon.
We can’t buy our way out: There will always be someone with a bigger credit line.
We can say, “Look at the Amish; look what they did. Amazing — simply amazing grace.”
And then write our own story.
CANDACE BULLARD is a Queen Anne writer, poet, teacher and community volunteer. To comment on this guest column, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.