- What this Lutheran learned when he visited the Amish
- By Uwe Siemon-Netto
- (From the Sept. 98 issue of Christianity Today, p. 58)
Being a Lutheran can be a cross, especially in trying times. Why insist on a dual citizenship in two distinct kingdoms when one of them – the world around us – is dysfunctional? So I took a three-day leave of absence and joined an Amish congregation whose bishop, Vernon Raber, told me, “We are citizens of one kingdom only, the kingdom of Jesus Christ!” I thought they were an excellent group to escape to, good Christians singing and praying in German, my mother tongue, and avoiding the vulgarities of politics. I liked it.
My ephemeral desertion to Raber’s world will raise eyebrows among my Lutheran coreligionists. “How can you enjoy the company of people disdaining this world, which is of course not Christ’s (John 18:36) but nonetheless the realm of our hidden God?” they will ask. Someone will surely reprimand me: “Have you forgotten Luther’s counsel that we Christians must engage the secular reality we live in, which is ruled not by faith but by reason, the ‘empress of all things,’ according to Luther?”
It would not surprise me to hear the inquisitorial query: “Do you deny that our faith in the good news of being redeemed sinners sets us free to fulfill our divine tasks in this sinful and temporal world? Are you not mocking Christ’s sacrifice?”
Well, I do not deny, nor do I wish to mock Christ, and I haven’t forgotten Luther’s advice. But even a confessional Lutheran might be permitted an occasional vacation from sound doctrine to delight in the company of a quaint and warm-hearted minority with an entirely different theology, people like Vernon Raber.
I ran into Bishop Raber and his flock in “Little Arabia,” a flat rural section of southeastern Illinois where ancient oil pumps lift and lower their bizarre heads rhythmically. Odder still was the fact that many of these machines belonged to Amishmen like Raber who do not own cars but drive horse-drawn buggies. They use their wells’ natural gas to turn their own pumps and generators but have contracted outside companies to exploit the petroleum. Raber said that he possessed five oil wells, but that his real business was breeding fish. He estimated that he lorded over a quarter of a million of these creatures swimming around 20 ponds on his 140-acre property until trucks cart them to resorts for sports fishermen as far away as in New York State and Ontario.
Raber made it clear that he had none of the worries of his non-Amish neighbors. The 36 families in his congregation had full larders. In the hunting season, they had shot plenty of does, slaughtered 30 hogs and made 1,000 sausages. Their women had bottled copious amounts of fruit and vegetables from their gardens.
So now they had plenty of food and no need for gasoline. They didn’t smoke, they didn’t drink alcohol, they didn’t watch television, and, moreover, were spared the healthcare problems plaguing the rest of society. These descendants of German and Swiss Anabaptists shun the “World” as much as possible. Of course when a fire breaks out on a neighbor’s farm the Amish are usually the first to help. But beyond that they prefer to eschew secular reality. They neither carry health insurance nor do they pay into Social Security, because in their eyes such modern schemes would fly in the face of St. Paul’s admonition: “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).
“It works,” said Raber, who like all Amish ministers has never been to seminary, and whom his church members had elected bishop for life by drawing lots from a hymnal. “Five of our members just underwent surgeries costing a total of $90,000. So a deacon wrote a few letters to other members and to sister congregations, and soon the medical bills were paid.” Sitting next to me on the driver’s seat of his buggy, Raber knocked me cheerfully in the side with his left elbow: “This is cheaper than health insurance, isn’t it?”
Clearly these Amish were doing well, which seems to be a nationwide phenomenon. With an average of seven children per family the Amish have become the fastest growing minority in the U.S., doubling in numbers every 20 years. One century ago, there were 15,000; now they have grown to a quarter of a million. They attract converts too. Raber introduced me to two young women in his congregation who used to be Roman Catholics. They seemed happy.
I began to envy them, especially when Raber took me to their congregation’s schoolhouse. My childhood memories of having to share a classroom with 80 other boys in bombed-out Leipzig after World War II were horrible. Here I found myself in what seemed like a dream world. There were three bright classrooms with no more than eight kids each. There was Wanita Yoder, a handsome young teacher dressed in a home-sewn light-green garment. She knelt next to children to be at eyelevel with them while explaining intricate points of an antiquated form of German, in which the Amish sing, pray and, with English phrases mixed in, communicate.
The Amish keep their children in school for only eight years teaching them English, German, arithmetic, reading, handwriting and the Bible. Even their instructors have no higher education. But where else have I ever seen teachers kneeling next to their students in class? Nowhere have I experienced happier, trimmer and healthier looking boys and girls.
But I did say that this was an escape, didn’t I? I loved what I saw until the thought occurred to me that none of these kids would ever become a physician. I asked Raber about that: “Could you be a doctor and still be Amish?” He hesitated and then replied, “Theoretically you could. But by the time you graduate you would have exposed yourself too much to the wickedness of the world.” So I wondered: “Does this mean that, having been through this kind of experience, I will go to hell?” Raber became adamant: “No! We would never say this. While we avoid this lifestyle we must obey Jesus’ words, ‘Judge not lest you be judged.” (Matthew 7:1-2).
However, this brief dialogue illustrated the stark theological contrast between this Lutheran and his enchanting Amish hosts. Fearing the temptation of falling into sin they would rather not risk worldly vocations such as physician, lawyer, policeman or politician. The Lutheran, on the other hand, has Luther’s admonition in his ears: “You are a sinner, so sin boldly but even more boldly believe and rejoice in Christ.” In other words, do your duty in the secular “kingdom,” aware that you are fallible and bound to sin, but knowing that Christ is always there to be asked for forgiveness.
We drove to Joseph Beachy, an Amish cabinetmaker. Together they questioned me about my life and work. I told him about an article I had just written. It was about a so-called “Lutheran” by the name of Dr. George Tiller in Wichita, Kan., a physician whose voice can be heard on the Internet announcing that he had already killed 60,000 children in their mothers’ wombs, mainly late-term, and that he was aborting an average of 100 more per week.
Tears welled up in the eyes of these two bearded men. Although they did not say so, I sensed that at this point they must have recognized the flaws in their one-kingdom theology; while it is perhaps wonderful to live a wholesome Amish life, the realities of what we Lutherans call the (secular) “kingdom to the left” still must be grappled with by legal, political and other means. Letting evil run its course is not a Christian option. Visibly shaken, Beachy gently took my arm and lead me outside.
On the next morning, a Sunday, buggies pulled up at Raber’ s property. Bearded men in black suits piled into his basement “saluting each other with holy kiss” (Romans 16:16). They took their places on benches without backrests to the left of a makeshift lectern. The women came down from the first floor and sat on the other side.
A deep male voice intoned the first word of the Anabaptist hymn “O Herre, in deinem Thron” (O Lord, in Thy Throne); the others fell in powerfully a cappella in harmony, slowly, hauntingly, for 22 stanzas. More hymns were sung, followed by a one-hour sermon partly in English, partly in dialectical German on Psalm 107. After more singing another preacher gave a 90-minute homily entirely in 16th-century German on the Book of Daniel. It was all law. A Gospel lesson was read but left uncommented; we were not taught the Gospel’s immensely liberating message that as redeemed sinners we must boldly embrace our roles as God’s masks through whom He carries out His hidden purposes, to use a famous axiom by the Reformer.
When I left for St. Louis after the service, Raber told me that his flock would soon send out members to form new congregations far away. This was good news at the end of my leave of absence in “Little Arabia.” Yet I knew that I could never join them. I am joyful over having experienced the “Amish alternative” to my own world. Did not Luther say in 1525: “There must be sects so that the spirits may clash”?
I have no wish to belittle them, quite to the contrary: When I left Raber and his people I was filled with gratitude that in their midst I found spiritual rest and regained the strength to return to my Lutheran reality of rolled-up sleeves in God’s left-hand kingdom.