Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Maybe the Amish are Right (but Probably Not)

Mrs. Kikuko Fukuoka (June’s and my good friend from Fukuoka, Japan, whom I wrote about here four years ago) came to visit us again this month. I can’t remember why, but on her first evening here we talked some about the Amish.
What my Amish friend said
Fukuoka-san had never seen an Amish person and was interested in learning more about them. So the next day we drove up to the Jamesport (Mo.) area where I had gone in September. Among other things, we were able to talk briefly with Melvin Yutzy, my new Amish friend whom I wrote about on Sept. 30.
During our brief chat on Nov. 4, I asked Melvin about whether he and the other Amish in his community were going to vote on the following Tuesday. He quickly replied that he and all the Amish he knows have never voted and didn’t intend to this year.
(I had seen articles this fall about Amish voting—and voting Republican; for example, see this. But another article I saw said that perhaps only 10% to 15% of them do vote.) 

Anabaptist roots
There have been many Anabaptists through the years—and the Amish are clearly rooted in Anabaptism—who have taken a negative view toward not only voting but toward any active involvement in politics. At the beginning they even held that a Christian should not become a “magistrate.”
Unlike the Lutherans or the Reformed Church from which they separated, Anabaptists largely rejected Luther’s two kingdoms doctrine and opted for identifying wholly with the Kingdom of God and living as fully as possible by the values of that Kingdom—which notably included peace and justice.
Maybe the early Anabaptists and most of the current Amish are right: maybe we who are followers of Jesus Christ should be living in and working for the Kingdom of God rather than becoming involved in the “kingdoms” of the secular world.
Jesus, after all, called his followers to be salt, not the whole bowl of porridge.
When the followers of Jesus were a small minority, perhaps that was the optimal stance. But things changed. Christians came to make up a larger and larger segment of society. Of course, that led to what the Anabaptists have often called the Constintinian fall of the Church.
Accordingly, the 16th century Anabaptists refused to entangle themselves in political affairs in the same way the first followers of Jesus did.
More than six years ago I posted an article about Arthur G. Gish, a former Amish man (and then a member of the Church of the Brethren) who was the author of The New Left and Christian Radicalism (1970). That was one of the most influential books I read in the 1970s—or maybe have read in my lifetime.
In his seminal book, Gish writes about his Anabaptist forefathers with great appreciation—but then talks about the definite need now for those in that tradition to become more intentionally involved in the larger society. And that has, indeed, increasingly happened over the last 45 years.
Quite some time ago I started, but sadly never finished, writing an article about Neo-Anabaptism. Such is what Gish was advocating, for what I thought were legitimate reasons.
Rainbow Mennonite Church (in Kansas City, Kan.), the progressive church I belong to now, is a good example of a Neo-Anabaptist church, and I am happy to be a part of it.

So while I briefly wondered last week whether perhaps Melvin and his Amish friends are right about not voting, I have decided (again) that no, most probably they aren’t.


  1. I wish you could give us a synopsis of Gish's 1970 book referred to. As for me, I have written an outline for a "New Moses Project": https://www.facebook.com/notes/philip-rhoads-stecker/new-moses-project/10153846272621761

    1. Wow, Phil, thanks for presenting this great vision for Rainbow Mennonite Church -- and for Neo-Anabaptists beyond our church. I hope many of us will be able to work with you in implementing this creative vision.

  2. An interesting and compelling perspective argument for serving in one Kingdom alone. And given the Church's atrocious record of governance through the millennia, worth reconsidering. But Christ and his followers were obviously engaged from the beginning. Certainly a Christ-centered perspective in needed if a "Christian" is to be in a governing position, but that proposal alone would elicit a spectrum of "Christian" perspectives. God, grant our leaders wisdom and Godly advisors. God save the President.

    1. God save the President from himself, and save us from the President! Charles Kiker

    2. Thanks for your comments, Charles. I usually don't respond to anonymous comments--unless they are signed like yours was.

      Yes, it seems as if many in the nation are legitimately praying "save us from the President." I can't say for certain, but my guess is that no President since Lincoln has been so feared before taking office--and Lincoln was feared by people of wealth and/or privilege who were worried about being able to hold on to their privileged position and their exploitation of other people.

  3. This discussion made me think of the phrase "in the world, but not of the world," rooted particularly in John 17. We usually think of this within narrow Christian application, but it is helpful to look at it as well in a more universal perspective. Whether in ancient Rome or modern America, anyone who has no internal compass will be prey to every blandishment and subterfuge from Madison Avenue and Wall Street. We struggle with varying degrees of success to handle simple basics like diet, exercise, personal finances and social relationships in the face advertising and pressures. Anyone who does not have an internal road map is condemned to be another's pawn.

    In ancient Rome both church and state were almost totally run from the top down. Jesus said almost nothing about such affairs because there was virtually nothing to discuss. Americans, on the other hand, live in a democracy where most of the citizens are Christians. How can we live up to our calling to be "in the world" if we ignore the world and leave it spinning in darkness? Given an opportunity to have a voice in government, even if it is through the imperfect vehicle of the vote, do we not have a responsibility to bear witness by voting? I am not nearly so frustrated by the roughly 25 percent of the electorate who voted, respectively, for Clinton or Trump, but with the approximately 45 percent who did not vote at all.

    Studies have been done on people estimating the number of jelly beans in a jar. Frequently the average estimate will be closer to the correct number than any of the individual estimates. That is the hidden value of democracy, together we are stronger and smarter than any dictator. It is just that, in America, we have systematically suppressed, depressed, manipulated and disenfranchised so many voters that our ability to count the jelly beans may well be critically compromised. That, of course, is before we put the vote through our banana republic relic from the slave-owning era device known as the Electoral College. In January we will for the second time in three Presidents swear in the candidate who lost the popular vote. And we almost did it in 2004, too. So I can see people being despondent about American democracy, but I find it hard to see how this is a valid excuse for Christians to throw up their hands and stop trying. As the late great Leonard Cohen sang, "Democracy is coming to the USA!"

    1. Yes, Craig, your point that two heads are better than one is spot one. But as to non-voters, I have a few comments here. What is the obligation of good people? "It has been said that for evil men to accomplish their purpose it is only necessary that good men should do nothing.” Voting is not the only thing we can/should do. Some of us should run for office. Some should prepare to lobby those who are elected. Some should aspire to be staff persons and part of the bureaucracy. Australia has mandatory voting (penalty is just a small fine), but there democracy is dysfunctional, too. Actually, having a large reservoir of traditional non-voters gives incentive to candidates to motivate support from the "silent majority." But I agree, the Electoral College is obsolete, and potentially racist still, having been designed, I think, to give more weight to slave states where 3/5's was allowed for each slave, but only the white men (landowning) could vote.

    2. Thanks, Craig, for once again posting significant comments.

      To respond to just one aspect of what you wrote, I think most people do have an "internal road map," as you called -- but the problem is that it is of much too small an area.

      For whatever reason, some more legitimate than others, many people are so involved in their day by day lives that they don't have the time or ability to see the larger picture and to become involved in anything other than what effects them in the short term.

      But, still, 45% of who didn't vote this year it a major problem--and that certainly includes a lot more people than the Amish! (And I guess that is 45% of the registered voters, which would not include most Amish.)

  4. Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson writes,

    "I favor Christ transforming culture, Leroy. I think both the Amish and the society we live in lose something by their non-engagement.

    "Merton’s second conversion took him from world denunciation back to critical involvement. He became one of America’s most important prophetic figures during the 1960s."

  5. Thanks, Dr. Hinson, for your comments.

    "When only a tiny minority, perhaps 'transforming culture' may not be a viable option for Christians, but now that seems to be a more feasible option even for the Amish. That is why I am I am an advocate of Neo-Anabaptism.

  6. Gish's book was also important for me.

  7. I asked Mennonite theologian Ted Grimsrud to comment on this article. Here is what he said:

    "I agree with you, Leroy. I respect the Amish way, as well. I think the view I have a hard time with is that held by Anabaptist-types who do fully engage in culture but still 'choose not to vote' (there's a book with something close to that as its title).

    "I just don't see any valid reason not to vote, though I think it's important to not make voting too important of a task."