I live in Lancaster County, Pa., home to one of the largest Old Order Amish communities in the world. My work brings me into regular contact with the Amish. I have come to believe that one of today’s notable ironies is that the Amish, who appear backward to many people, have very important lessons for mainstream society.
Strange as it sounds, we super-charged modern people should allow the Amish to be our teachers if we are to thrive as a society.
I’m not suggesting that we become Amish! What I am proposing is that all of us who are not Amish would find our way to a better path for living if we allowed the Amish to show us the way back to civility, community and humility. This is not a call for going back to some idealized historical period. It has to do with the true values that make societies great.
Let me be clear about several things regarding the Amish. They are not characters in some historical museum rigorously living in a distant time. The Amish are not re-enactors playing out an earlier era in America. The Amish are constantly changing and adapting. To tourists and even their neighbors, the change is often so subtle that few outsiders recognize the changes.
And the Amish are not perfect. They are not some desert island utopian group, unspoiled by the outside world. They have all the challenges and problems the rest of us have. They are the first to admit that they also struggle and too many times make poor and harmful decisions.
What the Amish can teach us is their intentionality regarding modernity. The Amish are slow adopters to what is new. They think long and hard individually and as a community about what of the modern world will be helpful to them as followers of Jesus and as a church community. They ask if a new tool or device or way of living helps them as they seek to stay focused on their Christian faith and living in community.
The challenge of cell phones is just one example of a struggle even the Amish are facing as we all seek to be followers of Jesus in a tech-driven world. Many Amish are like the rest of us, struggling to answer the question: “How much tech?” They add an interesting perspective in that they see controlling tech as not just about the well-being of the individual, but the whole community. For the Amish three key questions are carefully addressed:
1. Will the new thing help us as we seek to have Jesus as Lord of our lives?
2. Will the new thing be of benefit to a person?
3. Will the new thing draw us together as a community or isolate us from community?
An Oct. 29 New York Times article, “The Dark Consensus About Screens and Kids Begins to Emerge in Silicon Valley,” reports that the people developing technology are limiting their own children’s screen time because they know the harmful effects. Chris Anderson, who was editor of Wired magazine and is the head of a robotics and drone company, is a very tech-skeptical parent.
“This is beyond our power to control,” he says. “This is going straight to the pleasure centers of the developing brain. This is beyond our capacity as regular parents to understand.”
Anderson has 12 tech rules for his five children. They include: no phones until the summer before high school, no screens in bedrooms, network-level content blocking, no social media until age 13, no iPads at all and screen time schedules enforced by wifi he controls from his phone. Bad behavior? The child goes offline for 24 hours.
What can we learn?
So, short of selling our cars, throwing away our cell phones, getting a horse and buggy, wearing plain clothing and learning to speak Pennsylvania Dutch, what can we learn from the Amish?
1. Moderate our hardcore individualism in America. The Amish believe and practice that while the individual person is important and there is a place for autonomy, the community is more important than the individual. Amish children soon discover and trust that when the community is thriving, individuals in the community also thrive. I believe the Amish are thriving because they experience huge quantities of social capital daily.
Robert D. Putnam shows in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community how in the past 50 years Americans are increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors and community. Individualism and modernity have their place, but society has paid a terrible price for overdoing individualism and modernity. For too many Americans, they chase after the latest new thing in large part because it is new.
Remarkably, 85 percent of Amish young people decide to remain within the Amish church. This is not forced upon them. People who have grown up Amish want to remain within the embrace of the community. Amish young people value the social capital they experience within the Amish community.
2. Trust in the community’s wisdom. The Amish have experienced and believe in the trustworthiness of the community’s wisdom. This collective wisdom has a bias to what has already been learned. Wise, older members are especially listened to and their words carry significant weight. But younger voices are also considered, and time is invested in community discernment and shared understandings of how to live. Within the Amish community there is amazing and wholesome syntheses between experience and change. The weight is always on the wisdom of the past, but what had been the practice in the past does not hold change captive.
3. Discern the human cost of modernity. Growing out of the focus on community over individualism, the Amish carefully work together, asking what of modernity is helpful and life-giving. More than outsiders might expect, Amish are constantly accepting and embracing change. But the community also asks and discerns together what of modernity is going to have a cost that harms the community and the individuals within it.
The Amish cast a jaundice eye towards what is new. Ironically, that has been the joke about the Amish. They are at times viewed as backward and at best charmingly behind the times. But is the joke on the rest of us?
Who of us modern folk has not been in settings where people are glued to their cell phones rather than engaging with and learning to know each other? It isn’t just the younger generation who are buried in their phones rather than visiting. I’ve seen plenty of occasions when older people isolate themselves, even as they are physically with other people. Autonomy can decay into isolation before we realize what has happened.
If we would step back for a moment we might see how consumed we have become by the 24-hour news cycle. Truth be told, most of us are spiritually and emotionally exhausted by the open fire hydrant that is cable television and other forms of tech. The Amish do not experience this “news” exhaustion.
Some time ago I was on a country road here in Lancaster County “stuck” behind an Amish buggy. As I waited for the moment to swing into the other lane and roar past the horse and buggy, I read the bumper sticker on the back of the buggy, “I may be slow, but I am ahead of you!” Truer words were never spoken!
Joe Miller works with Mennonite Central Committee, relating to Amish and other Plain Anabaptist partners across the U.S. He has been a Mennonite pastor for 25 years and is a LMC (Lancaster Mennonite Conference) bishop.