From The Fringe: Trouble In Paradise

The Amish recently received international attention as the forcible beard and hair attacks ordered by Bishop Samuel Mullet were addressed by the US federal court. But has the spotlight been put on them for the right reasons? Tot-tot, tot-tot. A hose-drawn buggy is rattling through town. The driver leans forward, focusing his will on the horse as it struggles up a hill. He is trying earnestly to ignore the local SUVs crawling behind him, which weave to avoid the manure on the road. Other cars come to a stop to watch him go by; tourists hang out the windows, trying to snap candid photos. A woman walks on the sidewalk, dressed, despite the 30 degree heat, in a heavy smock and bonnet. A man in suspenders with a wide-brimmed hat and a long, grey beard is arranging pumpkins beside the road. I'm in Holmes County, Ohio: the largest settlement of Amish people on earth. Here, they number around 36,000, and the population doubles every 16 years. The Amish are in fact the fastest-growing population in the world, with an average household of 7 children. This is a place where the Bible verse "be ye fruitful, and multiply" has tangible meaning. There are now 250,000 worldwide descendants from the original 200 18th century founders, who were exiled from Switzerland due to religious radicalism. In settlements like these, they attempt to live as their ancestors did, hemmed in by the modernity of wider society. Walking through downtown Berlin, the coexistence ofAmish and non-Amish pervades an unusual atmosphere, which is made even more strange and complex by the passionate and at times violent divisions among the Amish themselves. "The one thing that I don't understand about the Amish, is all the partying." I was having a beer with Tyler Yoder, a 26-year-old welder. Tyler left the Amish when he was 21 years old. He is what people call a fence jumper. "We had a thing called rumspringa," he was saying, "Which began for me when I was about 15. It's when young Amish wear English clothes and do English things. It's so that they can experience the outside world. And then after a few years, they come back to the church and get baptized. So when I was inrumspringa, we would have these bonfires, and there would be a lot of drinking and sex. That was when I got addicted to drugs. Pot, meth, everything." "And what did your parents make of it?" "Oh, they don't like it, but they let it happen. It's all OK, as long as you come back to the church and get baptized. And I still went to church, but the sermons were in high german. None of us understood. We just slept, or snuck out the back and smoked." "This was made in New Zealand. It says on it somewhere, 'Made in New Zealand." Amishman David Hershberger was examining one of his fenceposts. "I guess you New Zealanders are good for something." He was giving me a tour of his dairy farm in Fredricksburg, Holmes County. I was going to spend a week living with him and his wife Emily. The Hershbergers are an exceptional couple within the community. For starters, they had invited me to stay in their home - not the most common of practices among a people known for their weariness of outsiders - and they had also recently adopted. "We had to wait four years on the registry," Emily said as we sat in the dim light of their sparsely decorated living room. "I think when the mothers saw pictures of us, they thought oh no, look at these weirdos." I could understand it, but as I watched Emily rock back and forth with the baby in her arms and a bonnet covering her dark hair, I was at a loss to think of a more wholesome upbringing. "She's Native American," David was saying, "We got her in Texas a few months ago. Our church gave us permission to fly down there." "You flew in a plane?" "It was the first time we had flown. I thought to myself, if this thing starts to fall out of the sky, there really isn't much hope for us." An Amish couple flying through the sky in a plane isn't as simple as a contradiction. The Amish can be divided into different churches, which vary according to how they interpret doctrine, and the technologies they allow their members. At the "low" end of the scale are the Schwartzentruper Amish, who are the most conservative bunch, and forgo running water and even mirrors. The largest group, the Old order Amish - of which the Hershbergers are members - is more lenient. David and Emily cannot drive vehicles, but they're allowed to ride in them. They own a telephone, but it isn't allowed to be in the house. They use gas to power their refrigerator, a generator to power their milking equipment, and solar energy to pump water out of their well. Although they aren't connected to the electrical grid, they've found ways to maintain a comfortable living standard. Conveniences such as computers and cellphones are beyond the Hershbergers, but may be used by the New Order and New New Order Amish, who are further up the scale, and considered a bit snooty. So although unified by basic tenets of belief, the Amish are an extremely diverse people. They're known for their rejection of modern technology - on the basis that it causes divisions and inequalities in a community - but each church differs on which technologies encroach on their family-oriented, separatist lifestyles, and which ones don't. "One church started to allow telephones in the house, because the Bishop wanted one for himself," Emily explains. "But then he put all these restrictions on the telephones. They weren't allowed caller ID, or voicemail. So there wasn't much point in having one." She recalled another Church that, in order to compensate for its members driving tractors, denied the use of electric fencing, which made animal management more difficult. Such transgressions, which may appear to outsiders as blatant hypocrisies, can be seen everywhere. Though clothed in traditional garb, some Amish girls wear the latest Nikes. An Amish bow-hunter I spoke with used sophisticated GPS equipment. After supper one night, I heard a throbbing baseline coming over the pastures. "That's the youth of the Andy Weaver church," David said. "They have boomboxes in their buggies." Why do Amish men all have beards without mustaches and bowl-shaped haircuts? It's because they want to look as similar as possible. One of their principle values is Glassenheit, which is German for humility, or selflessness. But although this philosophy is in stark contrast with the aggressive individualism of mainstream culture, the Amishmay be less separate from wider society than generally perceived. They pay taxes, and vote in the election - generally contributing to the Republican vote. "Most Amish will vote for Romney," David said, "but I like Obama. I wont be voting, though. To me, Obama is the lesser of the evils, but a president who makes war on other countries, it doesnt matter the reason, it just isn't Christian." The concept of "nonresistance" is very important among the Amish. "I've done a lot of thinking about it," said Emily. "I think to myself, if an intruder came into the house, would god forgive me if I hit him over the head with a rolling pin? But I suppose I would run away." One enduring difference between Amish and the mainstream is that Amish kis are not educated beyond the eighth grade, and higher education is unheard of. In theory, it isnt necessary; a self-contained agricultural lifestyle is the cornerstone of Amish existence. Or at least, it used to be. Although an agrarian environment is probably where theAmish ideals of familial, equal, non-conformist living would fare best, only a quarter of the Amish in Holmes County are farmers. A century ago they were all farmers. "Not all Amish can farm these days," David told me. "Land is expensive, and there isn't enough of it. So some Amish, work in, say, factories, and I think that encourages liberal thinking. People who work in factories have a lot of money and spare time." Many Amish are now competitive businessmen. They manufacture farming equipment, breed dogs in controversial "puppy mills" - stacked kennels that have caused animal rights demonstrations - build furniture, run restaurants which cater to the County's tourists. In order to do business, they need to make technological allowances, which is the reason that more liberal church affiliations are generally wealthier. In Amish country, a self-made millionaire might live next-door to a struggling produce farmer. It seems that the enemy of equality in the Amish community isn't modern technology, but money. David agreed. We were riding through the rain in his buggy, on our way to a livestock auction. "A lot of the New Order or Menonites are Amish who got wealthy and then moved up. Look at this." He was pointing to a large, grey shed, which seemed incongruous with the countryside. "That's a New Order business. I mean, it's a successful business, but just look at it. It's not very Amish." "I was always afraid I was going to die before I got rid of my record player." - An Amish woman on her own rumspringa experience. The treatment of rumspringa varies from church to church as much as anything else. David and I were having coffee after a day of shoveling manure. "I wasn't with the rumspringa crowd. You know, rumspringa is something that's portrayed a lot in the media, but only about half of the Amish go through anything like that. I never felt any need to rebel, so I didn't do it." While it is sometimes ridiculed by the mainstream - for example, in an upcoming reality TV show called Breaking Amish on TLC - rumspringa is a point of serious disparity among Amish churches. The Schwartentruper Amish, for example, who are considered "dirty" and "poor," by higher churches, and are derogatorily reffered to as "noodlers," are known for being particularly lenient with their youth. By contrast, the New Order, who are thought of as "snobby," are especially condemning of wildness before baptism. Greater access to technology causes a lower retention of the Churchs youth. Another hotly contested issue between churches is "shunning;" the practice of excommunicating members. If a Bishop feels that a member is straying from the Ordnung (order) of the Church, he may choose to encourage friends and family to cease all contact with them, as punishment for their waywardness. Bishops have long argued about the place of shunning in the Church, how it should be done, and whether or not it should be done at all. It's clear from the retributive nature of shunning that such disputes are probably traced to personality clashes rather than drastic theological differences. If Bishops need to manipulate a member and their family into estrangement, to make an example of them and maintain order, they often will. But some of them go further than that. In September, 16 Amish people, including leader Samuel Mullet, were convicted in the federal court for a series of beard and hair cuttings that occurred last year. During the trials, prosecutors and witnesses described a series of moonlit attacks ordered by Mullet which included a father being dragged out of bed by his sons, who then cut off most of his beard, and women surrounding their mother-in-law and cutting her hair down to the scalp. Mullet admits orchestrating the attacks, but claims he did so out of "compassion and concern." As the trials unfolded, it was also testified that Mullet had abused women in the community, and had locked men in a chicken coop in order to punish them for disobedience. All the defendants, including Mullet, face sentences of 10 years or more. In Holmes County, people are reluctant to talk about Mullet. It was difficult to find anybody who wanted to comment. It became evident that, despite his lunacy, Mullet was a powerful man. Due to the autonomous nature of the church and the preference of Amish to deal with abuse issues intramurally - by bishop rather than by police - religious personalities loom large. Bishops are able to exercise a lot of power over their followers, and I was surprised to learn that they are actually chosen at random. In the bishop selection process, a piece of paper is hidden in a songbook, which is shuffled with other songbooks, and then they are passed out to candidates. The candidate with the incriminating songbook is then ordained Bishop. From this fortuitous position, Samuel Mullet was able to exploit the trust of his followers and realize his deranged ideas. He steered his church in a direction that was decisively abusive, cult-like and very "unamish." Rumors are rife about the extent of Mullet's depravity. One man told me he was constantly "armed to the teeth." Tyler Yoder said that he had two skeletons lying in the bottom of his pond. While those things remain unsubstantiated, two things that are unanimous about Samuel Mullet in Holmes County are his mental instability, and his wealth. An anonymous magistrate told me that the county police had been trying to apprehend him for years. "But this guy, he's got oil on his land. He's a millionaire, and he would just throw money at them. That's why they had to use the federal court. You know how they made it a federal crime? The scissors that were used to cut the beards and the hair, the scissors crossed state lines. That was their reason." "The guy's a psychopath," David said. It was my last night at the Hershberger house. I had spent hours explaining to them what Facebook was, and why I liked to drink. "So, at these parties, with the drinking," Emily put in, "I imagine a lot of fornication goes on?" "Samuel Mullet is not an Amishman," David continued. "What he did demonstrates that he isn't Amish. It's simply not the sort of thing an Amishman would do." No one is more hardworking or genial than the Amish. The Hershbergers were authentic, hospitable people, and as I explored the settlement, most of the Amish I encountered were extremely friendly. There were actually many aspects of the Hershberger lifestyle that I found enviable. Without the distractions of Facebook or TV, they were living a life of simple and arguably more enriching pleasures. Like a cup of tea and a slice of Emily's homebaking after a hard day of shifting manure with a mule-drawn cart. It will be sad if Samuel Mullet comes to have an indelible effect on the way we perceive the Amish. He is definitely an anomaly, and it may be that he isn't Amish at all. And on the other hand, it can't be denied that the Amish community is far less uniform and idyllic than traditionally portrayed. The Amish are human. To me, it is no coincidence that the most volatile points of difference between churches - shunning and rumspringa - both relate directly to access to technology, and therefore, economic opportunity. It seems that, much less than theological differences, the churches are ranked according to their willingness to interact with wider society; the extent to which they compete in the marketplace. The Bible verse, "for the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil," comes to mind. In this case it could be the root of all the divisions in the Amish community. And as some Amish prosper economically, make technological allowances in the name of a profit, and move away from the agrarian base that had defined non-conformist life during the modernization of america, their place in the country, whether as a separatists beyond the outskirts of society, or as functioning citizens and business-people, becomes increasingly blurred. Sincerely, Harrison Christian
Harrison Christian