Friday, July 11, 2008

Plain Secrets: degree of separation.

In the first chapter of Plain Secrets: An Outsider among the Amish, Joe Mackall offers a swift, thumbnail history of the Amish. The Amish began as anabaptists in 16th century Europe. Anabaptists rejected both Catholicism and Protestantism as it was then practiced, and believed that only adults could make a decision to be baptized as Christians. They wanted to live apart from corrupt society and in the manner of the early believers in the New Testament. Like the Quakers, they believed in living lives of peace and non-resistance, and like the Quakers, they refused to swear oaths. When they were persecuted in Europe, they took William Penn up on his offer to provide freedom of worship and came to America.

As mentioned yesterday, there are about 180,000 to 200,000 Amish in North America. (They have essentially disappeared in Europe.) The Amish population in North America has doubled in the past 20 years and Amish now live in 28 states and Ontario. However, 70 percent of Amish are concentrated in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana.

Mackall's entre into the Amish community came when he drove his neighbor Samuel Shetler to his mother's funeral in Canada. Unlike other Amish groups, the Schwarzentruber Amish community of which Shetler is a part strictly forbids car travel, except in emergency cases. Because Samuel would have missed his mother's funeral if he tried to get there by buggy (it was a 10 hour trip by car), the local bishop allowed him to be driven.

Mackall introduces us to Samuel Shetler's work as a farmer. We also get a glimpse of the Amish ethic of nonviolence. When his girls are hit with soda (pop) cans thrown at them from cars by boys as a prank, Samuel asks the local sheriff to intervene by asking the boys to stop. Shetler leaves it at that. He has no desire to prosecute the offenders, who do, in fact, stop.

Mackall presents the Shetlers as hard-working, practical, frugal and worried about the growth of the non-Amish population in Ashland County, where they live, primarily because of the extra traffic on the roads.

The chapter also introduces, although not explicitly, a theme that runs throughout the book, the separateness of the Amish. It's illustrated in this chapter by how different the Shetler's lives are from most other Americans. Samuel Shetler lives close to the land, running a family farm. His does not leave home to go to an office that takes away from his wife and children. His family is close at hand, his children underfoot. And he does not respond angrily or fearfully to violence by retaliating against the boys who throw the "pop" cans at his children or by suddenly deciding his children must ride to school in a buggy or be walked to school by adults.

While Mackall gains the friendship and trust of Samuel and Mary Shetler, he never makes the least inroads with any other member of the Amish community. Not even Mary's father, who lives on Samuel's farm in an in-law house, will invite Mackall in for a visit. Samuel will be open and welcoming to Mackall when it is just he and his family and Mackall, but if other Amish are around, Shetler changes and distances himself from his friend. He can act as if he scarcely knows him and can give off a cold "get lost" vibe if he is talking to another Amish. Mackall knows he's unlikely to be invited to the important community events in the Amish world. When he invites Samuel and Mary to his daughter's wedding, they do not come.

As a result, Mackall's friendship with the Shetlers comes across as somewhat clandestine and he definitely is treated, albeit politely, as a second-class citizen when he meets up with Amish society. The Amish are hospitable to him, but not intimate.

The Amish have been a closed group since the beginning in order to keep separate from the world. This has helped them maintain an identity and not be assimilated into the wider culture. They avoid anything beyond polite interactions with the outer world. Do you think such a severe level of separation is necessary for a religious group to maintain its faith?

Related questions: At what point does a religious group's separation become dangerous or unhealthy? The Amish, while separate from mainstream Christianity, have never, to my knowledge, been labeled a cult. They have never been accused of not being Christian, despite the fact that their pacifism, avoidance of politics, and community ethos runs counter to the militarism, attempts to influence public policy and individualism of some strains of Christianity. Why do we, in general, see them in a positive light?


Bill Samuel said...

Partly I think there are simply different calls. I don't think most of us are called to follow the kind of path the Amish do, but they do certainly contribute to the fabric of Christianity.

Quakers went through a period, reaching its pinnacle in the mid-19th century, when many held to the idea of being guarded communities which severely limited their interchange with the larger world. But there was never unity among Friends on this, and it is not how Friends started, nor did Friends have a schism in which one side took that course fully. I don't think it is the call of Friends.

During that period, this tendency was mostly among Hicksites (although Hicks was critical of Orthodox Friends for being too much influenced by the larger Christian community, he was not an isolationist and, for example, was involved in the larger abolition movement). It resulted in the Progressive Friends split, which was very heavily influenced by Unitarianism. The Progressive wing essentially eclipsed the other Hicksites, and FGC has been largely Progressive from its inception. [Chuck Fager has detailed this history.] So I think a result of this emphasis on being set apart was that a whole branch of Friends became overly influenced by a force from outside which provided an alternative way. I am not a fan of Unitarianism among Friends, so I think that's a bad result.

We are blessed to be a blessing. One way to be a blessing is to be a shining example as a separate community, but for most of us I think the call is to be more within the larger community as salt and light. In some ways, that's a much harder path.

Regina said...

Very interesting, Diane...
I am familiar with the Lancaster, PA Amish and really, only on a very superficial basis. I have had wonderful dealings with them and also very curt ones as well. But honestly, I have had both those interactions with non-Amish as well!
As far as their separateness level, I can only say it has worked for the Amish. They do allow the rumspringe for the teenagers but surprisingly (or not) most of them, and I have heard the figure 95% bandied about, return to become full-fledged members of the community.
I do feel there is a level of separation needed for any religious group to maintain its faith, but I can't say how severe... in today's world, one almost has to separate themselves in some fashion.
As far as the related question as to when the separation can be dangerous or unhealthy, we've had incidences of birth defects among the Amish in Lancaster because they did not marry out of their community. Now, they are sending young men back and forth now between the communities in some of the other states to prevent this from happening.
I think we see the Amish in a mostly positive light because they "walk the talk". They are shining examples of forgiveness and fortitude.
I have admired them all my life.

Anonymous said...

I've been doing anthropological field work among the Amish for a couple of decades, and I have found many people who not only think of them as a cult, but who look for all the glitches and inconsistencies within their system in order to portray them as hypocritical.

I suspect that putting the Amish on a pedestal and trying to characterize them as hypocrites are two sides of the same coin.

It's very difficult for many to imagine a group of people who are so vigilant in keeping with their traditions and so seemingly abitrary in changing those traditions when they feel change is beneficial. Many people want them to be "museum Amish," caught in time, never ever to change.

Neighborhing Amish church districts often differ in practice, and church districts uphold practice in order to make the community more cohesive. Yes, like all of us, there are aspects of Amish life that are done just because it's always been done that way--but it would be a mistake to think that they do not consider changes when they feel that change is needed for the spiritual life of individuals or the corporate life of the community.

Finally, I can say with some experience of staying in Amish homes that their lives are not some rustic idyll. They work hard; they squabble and argue like the rest of us; they grapple with their own sense of right and wrong and sometimes land on the more painful side of that grappling. They enjoy poking fun at themselves and exploring as much of the greater world as is available to them.

Indeed, fortitude and forgiveness are ideals to which they hope to live up, but they are as human as the next person. I think one of the things I admire is the fact that attitude is expected to follow behavior rather than behavior to follow attitude.

The world I live in expects people to come to deep conclusions of values and attitudes and then adapt their actions to those values and ideals. The Amish engage in actions that they hope will promote certain values and attitudes--and judging from the rate at which young Amish ask to be baptized, I think they achieve their objective.

And they also manage to acquire a great deal of knowledge about the world they do not participate in. The car I was driving once broke down on a country road near an Amish settlement. As I stood next to the car, scratching my head, six Amish men came walking down the road. They popped the hood of my car, and after some looking around and consultation, told me it was my water pump. When the car was finally brought to a service station, the diagnosis by the mechanic was--yes, of course--the water pump!


Diane said...



Can you give us an example of an action that promotes certain values? ... I can see in our culture how our emphasis on paid work leads us to value money and things but I can also see how deciding money and things are important as a value would lead to the action of working for pay.

Anonymous said...

I think I wasn't clear. I feel that in general, the Amish use behavior to nurture values and in general developed societies use values to nurture behavior.

There are always exceptions to generalizations--as you have pointed out. And one of the things I wanted to point out about the Amish is the we can't generalize about them, so perhaps I have failed in that endeavor.

With the Amish, using a buggy is expected and even bicycles are not allowed in some church districts. It is hoped that this will lead to a greater sense of community, being in the world but not of it, and limit individual pride. It also limits the size of church districts geographically which enhances community.

In many non-Amish societies, green values are becoming more salient, and thus, people are choosing to ride bicycles and use public transportation more often than automobiles as an expression of those values. In this case the values reinforce the behavior.

This is not a strict analogy--I'm on my way to Meeting, so I don't have time for that. But I hope you get the picture.