Is Our Image of the Amish on Trial?

There is a news story written by John Seewer that was just circulated by the Associated Press about the centrality of Amish shunning in the hate crime trial in Cleveland, Ohio.

These last few days the trial has had me reflecting on why the outcome of this trial (which has yet to be determined) is so important to so many people, whether it’s those of us who have lived the life; the Amish who still live that lifestyle; and those in the outside world.

Many people have used the Amish as their moral compass. They represent the model of a good society; they are the embodiment of humble, salt of the earth people who wear simple clothing unattached to the latest fashions and they travel down country roads in horse-drawn vehicles that remind us of days of yore. Their rural lifestyle with their orderly homes and gardens, their handcrafted quilts and furniture, and their close-knit communities are also reminiscent of another time and age. Though these things are all true, it is obviously not the whole story.

These last few weeks, we’ve witnessed a particularly divisive split among the Amish, in this unheard of act of violent retaliation by one bishop and his followers against other Amish. It’s not that splits in the Amish community are rare — in fact, they are quite numerous. In the historic split back in the late 1600s, it was Jakob Amman who caused a rift and his followers became the Amish. Today, in upstate New York, there are five Schwartzentruber groups who do not dene (associate) with one another. In my native Geauga County there are two major groups. In Holmes County there are many variations of Schwartzentruber, Old Order, and New Order. But it is unprecedented for bishops to get together and decide not to honor one bishop’s decisions to shun people in his flock (or formerly in his flock). And his violent reaction is also unprecedented in Amish communities.

This trial seems to be the antithesis of the forgiveness after the Nickel Mines tragedy. It seems that our image of the Amish as a humble, non-violent, and forgiving people is on trial. In this public display of family and community splits, we see that the Amish are human and a whole lot more complicated than most people thought.

So what do the Amish teach us from all this? Are there different lessons to be learned from a guilty verdict than a not-guilty verdict?

For myself, I am reminded once again that we have to use our own conscience in discerning right from wrong; kindness from mean-spiritedness; compassion from hate. We cannot delegate this hard work to someone else, and we cannot use the Amish as our moral compass. I am learning, once again, that there are no easy answers. 

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12 thoughts on “Is Our Image of the Amish on Trial?”

  1. I also found unsettling the comment from the Amish women who said Sam Mullet for her and other womwn to have sex with him. He should be in jail, but the trial is not about this crime against women. I live near Canton Ohio, and read this in the Canton Reposotory.

  2. There are no easy answers, nor black and white answers. From the forgiveness of the Nickel Mine shooting to the revenge of the Beard Cutters, the Amish should be average, just normal people.

  3. Ladeis, I SO agree with your comments! None of this surprises me. Would this have come out in the open if there were no “hate crime” laws? Thinking back on a previous post of Saloma’s, I’m hoping these people not only seek help but actually get some help though I don’t know who they could turn to unless they are now in a district that actually preaches and practices Biblical truths.

  4. Saloma,

    My name is Allison and I am a graduate student at Columbia University. I am considering doing a thesis on a study of the Amish and Hasidic communities residing in the New York area. I am trying to make some contacts with the Amish community in our area. My email is ahr2128@columbia.edu

  5. I so much appreciate this post and its comments.It seems the time has come to bring out the truth about the amish.Through that process it will not always look good or feel good.The innocent will need love and the guilty need to be treated as all the rest of the world.

  6. It’s true–there are no easy answers. Maybe our image of the Amish should be on trial? It’s not fair, to us or to the Amish, to view the entire society as universally “good”, just as it would be unfair to view them as universally “evil”. The popularly held romantic views of the Amish are harmful to us all.

    I think this example also exposes some of the faults in the Amish church governance structure. Is it right for a few men (or in this case, one man) to effectively hold all the power in a community? It seems that this model encourages abuse of power. Will people learn from this and question the status quo?

  7. Well, in this case it looks like justice has been done – verdict of guilty. I think it just goes to show that NO group of humans is without their “bad eggs” and, sadly, these types of things are age-old and no, we doen’t seem to learn. There are always those whose ego and lust for power lead them to horendous actions. Too bad, but that seems to be the way it is…

  8. In Kentucky the mennonites pay people to drive them in vans to do shopping. Recently tho i saw a mennonite man drving a truck. They probably figured out it was more economical to drive yourself.

  9. I appreciate your comments on Wisconsin v. Yoder. I too was denied an education as a young Amish boy. Inside me there was the heart of an engineer or doctor, but such was not to be. Tradition said don’t do it. End of argument.

    High school is different from grade school in that you are taught analytical thinking. In the Amish community that will get you into trouble because the leaders are not prepared to reason and analyze. The greatest difference between grade school and high school is that you don’t simply store facts in your brain, you are challenged to find out why things are so. Why is the earth not flat? Some actually believed this in my youth. Now it is a given fact.

    When I left the Amish, they told me I would go to hell. This statement too needed to be analyzed. And found biblically untrue. Yet even today, fifty years later, all my peers from that time believe this is so. Imagine the power over people lost when they begin to analyze such threats.

    Ironically, the Anabaptist movement started with a few men asking why baptize babies? Analyzing the Bible brought them to the conclusion that only believers were proper candidates for baptism. At that time such thinking was considered radical and the powers that be came down hard on the new branch of Christianity. Yet they converted many thousands who were not afraid to check it out themselves.

    Within a hundred years the freedom of analytical thinking within the church was forgotten and many of those follower’s children were doing exactly what their former persecutors had done – crack down on dissenters. The pattern is quite clear, allow questions and face the possibility of humiliation.

    Yes, the format of High school may change. Schooling (high school) might be done by their own people but the threat would not come from the outside, but from thinking people within their own walls.

    Yet one point you make is very true: the happiness (willingness) of those who freely chose to remain Amish would rise greatly in spite of increased numbers choosing to leave. How sad it is that the Supreme Court failed to offer a partial solution. That’s how I see it.
    Eli Stutzman

  10. Eli, thank you for these comments. You are so right. I’ve often thought of the fact that the Amish today are very much like the church our ancestors were persecuted by. Granted, they don’t persecute the people who leave with threats to their lives, but they do “warn” with threats to their souls. Sometimes I wonder which is worse.

    I wonder… did you mean to comment on the latest blog post “Ramifications of Wisconsin v. Yoder?” If you don’t mind, I would love it if you copied this and commented on that post as well.

    Also, will you email me? I would love to know more about your story. (salomafurlong[at]gmail.com

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