Sin and shame in Amish country

amishvillageNormally we try to analyze recent mainstream media coverage of religious issues. The magazine article in this post is from January of 2005; it's a bit dated. But reader Daniel Grover passed it along yesterday and it was too interesting to keep from others. Not to engage in stereotyping, but who knew that Legal Affairs -- "the magazine at the intersection of law and life" -- would have such thorough coverage of religion? Senior editor Nadia Labi looked at claims of pedophilia, incest and other abuse among several Amish females. The subject matter was horrifying enough that she avoided adding any excess moral condemnation. She was wise enough to get out of the way and let the story -- which was plenty compelling and interesting enough on its own -- tell itself.

But she patiently and clearly explained Amish beliefs and how they played into the story. Here she discusses the tolerance the government has for the religious community:

The license the Amish have been granted rests on the trust that the community will police itself, with Amish bishops and ministers acting in lieu of law enforcement. Yet keeping order comes hard to church leaders. "The Amish see the force of law as contrary to the Christian spirit," said Donald Kraybill, a professor at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania and an expert on the group. As a result, the Amish shy away from sending people to prison and the system of punishment of "the English," as the Amish call other Americans. Once a sinner has confessed, and his repentance has been deemed genuine, every member of the Amish community must forgive him. . . .

But can a community govern itself by Jesus's teaching of mercy alone? It is sinful for the Amish to withhold forgiveness -- so sinful that anyone who refers to a past misdeed after the Amish penalty for it has ended can be punished in the same manner as the original sinner. "That's a big thing in the Amish community," Mary said. "You have to forgive and forgive."

In the case of the women interviewed by Labi, their perpetrators faced punishment ranging from parental admonition to shunning for a few weeks. Labi explains the origins of the Amish, and how their refusal to baptize infants led to persecution in Europe. But this explanation of why they shun the secular world is really interesting:

As Donald Kraybill explains in his book The Amish and the State, there are two kingdoms in Amish theology: the kingdom of Christ, inhabited by the Amish, and the one in which everyone else lives. To maintain the boundary between the two worlds, the Amish hold themselves apart from the secular state as much as they can. In the mid-1900s, dozens of Amish fathers went to prison rather than agree to send their kids to public schools with non-Amish children. The community opened its own one-room schoolhouses, where the curricula ignored subjects like science and sex education. A woman who now lives near the Amish in Ohio's Guernsey County reports that many of her neighbors weren't taught that the earth was round. "A lot of Amish will tell you they don't want their kids to be educated," she said. "The more they know, the more apt they are to leave."

This approach to the two kingdoms is fascinating to me. I've shared previously my prediliction for a Lutheran Two Kingdoms approach, which teaches that the church administers God's means of grace while the earthly kingdom operates through natural laws and human vocations. In the Lutheran view, Christians are citizens of both kingdoms at the same time. So in our church you can be forgiven for a grievous sin at the same time you're being carted off to prison. While Lutherans and Amish may be at opposite ends of the Two Kingdoms spectrum, many contentious stories at the intersection of religion and politics are debates about how far to move in one direction or the other. Of course, in American Protestantism of many stripes, the issue is whether to even have two spheres, as debates about school prayer, Ten Commandments monuments and Jesus' policy views on intercontinental missiles indicate.

Oh how I wish reporters would familiarize themselves better with the different views about church and state. Their reporting would surely improve if they understood the doctrinal assumptions underlying our debates.

But back to Labi. Her feature is more reportage than analysis, but it does raise interesting points. Most notable for me was the idea that the sinfulness of the non-Amish kingdom is a threat while the sinfulness of the people within the Amish kingdom is not. Labi interviewed women from Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. She researched the legal records for each of the abuse claims. She interviewed -- or attempted to interview -- the accused and convicted perpetrators. And she thoughtfully analyzed how Amish doctrine plays into the situation. Which is probably why she was nominated for a National Magazine Award and a Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism this year.

Photo from fulphillyment via Flickr.

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