Why I like the Amish

Why I like the Amish February 29, 2012

Last evening I watched a three hour documentary on the Amish on Public Television. For the most part it was excellent, although it felt a little like voyeurism. The Amish don’t like to be photographed and they obviously were being filmed–often from a great distance. (Some apparently didn’t mind appearing on camera. They’re not all alike in what they allow.)

When I watch something like that I always look for the theological aspects and how well they are represented in the documentary. Too often those aspects are distorted or misrepresented because the film makers didn’t both to interview real experts. This was different in that several experts on the Amish lifestyle and beliefs were interviewed throughout it. One was Donald Kraybill, author of The Upside Down Kingdom–one of my favorite books about the Kingdom of God.

Of course, the film focused exclusively on the old order Amish. There is an Amish church not far from where I live where the members drive cars and trucks. In most other ways they’re like the old order Amish of Lancaster County, PA. (The church near my home is “Beachy Amish”–a particular order that is less strict than some others.)

One thing that struck me was the view of salvation expressed by some Amish people. They talked about hoping to be worthy of salvation by living the Amish lifestyle. That is, of course, not good Anabaptist theology even though most Anabaptists do believe “amendment of life” is a necessary part of salvation. But the latter does not mean earning or being worthy of salvation. Good Anabaptist theology (going back to the 16th century radical reformers) always bases salvation on grace alone. I wonder to what extent contemporary Amish have forgotten some of their own theology because of lack of formal theological training.

Before explaining why I like the Amish (by which I mean I’m glad they exist and hope they flourish) I’d like to say why I understand them better than most people in the mainstream of American society do. I grew up in a church I call “urban Amish.” We were old fashioned Pentecostals. My youth pastor talked about how he was a conscientious objector (non-combatant) in the Korean War. Before WW2 most Pentecostals were pacifists. We drove cars, but eschewed luxury. Money spent on a Cadillac could have been better given to missions.

We didn’t go to movies or dances or even bowling alleys that served beer. (I didn’t darken the door of a movie theater until I was almost 20. Even then I didn’t tell my parents!) The men shaved and the women (sometimes) cut their hair, but flashy clothes bought at expensive department stores were anathema. The women didn’t wear make up or jewelry (except wedding rings). Clothes were expected to be modest.

We had television off and on. For years we didn’t have one. Then I got sick and spent a summer in bed (rheumatic fever which I contracted because my parents didn’t believe in taking medicine so they didn’t fill the prescription for penicillin the doctor gave them for me when I had strep throat). My parents relented and rented a small black and white television so that I would have something to do besides read. (I read the Bible cover to cover that summer–and many other Christian and “almost Christian” books that filled our house’s book cabinets.) My brother and I were not allowed to own or read comic books (“Archie”). Even the Sunday newspaper “color” comics were put away until after church. We were not allowed to participate in dancing during gym classes at school.  I had to bring a note from my father, who was also our church’s pastor, to be excused from that unit. (Many of my male friends asked me if they could get notes from my dad! Many of them wished they didn’t have to dance either.)

We had a radio, but it was always tuned only to the local “gospel station.” I bought a tiny transistor radio when I was 15 and listened to 1960s “rock” music (the Mommas and the Pappas), but I kept it hidden and only listened to it at night, held close to my ear. My parents would have taken it away from me.

The only records we owned were Christian and classical. “Playing cards” were strictly forbidden, but my parents played Rook–a card game invented by a game company especially for Mennonites! Evenings were spent reading or playing games (“Careers” and “Authors”). My brother and I spent many Saturdays walking around the neighborhood “passing out tracts.” My parents didn’t let us wear cut off jeans (to say nothing of real shorts!).

At summer camp the boys and girls couldn’t swim at the same time. Girls had to wear one piece swimming suits; most of the boys wore cut off jeans that weren’t allowed except for swimming. Holding hands was forbidden (to say nothing of kissing!).

When I was a teenager, dating non-Christians was simply unthinkable. In fact, we were clearly socialized to date and marry only fellow Pentecostals. (When my great uncle married a Catholic my great grandmother disowned him and, so far as I know, they never spoke again.)

Well, you get the picture. We were “urban Amish” in many ways. But so were many other Christians of many different denominations back then. Some of my cousins were Christian Reformed and their lifestyle was very similar to ours. Nazarenes and many, not all, Evangelical Free and Covenant Christians lived the same way. Back then (1950s and before), being “evangelical” meant more than doctrine and revivalism; it also meant living lives different from “unsaved” people.

We were probably more extreme than most other evangelicals. But we were just a little behind the rest in terms of accommodating to secular culture.

But the main thing we had in common with the Amish was not legalism; it was the fact that the church was our family. Our whole life revolved around church. And, growing up, I hardly knew or cared to whom we were related “by blood” and to whom we were related by church affiliation. My stepmother had pictures of all our denomination’s missionaries on a bulletin board just off the kitchen and we prayed for one or more of them every evening at supper. When they came home on “furlough,” they stayed at our house. Some of my favorite memories are listening to their stories. To me, to us, they were family. (Some of them were “blood relatives,” but many were not and when I was very young I didn’t know which was which!)

Certainly I chafed at many of the rules that governed our lives–especially as I entered my teen years. But there was something wonderfully warm and comforting about that lifestyle. And I was protected from many of the terrible things that many of my schoolmates fell into-sex and drugs at the top of that list. I did marry a girl in my church youth group and I’m glad; we’ve been married almost 40 years and I’ve never regretted not straying outside the family of faith to date and marry.

To be sure there were extremes involved in that lifestyle. An example is my grandmother disowning her own son just because married a Catholic! And not being able to own or read “Archie” comic books. (We read “Classics Illustrated,” though, which was much better for us anyway.)

But, again, what I admire about the Amish is their sense of Christian community. One point some of them made in the documentary was the family ethos of the church. And I admire their determination not to be changed by the secular culture around them. We didn’t hold to that determination and so many Pentecostals and other evangelicals are barely distinguishable IF AT ALL from their “unsaved” neighbors. I don’t think you have to go to the extremes the Amish go to in order to retain Christian distinctives and boundaries, but I can understand why they think it’s necessary.

One thing the documentary mentioned was the fact that the Amish don’t vote or pledge allegiance to the flag or celebrate Independence Day. I think one of the “wedges” of secular accommodation in our Pentecostal churches, mine included, was that we did those things. The boundary between church and country became blurred. From there more accommodation was inevitable. I remember as a child being extremely afraid of communism. (One of the first “secular books” I read was None Dare Call It Treason. Our home and church contained many anti-communist books and pamphlets. Does anyone remember Billy James Hargis?)

I was so frightened of communism as a child that I assumed anything America did was automatically right. In my little black-and-white world, it was either America or communism. Being Christian and being pro-American and anti-communist became almost synonymous, certainly inseparable. I now look back at that and realize it was one way in which accommodation to secularity began to creep into our otherwise “separated” Christian lifestyle. When the Vietnam War came, we were all in favor of t because we were prepared to believe the “domino theory.” If Vietnam fell to communism, the communists would be on our doorstep next.

I’m not against voting or saluting the flag, but I do think mixing nationalism with Christianity is always a bad thing–much worse than rejecting patriotism. That we did mix them was a major cause of our further accommodation to secular lifestyles.

I admire the Amish even if I could never join them. Sure, there are things about their lifestyle I think are unnecessary (for Christian living) and even dumb (e.g., the men growing beards when they marry). But they are a testimony to the rest of us; their distinctive lifestyle centered around Christian community and holiness of life stands as a judgment on the rest of us who tend to go with every flow of culture.


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