2012-11-05

"Their lesson could not be more important."

Almost immediately, after Martin Luther initiated the Protestant Reformation in 1517, the debates about Luther’s ideas inspired some thinkers to go further than Luther. The radical reformers rejected church authority almost entirely.

The radical reformation included the Anabaptists – literally “baptize again.” They held that baptism entailed a serious commitment, which only adults could make. Some of the Anabaptist groups, including the Italian anabaptist movement of the 1540s also rejected trinitarianism. Faustus Socinus came out of that Italian movement, moved to Poland, where he attended and influenced Polish Brethren churches that would come to be called Unitarian. Thus, we Unitarians emerged out of the Anabaptist Radical Reformation.

Meanwhile, among the Anabaptist Swiss Brethren in the late 1600s, one Jacob Ammann, born 1656, argued for stronger church discipline, and a stricter application of shunnings – a system of social exclusion of excommunicated members. Those who followed Jacob Ammann came to be known as Amish.

In the 1900s, the Amish began migrating to Pennsylvania in reaction to religious wars, poverty, and religious persecution in Europe. Those who remained in Europe slowly merged with the Mennonites. By 1937, the Amish were no longer a distinct group in Europe. In the US the Amish are thriving and growing. In 1960, there were 28,000 of them. By 2010, there were almost 10 times that number: about 250,000.

Today, the Unitarians and the Amish are very different. We both came out of the radical reformation, however. The autonomy of the local congregation is something we share with the Amish as a result of our shared roots in the Radical Reformation.

Our distant cousins have developed a simple, sustainable way of living, with real community ties that ensure everyone is taken care of. We Unitarians have developed a liberal approach to religion that values gender equality and advanced educations. Is it possible to have the advantages of both? It would be difficult.

If the strong, healthy young people are sitting in classrooms getting advanced educations, we can't sustain the labor-intensive farms that are integral to the strong community ties the Amish have. Moreover, higher education tends to foster an independence of thought that might threaten the social cohesion their system requires.

Amish religious values are reinforced and sustained through biblical narratives, hymns, sermons. Similarly, the mainstream American dream of individual success and material consumption is reinforced and sustained through our teachers, leaders, speakers, media and entertainment. It seems unlikely that either the Amish or the mainstream way of life could be sustained without its respective myths, constantly re-affirmed.

Still, bless the Amish for what they bring to us. As their numbers grow, and more and more of us have Amish neighbors, the silent challenge that their presence presents is that, however clear we might be that we don’t want to wear wide-brimmed hats, don’t want our artistic expression largely limited to quilt-making (but those quilts are beautiful, aren’t they?) and don’t want to have seven children, we also, just maybe, don’t have to be stuck in the American dream-nightmare of stress, consumption, and distraction.
Anna Peterson
“Without utopian images and hopes, it may become difficult to conceive of even moderate changes to the status quo.” (Peterson 137)
If the Amish can envision the good life as communal, can replace individualism with solidarity and cooperation, can replace harried complexity with centered simplicity, can replace profligate consumption with sustainability and ecological responsibility, then maybe we can envision a future different from this present. Perhaps we can form a vision of justice, equality, and ecological sustainability -- a way of life wherein the reality of love and a genuine reverence for our interconnection, cultivated in disciplined spiritual practice, guides our every hour.

The shape of that spiritual discipline need not be constrained to Anabaptist theology. The details of the pattern of daily life, of work and worship, could unfold as we experimented and learned. Maybe the Amish, all things considered, aren’t a more desirable ideal than mainstream American life. But they point us toward what would be.
“They straddle the boundaries between the real and the utopian, embodying the productive tension between the already and the not yet of the reign of God. Although the longed-for utopia will always be not yet on earth, it is already among us in these small and vulnerable communities, seeds and promissory notes for the future. These communities do not lack problems and strains, but neither are they castles in the air. They represent the hope of learning, first, that it is possible, not only to conceive of a different world but also to create one, to live and make a living by different rules. Second, these small communities help us see how they are possible: what they might require of us, what they might promise. Their very existence holds out hope even while this hope staggers under the combined weight of the empire to which the communities refuse allegiance and of their own human frailties. They are far from perfect, their survival is far from assured, and their visions may never be realized beyond their own borders. Still, their lesson could not be more important: human beings can live better; injustice, destruction, and cruelty are not inevitable. Another world is possible.” (Peterson 144-45)
Amen.

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This is part 4 of 4 of "The Amish Challenge"
Previous: Part 3: "What Putting Community First Looks Like"
Beginning: Part 1: "But apart from that..."