September 1, 2011
American Culture and Old Order Anabaptism in the New Millennium
— Adam Darlage
Jean Friedman-Rudovsky recently reported in Time magazine that between 2005 and 2009, 130 Mennonite women and girls on the Manitoba Colony near Santa Cruz, Bolivia, claimed that Peter Weiber, a Mennonite veterinarian, and eight other Mennonite men, sedated them in their sleep. They allege that Weiber sprayed a chemical into their homes at night and then the men raped them in their drugged stupor. The evidence indicates that the victims ranged between 8 and 60 years old, and that one was mentally handicapped. The article emphasizes the problem of patriarchy in Anabaptist communities, as women are socialized to obey their husbands and male leadership in all things. Friedman-Rudovsky notes that the general comportment of many of the accused at the courthouse was one of jovial horseplay, to the horror of the victims. Last Thursday, August 25, a Bolivian court found seven of the defendants guilty of rape, and they each received 25 years in prison; one more is still at large. Weiber himself received 12 years for his role as an accomplice.
Many of us are especially shocked by such a story because it involves the pacifist Anabaptist tradition that many associate with an imagined bucolic Amish horse-and-buggy culture. This concerned and empathetic perspective is interesting and relatively new from a historical perspective. Anabaptists were brutally persecuted by early modern authorities during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with thousands dying for their faith because they had accepted believer’s baptism––the so-called heretical re-baptism condemned by the Justinian Code in 529 CE. In this the pejoratively named Anabaptists rejected the standard medieval assumption that society was held together by religious uniformity. Moreover, colonial-era Mennonites and Amish, like Quakers, Baptists, and Jews, were frequently treated with suspicion or subject to financial or legal sanctions. Finally, many Americans did not like the pacifist stance of the Anabaptist groups during both World Wars in the first half of the twentieth century.
Something has happened in the last few decades that has changed the general American attitudes toward Old Order Anabaptism into a startlingly positive one, although I am hesitant to explore the detailed sociological mechanics of this change here. Suffice it to say that the Old Orders, especially the Amish, have been “rebranded” as the “Plain People,” the representatives of a better, less hectic past. Beverly Lewis has published novel after novel in the Amish milieu, including the Heritage of Lancaster County Series. Reality shows such as Amish in the City and Amish at the Altar fuel a popular nostalgic obsession with the apparently simple Amish way of life. And all the while, most representatives of the Old Order Anabaptist traditions go about their business, seeking to be left alone according to the fundamental Anabaptist ecclesiological principle: Absonderung, “separation from the world.”
When confronted with the Manitoba Colony tragedy in Bolivia, many people may have recalled the terrible moments of the West Nickel Mines School tragedy of October 2, 2006, when, according to some accounts, the terror of Columbine finally penetrated to the last bastion of true educational innocence: the one-room Amish schoolhouse, standing in for the nineteenth-century schoolhouse as depicted in old television shows like Little House on the Prairie. At least this was the doomsday narrative arc that we were encouraged to consume by sectors of the media. For my part, I admit that when I read about the Mennonite sex scandal, I did not know what to think. For a moment, I could not believe that Old Order Mennonites had done this, despite my recent research into the hierarchical structure of sixteenth-century Hutterite Anabaptism and how this structure affected the lives of women on their communes for both good and ill. I am well aware of the positives and negatives of Old Order Anabaptist patriarchy as it is lived by communities of faith.
My point is this: American culture has gone from deeply distrusting Old Order Anabaptism to romanticizing it as perhaps the premier storehouse of cardinal “American” virtues: simplicity, hard work, integrity, and proud humility. This is why the Nickel Mines tragedy and the recent Mennonite sex scandal in Bolivia are so shocking and confusing, as the media response to Nickel Mines demonstrated in 2006. Some wanted to “fix” the tragedy by trying to give the Amish lessons on the basics of forgiveness, while others sought to give material aid and could not understand when the Amish did not accept all that was offered. The one was a genuine expression of empathy and solidarity, the other a sad commentary on how too often the agendas of talking heads take on a life of their own. Yet both serve as reminders that the Old Orders are still surprisingly “other” to American culture despite our obsession with them.
For many, the Nickel Mines tragedy and the recent Mennonite sex scandal in Bolivia may reinforce a doomsday narrative about the decline and fall of Old Order Anabaptist groups and places as symbols of American virtue--groups and places where vice allegedly should not reach. I argue that this is a poor approach to these tragedies. The Old Orders within the historic Peace Church tradition deserve more than facile narratives of nostalgia and woe when terrible events like these happen. Yet these tragedies also do not warrant a wholesale condemnation of the Old Order way of life or Anabaptist responses to violence, either. Instead, these groups merit deeply contextual understandings of their particular problems and concerns by people who would approach them for what they are: lived religious communities of human beings with their own sets of rituals, values, symbols and, to be sure, their own very human problems as well.
Jean Friedman-Rudovsky, “A Verdict in Bolivia's Shocking Case of the Mennonite Rapes,” Time, August 17, 2011.
Adam Darlage received his Ph.D. in the History of Christianity from the University of Chicago Divinity School in 2009. He is a Lecturer at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, Illinois where he teaches courses in the Humanities and Philosophy Department.