Their unwavering standard dismisses much of contemporary culture.

Ask an amish person about the way he lives and you will most likely hear, “Why should you want to know?”

His response is more than a dodge. It is, in fact, quite reasonable. Why should the Amish way of life be important to anyone other than the Amish?

For a long time, people regarded the Amish way of life as strange and peculiar. In the past few years, however, Amish institutions have been suggested as effective models for solving many contemporary social problems.

When E. F. Schumacher said small was beautiful, the peculiarities of the Amish were translated into positive examples of how smallness worked in community. When economic growth brought inevitable shortages in our society, Amish frugality became not pointless eccentricity, but essential virtue. When American agriculture drew fire because of dependence on petroleum fuels and fertilizers, soil mining and lack of diversity, Amish agricultural practices became an ecologically sound alternative.

Reporters asked if the Amish might be a model for the family of the future. Sociologists saw a vital link between the Amish and ecology. Social critics applauded the Amish way as the hope of the future. Others offered the Amish lifestyle as a prototype for rediscovery of the simple life.

Like others, I am impressed by the Amish. Besides their sense of community, use of resources, and independence, however, I recognize another Amish strength. They have a strong sense of purpose.

One expression of that sense of purpose is that they don’t need anyone to tell them what they need. They have no use for self-improvement seminars, self-actualization workshops, or books on how to lose weight, run a marathon, or make love.

In some ways the Amish are more liberated than others in society who feel compelled to excel at whatever the latest expert dictates. Why? The Amish have an unwavering standard by which they dismiss much of contemporary culture.

Yet it is this unwavering standard that leads me to suggest that any attempt to use the Amish as a model for others would be foolhardy.

What is missing in most books and articles on the Amish is the realization that this sense of purpose is fundamentally religious. The Amish are not bound together by ecological or humanistic concerns. Neither are they primarily an ethnic group. One is not born Amish. Instead, each Amish man and woman must elect to become Amish by being baptized into the church.

The Anabaptist heritage of the Amish was founded on the principle of choice. This primacy of religion over ethnicity also meant that individuals raised in non-Amish families could become Amish if they were willing to live by the rules of the church and were sincere in their religious convictions.

Adherence to Amish practice without understanding its religious basis, however, is simply meaningless. Using the Amish as a model without accepting their religion is akin to trying to separate the secular from the sacred in human behavior.

Consider some examples. The Amish one-room schoolhouse could be viewed as a potential model for progressive education. Its form, however, is a direct expression of the goal of Amish parochial schools: “to prepare for usefulness by preparing for eternity.” Did you know Amish congregations permit the rental of cars and drivers for transportation while at the same time they prohibit ownership of motor vehicles? They also permit the use of tractors for some things but not for field work. Such distinctions make sense only within the context of a unique historical and theological setting.

An Amish minister said he had a bagful of letters he had received asking how to become Amish. He was suspicious. What most of the writers were after were Amish practices minus beliefs. Said the minister, “They don’t want to know about our commitment to Jesus Christ, which is the basis for everything we do.”

His replies to the would-be Amish boldly stated that commitment. Most of the seekers lost interest.

During World War II, the presence of U.S. military units on remote Pacific islands led the natives to doubt the effectiveness of their own lifestyle. Their response was to destroy ritual masks and costumes, arrange houses into something like a military camp, and parade around with sticks like guns.

For us to mimic the culture of the Amish would be just as futile as the actions of the natives in those islands.

Ironically, the Amish see themselves as a model for others. They feel their mission is to exhibit Christian behavior in every part of their lives. They see their lifestyle as a silent witness to their faith.

In their lifestyle they have attracted much attention; in their faith they have been almost totally ignored.

MARC A. OLSHANDr. Olshan is assistant professor of sociology and social work at Bethany Collage, Bethany, West Virginia.

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