Will the Real Exilic Christians Stand Up?

With all the discussion of Christians having the best chance to endure in the coming winter of dislocation, I was shocked SHOCKED to see no mention of the Amish. Say what you will about Anabaptists, but I don’t know how any respectable Christian — Protestant, Roman Catholic, or Orthodox — can think he is all that prepared for exilic conditions without at least contemplating the way the Amish have lived in exile.

If you are going to talk about Christian community, I don’t know how a set of people who gathers for one service on Sunday (okay, good Presbyterians gather twice), coming from sometimes as far away as a one-hour drive, and maybe for a mid-week Bible study or prayer meeting qualifies as anything more than the membership you experience at the local Moose Lodge. And if you’re going to talk about transformationalism, the Amish have a record of forming real culture according to a religious w-w that goes back farther than Kuyper or Edwards. (Of course, Benedict goes back farther, but given the matter of celibacy and procreation, the Benedictine model is hardly going to survive as a community-building practice.)

Sure, Anabaptist theology has problems. But when Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Orthodox can form communities with the kind of coherence that the Amish have, then we should all stop talking about exile and community. Instead, lets consider the benefits of spiritual disciplines that provide a welcome add-on to lives already well defined by economic, political, communication, education (the list goes on) systems well beyond the control of the faithful.

With that in mind, consider this excerpt from the New Republic:

Smucker then launched into a brief history of the Amish, explaining that what began three centuries ago as a handful of families escaping persecution in Europe by sailing for the nascent Pennsylvania colony is today 273,700 adults and children spread across 30 states and the Canadian province of Ontario. (Though two-thirds of them have remained in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana.)

Amish belief then as now is completely grounded in the New Testament, which they hold to be the sole and final authority on all things. From it, they take their impetus to remain separate (“and be not conformed to this world”—Romans 12:2), as well as their orders to renounce violence in all spheres of human life, to refuse to swear oaths, and to obey literally the teachings of Jesus Christ. Still, they shun their undisciplined and wayward, to make it a little easier to keep the community of faith intact.

And the Amish are a true community, in every sense of the word. They believe that what we call “individualism” is actually pride, or, more bluntly, selfishness, which opposes God’s will, which should be yielded to with a dedicated heart. This communal spirit is regulated by an unwritten code of conduct, the Ordnung, which prescribes clothing and grooming and language, and prohibits things like divorce, military service, owning or operating automobiles, taking electricity from public power lines, and installing wall-to-wall carpet.

Basically, the Amish way of living argues implicitly that tradition is sacred, that preservation is as important or perhaps more important than progress, that obeying and yielding are virtuous, that the personal reality might not be the supreme. And in this way, above all else, they take the integrity of individual choice really, really seriously.

Or, as Smucker summed it up: “The Amish are very intentional. Whereas we just take on everything we’re offered without even thinking about it.” . . .

Baseball, he went on, was forbidden by church elders around 1995. Baptized men had been wearing uniforms, and traveling to play league matches, and neglecting their duties at home. So, now, the game is strictly for the unbaptized. What I saw in the schoolyard was the noncompetitive stuff all kids play until the eighth grade, when their formal education ends. (“Knowledge puffeth up”—1 Corinthians). The only ones who can ball for real are the boys who have entered Rumspringa, the few free years of “running around” in the secular world that the Amish allow their youth (and about which we make feature-length documentaries and National Geographic Channel reality shows).

Rumspringa—ostensibly a time for finding a mate—is a kind of inoculation. A manageable dosage of culture is introduced to unbaptized Amish, the hope being that this exposure will keep them from succumbing to the whole pathology later on. From their sixteenth birthday ’til their mid-twenties, they sample what they’ve been missing—cars, hip-hop, food courts, double plays. Then they make the biggest decision of their lives: get baptized and get married, or forsake their world for ours.

“The unbaptized, if they play competitively in uniforms, that means they’re from a faster, more liberal district,” Smucker told me. “But you can still tell they’re Amish by how they carry themselves.”

10 thoughts on “Will the Real Exilic Christians Stand Up?

  1. As a Mennonite, also involved with the Reformed tradition as a scholar, thank you.

    But please understand this only applies to the conservative and “Old Order” groups. The “MCUSA” (Mennonite Church USA) is thoroughly compromised due to the confusion of separation from the world’s violence with “pacifism” and “social justice”.

    2K indeed.


  2. I am at least as “conservative” as David Layman, but I still can deconstruct the difference between “non-resistance” and “pacifism”. Yes, there are many differences between “pacifists”, but there’s nothing wrong with the word “peace-maker” and there’s nothing inherently liberal or even “Neibuhrian” about the word “pacifism”.

    “Non-resistants” has come to be code for those who resist the word “pacifism” in the name of a two kingdom approach which approves the killing done by “non-Mennonites” —thank you for protecting us “conscientious objectors” (with a tender vocation and a family tradition which goes back some generations) which is why these “conservatives” voted for George Bush and the Republican expansion of war into Iraq. Just so long as they don’t have to do it, they will thank you for your service to do what God needs done to protect religious liberty for those who won’t take on that “responsibility”

    The Bible does not say simply–do not resist. It says -do not resist in kind. Do not resist them with the violence that they have been predestined to do by God. Do not mistake God’s providential predestination for God’s legitimating favor. God uses Assyria and the American empire to return evil for evil, without for one moment changing God’s command to return good for evil.


  3. There are still some folks out there who think that Niebuhr believed in original sin and represented a conservative and Reformed ethic. But in fact Niebuhr was so liberal he rejected any significance of the Deity of Christ and His incarnate commands and example. The Mennonites who wanted to become more liberal and nuanced on the evil of war followed NIebuhr’s “Liberal” embrace of armed democracy and agreed to the “irrelevance” of Jesus for real politics.


    “Niebuhr’s back-handed compliment to Mennonites in his critique against liberal pacifism helped to create a division in Mennonite theology along the lines of a dichotomy between withdrawal and responsibility. In response to the criticisms of Niebuhr many Mennonites felt compelled to distinguish themselves from the liberal pacifist position by accepting the role of pacifism as an apolitical socially irrelevant vocation that Niebuhr had created and commended.

    Yoder observes a strikingly similarity in the responses of the conservative Mennonite biblical scholar John R. Mumaw and the liberal Mennonite Donovan Smucker to the challenge of Niebuhr. In order to section themselves off from Niebuhr’s critique of liberal pacifism, both thinkers chose to accept the role given to them by Niebuhr: to become more fully that nonresistant sectarian withdrawing enclave of Niebuhr’s imagination, in the name of renouncing the type of pacifism that is concerned with effectiveness and responsibility. Yoder observes that more than anything Niebuhr’s impact served to reinforce “a Mennonite tendency to dualistic analysis…that says we cannot do anything in the wider world—because we want to be different from those pacifists who are naïve about the possibilities of the good” (297). Such a position, however, did not stem from the history of Mennonite faith, but was rather learned from Mennonite “accommodation to Reinhold Niebuhr.” In short, such a position was invented by “accepting the backhanded compliment that Niebuhr gave us when he said we are consistent but irrelevant” (298).

    Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution


  4. Some books to consider if you want to think about an exile which involves churches in which Christians give up claims to a second citizenship in a second kingdom.

    For the Nations, by John Howard Yoder (Eerdmans), expecially the chapter on diaspora, “See How they Go with Their Faces”.

    one book by a Quaker, A Biblical Theology of Exile, by Daniel Smith-Christopher( Fortress).

    by the premill evangelical Robert H Gundry, Jesus the Word According to John the Sectarian (Eerdmans).

    States of Exile, Visions of Diaspora, Witness, and Return, Alain Epp Weaver, Herald Press, 2008

    Christ, History and Apocalyptic, Nate Kerr, Cascade Books, 2009

    “Fugitive Ecclesia”,by Peter Dula, in The Gift of Difference, ed Chris Huebner and Tripp York, , CMU Press, 2010

    Constantine Revisited, Leithart Yoder and Constantinianism, ed John Orth, Pickwick, 2013


  5. To my friend, Mark:


    Okay then.

    However, now that John H. Yoder has been exposed as a sexual pervert and (based on the most recent evidence) an adulterer, he has nothing to contribute to the conversation.


    If the Amish (and Mennonites) are wrong on baptism, it is because their common spiritual ancestor, the Swiss Brethren, simply took Zwingli at his word when he denied grace in baptism or the eucharist. Adult baptism is the logical corollary.

    Zwingli originally favored adult baptism, and then switched sides. Then he had the audacity to persecute the Brethren for doing what he originally wanted to do, until he got cold feet.


  6. if sinners have nothing to contribute, I got nothing….

    I am waiting for somebody to defend the difference between peacemakers who approve other people doing the killing, and the peacemakers who don’t endorse any killing.

    I am waiting to get excited about the difference between killing for the church and killing for the phone company.

    If you can take heart in the difference between killing because “natural law” will limit wars to “just wars” and the covenantal (Abrahamic and Mosaic) “holy wars” , then you will be able to avoid exile. Hey, you will even be able to vote….

    After formulating the “one covenant, two adminstrations” theory, Zwingli died on the battle field, as a chaplain to the Swiss military. The Amish who vote for the American commander in chief are not that much different from Zwingli—they support the troops.


  7. I live in Lancaster county, and I know a couple of bishops… More Amish vote in local elections than for commander in chief, but there was a big push to register Amish during the W Bush years, and he landed his big plane here to meet with them. Not all the Amish have the same restrictions, depending on how “liberal” a district or bishop they are in, as the essay on baseball posted by dgh explains.

    But we are not only talking about Amish or even Beachy Amish, but about “conservative” Mennonites who would vote for Hitler if Hitler were to make certain promises about eliminating abortion and communism. How could we possibly seek the peace of the city in which we live with the pagans without supporting the pagan troops? And they have been so kind as to exempt us from actually getting our hands dirty….

    Pacifists who cannot find it in their hearts to be grateful for what has been done for them should be denied the benefits of complaining or saying even one word about war or killing. Those in the covenant of grace who do not believe in the promises of grace to them and their parents will not get the grace which was especially promised to them…


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