Turning the Amish Table

I’ve been following the media stories about the trial of members of the Bergholz Amish community in Ohio. Among all the back and forth of the two groups, the one thing I find the most fascinating is that it has become a contest on who is the most Amish — as if this is a litmus test to their righteousness and as if people who are truly Amish are inoculated against committing evil. But they aren’t.

Amish people are human. They, too, have to choose between right and wrong. However, the church becomes the conscience for everyone, and the real test of their “goodness” is how well they practice uffgeva (giving up one’s will to follow the rules of the church). There are layers of hierarchy: women submit to men, young people submit to their elders, lay people to elders of the church (the deacon, ministers, and the bishop). Among the elders of the church there is another layer: the deacon submits to the two (or three) ministers and the bishop; and the last layer is when the ministers need to submit to their bishop. The belief is that the bishop was ordained by God, so he is God’s nearest ambassador. This belief stops just short of “the bishop can do no wrong.”

The rules vary a great deal from one community to another about dress and technologies that are allowed. In a place like Holmes County, Ohio, there are many variations, so one bishop may allow bicycles and power lawn mowers, but the bishop in the neighboring district won’t. So, essentially, there are as many ways to live an Amish life as there are Amish church districts, which numbers more than 1,900.

You may be thinking, “If someone doesn’t like what’s going on in their district, why don’t they just move?” But it’s not quite that easy. A person has to be in good standing in their home church before they are accepted into a different one. This practice of honoring one another’s decisions about shunning adds to each bishop’s power.

It is in this context that Sam Mullet’s lust for power grew out of proportion and it is a good example of the saying, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

For bishops to get together and decide not to honor shunning from a particular community was unheard of before that happened to Sam Mullet. They were depriving him of his power as an Amish bishop. It seems to me that the motive for Sam Mullet to orchestrate the beard cutting is clear — because they deprived him of his Amishness, he will deprive them of theirs. Cutting the men’s beards and the women’s hair was symbolic of that.

I found the remarks made by some of the Amish men who were victims of the hair cutting rather melodramatic. One man was quoted as saying that he’d rather be dead than have his beard cut off. This is a very Amish trait, to become a martyr like this. Hair grows back, after all. I’m more concerned about the lasting effects of the abuse the people under Sam Mullet’s reign may have endured. According to the people who managed to leave his clutches (some in the middle of the night), Sam Mullet didn’t stop at much to keep control over his community. I’m not understanding why he isn’t on trial for these other crimes.

Part of the prosecution’s case has been resting on showing how Sam Mullet wasn’t really Amish. To call Sam Mullet’s group a cult is not getting at the core issue. He was certainly Amish at one time — when did he stop being Amish?

Ironically, part of the defense’s case is also resting on the claim that the defendants were “helping” those who were straying from their Amish beliefs.

“These were acts of love,” said attorney Dean Carro, who represents Lester Miller, who is accused of cutting his father’s hair.

Right. Hate is love and war is peace.

“Bizarre” is the word to describe for the constant strange turn of events in this case. On Tuesday, the trial came to an abrupt end without the defense calling a single witness.  This was after prosecutors concluded eight days of testimony from the mainstream or “real” Amish. Normally the Amish do not use the judicial system to prosecute or even defend themselves — their way is usually passive resistance. Interesting that the “cult leader” Sam Mullet turned the tables on them and used passive resistance — pretty good for someone who’s not really Amish.

Which is not the point. Whether he’s Amish or a cult leader doesn’t change the fact that he has committed wrongs… from what I understand he’s done some pretty evil things. Evil happens among the Amish, just as it does in any other culture on earth.

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2 thoughts on “Turning the Amish Table”

  1. Jennifer, that is a fair question. It’s not that I didn’t like the Amish enough to stay in the community, it’s that my personality didn’t fit into what it took to be a “good” Amish member of the community. That is essentially someone who follows the rules without question, and someone who is comfortable with someone else making their decisions for them. My mother dubbed “a question box” and I seem to have been born that way — I could not stop the questions from boiling up from within, no matter how hard I tried.

    The reason I am still writing about my Amish past is partly because I feel this story needed to be told; partly because I feel there is a lot of misinformation out there about the Amish and my aim is to provide a nuanced and balanced rendition of Amish life as I knew it; and partly because I am still exploring how my Amish past helped shape me into who I am today.

    Thank you for visiting my blog and making comments.

    Saloma

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