A separate life: Amish practices spring from Bible literalism

The Associated Press/October 21, 2006
By Richard N. Ostling

The reaction of the Amish community in Lancaster County, Pa., after Charles Roberts IV gunned down innocent young schoolgirls on Oct. 2 was striking to many commentators.

The Amish quickly conveyed friendship and forgiveness to Roberts' widow and three young children, said they'd give the Roberts family part of the charity gifts that poured in, offered other help and provided half the mourners who attended the murderer's funeral.

That seemed astonishing in an era when vengeance is a popular entertainment theme. But for these distinctive, ultraconservative Protestants, it was a simple matter of biblical fidelity.

The Amish take the Bible literally, especially Jesus' admonition, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matthew 5:44). They also obey Paul's teaching to "live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves but leave it to the wrath of God. ... No, if your enemy is hungry, feed him" (Romans 12:18-21).

Like Mennonites, their modernized cousins, the Amish apply such words not only to personal relations but also to civic and international affairs, and thus refuse to bear arms. Most Christians disagree, yet respect such principled religious pacifism, and so has America's military draft law.

Other characteristic practices have raised more questions.

One unfashionable Amish tenet, held by other Christian and Jewish groups, is opposition to marriage outside one's religious group.

A more unusual practice is shunning - social isolation of adult members guilty of immorality. This may seem harsh, but like Jehovah's Witnesses, the Amish strictly apply Paul's teaching "not to associate with any one who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard or robber - not even to eat with such a one" (1 Corinthians 5:11).

Another distinctive tenet is opposition to schooling beyond the eighth grade. The Amish believe this exposes youths to improper worldly influences, such as competitive athletics, and draws them away from their back-to-nature heritage.

In the landmark Wisconsin v. Yoder case (1972), the U.S. Supreme Court endorsed Amish religious freedom claims and allowed them to ignore compulsory school attendance laws.

But professor Marci Hamilton of Yeshiva University's Cardozo School of Law in New York considers this the worst religion ruling in American annals. In last year's "God vs. the Gavel," she lambasted the high court's "romantic, rose-colored depiction of Amish life."

Liberal Justice William O. Douglas was the lone dissenter in the 6-1 ruling. He said a student's "entire life may be stunted and deprived" if he remains Amish and skips high school or college. Douglas thought courts should consider youths' educational needs, not just claims by parents and churches.

The education limit is unique among Christian groups, but the court deemed it a requirement of Amish religion. It doesn't stem from Bible teaching as such but fits the Amish conception of Paul's general admonition, "Do not be conformed to this world" (Romans 12:2).

That outlook explains the quaint lifestyle that has turned Pennsylvania's Amish country into a tourist attraction: rejection of modern technology, symbolized by horse-and-buggy transportation and avoidance of cars, buses, tractors, electricity and modern appliances.

The Amish are named for Switzerland's Jacob Amman (1644-1720), who broke with the Mennonites, feeling they had drifted from the original strictures of Dutch founder Menno Simons (1496-1561). Both groups are forebears of modern-day Baptists.

Amman's successors are committed to remaining separate by preserving details of farming culture in 17th-century Europe. Besides avoiding technology, the Amish speak in a German dialect, wear plain clothing, require men to wear beards, and reject Social Security and medical insurance.

Media coverage of the tragedy avoided close-up photographs and video of Amish individuals because they don't like to be pictured, believing this violates the Ten Commandments ban on graven images of anything on the earth.

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