Is a church that tears families apart doing God’s will? The sadness and resignation of the young adults who appear in The Amish: Shunned testify the answer is no. The documentary premiered Feb. 4 on PBS.
“Dear loved son Levi,” a young man reads from a letter his mother wrote. “Come home to stay, please.” Levi declares the letter “pretty awesome.” But his parents stopped writing two years ago.
“I would like to spend time with my parents and be able to feel like I’m their kid,” Levi says. “But I try not to hang on to my past.”
We can only imagine how his parents feel.
The prospect of separation from family weighs heavily on Amish youth deciding whether to join the church. Joe tells of fearing the fires of hell — and of leaving and returning seven times — before making a permanent break. He did not see his parents again for 25 years. Will his father ever consider that his son might go to heaven, even in his “English” clothes? “He probably will never be able to believe that,” Joe says.
Perhaps the saddest person in Shunned is Anna, whose peers considered her an “old maid” at 23. But after seven months on the outside, she has a change of heart. Suitcase in hand and black bonnet pulled tight, she stoically walks up the lane back home.
The Amish way of life offers much to respect and admire. But the cutting of family ties with those who leave — not rebelliously but out of a deep desire to make different choices — seems unnecessarily harsh. How could anyone believe these young people are reaping the just wages of sin? And that their parents’ and siblings’ pain is also necessary?
No church should use fear to promote obedience. But the Amish seem to rely on it. An unnamed Amish person says in Donald B. Kraybill’s The Riddle of Amish Culture: “If it weren’t for shunning, many of our people would leave for more progressive churches.”
And no church should claim the power that belongs to God — the authority “to open and close heaven’s gate,” as Kraybill and Carl F. Bowman write in On the Backroad to Heaven.
Shunned portrays Amish parents as blind to the possibility that their children could follow Christ outside the Amish community. But the Amish are not unique in failing to embrace those who stray from tradition-favored paths. Today most people under 30 get their needs for spirituality and community met outside the church. Only 10 percent of the Millennial generation claims any religious affiliation.
No one would advocate shunning young adults who are drawn to faith yet wary of the church. But we might not be any better than the Amish at recognizing God’s presence outside the walls we build.
No tradition can predict or limit how God works. God dwells even in the places where adventurous sons and daughters go. Blessing them to follow Christ — and find a faith community of their own — is better than spending a lifetime pleading for them to come home and be just like us.