Tag Archives: Anabaptist

Clean Living

One of the fun things about the Oxford Dictionaries blog is that you learn unexpected things about words. In fact, you can often find something profound in a matter of a couple of seconds that will make you stop and scratch your head. A recent post by Gary Nunn titled “Good clean fun? The shaming language of food and disease” makes the point that English, like other languages, shames by default. That’s worth considering. Religions are engines of social control, and many of them have highly developed techniques of shaming people into adherence. One of the most famous is the shunning practiced by some Anabaptists, but it certainly isn’t the only tradition that brings guilt to bear.

Some people, psychologists say, suffer from high levels of personal guilt. Shaming is particularly painful to such people and language, it seems, might not be their friend. Others, however, can take quite a verbal hiding and still not feel any remorse. In other words, shame doesn’t seem to work on them. If some people don’t need it and others are immune to it, why do languages excel at inducing shame? The article by Gary Nunn is looking at how “clean,” which was generally used to mean tidy, healthy, free from vermin, came to mean “standard behavior.” From its original usage, “clean” moved to describe—often by its antonyms—things that really don’t fall into that category; foods and sexual behaviors, for instance, can be labeled unclean or dirty, even if they are hygienic and natural. The purpose of this evolving usage seems to be another way to shame someone.

Human beings are social creatures. Although fascinated by violence, most people do not like to use it unless it’s necessary. We’d rather settle things civilly. One way to do that is by using words instead of weapons. Our languages are built for that. We all know individuals who can bring us down with a few harsh words. No physical pain has to be induced, or even threatened. Collectively, the will of the people—at least, so I’m told, outside the United States—influences decisions that governments make. I’ve mentioned before that even non-literate creatures, such as the great apes, will not tolerate injustice in their communities. Sure, alphas may be a necessary evil, but when they abuse their station the collective brings them down. In our culture where nearly all the wealth—by far the vast majority of it—is controlled by 20% of the population, and among them, the majority in the top 1%, we need some stronger words for shame. Or it may be that some people are simply immune.

Keystones

It was one of the very few parties to which I’d been invited in Edinburgh. “When a Scotsman asks you where you’re from,” one of the guests said to me, “he means where you were born.” Although we have no control or say over where we come into the world, we do feel that the place has a claim on us. Combined with my undying interest in local history, that means I like to read books about my native Pennsylvania. I was a first generation Pennsylvanian, to be sure, but to keep a nearly forgotten Scotsman happy, that’s where I’m from. Sarah Hutchison Tassin’s Pennsylvania Ghost Towns: Uncovering the Hidden Past is that familiar kind of book considered light reading, geared largely to the tourist and nostalgic past visitor or homebody crowd. Still, these kinds of quick studies often inspire the imagination. Lots of people lived here before you did.

A couple of factors stood out to me about Pennsylvania’s elder communities. One obvious feature is that a number of them began as intentional religious communities. Often breakaway sects from some major denomination, they established settlements to pursue spirituality in their own way, generally with strict rules, such as celibacy, that would spell their ultimate demise. Pennsylvania is well known for its separatist Anabaptist sects—Amish, Mennonites, and others who’ve been around for centuries and have integrated into the cultural mix of the state. I had no idea that a few ghost towns remain where some less successful spiritual seekers had broken ground. The second feature that stood out is how many communities were intentionally founded for commercial purposes. Often these were mining or lumber-processing towns. Some wealthy individual would buy a natural resource, build houses and a communal store, and permit workers to purchase goods only there. This meant individuals could never save money and never really afford to leave the mine or mill.

These are two very different conceptions of what it means to live in community. One is overly idealistic the other overly exploitative. At one end, the basic necessities of life—food, shelter, clothing—were kept from those who found themselves, like most of us, in need of a job. Or, at the other extreme, being held back from eternal life by failure to keep to the rules of a newly revealed religion. I never really thought of towns intentionally founded in these ways before. My naive view was more eclectic. But then, what do I know? I was born in a small Pennsylvania town and never thought to question why it was there. Where are you from? It’s a matter of perspective.

Bible Search

The Bible is, in many ways, not suited to internet study.  Let me explain: this artificial world of the internet is based on searchability.  To search for something, you need to have a distinctive word, a keyword, or catchphrase.  As perhaps the most successful book of all time, the Bible has undermined its own uniqueness.  How many books are titled The Gun Bible or the Dog Bible or substitute your favorite noun Bible?  Web searches for “the Bible” bring up a large number of relevant hits, but then quickly devolve into other Bibles.  Too many Bibles. Not only has the noun “Bible” been appropriated, so have many aspects of its story.  Particularly the Good Book’s penchant for using short, common words for titles of individual books.

Search for Mark, or John, for example.  Don’t bother adding the word “Gospel” since it too has become widely utilized to give any popular subject an air of authenticity.  Not only did the four evangelists write such books—the Gospel according to Biff, Trump, the Simpsons, or Bruce Springsteen will likely pop up ahead of the original fab four.  Or consider the books whose names became common nouns: genesis, exodus, numbers, judges, kings.  Then there are the ambiguous titles: Job, Proverbs, Song of Songs, Acts.  Sure, you can lengthen them out a bit: Acts of the Apostles, Song of Solomon, the Proverbs of Solomon, but the results you get tend to skew evangelical that way.  Job is just a non-starter. Do you mean employment or enlightenment? Do I need to get a job or to get Job? At least it’s not a popular name for kids.

The other area where the Bible’s success works against it in the computer age is its success at giving names to people.  In a culture so biblically based, the Bible has been treated as a name-list for newborns for centuries.  Even though the Anabaptist penchant for using prophetic names has faded from popular culture, there are plenty of Isaiahs, Jeremiahs, and  Ezekiels out there.  Even some minor prophets, too.  Amos, Micah, Zechariah.  (Habakkuk, Zephaniah, and Haggai haven’t particularly caught on.)  Daniel, David, Joseph, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob.  We live in a world of biblical nomenclature.  There’s even more than one Jesus running around.  (Jesus, is, of course, Greek for Joshua, so there may be even more than one might suspect.)  I spend a good bit of the day searching various biblical material online.  I wonder if anyone ever imagined, over two millennia ago, that a three-letter name was bound to cause problems in a world of billions? Were it submitted for publication today, the editor would’ve sent the Bible back to the author for a rewrite, along with a list of suitable keywords.

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Anabaptist Higher Education

There’s strength in numbers. This is a biblical concept as well as a folk saying (although it is worded differently in the Good Book). The power of conviction grows in a group, and that’s a reason that governments fear mobs, particularly angry ones. As biblical fundamentalism began to develop at the turn of the last century, those who opposed modernity found like-minded believers and gathered themselves together to stand on the same side of multiple causes. Not only fundamentalists, but all different religious outlooks—evangelical groups especially. The more “mainstream” and liberal groups, lacking the conviction of feeling like they’ve been left behind as society moves ahead, have felt less need to organize together. This is something the Democratic Party has felt ever since the Religious Right wed the Republican Party. It is an interesting dynamic. Banding together makes you feel like you’re not alone. So it was that the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities was founded. Higher education, which began in the church, had gone directions that made evangelical groups uncomfortable, so their institutions formed a coalition.

A story in the current Christian Century two Anabaptist member schools have caused waves of protest because they have decided that it is permissible to hire same-sex married faculty. Eastern Mennonite University and Goshen College, sponsored by groups known for their primitivism, have surprised the CCCU with their surprisingly open stance. When is the last time the Mennonites made the news? In response, according to the Century, Union University, an evangelical school in Tennessee, has threatened to withdraw from the Council if this infringement is permitted. This is a perfect example of the dilemma faced by those who support higher education, but hold it to evangelical standards.

Homosexuality, over the past few decades, has become recognized as a basic form of human sexuality. As the stigma has begun to evaporate in the light of scientific, psychological, and sociological studies, the consensus has begun to shift in the wider world. With the Supreme Court decision in June (the first decision autosuggested as one Googles “supreme court”) rightfully following the evidence, any government barriers to same-sex marriages was pulled out from under the evangelical camp, and thus the CCCU. Eastern Mennonite University and Goshen College have decided this presents no problem to their educational mission. Some members of the CCCU, it seems, disagree. The Century blurb asks if this is the beginning of the end of the Council. Probably not. Prejudice finds any hidden corner or recess that it can in which to hide and grow, like any fungus. Groups that identify by what they hate are loath to change, no matter how bright the sunshine. Rain encourages the mushrooms into the open, but the sunlight afterwards creates rainbows.

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Irrational Revelation System

In an article on Obamacare in last week’s paper, Kathleen O’Brien pointed out an interesting dilemma. Some religions, such as the Anabaptist traditions (Amish, Mennonites) must comply with modern regulations on healthcare or face a fine. Under pressure, the Internal Revenue Service grants exemptions to some such religions, but those religions have to have been established before 1950. Maybe I’m paranoid, but just having read about Scientology, I have to wonder about two things: what is the IRS doing defining religions, and why 1950?

Photo credit: Ad Meskens, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Ad Meskens, Wikimedia Commons

1950. Like the Roman Empire, frustrated with new religions (like Christianity) popping up all over the place, governments sometimes default to a religion’s age as a sign of its validity. Rome required conformity, but Judaism, demonstrably already an ancient religion, was granted an exemption from some of the regulations. We have a tendency to think that if a religion is valid, it must have been discovered/revealed long ago. All religions, however, were new at one time. Even the first shaman offering the first propitiatory gesture to the first recognized nature spirit, was experimenting a little. Did that stop in 1950? That line in the sand must stand for the cutoff date for new religions. Why? Well, you see, it has to do with money.

The IRS, as an organization, doesn’t really care what you believe. As long as it includes paying your taxes. One of the burdens of citizenship, too quickly forgotten, is that life together in a complex society is not possible without incurring considerable costs. Religions have long claimed tax-exempt status under the rubric of disestablishment. If they pay the government, then it is like the government is receiving kickbacks from the Almighty. The biggest donor should get the biggest favors. Soon you have a state church. So it is just easier to let religions be tax exempt. But since nobody has ever adequately defined what a religion is, the doors have been wide open for entrepreneurs in the faith industry. Instead of letting religious experts decide how to define a religion, that has become a government job. I picture a simple, bearded Amish man pulling his buggy up outside the IRS headquarters in a frenetic Washington, DC to go argue his case. Don’t worry, Bruder. Divine revelation, whatever that is, apparently stopped in 1950 and you’re clearly pre-McCarthy era. Suddenly a whole lot of things seem to start making sense.

Amish Paradise

Once upon a time, intelligence could be found on cable networks such as Discovery Channel, and Animal Planet. Like higher education, however, these ventures soon learned that people do not want to be educated, but entertained. So it was that I found myself watching, with increasing bewilderment, Amish Mafia. The very discord of the title is intentional as the show “dramatizes” disagreements among the Anabaptist communities of central Pennsylvania. The result is coarse and seedy, and not a little salacious. And addictive.

Photo by it:Utente:TheCadExpert (Wikicommons)

Photo by it:Utente:TheCadExpert (Wikicommons)

I grew up not too far from several Amish communities, and I’ve visited Lancaster a time or two. Living a lifestyle that the vast majority of Americans would classify as boring, the Amish keep to themselves, constructing an existence based on strict religious principles and a rejection of modernity. Recently, however, the Amish have become a sexy topic for romances and fictional clashes between their traditional way of life and the high-tech world that surrounds them. For those of us who felt a kind of authenticity to The Witness, watching Mennonites lock and load their assault rifles to intimidate their rival construction workers, and, in the words of Weird Al Yankovic, “get[ting] medieval on your heinie,” Amish Mafia presents the viewer with a world of kidnapping, extortion, and shunning, all within one episode. Trashing-talking pietists climb into luxury cars and put drunken buggy drivers in straight-jackets where they’re hauled off to extreme Bible-reading therapy. This seemed nothing like the Amish I had learned about in classes on primitivist societies.

We like to watch the self-righteous crumble. Who doesn’t want to believe that they are about as good as their neighbor? Those of us in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa (from my experience) see the Amish occasionally, quietly living their lives without the amenities that define us. We resent that, yes, you can get along without cars, telephones, televisions, internet, and weapons. Who really needs well-made furniture and quilts to keep warm at night when you’ve got Ikea and a furnace like a locomotive in your basement? And they know their Bible. Goodie-two-shoes showing us something that many of us have suspected all along—authenticity comes from inside, not an electronic world we can’t touch. I don’t idealize the Amish. Their lifestyle takes discipline and a level of belief in a worldview that doesn’t match what I’ve been taught. But then, Amish Mafia also requires a gratuitous suspension of disbelief.

Hair Today

In what may be the most bizarre recent example of religiously motivated violence, the Associated Press reports that a breakaway Amish group is accused of the crime of haircutting. Amish beliefs about personal appearance are well known, and taking various biblical injunctions seriously, they believe cutting a man’s beard or a woman’s hair to be a sin. (Any Amish reading this, please correct me if I’m wrong.) The aptly named Sam Mullet, the leader of a breakaway Amish group (the article doesn’t specify the contention) has been charged with forceful barbering with intent to shave. Not himself, but other Amish men in Ohio. The Amish trace their roots back to the Anabaptist movement that only accepted adult baptism and would rebaptize those who were sprinkled as infants. They acquired other beliefs along the way such as hard work and industriousness, distinctive dress styles, and the shunning of electricity. They are devoted to pacifism.

The story, which Rod Serling would have been proud to air, has Mullet forcefully cutting the beards of men and the hair of women in another Amish community. The article doesn’t explain how Mullet took on his Delilah-esque treason, but after giving his enemies the Seville treatment, he took photos of his victims. The Amish don’t like pictures either. Apparently the Amish community is terrified of this mad shearing heretic. The mind reels attempting to conjure an image of the struggle or even what might have led to it. Where did the camera come from?

Religion, no matter the denomination, prescribes unusual behavior. What one society supposes to be normative is simply a matter of socialization. When you are brought up with, say, a man wearing a colorful brocade dress while breaking a translucent wafer over a goblet of wine and claiming it to be God, that seems perfectly normal. Anyone who tries to challenge or desecrate this rite would be designated an infidel, heathen, pagan, or worse. Many think the Anabaptists, whether Mennonite, Hutterite, or Amish, to be quaint and curious like forgotten lore. In fact, their religious beliefs go back to a venerable past. Images of The Witness flood to mind when reading how the FBI has become entangled in the barbarous act. Perhaps it is time for Mulder and Scully to make a reappearance. But just in case, perhaps they should sport some sturdy helmets and Kevlar, since reports are out that some Amish are sitting on the porches with shotguns, while one lurks in the shadow with his snipping scissors.