Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Learning From the Amish

The Amish are not “progressive Christians.” They are patriarchal, having clearly subordinate roles for women. They hold to very traditional sexual mores. They have never heard of historical criticism, process metaphysics, liberation theologies, de-mythologization, quests for the “historical Jesus,” or debates over inclusive language for either humans or God. But I suggest that all Christians, progressive or otherwise, can learn much from the Amish, especially this week.

Who are the Amish? Contrary to media reports, they are not a cult, nor a “secretive sect.” Like the Mennonites to whom they are most closely related, the Amish are descendants of the 16th C. Anabaptist movement during the Radical Reformation. The Anabaptists (or most groups of Anabaptists) shared the orthodox Trinitarian faith of the “Great Tradition” of the early church, and the Reformation emphasis on salvation by faith alone and on the supremacy of biblical authority over earthly traditions, no matter how exalted. But, unlike the Magisterial Reformers (Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, etc.), the Anabaptists rejected all violence, returning to the pacifism of the New Testament and the pre-Constantinian Church. They rejected infant baptism and held to the baptism of believers only as a sign of a radical commitment to personal discipleship. They rejected the swearing of oaths and believed that Christians could hold no government office that would involve the taking of human life. They also believed in living simply (against worldly materialism and the accumulation of wealth) and sharing widely, although only the Hutterites (found mostly in Moravia and then in isolated communities in North and South America) practiced complete community of goods, patterned after the Jerusalem church in Acts 2. The Anabaptists, themselves nonviolent and quick to practice forgiveness, were the object of severe persecution in Europe by both Protestants (who regularly drowned them in mockery of their belief in adult baptism) and Catholics (who preferred burning them at the stake). The origins of the modern belief in religious liberty comes from the Anabaptist insistence that faith be transmitted only by evangelism and no form of coercion, especially no state coercion.

Jacob Amann (c. 1656-c.1730) became convinced that many Mennonites were being lax in church discipline, particularly the practice of “shunning” persons who had been placed under the “ban,” (i.e., excommunicated) until they had repented and been accepted back into the community. He thought the Mennonites were becoming too worldly. So, he started a reform movement among them that emphasized strict separation from the world. The Amish emphasize three verses justifying the separation of believers and unbelievers: 2 Cor. 6:14, “Be ye not yoked with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?;” 2 Cor. 6:17, “Come ye out from among them and be ye separate saith the LORD;” Rom. 12:2, “And be ye not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God.” Thus, the Amish prefer minimal contact with non-Amish, although as farmland prices have increased, they have been forced by circumstances to deal more and more with outsiders. Jacob Amann insisted on a very strict interpretation of the ban, so that even family members could not share table with a banned member and even spouses could not have marital relations until repentance and the lifting of the ban. (By contrast, Mennonites and most other Anabaptist groups not only use the ban only for extreme violations, but also make the separation only in personal dealings and in church matters, not in economic transactions, and family members are not forced to “shun” the banned member.)

The Amish came to Canada and the U.S. beginning in the 18th C., but most came in the 19th C., attracted by religious liberty and by plenteous farmland. The majority of the Amish became farmers not because of religious reasons, but because self-sufficient farms were the best way to practice separation and simplicity. Different Amish communities have differing standards of strictness about how much modern technology or non-Amish practices to allow. But all Amish communities maintain the New Testament practices of nonviolence and love of enemies.

The shooting of the little girls in the Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Lancaster Co, PA is an incredible tragedy. It is as traumatic as any of the other many school shootings in the U.S.—200 since Columbine. But the Amish have not lashed out in anger. Even in the midst of their grief (heightened by the media frenzy for a people who generally avoid cameras), they have practiced enemy love and forgiveness. The Amish community have already gone to the family of the gunman who committed this multiple murder and suicide and offered their forgiveness and their solidarity in the grief of the murderer’s family. They did not respond with revenge, but love and forgiveness. When the non-Amish of Lancaster County set up a fund for the victims (the Amish do not have insurance), the Nickel Mines Amish, especially the families of the victims, insisted that they could accept such generosity only if another fund were set up for the family of the gunman. The people of Lancaster County have complied.

Our society is riddled with what New Testament theologian Walter Wink calls “the myth of redemptive violence.” It is in our cartoons, our TV programming, our movies. To defeat violent evil, we are told repeatedly, the righteous must use greater violence—the same means but aimed toward a different end. Forgiveness and love, we are told, is impractical. The only good response to an attack is revenge, creating a spiral of violence. We have seen this in spades with the U.S. response to 9/11.

The Amish point to a different way—the way of Jesus. Progressive or not, that’s the way for me.


October 6, 2006 - Posted by | forgiveness


  1. Progressive or not, that’s the way for me.

    Amen! It’s not important to me to be “progressive”, although I admit that there are many “progressive” elements to my theology.

    What is important to me is to reject the myth of redemptive violence because I sincerely believe that the biblical witness is that rejecting this myth is the core of what Jesus taught.

    Comment by PamBG | October 6, 2006

  2. Thanks, Pam. I wrote this piece first for the Christian Alliance for Progress. That’s why the emphasis on the progressive debate. I wanted to insist to a group that prides itself on its progressive identity that the Amish have something important for us to hear.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 6, 2006

  3. Thanks for the information on context, which is helpful. I’d certainly agree that the Amish have something important for us to hear.

    My own comment was made because it seems that pacifism often gets associated with “liberal theology” and all things politically liberal. And I do get the feeling that some people set out determined to be “liberal” on all things or “conservative” on all things – which isn’t what Christianity is about.

    Comment by PamBG | October 7, 2006

  4. It has been my experience that liberal theology often leads to conservative politics and vice versa.

    The Amish are a case in point.

    Comment by Steve Hayes | October 11, 2006

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