Friday, October 06, 2006

The Dignity of the Amish

Ben MacIntyre at the Times of London has a poignant look at the tragedy of the Amish, who he argues have responded with dignity, humility, and poise following this week's Pennsylvania schoolhouse shooting:

The news coverage of the school massacre has tended to depict the Amish as some sort of bizarre cult, utterly removed from the reality of 21st-century life, blankly hostile to change and to strangers. In fact, the Amish pick and choose what they want or need from modernity, while retaining a central core of beliefs. The community is the product of multiple schisms, and they have debated how much, or how little, of the modern world to allow into their lives ever since breaking away from the main Mennonite Church in 1693. Today a growing number of Amish have cars, televisions or toasters; but, crucially, they are not enslaved by them.

One does not have to share Amish beliefs to admire a community that has set its own standards of privacy, non-violence and forgiveness. With gun crime spiralling upwards in the US, the Amish have preserved something extraordinary amid the rolling cornfields: there are no guns in Amish country, no police and, until Charles Roberts arrived with his firearms and his madness, virtually no crime.

I am not suggesting that we all retreat from the world, remove our buttons and reject modern medicine, but rather that the Amish demonstrate something important — that it is possible, despite a globalising world culture, to create the life you want by accepting some aspects of modernity and rejecting others, to adhere to a set of unorthodox beliefs while remaining “of this world”.

We have come to expect a grim ritual whenever another American gunman strikes: the keening families, the life stories of the victims, the recriminations of the gun-controllers and the queasy self-justifications of the gun lobby. The Amish, by contrast, have taken their grief away to mourn in dignified privacy. They responded not with outrage and denunciation, but a stoical silence and, astonishingly, immediate, unquestioning forgiveness.

Theirs is an innocence calculatedly embraced. Machines are not seen as intrinsically evil, but as barriers between God and Man. Televisions offer images of violence and sex they do not want their children to see. When a horse is the fastest means of transport, you linger longer and get to know your neighbours better. The Amish did not learn of this week’s events through the screaming media, but by word of mouth.

The Amish belief system aims to preserve a peaceful, self-regulating agrarian society, but though their lives are simple, the philosophy that underpins them is sophisticated. Adolescent Amish boys are encouraged to visit the city — a custom known as “rumspringe” in Old German, literally “jumping around” — to sow their wild oats and understand the “English”, as outsiders are still known. Nine out of ten come back.

So far from dwindling away, an eccentric sect in a forgotten backwater, Amish life is booming. There are now some 200,000 in the US, a figure that has doubled in the past 20 years, with new communities springing up in other parts of the country. Much of this is the result of large families, but it is all due to the appeal of a unworldly life that keeps the bedlam of the modern world at bay.

This week’s school shooting showed America at its best and worst. The Amish first came to Pennsylvania in the 1730s, drawn by William Penn’s promise of protection from religious persecution, and prospered thanks to the American tradition of toleration. The right to be Amish is part of the American Constitution, but so, regrettably, is the right to bear arms.
I discuss the Amish every semester in my American government classes. We cover the 1972 case of
Wisconsin v. Yoder, in which the Supreme Court ruled that the Amish practice of keeping kids out of compulsory public education after eighth grade was protected under the First Amendment. The academy award-winning motion picture, Witness, starring Harrison Ford, brought home Amish culture to million of theater-goers in 1985.

I'm a little perplexed at the Amish reaction to the killings, though, and MacIntyre's commentary is a little nostalgic for the simpler days of old.

The Los Angeles Times' Wednesday editorial remarked that the Amish might need to think a bit more about balancing the old and the new:

Yet even before Monday's tragedy, it was clear that the Amish, too, must balance the pressures (and benefits) of modernity against the comforts (and drawbacks) of tradition. Many Amish have set up shared phone booths outside their homes in case of emergency. On Tuesday, there was talk that although Amish schools were unlikely to employ guards or locks, there might be cellphones on hand, just in case. We all make our concessions — to modernity or to tradition — when we must.

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