There was an extraordinary documentary on BBC 2 last night: Trouble in Amish Paradise. It followed the story of two Amish brothers, Ephraim and Jesse Stoltzfus, who started questioning the rules of their Amish culture, and as a result ran into problems with their church, and faced total rejection by their friends and family.
It has to be said that many of the rules that are followed by the Amish look bizarre and ridiculous to outsiders – perhaps because many of them are, when you really get down to it. A rule that forbids you to ride a bicycle that has pedals and a chain, for example, does seem to be pushing into la-la land. It’s probably because the countryside where the Amish live looked to be relatively flat to me that this rule still survives, with the Amish scooting about on pedal-less bikes. But the laws of natural selection do seem to have applied to other rules: the widths of hatbands and the manner of wearing suspenders (men’s braces) have evolved into a veritable cornucopia of varieties, each sported by a different Amish sect.
However, Ephraim and Jesse weren’t really bothered about these sorts of rules – indeed, Ephraim, who came across as a most personable man, looked upon them with self-deprecating amusement – no, the one that really bothered them was the fact that the Amish Bible has to be in old German, which hardly anyone understands anymore. The rule is that an English translation is not allowed, so the rank and file of the Amish simply cannot read the Bible for themselves, they have to rely on the church elders. Ah, politics, politics, ‘twas ever thus… As a result of the two brothers’ desire to bring the bible back to everyone, they ran the risk of excommunication from their church, and the shunning of their friends and neighbours. And, make no mistake, “shunning” is no little thing amongst the Amish, it has real consequences both for the shunners and shunnees…
As I say, Ephraim was most personable, as was his wife and their four children. They are very nice people. Yet, to me, their unquestioning belief in God led them into risky situations. For example, they gave all their life savings to a family whom they judged needed the money more in the unshakeable belief that God would provide for them in times of need. So when one of their daughters fell ill with leukaemia, and they were faced with hospital bills of $3,000 a day, that belief was put to the test. In this case, their friends and neighbours did relent their shunning and rally round, but they could have just as easily held true to shunning the Stoltzfus family, and let them go to the wall.
The unquestioning belief was also seen in Amanda Stoltzfus in a scene in the hospital with her daughter. She was totally accepting of the possibility of her daughter’s imminent death, if that was what God willed. Part of me thinks that is admirable (and much better than the “why me?” attitude of some religious believers), but part of me can’t help but find it misguided, in the sense that, by my lights, what she’s doing is crediting her own inner strength to a non-existent outside agency. I also couldn’t help but roll my eyes when the parents said, in the hospital, that their daughter would pull through if God willed it. It seemed as though they gave no credit to advances in medical science or the efforts of the doctors and nurses.
Still, this was a sympathetic portrait of a sympathetic family, and I could not help but feel empathy with them. I would happily have them as neighbours. What I couldn’t do is have that unquestioning, unshakeable, unblinking belief in God. After it was over, I wondered what would have happened if I had, through an accident of birth, come into being in an Amish family. As a gay man, I certainly would not have found it easy. I wonder whether I would have survived, physically or mentally. The outriders of authoritarian societies are usually destroyed or rejected.