When Amish gather for worship each week, they regularly sing the solemn, German-dialect hymns that their spiritual forebears composed nearly five centuries ago in a condition akin to that of 17 mission workers and children recently kidnapped in Haiti — captivity.
Those hymns emerged from miserable prison conditions experienced by early Anabaptists and their words extolled the virtues of loving one’s tormentors and persevering at risk of persecution, even martyrdom.
So when kidnappers in Haiti abducted 12 adult missionaries and five of their children, including an infant, it wasn’t surprising that those sharing the Christian tradition of conservative Anabaptism would draw on these values as they joined around-the-clock prayer vigils.
The words of the captors’ families and supporters, while holding out hope for the safety of the hostages, put a heavy emphasis on different themes: “Love your enemies.” “Forgive them.” “Pray for the kidnappers.”
One joint statement by the hostages’ families even spoke of the situation in welcoming terms.
“God has given our loved ones the unique opportunity to live out our Lord’s command to ‘love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you,’ ” said the statement, issued by Christian Aid Ministries.
Based in Ohio’s Amish heartland of Holmes County, CAM has operated in Haiti and other countries for nearly four decades. Conservative Anabaptists make up the core of its missionary staff, donors and volunteers.
Such statements may seem surprising, even callous, to those who might expect the prayers to focus on the well-being of loved ones.
But these statements are deeply rooted in the nonviolent, martyr-honoring religious tradition of conservative Anabaptists.
Anabaptist theology emphasizes the Sermon on the Mount, which contains some of Jesus’ most radical and countercultural sayings — to love enemies, live simply, bless persecutors, turn the other cheek, endure sufferings joyfully.
“Living out the Sermon on the Mount principles is one of the key tenets of our faith,” said Wayne Wengerd, a member of a steering committee that represents the Amish in church-state relations. “That is something that we take literally.”
Those principles mandate “we do good to those who hurt or persecute us, and we pray for not only those that are likeminded but those that are not yet within the faith,” he said.
Wengerd, who lives in Wayne County, adjacent to Holmes, said it would be a misunderstanding to view such a mindset as callous to the real suffering involved with the kidnappings.
“People are still concerned, they are aware, they talk about it, they pray and of course hope for a good outcome,” he said. At the same time, “We realize as Christians, as followers of Christ, there will be persecution.”
The mission group was kidnapped Oct. 16 while returning from a visit to an orphanage supported by CAM. The 400 Mawozo gang has threatened to kill the 16 Americans and one Canadian if ransom demands aren’t met.
Wengerd said Anabaptists draw on resources such as the Ausbund, a hymnal that includes the 16th-century prison hymns, and Martyrs Mirror, a book with stories of Anabaptists who died for their faith, for “reminding us of the cost of discipleship in Christ’s kingdom.”
An often-cited modern example of Anabaptist values is the response of the Amish community around Nickel Mines, Pa., after a gunman killed five Amish schoolgirls and wounded five more in 2006 before taking his own life. Local Amish immediately expressed forgiveness for the killer and supported his widow.
“If we do not forgive, how can we expect to be forgiven?” the Amish leaders said in a statement.
Steven Nolt, professor of history and Anabaptist studies at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, recalled attending one of the Nickel Mines funerals in which the preacher said within a span of a few minutes, “We don’t understand but we just accept what happened as God’s will” and “It’s not God’s will that people shoot other people.”
That seems contradictory, said Nolt. But it reflects a profound belief in “divine providence” — that believers can’t always understand why things happen, but they “can know what God wants and how humans are to live.”
Ron Marks, pastor of Hart Dunkard Brethren Church in Hart, Mich., whose members include a parent with children who are among the hostages, said it is “our Lord’s command” to pray for one’s persecutors and seek their conversion. “That would be the ultimate positive outcome of this ordeal,” he said.
Many in the outside world have valorized Anabaptists’ beliefs in forgiveness.
But it has a dark side, say advocates for victims of sexual abuse in Anabaptist communities. They say victims and their families are often forced to reconcile with abusers after the latter make a confession and undergo a brief period of discipline.
Hope Anne Dueck, co-founder of A Better Way — an Ohio-based group that provides education on sexual abuse and advocates for victims in Anabaptist and other church settings — said the current focus needs to be on the safety of the hostages.
But the kidnappings follow by two years the eruption of a sexual-abuse scandal involving one of CAM’s former longtime missionaries to Haiti, Jeriah Mast. He was sentenced in Holmes County in 2019 to nine years in prison for having earlier abused two boys in Ohio, and his judge said at his sentencing that Mast had also confessed to molesting at least 30 boys in Haiti.
The current hostage crisis “has caused a lot of pain in the survivor and advocacy community for those who have experienced sexual abuse or grieved what has happened to Jeriah’s victims,” Dueck said.
She strongly endorsed the current prayer chain on behalf of the hostages but lamented: “As far as I know, there were no 24/7, around-the-clock prayer chains for Jeriah’s victims.”
In other developments, on Oct. 26, U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the hostage situation would be a topic of conversation at the G20 meeting, adding that the U.S. and other countries need to give Haiti the investment and international aid it requires.
He said he personally was giving President Joe Biden an update daily on the situation, noting that several law enforcement and hostage recovery specialists are working with CAM, the families of the victims and the Haitian government “to try to coordinate and organize a recovery.”
“We are looking at every possible option for how to go about doing that,” Sullivan said. “But these things operate and have operated in Haiti historically on different timetables, under different circumstances. And so we need to manage this situation as carefully as possible so that we achieve our objective, which is the safe return of every single one of those [abducted]. . . . The children aspect of this is something the president is quite focused on, to make sure they’re taken care of and they get home OK.”