June 29, 2010

Farming, Family and Faith: Living Like the Amish

What is the 'Day-in-the-Life' of a Typical Amish Man (Husband) and Woman (Wife)?


He would get up about five a.m., go to the barn and feed the animals, milk the cows and process the milk to the cans for truck delivery to the local dairy. He would then join the family for prayer and breakfast. Depending on the season, he would work in the fields, preparing the fields for planting (late winter), planting the crops in the Spring or harvesting the crops in late Summer or Fall. He usually works from sunup to sunset in the fields for planting and harvesting with a break for lunch. In the evening, the cows would need to be milked again.

She would also get up about five a.m., help with the milking, prepare breakfast, and if laundry day (usually on Monday) get the gasoline motor started on her wringer washing machine do the laundry, hanging them out on the line to dry. She would work in the kitchen garden, preparing it for planting (with help from her husband), or harvesting vegetables for meals. If there are children, she would also get them ready for school, including packing lunch boxes, etc. Daytime household duties would be done, i.e., ironing, washing dishes by hand, baking, and cooking lunch and dinner. Depending on the season, she would can fruit and vegetables, making jams and jellies, etc. She will also sew clothes for herself, her husband and their children.

Both work schedules will vary according to the season and weather.

Of course, on Sundays, the family attends church in their District or in a neighboring District. They rise early, feed the animals and milk the cows, prepare lunch and leave for church about 7:30 a.m. They typically spend the day visiting with either church members or their nearby family members. They return home late afternoon to tend to the animals.

On Sunday and several times during the week, they may visit in the evening with neighbors or family members.

How Can I Join the Amish Community and Become an Amish Person?


Anyone can live in an Amish community by simply moving to where the Amish live in a specific area. If a person wants to join the Amish church, the person must move to an Amish community, live there for a length of time (which could be years), accepting the Amish and the Amish accepting you (it is really a mutual issue), being willing to live within the rules of the Church (Ordnung). To become a member of the Amish church requires a genuine religious commitment which is much more than just moving to an Amish community and living the Plain lifestyle of not using electricity, cars, telephones, etc.

What the Amish Can Teach Us About Green Living

By Linda Egenes, IowaSource.com
May 2005

... I suddenly realized that going green to save our economy is not a radical new idea—it’s traditional and retro.

Take the Amish. As a growing but still marginal segment of the rural population, they make their own clothes, grow their own food, live off the grid, and drive horse and buggies instead of cars. While most of us are never going to achieve a carbon footprint as low as theirs, we can adopt a few of their habits to help ourselves, the environment, and our economy.

Buy Fresh, Buy Local

I once asked an Amish friend of mine why the Amish drive horse and buggies. I expected him to give me the usual answer—that it had to do with their religious beliefs, to remain separate from the world by eschewing modern technology. He surprised me by saying:
“If we drove out of town to shop, our local merchants would be out of a job.”
While none of us are about to give up our cars, we can support our local restaurants, merchants and farms. In a tough economy, your dollars spent at the corner market, the one-of-a-kind restaurant, and the local bookstore help prevent a chain reaction of small business failures, home foreclosures, and falling property values. In a town of 10,000 people, it’s estimated that a dollar spent locally will circulate a dozen times. Buying local also makes green sense because it cuts down on carbon emissions. And venues such as farmer’s markets bring fresher food at better value straight to the customer while supporting local farmers.

Live Within Your Means

I remember reading an article in the Des Moines Register at the height of the 1980s farm crisis. Small farms across the state were failing, mostly due to large debt-loads when farmers bought expensive new machinery and land at peak prices just before commodity prices fell. The article pointed out that the Amish, who did not incur debt and thus could weather economic downturns better, weren’t at risk of losing their farms.

It’s never too late to adopt a more realistic budget. A new fashion term cropping up is “frugalista,” someone who makes a statement by finding bargains and getting creative with the sewing machine. Even in today’s stagnant housing market, innovative new arrangements like house swaps are allowing people to unload homes that are too big to afford or to move up to a larger home to accommodate a growing family.

Take Joy in Simple Pleasures

Before I started visiting the Amish, I thought they must be a grave and dour people, judging from their dark, 1600s-era clothing and prim bonnets. What I found was a people who love to laugh, to tease, and to party even when they’re working. Whenever there’s a tough job to do—whether it’s putting up 50 quarts of tomatoes or putting up a new barn—they invite their friends over for a “frolic” that involves massive amounts of food and good old fashioned fun.

And because they have less artificial types of entertainment at their disposal, the Amish have developed their human social skills to a high art. When they talk to you, they are truly present, free of interruptions by telephone, TV or radio.

The Amish enjoy simple pleasures—potluck meals, taking a walk in the woods, playing volleyball, baseball and other nonviolent sports, and family table games that involve a large dose of loud, raucous laughter.

No matter what your budget, you can take joy in simple yet fulfilling pastimes like starting a garden, preparing home-cooked meals for your family, or hiking in a nearby forest. Riding your bike for Saturday errands can burn calories, reduce your gas budget, and lead to new discoveries as you slow down and actually see the architecture and landscaping that were once a blur in your rearview mirror

Recently my husband, Tom, and I downsized to one car. It does require a little juggling when the weather is rainy, but Tom is enjoying a new form of exercise: walking to and from work. He says his daily walks have become favorite times of the day, and he wonders why he spent so many years driving. He also loves not having the extra car to service, which saves us both money and time.

“We’re just one car away from being Amish,” Tom likes to joke. “But no black hats yet.”
Simple pleasures not only save the environment, they save your health and your pocketbook. And like the Amish, who knows, you might find that living simply is simply more fun.

"Amish Grace"

The Lifetime movie, "Amish Grace," based on the 2006 murder tragedy in Nickel Mines, PA, portrayed the surprising spirit of forgiveness of the Amish families involved.

Anonymous, Scribd.com
March 31, 2010

As I type this, my eyes are still a little puffy and wet after watching the immensely painful Lifetime movie, “Amish Grace,” which premiered on Sunday evening, March 28, 2010. There's nothing as devastating as losing a child, especially due to human evil, as was experienced by the Amish families portrayed in this movie based on the 2006 shooting tragedy in Nickel Mines, PA.

As in real life, immediately after the shooting deaths of their daughters, the Amish families in the community expressed their forgiveness of the murderer who had committed suicide at the scene of his crime.

In the movie, an Amish elder tells the man's widow that this forgiveness is proscribed by God in Matthew 6:14:

“For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.”
This quotation from our Lord Jesus Christ during his earthly ministry to Israel goes on to say in v. 15:
“But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
The fact that the Amish, as is widely known, live by the precepts that God gave exclusively to his chosen nation of Israel at a time in her prophetic calendar in which she was under the final installment of curses for her disobedience (Lev. 26), is evidence that the Amish mistakenly believe this situation is still going on, although that program was temporarily set aside by God and a new offer of salvation apart from the law and the curses of Israel is now being made to individuals who believe the gospel of grace given exclusively to Paul by the risen Lord Jesus Christ for us.

The Amish “faith” is one in which its members feel it necessary to obey the commandments that the Lord Jesus Christ gave to Israel, even though he said:

“I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matt. 15:24).
Unless the Amish keep themselves a separate and peculiar people that follow in the footsteps of the earthly Jesus as he instructed his covenant people in what they must do in order to prove their worthiness of their promised earthly kingdom, they believe they have no right to call themselves saved. In their zeal to please God by their performance, many go so far as to eschew nearly all modern conveniences, such as electricity and owning motor vehicles. This they must do in addition to trusting that God sent a Sviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, to die for sin.

In the made-for-TV movie, a news reporter asked this elder how his congregation could forgive the shooter even though he had shown no remorse for his actions. The elder replies:
“Forgiveness comes from an open heart. It comes without conditions—or it doesn't come at all.”
For those of us who recognize that we are living in the dispensation of the grace of God in which he offers salvation as a free gift with no strings attached to any who will simply trust that his Son has done it all for us by offering for our sin his shed blood on the cross, and rising again from the grave, the elder's description of forgiveness perfectly reflects the attitude of God toward the world of sinners today. (2 Cor. 5:19). Curious when you think about it. This elder's description of “Amish grace” is far more gracious than his religious idea of God's grace! Does he think the Amish are more gracious than God?

It's my prayer, and I know that it's yours as well, that Amish people—and unsaved people everywhere—will see the truth of the mystery revealed to Paul for all of us today, which is based entirely on the fact that:

“By grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God; not of works, lest any man should boast.” (Eph. 2: 8, 9).

A Tragedy in Amish Country (TLC Documentary)

Why Do Amish Only Go to School Until 8th Grade?

Amish schooling may end at 8th grade, but education continues

Amish America

Amish are well-known for their approach to schooling. Most Amish children attend school in one- or two-room private schools, and end their formal education at the eighth grade. Some observers criticize the Amish approach to education, seeing it as a means of restricting the individual.

Amish, however, root their belief in limited formal education in both religious and practical reasons. Amish education continues beyond the 8th grade in various formal and informal venues.

Amish stop school at the eighth grade for two main reasons:

  • Practicality - Amish trades are agricultural or craftsmanship-oriented; Amish emphasize apprenticeship and hands-on learning
  • Religious Objections - Amish feel higher education can promote ideas counter to Christian values

Amish feel an eighth-grade education is practical

Why do Amish feel an eight-grade education is sufficient? There are a number of reasons, one of the most important of which is practicality. As Amish society emphasizes agriculture as well as craftsmanship-oriented and manual trades, Amish feel that formal school learning can only provide limited value.

Amish education is oriented around factual knowledge and usefulness. The education on offer at Amish schools can vary, but Amish children typically get a solid grounding in the “three R’s”, as well as some history, geography, German language training, and limited science.

amish education

Amish have traditionally seen eight grades as sufficient for an agricultural lifestyle

The Amish generally see little value for themselves in abstract subjects taught in many high schools and institutions of higher learning. Though they recognize that they and the world as a whole need to services of the doctors, bankers, and other professionals colleges and universities produce, they do not see a need within their own culture for such learning, one reason that Amish do not attend high school.

Religious objections to high school

In addition to practical objections to schooling beyond grade eight, Amish also have some religious objections. Theories such as evolution are objectionable to the Amish, who take a literal view of the Bible and the Creation story. Though outright religious education is not offered in Amish schools (religious teaching is typically left as a matter for the church and home), Amish also appreciate the fact that prayer and religious songs are allowed in their parochial schools.

The Amish schoolhouse

The Amish schoolhouse is typically a one-room classroom, sometimes with a basement or with a second room, in some cases divided by a curtain. The teacher is almost always an Amish female. Occasionally Amish males teach, or Mennonites in some areas such as Lancaster County, or rarely, non-Amish (“English”) teachers.

amish schoolhouse

Simple Amish schoolhouse in Ashland County, Ohio. The small structure on the right is an outhouse

The teacher typically handles all eight grades, or sometimes a school may be divided in two, with one class for grades 1-4 and a second for grades 5-8. The teacher may may have an assistant to help her. She typically has an eighth grade education herself, with some supplementary courses in some cases. She is selected for showing good moral character, Christian values, and for having an interest in teaching.

The Amish schoolhouse is typically built on donated land, and contains enough ground for a softball field, as well as (in some cases) playground equipment, and also separate boys’ and girls’ outhouses. Amish families maintain and pay for the school house. A school board, typically 3 Amish males, helps to make decisions such as hiring and salaries for teachers. Parents often visit the school, and each school has a guest book for visitors to sign.

The Amish school day is divided into periods covering the various subjects, and includes lunch and a few recess periods for playing softball. The teacher will typically check homework at the beginning of a lesson, and other students will work diligently at their desks, with older students sometimes helping the younger ones.

Some Amish do send their children to public schools, for various reasons. This is more common in communities such as Holmes County, Ohio, or in northern Indiana. A few Amish homeschool their children. Yet the vast majority of Amish in North America send their children to the local one-room schoolhouse, a right which they gained after long years of conflict with the state.

Conflict over schooling

Amish long resisted modernizing trends in American education before gaining the right to limit their children’s formal education. Objections to a high school education perceived as abstract and unnecessary to an Amish life (detailed above) led Amish to resist state mandates that required education beyond eighth grade.

Beginning in the first half of the 20th century, Amish resisted the trend toward school consolidation, which essentially shut down the small often one room rural schools that once dotted the American landscape, in favor of larger, more distant schools. The fear was that a more centralized, distant school would be more removed both physically and ideologically from both rural and Amish values.

amish school progressive

Some Amish schools are more progressive, in terms of design, technology used, and curriculum. Holmes County, Ohio

Conflict over this issue emerged as early as the 1930s in Pennsylvania. Later, conflicts over forced schooling occurred in other states such as Iowa and Kansas. Eventually, the issue made its way to the Supreme Court of the United States, which in its landmark decision Wisconsin vs. Yoder (1972) granted the Amish and other religious minorities the right to remove their children from schooling after eighth grade for religious reasons.

Education continues after eighth grade

Despite the emphasis on ending formal schooling at an early age, Amish education continues after the eighth grade. Amish focus on numerous means of informal learning, such as reading, as well as apprenticeships and mentorships. Amish youth often learn craftsmanship and business skills by watching older relatives and doing things themselves. This hands-on approach has helped the Amish be successful in business as well as an effective means of passing on agricultural skills as well.

amish children softball

Some Amish, especially businesspeople, may take supplemental courses, such as correspondence classes, or may attend seminars or classes to pick up a particular skill (for example, accounting). The emphasis is on practicality and usefulness. Amish do not see education as evil or dangerous per se. Similar to their approach to technology, they make use of what is necessary of education, and leave behind that which they deem unnecessary or potentially harmful.

Though Amish may end formal education at the eighth grade, that certainly does not mean the end of the road for learning. Numerous Amish retain a hunger for learning after ending formal schooling, and self-taught historians and “Amish academics” attest to the multiple avenues for education in Amish society.

Amish Population Nearly Doubles in 16 Years

Settlements established in seven new states since 1992

The Associated Press
October 20, 2001

The Amish are expanding their presence in states far beyond Pennsylvania Dutch country as they search for affordable farmland to accommodate a population that has nearly doubled in the past 16 years, a new study found.

Also known as Anabaptists, the Amish are Christians who reject most modern conveniences and rely on horse-drawn carriages. They dress in plain, old fashioned clothing and strive for modesty and self-reliance.

Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana continue to be the geographic center for the Amish, accounting for about two-thirds of the faith's population. They also accounted for more than half of the total population gain.

States such as Missouri, Kentucky and Minnesota have seen increases in their Amish populations of more than 130 percent. The Amish now number an estimated 227,000 nationwide, up from 123,000 in 1992, according to researchers from Elizabethtown College's Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies.

Over the same period, Amish settlements have been established in seven new states, putting them in at least 28 states from coast to coast. The new states are: Arkansas, Colorado, Maine, Mississippi, Nebraska, Washington and West Virginia.

"When we think they might be dying out or merely surviving, they are actually thriving," said Elizabethtown professor Don Kraybill, a leading expert on the Amish who shared his research from an upcoming book with The Associated Press.

Large families, some conversions

Amish couples typically have five or more children. With more than four out of every five deciding in young adulthood to remain within the church, their population has grown steadily. More than half the population is under 21.

A small amount of the increase is also due to conversions to the faith.

The Amish are attracted to areas with relatively cheap farms, a rural lifestyle and nonfarming jobs such as construction or cabinet making that fit their values and allow them to remain independent. In some cases, they have migrated to resolve leadership problems or escape church-related disputes.

The Amish began arriving in Pennsyvlania's Lancaster County around 1730. Along with English, they speak a German dialect called Pennsylvania Dutch or Pennsylvania German.

In Intercourse, a town just east of Lancaster popular with tourists, Amish goat farmer Lester Stoltzfus said a number of families had moved recently to other states in search of affordable farmland.

"It's fine with me if people move out," Stoltzfus, 37, said from his farm along a country lane hemmed in by cornfields. "There are too many people living here anyway."

Old conflicts revived

As they move into new areas, some of the conflicts that occurred years earlier in established Amish settlements are playing out again, often involving issues such as building codes or waste treatment.

In Mayfield, Ken., an area into which a few hundred Amish have moved in recent years, seven men are fighting charges they operated horse-drawn buggies without the flashing lights and orange safety triangles that state law requires.

"They are moving into new states and settling or establishing new settlements in communities where local officials aren't acquainted with them. That creates some misunderstanding on zoning issues or other unique factors in Amish practice," Kraybill said.

At the same time, some businesses have been glad to accommodate the Amish. In Mayfield, hardware store owner Dan Falder said his business is one of several to install hitching posts where the Amish can tie up their horses.

Now when Falder looks across the parking lot, he sees horse manure.

"That's new within the last few years," he said.

But eight states with at least 1,000 Amish residents had higher rates of growth, led by Kentucky, which saw its population jump 200 percent, from 2,835 to 8,505, the study found.

The number of Amish "districts" — congregations that usually consist of two or three dozen families — has increased by 84 percent in the past 16 years, from 929 to 1,711.

The arrival of the Amish can raise land prices, and their self-reliance translates into a relatively low burden on public services.

Dennis Hubbard, a government official in Sheldon Township, Wis., said the newcomers seldom appear in the court system, require long-term care or attend public schools.

"As they live their lives, they really do not become very involved with government," said Hubbard, whose state has seen its Amish population climb 117 percent since 1992.

At least 350 Amish families migrated into Missouri, New York or Wisconsin between 2002 and 2007. Over the same period, about 520 families moved out of Ohio and some 470 left Pennsylvania.

Group migration

"One family doesn't go — there is a group of them that goes, like two or three or four," said Fannie Erb-Miller, national editor of The Budget, a weekly newspaper serving the Amish that is based in Sugarcreek, Ohio.

Once a settlement has six families and at least one minister, they qualify to send The Budget dispatches about their activities, often with an invitation for others to join them.

"They can continue to let people know: We're here, come visit us, how the land is, the orchards do great or whatever," Erb-Miller said.

Kraybill said only families who use horse-drawn buggies and call themselves Amish were considered Amish for purposes of his research.

Researchers combed Amish publications and mined other sources to determine where new settlements were being established and to count the total number of districts.

They used a figure of 135 people per church district to calculate population estimates, but the study cautions that its method could result in numbers that are too high for newer settlements and too low in long-established Amish communities.

In Ontario, Canada, the only Amish community outside the United States also is growing. It consists of about 4,500 people, up from 2,300 in 1992.

The Amish have noticed their changing demographics. The population boom is posing practical challenges for a people who, for example, often pay non-Amish "taxis" — private vehicles — to take them on longer trips.

"An Amish woman said, 'We joke among ourselves, if we keep growing at this rate, soon half the world will be Amish and the other half will be taxi drivers,'" Kraybill said.

The Amish and the Myth of the Simple Life

Or, why "living simple" is so hard

By Elizabeth Drescher
August 27, 2010

...Americans have had an enduring fascination with the Amish, and lately they seem to be popping up everywhere. A recent article in the Huffington Post, for instance, reported on new research showing something of a population boom among the Amish, accompanied by a small but notable migration West to establish communities on less expensive real estate.

Right on the heels of that, USA Today updated a Wall Street Journal story from last fall by way of covering the new crop of “bonnet rippers”—“Amish inspirational” romance novels that highlight a version of the simple practices and conservative faith (minus much of the radical pacifism that might be distasteful to the prime audience of conservative evangelicals who tend to favor the books) that characterizes life among Plain Folk in the American imagination. What’s up with our renewed interest?

Pimping the Amish

Fortunately, while I was mulling over all this, friends from back East with a vacation cabin in rural northwestern Pennsylvania (an area apparently now teeming with growing Amish families) happened to be in town.

The Amish of my friends’ acquaintance are off-the-beaten-path Plain People, relatively unsullied by the tourist trade of post-Witness Lancaster, PA, and central Ohio, that induced five Amish twentysomethings to fritter away a perfectly good Rumspringa (the period of “running around” allowed Amish after they turn age 16 and before they formally choose to join the church) on the short-lived reality TV show Amish in the City. Neither are their kids the sullen, often violent, beer-swilling tweakers profiled in Lucy Walker’s disturbing documentary Devil’s Playground. They’re all just Adam and Steve’s neighbors—Amos-and-Hannah-from-the-block sorts who are happy to swap recipes for shoofly pie with the “bachelors” down the road. Go figure.

Now, it turns out that if you actually know Amish people (not just see them around town in their buggies or encounter them in the course of tourist commerce, but truly know their names and things about their daily lives on the basis of regular conversation), you will be very popular at a dinner party in Northern California. The mere mention of “Amish-raised, grass-fed organic beef” was enough to provoke spontaneous planning to raise venture capital for an online outlet for Amish goods and services. By the dessert course we were deep into a discussion of tongue-and-groove joinery that was no less pornographic than the staging of the discreet removal of a woman’s white cotton prayer cap in a Beverly Lewis novel. This simplicity—the warm, handcrafted loveliness of an Amish quilt; the rich, golden sheen of the yolk from an egg laid just this morning; the sweet, yeasted smell of bread cooling on a farmhouse windowsill—we all wanted more of this. Lots more.

Simple Isn’t Easy

Rest assured, however, none of us had much interest in the life from which these mere artifacts of simplicity emerged. This is, of course, the problem with the Amish; even for the Amish. Popular media such as the Walker documentary, the reality show (from which only one of the five participating Amish youth returned to their communities), several TV news magazine reports, and a more recent book by Tom Shachtman have highlighted the delights and perils of Rumspringa for youth who chafe at the restrictiveness of the Amish way of life.

These “Amish Kids Gone Wild” spectacles of course always have a sensationalist ring, however much they document very real issues in Amish communities with things like drug and alcohol abuse—pretty much the same issues with which other parents and communities wrestle these days. We experience, I suppose, a certain socio-spiritual schadenfreude when we see the Amish failing so dramatically both at accepting the strictures of their own traditions and assimilating to the cultural riches, new technologies in particular, over which we ourselves are so often conflicted.

It turns out that, at least in more conservative “Old Order” Amish communities, most of kids come out of Rumspringa prepared to be baptized into the faith. Still, the Ordnung (the unwritten “grammar of order,” as Amish scholar Donald B. Kraybill describes it, through which every aspect of daily life in an Amish community is organized) has to be a heavy yoke to bear. The blessings of strong family ties, wholesome work, and generosity in forgiveness and reconciliation with the repentant notwithstanding, I know I couldn’t get my round-faced self far beyond the mandate that women part their hair in the middle. Don’t even get me started on the drab uniform closed in the front with straight pins and the unflinching obedience to fathers, older brothers, husbands, and bishops required of women.

Beyond the limits of my personal vanity and what I hope are more robust principles, the Gelassenheit, or “yielding of the self” to both divine and earthly authority that is at the center of Amish simplicity is worlds apart from the commitment to “life made easier” offered by Real Simple magazine or imagined by my enterprising dinner companions. We all want our lives to be easier and less frazzled, but we don’t really want them to be simple. We want dollops of simplicity, rather, over long weekends in the autumn mountains of Vermont or gazing into an infinite wonder of ocean and sky. We’ll take our simplicity “to go,” that is. “Easy” is where we’d prefer to stay for the long haul.

Suburban Amish in the ’Hood

Of course there are exceptions. My neighbors down the street, the Gallaghers, for example, seem about as “Amish” as anyone in Silicon Valley might have the capacity to be. Neighborhood farmers with a passel of kids, the Gallaghers have turned over most of their front yard to seasonal vegetables. Just past the blackberries climbing a trellis that takes up the side of the house, the backyard sports a coop and pen for five egg-laying chickens (one for each kid).

The Gallaghers are hardly technology-spurning Luddites. But, not unlike the Amish, they tend to consider more carefully than most of the rest of us how to integrate technology and other conveniences into their lives. Thus, Tim hasn’t yet come upon a good reason to have an email account, and it might take Eileen a day or two to relay him a message via that medium. So, if you need to talk to him right now, you’re going to have to haul yourself down the street.

The neighborhood is used to the Gallagher’s neo-Amish vibe. Nonetheless, when Tim and the youngest Gallagher rolled around the block in a rickshaw, it got my attention. Down the block I moseyed, where I learned the Gallaghers have committed to getting their kids to and from school a mile-and-a-half away without using the family minivan. Since not all of the kids are old enough to ride bikes, Tim did what any high-tech, suburban plain person a mere fifty miles from Berkeley would do: he scoured Craigslist for a rickshaw.

The rickshaw in question is a 1950s model manufactured in Britain for the Indian bicycle taxi trade and imported to Berkeley for display in an antique shop before it was purchased for private use. As far as I could tell, it doesn’t come with an “easy button.” Even after spending buckets of elbow grease cleaning it up, repairing the chain, and replacing sundry potentially eye-gouging bolts, the Gallaghers’ one-speed rickshaw with bicycle escort will turn a quick drive to school into a forty-five minute roundtrip commute. All for love of the earth? Not entirely. Eileen Gallagher, a pediatrician, is quick to point out the fitness benefits of the daily ride to school, but that’s hardly the whole of it.

“You know, they’ll be talking to each other the whole way,” she says.

“Efficiency isn’t everything. The kids and Tim will have that time together every day. They’ll see their friends and neighbors on the way. They’ll say, ‘hi.’ They’ll check in. Those interactions, even if they’re not about anything really important, are everything.”
Sweet, I thought, but, cripes, don’t you see each other every other blessed minute of the day? Clearly, the demands of simplicity go much further than winnowing down of our stuff or hopping off the grid for the weekend. We apparently actually have to deal with each other. A lot. I don’t know how that plays into the Gallaghers’ faith life, but I do know that kind of conversation and relationship is, ironically, often not the stuff of mainline religious practice.

The Complexity of Simple Connections

Mainline religious life for most Western Christians, Jews, and Buddhists is at best a once-a-week affair. The norm is much less than that, with more than sixty percent of Americans with an identified religious affiliation attending services less than once a month, according to recent Pew data. More than a quarter opts out of face-to-face engagement pretty much entirely. So, it stands to reason that a cultural milieu defined by a 24/7 religiosity and interpersonal engagement would be as uncomfortable for many of us in terms of actual practice as it is captivating as an exotic spiritual diversion. Hence our alternating fascination with and disdain for the religious practices of observant Orthodox and Hasidic Jews, Mormons, Muslims, and other groups for which religious commitment grounds basic aspects of life.

I’ve begun to think that this is part of what makes so many people so nervous about the relationship between new digital media and religion. The “always on” quality of digital life can have a kind of Amish or monastic vibe about it for the religiously inclined, what with those Virtual Abbey monks constantly seeding our Facebook and Twitter pages with calls to prayer. Add to that digital micro-news from people from church popping up outside of a sterile passing of the peace and a quick howdy-do at coffee hour. Being socially and spiritually present to one another, even 140 characters at a time, is a demand to which many are not accustomed.

We imagine the Amish (and maybe the Gallaghers) living outside this hive of connectedness, but the reality is that their lives demand a level of interpersonal connection that is not entirely unlike that maintained by our teenagers as they text and tweet and post to their extended communities of friends and “friends.” Thus we hold out groups like the Amish as representing a lost ideal of American communitarian culture while often ignoring the opportunities for and impact of a much wider connection to others that is available on a global basis today.

Forms of Solidarity yet to be Invented

One does wonder, though, if our increasingly close digital and physical proximity to others of all sorts is wearing down the boundaries between us without entirely eroding our differences; if it is possible that we are moving out of an easy domesticating or exoticizing of the Other toward a more robust form of what Jacques Derrida called “cosmopolitanism”— the idea that people can form community on the basis of a shared commitment to hospitality, rather than boundary-setting hostility, toward those who are different. He tracks its development from the Greek Stoics through Pauline Christianity as a critique of the sectarianism of the ancient religious milieu, taking a cue from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (2:19-20):
“Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets…”
This ethical or spiritual cosmopolitanism calls us, Derrida insists, to be “allied to each other according to forms of solidarity yet to be invented.”

This variety of cosmopolitanism is not something to which the Amish themselves do not seem to be opposed, having come to America as religious refugees of a sort, after enduring decades of persecution as Anabaptists and separating from what they saw as more culturally-accommodating Mennonite groups. The testimonies of Anabaptist martyrs preserved in the 1158-page tome, The Bloody Theatre; or Martyr’s Mirror of the Defenseless Christians, first published in 1660 in Germany, remains popular reading in Amish homes. Their separateness surely draws as much from this “dangerous memory” as from doctrinal mandates. Indeed, when they immigrated to Pennsylvania in the 1730s, their buggies, hats, and simple garb hardly stood out.
“But where you hear of a poor, simple, cast-off little flock, which is despised and rejected by the world, join them,” wrote the Anabaptist martyr Anna of Rotterdam in a letter to her son before her execution in 1539.
Few of us are up for that, grass-fed beef and artisan cheese notwithstanding. But maybe the significance of our fascination with groups like the Amish today, or at least of the opportunity presented by it, is not so much in our romanticizing, commodifying, or otherwise objectifying of these Others, but rather in the nature of our real or imagined encounters with them in themselves.
Perhaps it’s not just that we’re looking for something we think we’ve lost, for an easy hit of a simplicity that probably never existed. Maybe we’re practicing a new mode of engagement that the apparent simplicity of Amish life allows us—and perhaps them—to more safely envision.

Elizabeth Drescher, PhD, is a religion writer and scholar of Christian spiritualities who teaches at Santa Clara University. Her book Tweet if U ♥ Jesus: Leadership, Communications, and Community for the Digital Reformation will be released in Fall 2010. Her Web site is elizabethdrescher.net.

FDA Escalates War Against Amish Dairy Farmers

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