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.
Acknowledge responsibility for conflict and injustice and seek repentance and forgiveness. Seldom is all the blame for a war or conflict only on one side. Acknowledge the wrongs your side has done and repent and seek forgiveness. This invites reciprocation and healing. It used to be believed that only individuals can repent or forgive; groups and nations could not, nor ever acknowledge any wrongdoing without appearing weak. To the contrary, such repentance has often led to healing and failure to do so has led to resentments and future wars.
The modern beginnings of this practice come in the midst of WWII: The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer prepared a confession of sin for the Confessing Church (German Protestants that resisted the Nazi movement) for not having done enough to stop the rise of Hitler, the war, or the Holocaust. Bonhoeffer paid for his own resistance by being executed at Flossenburg in the final days of the war. But after the war, his confession was used by German Protestants publicly at a meeting of the newly formed World Council of Churches. That led German Chancellor Willie Brandt to lead the nation in a similar confession (though Brandt himself, like Bonhoeffer, had resisted Hitler. The result has been a transformation of post-war Germany.
When U.S. Pres. Bill Clinton apologized to Africa for the U.S.’ role in the transatlantic slave trade and slavery, it helped open the continent to greater U.S. influence.
The experience of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission greatly strengthened this practice and many nations are using it as a model. Similar committees have been set up in Liberia, the former Yugoslavia, and Argentina. Such processes break the cycle of one conflict sowing the seeds of resentment and hatred for future conflicts. When such processes do not occur, such horrors as Rwanda, and Yugoslavia, where resentments were nurtured for decades or even centuries and then break out into new eras of genocidal destruction.
Or consider how the Treaty of Versailles placed the entire blame for WWI on Germany, at France’s insistence, when everyone knew there was plenty of blame to go around. In Germany, it created such resentment that it opened the doors for the rise of Hitler. In France and Britain, this injustice created guilt and shame that then, in turn, led to great blindness to Hitler’s threat and permitted Germany to re-arm and then to the strategy of appeasement–which was not Chamberlain’s alone but widely shared. (Even FDR cabled Chamberlain after Munich with two words, “Good job!”) If the Treaty of Versailles had been just in its peace settlement and if the victors of WWI had led everyone else in acknowledging responsibility for their part of the war, had led in repentance, would Hitler have found such a ready audience in Germany? Or, if he did begin to rise to power, would the West, free from paralyzing guilt and shame, seen his threat more accurately early on and been able to oppose it early to far less disastrous results?
At the 50 year anniversaries of Pearl Harbor and of Hiroshima, citizens in Japan and the U.S. urged the Japanese Prime Minister and U.S. Pres. George H.W. Bush both to confess and apologize for each nation’s crimes against the other. Both refused, the occasions were used only to reinforce each nation’s respective self-righteous pride and two historic chances for sowing stronger seeds of peace were missed.
Again, do not misunderstand: acknowledging the role one’s own group or nation has played in injustice or conflict is not the same as accepting falsely sole responsibility. Nor is it failing to hold the adversary to account for its injustices and violence. But repentance begins at home.
For more on this just peacemaking practice see, Donald W. Shriver, Jr., An Ethic for Enemies: Forgiveness in Politics (Oxford University Press, 1995) & Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness (Image, 2000).