Monday, July 30, 2007


The tension between fundamentalist Christianity and the Amish is a subject in need of some sunshine. Given the respect the Amish engender from most of the public, it's a disgrace how predatory and demeaning evangelicals can get when they're proselytizing the Amish.

From an earlier post.

I'm familiar with a dark side of fundamentalist Christianity when it isn't tempered with compassion and reason. As a child I watched my older brother dramatically withdraw from our family, in large part because of an encounter he had with a neighbor, who managed to persuade him of the inferiority of our family's faith and way of life. ( How, "four centuries ago." )
The irony is, we were Amish. The same people who are currently revered world wide for how they dealt with a horrible tragedy in one of their schools. And yet, it is very likely my thirteen year old brother was told that if he doesn't reject and Dis-associate from most of what my family was and did, he would burn in hell for all eternity.
It would be nice to see the local fundamentalist evangelical community show some leadership and speak up for common sense and decency.

IN her novel, "The Redemption Of Sarah Cain" Beverly Lewis is shameless in her willingness to profit from the Old Order Amish but her character is glad to not be Old Order. There are Amish in Lancaster who conform to Lewis' portrayed, preferable faith, they just happen to be plagued by schism and low retention. I guess that doesn't sell books.

Monday, July 23, 2007


How could this happen ("Teen dies in woodshop accident," Dec. 16)? It is illegal for 17-year-olds to perform the task that lead to this tragedy. The disregard for the law and practical safety procedure is appalling considering the Amish have, only recently, successfully petitioned Congress for an exemption to child-labor laws prohibiting people under the age of 18 from working in woodshops. Amendment HR 1943 sponsored by Rep. Joe Pitts and signed by President Bush in January 2004 permits Amish children, ages 14 to 18, to work in woodshops but prohibits operation of machinery.

It makes little sense that a community known for its generous charity to each other would seek, through a child-labor law exemption, to gain access for their children to work in an area known to be fraught with injury and death.

The minority views attached to HR 221 reveal no hearings were held where opposition views could be presented, the Department of Justice was not given enough information to make a decision on the constitutionality of the proposed legislation and it was stuck onto the end of the year Omnibus appropriations bill (HR 2673) which ruled out debate and an up or down vote on its own merit.

A chilling display of Republican arrogance and disdain for the deliberative process. Conservative ideology agrees with Amish belief when it insists goverment interference is always bad. But Republicans have a track record of passing legislation that favors the rich and powerful while leaving the weak and the poor to fend for themselves.

Are these the kind of values the Amish community wants to be known for?

A 17-year-old Amish boy died recently in a work-related accident.
The task he was performing was a violation of child-labor laws.
Recent legislation that allows Amish children 14-17 years of age to work in woodshops prohibits them from operating machinery and performing tasks like the one that led to the fatality.
The shop owner's apparent failure to comply with the law, besides the tragic consequences for the victim, erases the trust the legislation bestowed on him in the first place.
A perusal of HR 221 reveals that the majority rejected a provision that would have required employers of Amish children to submit injury reports so the legislation could be evaluated for its impact on the children it affected.
As a former Amishman, I can say with authority that the Amish community possesses qualities that are a tribute to the goodness of humankind, but policing their industries for the sake of creating a safe and humane work environment is not one of them.
So, who will protect these children?

The remark, "I can't say I feel guilty," by Amish man David King in reference to the accidental death of his 13-year-old nephew [Sunday News, March 5] highlights the need for informed dialogue between the Amish and the non-Amish communities.
The U.S.
Department of Labor fined King for violating the Fair Labor Standards Act, which prohibits the activity the victim was engaged in.
King adheres to Amish doctrine in stating the fatality was God's will.
The dilemma posed in embracing such doctrine isn't in response to tragedy but in defining what a community's moral responsibility is in avoiding it.
The Constitution grants the Amish the freedom to practice their faith.
But today's Amish farm and William Penn's religious experiment are light-years apart.
Amish life has become inextricably intertwined with commerce, real-estate values and human capital.
All influence Amish life in ways that are hard to reconcile with typical Amish values.
It is gut-wrenching to witness the effect of Western culture's values on a people who have no mechanism in place to counter the negative aspects of those values.
Amish faith demands submission to God's will, so any attempt by the non-Amish community to use this tragedy to spur safety awareness, impose external legal restraints, or motivate internal self-governance through shame from public outcry feels blasphemous to the Amish.
Yet the difficulty posed by our interfacing values and customs must not be allowed to deter a solution.
Innocent lives depend on it.

The coverage of the Plain community's use of farm subsidies [Aug. 27] has left me reeling. Not because I doubt the need to sustain the family farm, but because as a former Amishman I know that wide and pervasive acceptance of handouts will destroy the Amish as we know them.
A prominent teaching in Amish faith is the need to remain separate and apart from the world.
Farming became a sacred endeavor for the Amish, specifically because it enabled them to practice their faith with minimal interference. Now the religious tenet that defined them is on a crash course with the farming that has served them so well.
It is an epic irony that this havoc among my people is instigated by a government program at a time when our government is run by people who fanatically believe in the free market, limited government and pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


An open letter to the Old Order Amish bishops and ministers:
The news coverage of the attraction of your people to President Bush and the GOP's solicitation of their vote begs further discourse.
Your congregants entering the voting booth with their pacifist beliefs and a military-service exemption to vote for a candidate who is a unrepentant champion of an unprecedented, ill-begotten, preemptive invasion of a sovereign nation will pose quite a spectacle.
Your position of leaving it up to the individual whether to vote may not cut it for your neighbors who are appalled at Bush's hawkish policies and desperately want him out of office.
Not to mention they face the prospect of having their sons and daughters conscripted to fight in this quagmire of a war while your children don't have to serve.
With the country evenly divided politically, the outcome in Pennsylvania could decide who our next president will be. If Bush would win by a margin equal to the number of Amish who voted, they would, in a sense, be responsible for reelecting him.
The ill will and resentment such a scenario could produce would be a social disaster that would haunt us for generations.
I petition your sense of fairness, your desire to live in the world but not be of the world. I ask you to please take a clear, concise position on this issue and bring the full authority of your entrusted positions as religious leaders to it.

First off, I'm a registered Democrat, and to say I'm capable of being rabidly partisan is an understatement. That said, I have a few comments on the news coverage of the GOP's trolling for votes in the Amish community. As a former Amishman, I will note that democracy, open debate and dissent are not utilized in any aspect of Amish life.
Based on the quotes of Amish sources in the newspaper, I further observe that any participation of the Amish in this election year is not out of a desire to contribute to democracy, but a cheap exercise in jumping on the religion bandwagon.
To the Amish who are considering voting this year: Based on your overall aversion for the democratic process, and your stated religious reasons for supporting our current president, I will draw the conclusion that, when you cast a vote, you are advocating the creation of a theocracy. And, by doing so, you will be making a mockery of what your forefathers gave their lives for.
If that wasn't enough, what of the concept of a pacifist group supporting a self-proclaimed war president? Your servile affection for your candidate whom you won't challenge in any way (for your own vain reasons) makes you a bunch of hypocrites, because none of you or your children are being killed, or even the slightest bit inconvenienced, by this current administration's flawed attempts to make the world safer.
The local GOP is to be commended for trying to increase voter participation, but it wasn't so long ago that Congressman Joe Pitts was in a snit about UPN's "Amish in the City," proclaiming it an assault on my people's sanctity of life. If Pitts and local campaign officials weren't so anxious to make political hay, or really knew their constituents, they would understand that, when the Amish align themselves with the government, they are violating one of their core principles in a far more detrimental way than a couple of marginalized teenagers on a reality show ever will.

According to the Scribbler (9/26 New Era), President Bush pressed the flesh with the Amish twice in two years.
Amishman Jake Stoltzfus is quoted as being amazed at the trust placed in the Amish because they did not have to pass through security and the personal recognition he received from Mr Bush.
Considering that anyone from the general public who isn't Republican is routinely excluded and even sometimes, with no provocation, evicted from having an audience with the president, this sounds quite cozy.
I have no interest in the president's motivation for participating in this dalliance, but what about the Amish? Would they still be agog if their sons and daughters were fighting and dying in Iraq?
Would they still be infatuated with Mr. Bush's carefully cultivated image as "a good Christian man" if their moral integrity depended on owning the treatment and prosecution of terrorist suspects as something done in their name the way the rest of us are?

After watching Bill Moyers' PBS special, "Selling the War," it is obvious the Bush administration played the American people like a drum.
The sad part is how vulnerable the media and the American people were to their manipulations. That brings me to my own people, the Amish. If anybody could have been immune to the propaganda it should have been them. The Amish faith is heavily influenced by the scriptural admonition to be separate and apart from the world and yet prior to the 2004 election this pacifist community was quoted as having "Bush fever."
Allowing our government to take us to war without an imminent threat that is more than hype and propaganda is a black mark against us all. I suggest my Amish peers search their hearts a little harder the next time, before giving their salt-of-the-earth credibility to a warmonger.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007


First of all, I hope the families affected by the Nickel Mines school shooting will find peace and strength to face their day in spite of the tragedy that has be-fallen them. As the Grandfather of two little girls I dread imagining the pain of their loss and I commend the gestures of compassion and forgiveness by the Amish to the Roberts family. The example the Amish have shown should make us all pause. So let's, and consider this while we do.
While the Amish reaching out to the Roberts family was beautiful and profoundly generous, the media's fixation on forgiveness started by that gesture is suspect. How much sense does it make for WGAL's news anchor to sign off , less than thirty six hours after the tragedy with " tonight in Nickel Mines we have forgivness" When it is common knowledge people who lose loved ones tragically go through a process of which foregivness is a part, but any psychologist worth their salt will tell you next day foregivness is rushing it a bit.
I'm sick of the intellectual dishonesty of media proclamations like your " Amish gift to world -power of foregivness" 12-13-06. How can your editorial page support Amish style " love your enemy" When, if Roberts were still alive it would support the death penalty for him?
As a former Amishman I;m aware of the need by the non-Amish community to project things onto the Amish that aren't real. I'm afraid all the media hype over foregivness is one of those things. The Amish are human and just like it would be for us, coming to terms with horrific loss will be, for the most part a long lonely journey of the soul.
The Grandfather who was interveiwed in the wee hours of the morning wasn't looking for an opportunity to tell the world that he had forgiven. Remember, it was the interveiwer who asked the question. Have you forgiven? As if she were at a sporting event querying a contestant who was facing the biggest challenge of their life. What was he supposed to say? Yea, I'd like to go over there tonight and run my pitch fork through them all! He was a devastated man looking for company and the reporter used him.
The media is projecting a fantasy concept of faith that is more about what the nonAmish community wants to hear than what is real for the Amish.

The Scribbler's suggestion to recognize the service of Conscientious Objectors on Memorial Day 5/27, is intellectually dishonest. Conscientious Objectors believe the taking of human life is wrong under any circumstance. Memorial Day is about honoring the sacrifice of our war dead, which inherently implies they died in a worthy cause. To suggest that these two are mutually compatible is demeaning to both.
Saying Conscientious Objectors served in non-military functions so others could fight, neuters the principle they embrace. It's also true that our nation benefited from their alternate service. But I suggest we honor the intent of their principle, instead of pretending we can absorb it into our common values without ruining it.

I'm heartened to see some fundamentalist Christian leaders are repudiating the narrow, sharp edged agenda, around abortion and homo-sexuality that has dominated political discourse in recent years.
Jim Wallis, the author of "God's politics" and Rick Warren the author of "A Purpose Driven Life" are two notable examples. Both men steadfastly adhere to Christian morals but refuse to let their faith be hijacked for political convenience. And so, bring a much needed breath of fresh air to our dialogue.
I'm familiar with a dark side of fundamentalist Christianity when it isn't tempered with compassion and reason. As a child I watched my older brother dramatically withdraw from our family, in large part because of an encounter he had with a neighbor, who managed to persuade him of the inferiority of our family's faith and way of life. ( How, "four centuries ago." )
The irony is, we were Amish. The same people who are currently revered world wide for how they dealt with a horrible tragedy in one of their schools. And yet, it is very likely my thirteen year old brother was told that if he doesn't reject and Dis-associate from most of what my family was and did, he would burn in hell for all eternity.
It would be nice to see the local fundamentalist evangelical community show some leadership and speak up for common sense and decency.

Herman Bontrager was quoted Intell 5/24 "Church honors Amish" saying "For them it was never in question because, they don't know how not to forgive" in reference to the Amish response to the Nickel Mines school shooting. It's disheartening to see their own representative make such a harmful mischaracterization of Amish faith.
What isn't in question for the Amish is what their faith calls them to. There's a powerful illustration in the Martyrs Mirror (one of their religious texts) by which the Amish measure their commitment to the scriptural commandment to "love your enemy" It's the account of an Anabaptist believer sacrificing his freedom and ultimately his life, to rescue his assailant from the ice covered river he had fallen into.
But, to suggest that the Amish are exempt from the full range of human experience in response to tragedy is lunacy. Amish submission to the commandment "love your enemy" and generations of cultivated passivity in the face of provocation, is what determined their response to the Nickel Mines tragedy, not some quasi human ability to forgive. More importantly, the Amish themselves aren't so naive about their own humanity that they would want to be seen as different from the rest of us.
It would enrich us all to become familiar with the values adherents of the Amish faith aspire to uphold. It's a disgrace to project onto those adherents a magical utopia that exists only in our imaginations.

I saw Oprah interviewed an Amish couple from Ohio on her show 3 23 07. It was charming to see her whooping it up with my people. She managed to high-light one of the greatest strengths the Amish have which is their commitment to simplicity. But she also walked smack into what most portrayals of the Amish do, which is to glorify them in such a way, that non-amish people find it hard to associate with, or relate to them as fellow human beings.
Oprah's audience may find it hard to imagine a society with no divorce. ( which isn't factually accurate of the Amish.) But if the show would have high-lighted how Amish couples get along and explored the issues of their everyday lives, the result would have revealed our common experience instead of fictitiously perpetuating the idea that they are not like us.
As a shunned Amishman it is crucial for me in dealing with my estrangement to hold dear our universal humanity. No matter who we are, or how flawed and imperfect our connections, our success as human beings depends on how we respond to the idea that we are all in this together.
Because of their custom of having large families, the amish population is growing rapidly. Consequently issues arising from our co-existence will become more pronounced. When common ground is needed, the distorted perception created by irresponsible media will hamper a solution.
The pendulum of public opinion swings easily from above to below. Seeing the Amish as fellow human beings and not some caricature with which we entertain ourselves is profoundly important for the stability and well-being of our community.

Here's a letter to the editor by my ex-wife

Oh dear, "Amish in the City'' hasn't even aired yet, and already the "experts'' are pointing out its mistakes. I'm not any better, as I found some mistakes, too.
Why do people think Amish dolls have no facial features? All little Amish girls play with dolls and they all have faces, just like everyone else's. And a lot of quilts made for young girls today are not in the traditional colors.
Tourists are the ones who buy those. The same goes for the faceless dolls.
Ms. Greenleaf, who wrote the article about the program for the New Era, "might'' be familiar with Lancaster County Amish, but she obviously knows nothing about those who live west of Pennsylvania.
The girls' hair and dress are typical of most Ohio and Indiana Amish. Plus all the Amish men I know have buttons on their shirts, no matter where they live.
I am curious though about Randy's suspenders, as some places in Indiana, teenagers do not wear suspenders. (And I'm guessing there's quite a few Amish Randys in Indiana. A common name in one area might be unheard of in another. And after all, this is the 21st Century.
My last complaint is the word rumspringa and its definition. The media is mistaken about the meaning of rumspringa. The media's version of rumspringa is acting rebelliousness, and testing out the ways of the world to see if one wants to remain Amish. This idea is wrong.
Rumspringa is what all Amish do when they turn 16. They go away without their parents, mostly on weekends, to supper gangs and singing crowds. It's when youth get to know each other, start dating and possibly meet their future spouses.
It is an organized part of the Amish life that is looked forward to and encouraged by all. Usually it starts at age 16 and ends with marriage.
The teenagers who dress plain and go away with horse and buggies are rumspringa just as well as the ones who dress like a local high school student, drive a car and binge drink. Rumspringa is not frowned upon. It's the way some people act while in rumspringa that is not approved.
Trying to be factual about the Amish is difficult. There are thousands of Amish in the U.S. and they live in numerous states and settlements. What is common in some groups would be unheard of in others.
Leah Zook

Sunday, July 15, 2007


I believe there is a need for more dialogue about the points of contact between our cultures which the interactive nature of a blog could facilitate. There are multiple subjects that are in need of in-depth discussion and review beyond what my efforts, to date, have affected. So, I'm posting a list of letters to the editor that I've written. I hope to bring vitality and authenticity to the larger understanding of the Amish and address the woefully unexamined relationship between non-Amish people and the Amish.

Here's a piece I submitted to the Lancaster Sunday News for their "In My Opinion" section. They didn't print it.

Recent news reported a three day conference on the Amish being held at Elizabeth town college. The article quoted subjects to be addressed like "Who are the Amish?" and how should we relate to them. I have a few comments on the latter. Here are some examples of how we betray our own values in relating to the Amish.
NO. 1
During my sons' junior year in high-school at a school assembly called to celebrate a successful fund-raising event, faculty divided into two teams and competed to guess the most popular responses to survey questions solicited from the student body prior to the event. The third most popular response to the question, "what's the worst thing about Lancaster county?" was "the Amish". When the teams of faculty faltered in guessing the correct response, the students prompted them, shouting from the bleachers "the Amish, the Amish".
My sons Amish identity aside, the failure of the faculty and students who organized the event to recognize how inappropriate that response was going to be as a part of the event was bad, but it's not nearly as damning as the fact that an event like that could occur and nobody stepped forward to mitigate it and to clarify that it was not a view school officials wanted to promote. When I called the school to complain the principal denied any wrong doing had occurred.

NO. 2
There's a post on the web log "the buck stops here" Which refers to alleged remarks made by supreme court justice Potter Stewart about how and on what basis he was voting in Wisconsin vs Yoder, a 1972 case that relieved Amish children from compulsory education requirements. The author of the post, Stuart Buck, writes, my con law professor Richard Parker, who clerked for justice Stewart during the term Yoder was decided told me "Justice Stewart told me that he was voting for the amish because they were cute". However second hand this reference is, it reveals a demeanor that wouldn't be replicated for any of his other cases.

In the magazine Legal Affairs, Nadya Labi writes about a young Amish woman who, after being sexually abused by family members dropped hints about the abuse to non-amish neighbors. When they didn't pick up on the cues,she called a battered women's shelter, but wasn't taken seriously. Only after a month of repeated calls was children and family services alerted. Yet the state repeatedly failed to remove the victim from the abusive environment. Meanwhile she suffered horrendous retribution for speaking up. Only after drama and isolation (akin to a political prisoner in a police state) did her situation change for the better.

NO. 4
Donald Kraybill, a prominent scholar of the Amish is widely accepted and respected as the preeminent authority on Amish life, but I couldn't fully address my concerns without questioning the impact of his work on the community he studies and the perception it fosters in his readers.
Kraybill showcases the communal values of the Amish and juxtaposes them with western cultures individualism, which is a worthy effort for a social scientist, but he fails to ask whether there is a cost to conforming to those values. Since the Amish are a closed authoritarian society, there is a poverty around self-reflective activities that normally enable societies to work through social issues and moral dilemmas. Kraybill is an outside agent that could at a minimum create language for the issues that need to be wrestled with.
Labeling a problem is the first step towards determining a response. Kraybill's consistent rose colored view of Amish life colludes with the Amish leaders efforts to portray, any acknowledgment of problems within the church, as heresy. This squelches dissent or identification of problems and consequently any solutions. Because of this collusion Kraybill's legacy in the end, may be one of having harmed the community he studied.
Kraybill's contribution to how the rest of the world sees the Amish is also problematic. There is a real danger if the general public's perception of the Amish is too simple or rose colored. Our relationship with the Amish is going to demand practical real life solutions. Romanticism will hinder that effort. One of the problems affecting Kraybills work is a lack of aggressive peer review. Because the Amish are a closed society it is hard for anyone else to obtain information so they can test or refute Kraybills conclusions. After the shooting at the Amish school in Nickel Mines Kraybill was reported to have given over one hundred interviews. It doesn't matter how accurate he is on ninety percent of his work, with that kind of coverage if ten percent of his work is flawed, with no other works to serve as an emollient for his errors, the damage can be enormous.

The local paper has repeatedly reported on three young Amish families who recently left the Amish church. The coverage referred to their efforts to evangelize the Old Order community they had just been expelled from. Contention over religious purity from people leaving the Amish church is common. What is unusual is the grandiose intent of this groups effort. They are holding an event called, "The Glory Barn", basically a revival meeting that is running non-stop 24\7, for fifty days from Easter to Pentecost. A mission statement on their web site envisions bringing a purer form of Christianity to all the Amish in the U.S. and the accompanying request for funds to enable them to personally fulfill that mission.
Also promoted on the web site is their intent to promote emotional and spiritual healing. What bothers me is, being ex-amish myself, I am aware of allegations that this group mistreated an Amish relative of mine whom they were trying to minister to. I contacted one of her siblings to ask if he would confirm the allegations. He strictly adhered to Amish custom of refusing to speak ill of others. I tried to explain the legitimacy of public interest in knowing the track record of a group who was garnering news coverage and publicly asking for support for a mission in which more innocent people would be entrusted to their care and influence. He proved himself a loyal Amish man but not a good defense attorney, by informing me that the family had an agreement with the health care provider, that assessed his sister after her stay with the "Glory Barn" folks, to not report her condition to authorities.
So I called the editor of the paper that ran the Glory Barn story, he informed me they were aware of the allegations. I wonder if he would take the same approach if his paper were covering a group of Pagans under similar circumstances. Given the popularity of fundamentalist Christianity in conservative circles in Lancaster, ( which is the purer version the Glory Barn participants want to convert all the Amish to.) this situation doesn't pass the smell test.

in conclusion; From High School Faculty, Supreme Court Justice, Social Worker, Scientist, to Reporter, in each example the competence and character to uphold certain values and function within a certain parameter is inherently responsible for why these individuals are entrusted with their jobs. But when they are dealing with the Amish for some reason a different standard applies.

Here's another letter I submitted to all three Lancaster Newspapers, It wasn't printed.

In a recent column, New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt wrote the following, "oped pages should be open especially to controversial ideas, because that's the way a free society decides what's right and wrong for itself, Good ideas prosper in the sunshine of healthy debate, and bad ones wither. Left hidden out of sight and unchallenged, the bad ones can grow like poisonous mushrooms.
The concept Hoyt refers to is useful in examining the idealized portrayals of the Amish so common currently in the media and academia for their ignorance of the realities that exist in a closed authoritarian society. The credible and established works on the Amish unfortunately are the most egregious. Inspite of their otherwise accurate portrayals they unanimously gloss over or omit referring to the benifits of a free society versus a closed, rigidly authoritarian one.
It may not be useful to make comparisons of the Amish with Fidel Castro's Cuba, but the similarities non-the-less are plentiful and the hypocrisy revealed by our different responses to the two couldn't be more stark. One thing is certain, any beneficiary of our free and open society, who idealizes the Amish and ignores the poverty that's inherently a part of their culture, demeans the centuries of progress all of western culture takes for granted and they promote a harmful environment which they themselves don't have to live in.

Another one, not printed

The deluge of news coverage glorifying of the Amish people's ability to forgive continues, "first book on Amish tragedy published" New era 5\31. Albeit with the caveat "that we shouldn't imagine that it is 'easier' for the amish than for 'normal' people"' to forgive. If any other group was refered to as the other of normal, there would be a law suit. Shame on the authur and the New Era for useing and perpetuating demeaning language. Suggesting we all start from the same place only magnafies the end result the Amish are portrayed as having attained.
The article informs us.
No. 1 The Amish think anger is unneccessary and are "startled" that anyone would find their response of forgiveness, rather than anger, "mysterious".
No. 2 Forgiveness is somthing the Amish take for granted and is innoculated in children.
No. 3 It's impossible for them not to forgive, because their salvation depends on it.
As a former Amish man I find these portrayals dehumanizing and unrecognizable. If we allow ourselves to be fed a view of Amish faith that is unrealistic and impracticle, we'll form perceptions that will add injury and insult to the horror they have already experienced.