2012-11-02

What Putting Community First Looks Like

For the Amish, success is defined as
“the ability to work at home, spend time with their family, cooperate with neighbors and relatives, produce much of their own food, and have time for religious and community events.” (Peterson 35)
For them success means community connection through which everyone is taken care of.

In terms of energy consumption, Amish farms are very efficient. In terms of labor hours, Amish farms are inefficient. That’s the way the Amish want it. Many people working many hours side-by-side builds community. The reason they stay away from most new technology is not that they have theological objections to human inventiveness after 1700 -- rather, they reject that technology which careful review indicates would fragment community.
“The dominant culture in the United States, including those practicing conventional agriculture, assumes without question that increasing efficiency, in terms of per person production, is always good. Amish people begin with different assumptions. They like the fact,...that they need every available family member, and often neighbors as well, to harvest their crops.” (Peterson 39)
Homebuilt gas-powered ice cutter to make ice
for non-electric icebox
Thus, they resist a lot of new technology, but not all of it. On an Amish farm you’re likely to see a motorized hay baler being pulled by horses. There might even be a cell phone -- kept in the barn where it won't disrupt family life. They don’t want technology to save them too much labor, because the shared labor pulls them together as a family and a community. As Steven Stoll put it:
“Anything that undermines their ability to cohere as a community of neighbors and linked families, anything that isolates them in their work or places production for profit ahead of the collective process, is prohibited.”
In this way, they are able to be
“far ahead of mainstream U.S....[society] in their attention to the needs and wants of their most vulnerable members.” (Peterson 112)
John Hostetler’s textbook, Amish Society, notes:
“The Amish view personal property, expressed in farms and family dwellings, as a form of stewardship, but they carefully avoid any ostentatious display of wealth. The fruits of their labor are used to perpetuate community life through sharing, hospitality, stewardship, and underwriting the cost of an expanding population.” (74)
If utopian means so idealistic as to be out of touch with reality, then, asks my friend, University of Florida professor Anna Peterson:
“Which model is more utopian: the Amish Gemeinde or the American dream of affluence, freedom from want, and endless consumption, which so few people actually achieve. When it is attained, this material success not only fails to buy happiness but also demands excessive consumption of natural resources and habitats and frequently relies on the exploitation of poorly paid and treated workers in the United States or overseas who produce and sell what is consumed. Mainstream observers often dismiss the Amish as naïve idealists, unable to face the real world. However, their expectations are more realistic in their context that those of most North American, and their social institutions are more able to help them realize their dreams.” (40)
Of course, there’s still the matter of the theology – many of their beliefs correspond to fundamentalist, evangelical Christianity. There’s still the bit about the patriarchy, and the no post-middle-school education.

Could we have the simple, sustainable way of living, with real community ties that ensure everyone is taken care of, and still have a more liberal approach to religion, a more egalitarian approach to gender roles, and advanced educations? I don’t know. Not very easily.

* * *
This is part 3 of 4 of "The Amish Challenge"
Next: Part 4: "'Their lesson could not be more important.'"
Previous: Part 2: "Original Position"
Beginning: Part 1: "But apart from that..."

Sources
Peterson, Anna L. Seeds of the Kingdom. 2005.
Stoll, Steven. “Postmodern Farming, Quietly Flourishing,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 9, 2002 Jun 21.
Hostetler, John A. Amish Society, 4th Ed. 1993.