24 October 2014

My Friday Trip to Amishland

I spent some time with the Amish this afternoon. I had to make a trip out to purchase some rough-cut lumber. There are several groups in the larger area but the nearest ones live about 10 miles from me. A lot of them are no longer into farming and we see their construction crews all over our area. They're cheap, but you often have to pick them up and take them home. Some travel amazing distances in their buggies.

I live in one of the few areas of the country where there is virtually no Latino population and the Amish often fill that social role in terms of construction and other labouring type jobs.

This was very strange for me. As one who grew up in the West and went to High School about 30 minutes from the Mexican border, living in an almost homogeneous racial setting was something new.

I always enjoy visiting with them. I happened to arrive right as the Amish children were getting out of school. Dozens of them were marching down the road to their homes scattered amidst the non-Amish or English homes. They always wave. Friendly but shy.

The tranquility is palpable. I enjoy the momentary experience of their quiet life but today was by no means the first time I have been burdened by the choices the Amish have made. Everything is great until you start to really talk to them.

I understand the dangers of education and the Amish are by no means the only group to embrace anti-intellectualism as a protective mechanism. Today Christians complain about losing their young when they attend university. It's not a new situation. In the 19th century many groups were well aware of the danger and responded in different ways. For some it was to create parallel educational institutions and others embraced a thorough-going anti-intellectualism.

The Amish are in this camp. Most don't attend school past thirteen and most I've encountered would have to be qualified as semi-literate. There's nothing wrong with being plain and simple and that is indeed what they are. Their ignorance of the outside world is sometimes astounding.

Today I was talking with the Amish man about Selective Service, registering for the draft and voting. I wanted to get their perspective on these points.

He didn't know what Selective Service was and thought he had heard of the idea of the draft, but wasn't entirely sure. I explained how it had ended at the time of the Vietnam War. He didn't know what that was either. He had never heard of the war or Vietnam.

This didn't surprise me. In other conversations I've had with the Amish I've found they don't have even the most basic concepts of history or geography. The read the 'Martyr's Mirror' which is the Anabaptist version of our own 'Foxe's Book of Martyrs' but they have no context. If you say the 'Eighteenth Century' for example, it doesn't mean anything to them. They don't think about historical events like the French Revolution or even conjure up images of powdered wigs or three-cornered hats. There's nothing.

Needless to say they don't register with Selective Service. I've been reading a bit of Mennonite literature related to this topic as my sons will soon enough have to decide whether or not to register... and then of course claim Conscientious Objector if ever called upon.

Or, to not register at all and yet be exempt from numerous jobs, loan opportunities etc....

For those that have read my material they already know that in my youth I was a raging pagan and in my spiritual ignorance joined the Legions. I have always regretted my participation in the military and am ashamed that I wore the uniform of the armed forces of the United States.

If I could do it over, I would have never joined and absolutely would not register with Selective Service.

We also talked about voting. I have heard in recent years of some Amish who have decided to vote. Ultimately it's up to the elders of each community to establish their own Ordnung which is the order or rule for the community. Our local Amish don't vote which is what I expected. I was hoping for some elaboration on these issues but he didn't have anything to say.

I personally have engaged in occasional Protest Voting but have long toyed with abandoning it altogether. I was hoping for some insight, but there was none to be had.

The sad part is the Amish can't tell me why they don't register or vote. Here's an outsider standing before them, asking questions and they lack the basic communication skills or perhaps even the desire to share their ideas with those who inquire. These are spiritual issues, Kingdom ethics. I was handing him a golden chance to witness to me and would have been happy to listen. He wasn't interested.

And it wasn't because he was wary of me. He knows me. I've dealt with him before and have expressed my admiration and respect for his people. He knows I'm not a hostile outsider who's pumping him for information. I don't mean to be cruel here, but he (and many of the Amish I've met) strikes me as something of a yokel. He's quite literally a simpleton. It's not because he's dumb. He simply doesn't use his mind and never has. I know how terrible this sounds. I'm not being a snob here. I'm not judging someone for being plain and simple. It's more than that. With the Amish it's really a moral issue.

This is where I think they've gone wrong. It's one thing to be separate. It's good to question the morality of technology and not to assume the mainstream of society is the way to go. These are tremendous positives.

But then as Christians we need to be able to explain why we think and act as we do. The Amish largely are unable to do this. I've never met one who could. I've had some great conversations with Mennonites but never with the Amish.

Discouraged from thinking or reading, they simply follow the Ordnung. It's their road to heaven. Beyond the Ordnung life only consists of the community.

I wish we as Christians were indeed more Church-community minded. I thought of this as I went down the road with my newly purchased lumber on top of my van and saw a huge group of them building a barn. But this outlook is taking it to an extreme that violates Scripture. This is not being in the world but not of it. This is punching out. This is communal monasticism. It's really not even that. This is a willful ignorance-is-bliss mindset.

This is not the renewal of the mind, but its atrophy. Simplicity and innocence are not mandates to stifle thought. Mortification isn't about shutting down cognizance but learning to think rightly while we learn to discern and kill the old and worldly ways of thinking.

The atrophy of the mind is not a spiritual virtue. The Scriptures nowhere teach that and in fact the opposite.

Yes, they interact with the outside but not really. They are so culturally and intellectually isolated they don't even know where to begin. The young that have left during Rumspringa have admitted this and many are so ill-equipped to function outside, they end up returning.

It does function as a safety mechanism but it's a sad one.

Intellectualism can and often does lead to pride. It can indeed generate doubt. But not all doubt is bad. Questioning can drive us to probe deep and in the end strengthen our faith. It's called examination and we're encouraged to do it.

But at the same time God gave us a book that's about 1000 pages long.

The Amish view it as a book of simple commands. Just follow it.

I appreciate that. But it's so much more. We are to 'give' ourselves to the things of God, to the wonders revealed to us in His Word. It's how we know Him, it's how we 'see' the Kingdom.

We don't have to be scholars but the Bible is a book that stimulates thought and contemplation. It's always a blessing to witness a new Christian who comes alive and is 'digging in' to the Word. Consequently they start learning about the larger context of the Old and New Testaments, new ideas, and they are driven to examine their life and how they've thought about things. This is a critical component to renewal. These are spiritual exercises but also intellectual. We are not beasts. There's nothing wrong with being simple but to rest in simplicity, yea to promote it, is to do wrong.

Those who teach thus do God's people a great disservice.

While we have to reject all the power paradigms of Christendom we still have to be 'in' the world. We have to be salt and light. That has nothing to do with culture war. That's lifestyle and thought war... a spiritual battle. Government and courts are carnal weapons. It's calling on the state to (with violence) enforce our ideas. That is in part why we ought to have nothing to do with them, at least in terms of participation and promotion. We interact with them but they are always 'the other'.

The Amish have abandoned the call to be in the world. If we're not to try and take the reins, then what does that mean?

It means we are in the world. We're weird, we're strange, peculiar even. We're often hated. They'll say we're bad citizens, non-contributors to society etc...

And yet, they can't utterly hate us because we are productive, we obey the laws and raise good children etc... We show love and kindness, or at least we're supposed to. They will often persecute us just as Cain did to Abel. That's normative for This Age. They hate our ideas but cannot gainsay us because of our actions.  

That is far from true with regard to the present Evangelical Church. Seeking power they have heaped reproach upon themselves and rightly so as is often the case. Through deceit and manipulation and the exercise of violence (or its threat) these deceived people think they honour God and advance His Kingdom.

But it's also not true when it comes to the Amish. They are in many ways far better than the Evangelicals, but they have stifled their own ability to think in order to save the group.

They have learned to obey their Bishops and yet not to think or experience the Word on their own.

It's sad but in the end they're not much better off than Catholic peasants during the Middle Ages.

That said, I can't help but like them and have always enjoyed being around them and on occasion working with them.

In some ways they're something of a joke, and not at all what people think them to be. In other ways they have earned my respect.

Regardless they are as one author put it, something of a riddle.

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