Last night, I watched the American Experience documentary on the Amish, which I thought very well done. They treated the Amish with respect, neither nostalgically nor scornfully, with beautiful camera work, well-crafted stories, and good expert commentary. Personally, I especially enjoyed hearing some Amish singing, especially O Gott Vater, which I have never heard sung.
They told the story of the 2006 Nickel Mines tragedy, in which a man shot ten Amish girls in a schoolhouse, killing five of them, and of the amazing forgiveness the Amish showed the killer (who died in the attack) and the killer’s family. They also told stories of former Amish who were placed under the ban and shunned by their Amish communities. The documentarians did not draw any connections between these two, but the stories seem to prompt the following question: how can such peace-loving, forgiving people place others under a strict ban of total non-contact?
The Amish do not need me to defend them, but I have some thoughts. The first is a historical one. When the early Anabaptists began to practice the ban, it is important to remember what the typical punishment was for those who disagreed with a community was in their day. Basically, in most communities, deep theological and civil disagreements would lead to a death sentence for the rebellious one. The Anabaptists themselves were hunted down, and thousands were cruelly murdered for their disagreement. Over against this, the Anabaptists (and the Amish is particular) came up with a non-capital punishment for disagreement: the ban. Compared to death, being shunned is a light sentence.
It is important to remember that the ban is applied only to Amish who have been baptized in the community. Adults who were never baptized as Amish Christians are not subject to the ban; only those who, having committed their lives to God and to the Amish community through baptism are subject to shunning. Adults who grew up Amish, but decided against baptism, are not shunned — they are treated as any other member of the world.
The documentary makes a point of saying that, in the Amish view, the community is more important than the individual. God is obey as a community, not as a bunch of people who happen to believe the same thing and act in concert. One outworking of this is that the Amish act to preserve and protect and nourish the community more than their individual members. Shnning is but the most drastic example of this: it is more important to protect the community than it is to maintain family and friendship ties, no matter how tender.
Finally, the Amish also believe that shunning is the best thing for the person being shunned; a radical kind of tough love to bring the rebel back (and then, the famous Amish forgiveness should kick in). By servering all of a person’s contact with the community (where one has learned to speak, to love, where ones friends and family are), the community hopes to instill the deep cost of rebellion. There are few half-way steps.
As a Mennonite, I admire the consistency and faithfulness of my Anabaptist cousins, and I think about this topic a lot, in fact: how to uphold standards as the world goes to hell in a handbasket. I don’t really have the power to place people under a ban, but it’s good to be reminded that people need to accept responsibility for their actions, that the community is important, and a commitment to following Jesus is a very serious one.
God grant us wisdom to know the differences between how to treat people who fail you, who fail the church though their inidividual actions.