It was a crime against innocents - horrific and inexplicable - the kind that attracts worldwide attention and an outpouring of sympathy. Yet the shooting of 10 Amish girls in their one-room schoolhouse in Lancaster County, Pa., last October was particularly unfathomable because of who the Amish are and what they represent. Urbanites and suburbanites have long had an ambivalent relationship with rural residents. We readily pave paradise to put up parking lots, as Joni Mitchell once sang, and then lament the loss of open land. We admire the skill of those who till the soil, but feel intellectually superior to country bumpkins and shudder at the thought of killing the very livestock we eat. We celebrate the independence and bedrock character of the family farmer, as did the literary Thomas Jefferson and modern writers like Wendell Berry, and some of us dream of owning farms. Yet few of us want our children to work the land.
The Amish, however - a living, breathing link with our nation’s agrarian origins - occupy a special place in the collective imagination. This is particularly true in Southeastern Pennsylvania, the corner settled in colonial times by the Amish (a branch of the Swiss Brethren) and the Mennonites (another group of Anabaptists). Thousands of tourists visit Lancaster County every year. They come to see bearded men plowing with teams of horses, women in bonnets tending roadside produce stands and barefoot children playing in yards.
For years, Lancaster County, only 90 minutes from downtown Philadelphia, has been a testament to the beauty and rewards of rural life, though in certain areas, one finds a kind of kitschy theme park. There entrepreneurs, capitalizing on the image of the Amish, operate everything from Pennsylvania Dutch restaurants and furniture stores to miniature golf courses and amusement parks.
Kitchen Kettle Village, a collection of shops bordered by farm fields in the hamlet of Intercourse, is one tourist magnet where you can buy fresh-made jellies, quilts, cookbooks, and soak up the Amish ambiance. You can also visit the People’s Place, a bookstore and information center, to learn about the history of the Amish, Mennonites and a third Anabaptist group, the Hutterites.
Over time, the Amish have come to coexist with their English neighbors, as they call non-Amish people. The Amish do not necessarily want tourists filling their narrow roads with traffic. Some families have moved to more rural states, but most have stayed. An accommodation to modernity is something to which the Amish had to commit themselves decades ago in order to hold onto their farms. Everyone benefits from the commerce: the Amish, who can sell homemade crafts and food, and other residents, including Mennonites, who are typically more secular than the Amish.
A Deeply Religious People
For some tourists, a respect for the Amish and an interest in the way they live may spring from an awareness that the Amish are a deeply religious people. I suspect, however, that many tourists feel uncomfortable in thinking too hard about those religious underpinnings. Rather, they are drawn to these plain people because of the way they live. The Amish live close to the land, are unattached to the electrical power grid, work hard, value humility, dress in modest clothing, support their neighbors in time of need and are non-violent. They do so because this is the life they believe the Bible exhorts them to lead.
The Amish, as they would be the first to admit, are not perfect. Several Pennsylvania Amishmen were picked up on drug charges a few years back; Amish teenagers smoke, drink, drive cars and get into trouble with the law during the period of rumspringa. That is when parents let their children run a bit wild to get it out of their systems before the youths decide whether they wish to be baptized into the faith and commit themselves to all the demands that such a pledge entails. And, to be sure, the Amish way may strike some people as an odd form of self-denial or play-acting. But the Amish are sincerely committed to living a countercultural, biblically based existence and to keeping their families and community intact.
The late John A. Hostetler, who was born into an Amish family but left his rural roots to become a sociologist, wrote extensively about the Amish. In one of his books, Amish Society, a scholarly, yet highly readable study, Hostetler wrote: The Amish view of reality is conditioned by a dualistic world view. They view themselves as a Christian community suspended in a tension-field between obedience to God and those who have rejected God in their disobedience.
Yet the Amish are not given to proselytizing. While biblically conservative, they differ in key ways from fundamentalists. They believe neither in predestination nor in the idea of assurance of salvation, in the words of Hostelter, who taught at Temple University in Philadelphia and Elizabethtown (Pa.) College.
The Bible’s message for every Amish person can be summed up in this passage: And be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God (Rom 12:2).
This literal emphasis upon separateness explains the Amish view of themselves as a chosen people’ or a peculiar people,’ Hostetler wrote. The principle of separation conditions and controls the Amishman’s contact with the outside world; it colors his entire view of reality and being. Religion, Hostetler added, is a total way of life, not a compartmentalized activity.
The depth of this separateness can be seen in a remarkable comment attributed to an unnamed Amish woman in a story about the shootings in The Philadelphia Inquirer: This must be what it felt like for you all on Sept. 11. We are numb. For this woman, the 2001 attacks that killed thousands of innocents in New York, Washington, and in a rural field just a few counties west of the Amish schoolhouse, happened to a people and a country apart.
In some respects, the one-room school in which the Amish girls (five of whom died) were gunned down in cold blood by a non-Amish neighbor is about as far awayin time, place and cultural sensibilityfrom 21st-century America as it is possible to go. Yet given their deep faith and strong community, the Amish may be especially well prepared to move forward. As people who know the Bible, they know well not only the long, dark corridors of the human heart, but its capacity for forgiveness.
The day after the shootings a nurse, who had assisted at the birth of four of the girls, told the Inquirer: They’re not holding it against him or against his family. If things go as they always do in this community, they will go to his family and tell them they forgive him. That is exactly what they did.