Joe Mackall, who lives in Ohio in a community where many Amish also do, says that we treat the Amish as projections for what we want to see. The occasion of his reflection is the recent hair-cutting gang assaults among the Amish in his area, who are mostly of the ultraconservative Swartzentruber sect. Excerpt:
The assaults and arrests in Bergholz seem to fit a convenient narrative for people seeking to discredit the Amish. There’s evidence of a doctrinal split, which is as common in the community as straw hats and hay wagons. Schisms and splinter groups are prevalent among the Amish that I know. Mr. Stutzman’s neighbor, Mr. Gingerich, also a Swartzentruber, recently broke off from Mr. Stutzman’s group over the issue of adding a second lantern to buggies. Mr. Gingerich is set to move to Maine later this month to start his own settlement.
All Amish seem to fall into the trap of believing their way is the true Amish way. The Swartzentrubers believe that the more liberal Old Order groups and the even more liberal New Order groups live dangerously close to the modern world, a world from which all Amish are to remain separate. The more liberal orders deride Swartzentrubers for taking baths only on Saturdays, and they call them gruddel vullahs (or “woolly lumps”) for getting cows’ milk in their beards. So it comes as no surprise that the attacks in Bergholz, which included the forced cutting of hair, were the work of a splinter group that believed somebody had betrayed the true cause, if the attacks can be credited with such lofty motives.
Turns out the Amish are people like the rest of us. But not always. Remember back in 2006 when a gunman invaded an Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County, PA, and massacred children? Here is the column I wrote for the Dallas Morning News about the Amish reaction. It captures the Amish at their very best, I think. This is the sort of thing you read about in the Lives of the Saints:
Is there any place on earth that more bespeaks peace, restfulness and sanctuary from the demons of modern life than a one-room Amish schoolhouse? That fact is no doubt why so many of us felt so defiled – there is no more precise word – by news of the mass murders that took place there this week. If you’re not safe in an Amish schoolhouse … And yet, as unspeakable as those killings were, they were not the most shocking news to come out of Lancaster County this week.
No, that would be the revelation that the Amish community, which buried five of its little girls this week, is collecting money to help the widow and children of Charles Carl Roberts IV, the man who executed their own children before taking his own life. A serene Amish midwife told NBC News on Tuesday that this is normal for them. It’s what Jesus would have them do.
“This is imitation of Christ at its most naked,” journalist Tom Shachtman, who has chronicled Amish life, told The New York Times . “If anybody is going to turn the other cheek in our society, it’s going to be the Amish. I don’t want to denigrate anybody else who says they’re imitating Christ, but the Amish walk the walk as much as they talk the talk.”
I don’t know about you, but that kind of faith is beyond comprehension. I’m the kind of guy who will curse under my breath at the jerk who cuts me off in traffic on the way home from church. And look at those humble farmers, putting Christians like me to shame.
It’s not that the Amish are Anabaptist hobbits, living a pure pastoral life uncorrupted by the evils of modernity. So much of the coverage of the massacre has dwelled on the “innocence lost” aspect, but I doubt that the Amish would agree. They have their own sins and tragedies. Nobody who lives in a small town can live under the illusion that it is a haven from evil. To paraphrase gulag survivor Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the line between good and evil does not run along the boundaries of Lancaster County, but through every human heart.
What sets hearts apart is how they deal with sins and tragedies. In his suicide note, Mr. Roberts said one reason he did what he did was out of anger at God for the death of his infant daughter in 1997. Wouldn’t any parent wonder why God allowed that to happen? Mr. Roberts held onto his hatred, purifying it under pressure until it exploded in an act of infamy. That’s one way to deal with anger.
Another is the Amish way. If Mr. Roberts’ rage at God over the death of his baby girl was in some sense understandable, how much more comprehensible would be the rage of those Amish mothers and fathers whose children perished by his hand? Had my child suffered and died that way, I cannot imagine what would have become of me, for all my pretenses of piety. And yet, the Amish do not rage. They do not return evil for evil. In fact, they embody peace and love beyond all human understanding.
In our time, religion makes the front pages usually in the ghastliest ways. In the name of God, the faithful fly planes into buildings, blow themselves up to murder the innocent, burn down rival houses of worship, insult and condemn and cry out to heaven for vengeance. The wicked Rev. Fred Phelps and his crazy brood of fundamentalist vipers even planned to protest at the Amish children’s funeral, until Dallas-based radio talker Mike Gallagher, bless him, gave them an hour of his program if they would only let those poor people bury their dead in peace.
But sometimes, faith helps ordinary men and women do the humanly impossible: to forgive, to love, to heal and to redeem. It makes no sense. It is the most sensible thing in the world. The Amish have turned this occasion of spectacular evil into a bright witness to hope. Despite everything, a light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.