An Illinois shunning story: did these Amish go too far?
Shunning. One of the sorest points of contention when Jakob Amman tore away from his Mennonite kin back in 1693. Still controversial today.
Meidung is the word the Amish use for it. Shunning is one of those things that have continued to define the Amish against their Mennonite cousins, and against the world at large. If asked, the man on the street will be able to tell you what shunning is all about, at least in some vague way. It shows up in pop interpretations of the Amish all the time, after all (i.e., see last week's Cold Case. Or, better yet, don't.)
But did you know that different Amish apply shunning to differing degrees?
One form of shunning--let’s call it the ‘lighter’ version--allows an erring member to have the Bann removed if he or she becomes a member in good standing in a related Anabaptist church.
This exempts the leaver from making a confession in order to have the ban lifted. This type of shunning is more common in Midwestern communities, such as large portions of Holmes/Wayne County, Ohio, and among the ‘non-Swiss’ Amish of northern Indiana.
Streng Meidung (strong shunning) refers to a more strict form of shunning, where the errant person is under the Bann for life, unless he or she makes a full confession before the church and fixes what caused the trouble in the first place.
Lancaster County, the Swartzentrubers, the Nebraska Amish, and according to Steven Nolt and Thomas Meyers in An Amish Patchwork, the Andy Weaver Church of Holmes County are among those that stick to Streng Meidung.
And that's not all--there are a host of smaller settlements scattered throughout the country that adhere to Streng Meidung--such as the one that I had a chance to visit in 2004, in an isolated corner of Illinois.
The dark side
This particular settlement, which I’ll leave unnamed, in many ways is not so unlike the myriad other smaller, conservative-leaning settlements formed by members leaving larger communities in search of stricter living.
Off the beaten path. Noticeably poorer. Homes somewhat ramshackle--peeling paint, missing siding, some families living in shop buildings. The local furniture outfits--dusty, dreary, and a little dead--certainly not cranking like the spanky shops of the Amish around Arthur, the state’s centerpiece settlement. People, on the whole, just seem a bit more wary of outsiders.
I did manage to talk to quite a few of them though. Though I was a bit puzzled when one fellow urged me not to talk to another family up the road--whom I thought was of his church. When I pressed him as to why, he refused to elaborate.
On meeting aforementioned family, I learned that they had been excommunicated. And I started to get a picture of how shunning works in this particular settlement.
Later, as I spoke with two other families who had jumped ship along with the first, I was a shocked to hear them complain of harassment, even vandalism, perpetrated under cover of night by their former church kin. It seemed a bit un-Christian. It seemed a bit, umm, juvenile.
I had never come across that sort of extreme treatment of former members before. Pretty primitive. Combine that with practices such as the use of outdoor privies, common in this particular settlement, and you can see why some Amish get labeled ‘backward’.
As I met other members of the community while selling books that day, it became more and more clear that this bunch was a different drink of water than the more mainstream Arthur folks. The leavers, however, were extremely open and frank about their situation. I remember thinking that it just seemed a healthier way to be. Here were three families of the same stock as the rest, but now able to basically be themselves. Unleashed, in a way. They seemed happy.
But when speaking with either side, you could almost feel the unseen wall that prevented any seeing eye-to-eye.
One of the families had actually responded to the harrassment, in a way--by painting a short Bible verse on the tree in their front yard, visible from the road. To be honest, I can't recall the exact verse, but I remember the message of it being poignant for the situation they were in. It was something which seemed to be directed towards their former church brothers and sisters, if I'm not mistaken, something along the lines of being blind to the error of one's ways. In any case, that seemed to be the extent of communication between the two sides at that point.
Vandalism and Bible verses painted on trees.
Meidung done us in
In a true 'our-way-or-the-highway' situation, three families chose the highway out in backwoods Illinois. I find myself wondering if any others out there have left since then.
The logic of a Streng Meidung is easy to see. Cutting off the stray sheep isolates and protects the remaining members. It inflicts emotional pain on the shunned, hopefully forcing them to rethink and rejoin. Tough love on a community-wide scale.
At the same time, for the thinking and feeling ones among those that remain, such extreme treatment could backfire.
The shunning mechanism has been called (by the Amish themselves) a key factor in the church's phenomenal growth. Others note that the practice has resulted in great schisms over the years. I won’t knock shunning--I think it can have a place in counter-cultural Christian communities like that of the Amish.
It’s just that when you get around the edges, things can get a little dodgy.
Just like anywhere else in society, I suppose.