A recently released PBS documentary is entitled The Amish: Shunned. Over the course of its nearly two hour long running time, the lives of five or so who have chosen to leave the church are portrayed. They may have departed a year ago or forty, but every person interviewed on camera has had to give up something dear to them. Following their own path can mean never seeing their families again. The anguish of giving up everything they have ever known is enough that most stay where they are.
In some ways, the Amish remind one of other reclusive religious groups, Orthodox Jews being the first that comes to mind. Amish children are minimally educated, only schooled past the eighth grade. Their religious life and time-honored roles is more important. Speaking a native language called Pennsylvania Dutch is emphasized over English, meaning that English language skills are often deficient by most standards. Having left the church, they are refugees and immigrants, having taken perhaps the largest leap of faith possible.
It is a testament to the religious freedom preached by United States that the group immigrated to the New World in the 18th Century. Although the Amish live in states beyond Pennsylvania, Amish numbers and presence are more prominent there. Theirs is a very legalistic faith, full of numerous commandments to obedience and right living. Rules are not to be disobeyed. The nail that sticks up is immediately hammered down. They would prefer to live their own lives as they wish.
We who pride ourselves on our individuality might object to this much of a focus upon regarding personal discipline and correction. Liberals, in particular, believe in an idealistic notion that we are enriched by differing cultural beliefs and multiple points of view. What this perspective leaves out is the human element, a cold intellect rather than warm humanity. In this setting, the personal is political, or at least powerful to contemplate.
The first example that comes to mind is an anecdote about a grief-stricken father. Without prompting, the man sat on the front porch of the house where his recalcitrant teenage son was now living. He stayed for eighteen hours solid, giving up sleep, convinced that if his son left the Amish church, he would go to hell. For those of us who have no notion of what eternal damnation entails beyond the superficial, we lack the understanding at just how much fear four letters produce in the minds of true believers. Evangelical Christians seek to save souls to ensure everyone reaches Heaven.
Another father of a wayward Amish child fasted for a month solid, believing that God was punishing him. The gesture was a sign to his son of the grave importance of staying within the church. If these anecdotes were stripped of their humanity, it would be easier to harshly judge the participants. In an activist setting, fasting for religious reasons might well be a hunger strike. The two activities require only a single-minded belief and purpose. It’s only the variables that change.
Shunning is uniform among the Amish, but the limits and intensity this takes often depend on the family and the community. A woman who had left the church had a family who pushed the envelope. She was allowed to eat dinner with her mother, father, and numerous siblings. Word got back to the elders, and they decided that this practice could not continue. Other former Amish showed years of letters written deliberately by distraught parents in painstaking long-hand, begging their children to return.
One man who lives in a town adjacent to the Amish has made it his business to extend a particular hand to young adults who were raised Amish. He and his wife rent out two rooms and provide a welcoming atmosphere for those desperately seeking how to live on the outside world. They come straggling in, one by one, two by two. As part of their room and board, they perform chores. After getting a toe-hold in what the Amish call English society, they move on to jobs and apartments of their own. As one leaves, another takes his or her place.
Intentional communities and communes have been trendy among progressives for the past few decades. Viewing the prevailing culture of concrete and steel as supremely corrupting is found in all forms. But without conviction, it is difficult not to see the exercise as Ascetic, an empty exercise in self-denial. Most Christians believe that one ought to strive to live in this world and yet not to be of this world. This is a belief I share, though I think it is much more challenging and pleasing to God to engage rather than to withdraw.