For the Amish, Crime but Seldom Punishment

Oct. 4, 2006 — -- When it comes to crime and punishment, the Amish live by a different set of rules -- God's rules, to be exact.

Abiding strictly by a moral code that values religion over all else and stresses forgiveness over anger, the Amish concept of justice looks very different from what most Americans encounter.

In a community that is largely left to police itself, there are no courts and no set of punishments attached to a given transgression.

And no matter what the crime, "if the perpetrator professes repentance before the church community, they are forgiven," said sociologist Deborah Morse-Kahn, who has studied and written about the Amish.

After Monday's shooting at a Nickel Mines schoolhouse in Pennsylvania, it was that forgiveness -- not anger -- that marked the Amish community's response.

One early reaction, even among the families of the young victims, was one of sympathy for shooter Charles Roberts.

People close to the group tell ABC News that some in the community were sad for Roberts. Because he committed suicide, he wouldn't have the chance to repent and seek salvation.

God is everywhere in the Amish follower's daily life, dictating what's right and wrong.

If there is a dispute within the community, it is solved by the bishop, the highest-ranking member of the Amish clergy.

If there's a problem too big to resolve, other bishops from other communities in other states step in to help solve it.

The Amish lifestyle is driven by the concept of "gelassenheit," a German word that suggests serenity, quietness of character, and submissiveness to God, church and family.

The closest thing to punishment for a repeat offender is to be "shunned" by the community, either temporarily or for good.

Excommunication is the most severe consequence, saved only for the utterly unrepentant.

Having such a peaceful, forgiving character means there are fewer consequences for anyone in the outside world who tries to do them harm -- they rarely press charges and would rather forgive than send a perpetrator to jail.

"There have been some hate crimes against the Amish," said Ruth Irene Garrett, a writer who was born into the Amish community.

"A lot of times they experience things around Halloween -- people are out playing pranks, high school kids are out and look at them as freaks. … They'll vandalize a buggy or push it into a ditch," she said.

When God's Law and Man's Law Collide

When the law of the land conflicts with Amish values, those values generally take precedence.

In the last century, Amish parents who didn't want their children in public school past the eighth grade pulled them out of class, breaking the law that required schooling until the age of 16.

They were willing to go to jail for it, as some did until the Supreme Court ruled in 1972 that they would get an exemption.

Mainstream law and Amish justice have collided more recently in a handful of sexual-assault cases within the Amish community.

In the case of Mary Byler, who grew up Amish in Wisconsin and was raped throughout her childhood by her two brothers, Amish values dictated that she forgive them for their repeated assaults.

When she pressed charges and one brother was sentenced with jail time, Byler was seen as in the wrong.

According to the community, her brothers had been punished and forgiven by the church. The incidents should have been kept out of the courtroom and the brothers kept out of jail.

In other cases, charges are never filed, and punishment is left to the forgiving standards of the church.

"More likely than not, they wouldn't do anything," Morse-Kahn said. "They don't care to be in the courts."

"The Amish see the force of law as contrary to the Christian spirit," Donald Kraybill, a professor and expert on the Amish told Legal Affairs Magazine.

Moreover, sociologist Morse-Kahn says, judges are generally reluctant to send the Amish to jail.

"It can drive social service agencies and medical authorities out of their minds. What does this say about our world of law that it applies to some people and not others?"

Compared to the lives of most Americans, Amish life seems different in every way -- and the sphere of justice is no exception.

In the Amish world, there's crime but no punishment, only forgiveness and salvation.