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Rachel Samson
March 9, 2016


Five characteristics of Peaceful Societies: What we can learn from the Amish.


When we think of the Amish, images of horse drawn buggies, conservative black attire, bonnets, beards, and electricity-free homes typically come to mind. While these are the most obvious signs of “being Amish”, the subtle less observable signs are the most fascinating.


The Amish have resided in North America, for over 300 years. Surprisingly, very little of their way-of-life has changed in all these years.

As a Ph.D Candidate studying Peaceful Societies, my research took me recently to Lancaster, PA, home to 30,000 Amish. My primary reason for visiting Lancaster was to interview Terri Roberts, mother of the Amish Schoolhouse shooter, Charles Roberts, who infamously shot execution-style 10 Amish girls in their schoolhouse in October 2006, killing 5. In the immediate days after the shooting, the Amish community, known for their peacefulness, reached out to the family of the shooter, not only offering forgiveness, care and concern, but 30 Amish men attended the funeral of Charlie Roberts, shielding the family from the media in a show of compassion and empathy. Ten years after “The Happening”, as the Amish refer to it, Terri Roberts has developed strong bonds with the families of the victims, regularly visiting in each other’s homes for meals. One victim, a little girl named Rosanna, has been left in a near vegetative state as a result of the shooting. Terri has developed a special bond with Rosanna, caring for her every Thursday for the last 10 years in her home, giving Rosanna's parents a much needed respite from constant care. 

The Amish life is one of humility, simplicity, and quiet resolve. All aspects of Amish life encourage community above self, forgiveness above justice, respect and compassion above personal rights. While the Amish are deeply religious, their religion ironically doesn’t feel like religion; rather it is a way of life, a culture of tangible observable characteristics that indicate just how closely the Amish adhere to social and traditional norms.

The Amish share many commonalities with other peaceful societies, all living unassumingly quiet, productive lives. We don’t hear about them usually. Rather it’s ISIS, drugs, gang violence, domestic violence, rapes, murders and endless school shootings that dictate national news, forcing us to believe that all societies experience conflict, aggression, violence and war. This just isn’t the case. There are 25 known peaceful societies as detailed on the Peaceful Societies website, (www.peacefulsocieties.org), under the direction of Dr. Bruce Bonta and Dr. Douglas Fry, the leading experts in the field of peaceful societies, non violence and non warring societies. Some of these societies live in remote regions of the world, such as the Inuit of Canada who occupy the Northwest Territories Arctic region, and the Tristan Islanders, who live on a volcanic island 1800 miles west of Cape Town South Africa. As is the case with the Amish, many live side by side or in close proximity with regular, conflict prone societies. How do they maintain their peacefulness? What commonalities do they share? Is there a way to make our society more peaceful by following their lead? Research indicates that the Amish, along with other peaceful societies, share five common characteristics that keep the society non violent.


1. Low Consumption - The Amish purchase and use only what they need for a modest, comfortable living. Almost all clothes are passed down second hand, and when clothes are too worn to be passed down, they are cut into strips to be made into rugs. Old furniture is mended, not tossed to the curb. (Kraybill, 2010) Toys are kept to a minimum and centered on building, farming, home keeping, and cooperative play. A trip to a local Amish store in Lancaster proved to be most interesting. I did not find the game of Monopoly, in which one entity drives the rest into bankruptcy leaving one monopolist in control of the entire economy, in the Amish store I visited. Rather, games such as Pictionary, Scrabble, and similar games that lead to collective community-building line the toy aisle. (Roberts, 2015) Plain dress, often handmade, help keep clothing consumption and waste low. Professor Donald Kraybill of Elizabethtown College, the foremost world-renowned expert on the Amish, finds that the recreation and leisure styles of the Amish are often of a 'DIY' nature with few Amish participating in spectator sports. Bird watching, stargazing, nature-based activities are popular leisure activities. Gardening and farming is the main source of food consumption, and children are well aware of the process by which meat ends up on the family table. It is all part of respecting and valuing what God has entrusted to them. Without electricity, there is not a need to purchase the latest version of the iPhone, iPad or gaming system. Additionally, without television and Internet, they lead a life seemingly unaware of the things they are “missing out on”.


2. Equality- there are no Jones’ to keep up with in an Amish society. Some families, because of larger farm exports, manufacturing businesses, or family owned stores, may have “slightly larger homes with better cabinetry”, notes Kraybill, than families who work and live off the land making little extra, but that is the extent of hierarchies within the Amish community. Even still, as Professor Kraybill writes in his book, The Amish Way, when business owners feel they are expanding too much, they will often sell off shares of their business to the employees and keep only one share for themselves, making themselves equal owners with their employees. There are no cars, private schools, expensive jewelry and gated communities in which to tie wealth. Everyone drives a horse and buggy. The size, color and specifications all decided by each community, with no individual variation. In Lancaster, they are all grey.  Likewise, clothing is mostly uniform. The community collectively selects the clothing guidelines for daily dress and all are expected to adhere to them. (Kraybill, 2010) At the core heart of being Amish is humility. Showing off, achieving more than your neighbor, bringing attention to yourself is seen as arrogance, self-centeredness and pride. Even Amish homes reflect this with most farmhouses being white, simple, and limited in the way of decoration.

3. Generosity - Amish share. Everything. Have you recently had an operation and you can’t work for a time? Do you have bills piling up as a result? You need an extra set of hands to help with meals and childcare?  Now would be a good time to be Amish. The Amish believe it is the responsibility of the community, the Church, to help each other. Few carry insurance, health, property or life, nor do they receive social security, unemployment or any other government benefits. (Kraybill, 2010). Rather they collectively pool their monies together in an emergency fund and when there is the inevitable disaster, a barn fire or accident, the community will rally in support. There are no nursing homes. Aging parents eventually move out of the family home and into smaller homes on the farm, where the oldest adult child in the family will take over running the farm or business.(Kraybill, 2010) In the days that followed the schoolhouse massacre, the Amish donated a sum of money to Charlie Robert’s widow, Marie, understanding she had lost a husband and a provider. (Roberts, 2015) The Amish work ethic, coupled with frugality, make them some of the best citizens in the United States, needing and requiring nothing from the government, yet sharing all they have with community.

4. Control over Emotions - The Amish, similar to other Peaceful Societies, place little importance on feelings and emotions. Principles dictate behavior. Excessive anger, excessive happiness, sadness, irritability, excitement are masked and replaced with patience and humility. While in Lancaster, I interviewed a Lampeter police officer who had 20 years experience working with the Amish. Surely a police officer, a first responder to some of life’s most unexpected and un-welcomed events would be able to give a true account of the emotional control of the Amish. “I’ve pulled up to buggy accidents where people have been thrown from the buggies and they are just standing there, quiet, like nothing happened. Any other person would be freaking out”, said an Officer with the Lampeter Police Department. “I had one call many years ago where an infant had died in the crib and the {Amish} mother was in shock of course, but reacted differently, and I think it’s because of the way they live their life. Everything is in God’s hands, an understanding, it’s not that they hurt or feel any less than another mom, but they live life differently." Since Terri visits in the Amish home every Thursday, I asked her what the "emotional flow" of the home was like. How did the family treat each other? "They are a family, just like all families", Terri indicated, and with tears welling up in her eyes, she said "but the patience of the mother, I have never seen anything like it". In 10 years, Terri had never seen the mother 'lose her cool', "though her 5 year old son continuously hung off her apron", Terri said. The Amish are disciplined and emotions are well managed. They are not robots of course. But where yelling, loud play, fighting and arguing, may be the norm for some families, the Amish norm is to promote quiet peace and harmony within the home. I observed several Amish in the store that I visited. They were quiet, often speaking in hushed tones. Two women that were shopping together, quietly spoke as they selected their fabric, their voices barely audible. The father and daughter who owned the store were very kind, he being more talkative than she. They are used to seeing tourists, so my presence was not out of the ordinary. There was no electricity in the store, so I observed it to be a quiet experience. 


5. Forgiveness - Forgiveness cannot be overstated in the Amish life. Other peaceful societies may refer to it as toleration or acceptance, but for the Amish, it truly is forgiveness. ‘Christ has forgiven us, therefore, we must also forgive'. The Amish, like many other peaceful societies, rarely place blame on the individual. Rather, it was 'satan' or in other cultures, 'an evil spirit' that made an individual do something. A few hours after the shooting, an Amish man entered Terri Roberts home, walked straight up to her husband Chuck, put his arm around his shoulder and said "Roberts, this was not your fault. The devil used your boy " Terri reminisced during the interview. At Charlie's funeral, parents of the victims filed past Terri as she sat by her son's casket, stopping to reach out for her hand, saying, "We are sorry for your loss." "Sorry for MY Loss," leaving Terri baffled. They had every right to hate. But they did not. Instead they opened their hearts to her. Forgiveness is a choice. You can choose to forgive or you can choose to be bitter. You can choose to forgive even when forgiveness has not been asked of you. You must forgive; it is the only way for the Amish. 

Amish society is not a utopian one of course. Like all cultures, there is the good and the bad. There is the Shunning aspect, though that is somewhat misunderstood and misreported at times, but nevertheless concerning to many. The culture all but snuffs out innovation and individual creativity; everyone must fit in a designated box, indicates Kraybill (2010). You want to solve the world's problems? Be a star athlete? Win the Nobel Peace Prize? Keep moving on, nothing to see here. Education past 8th grade is highly discouraged. Sexual crimes may go unreported for fear of outside influence. About 10% of the Amish leave the society, not able to withstand the strictness. But for many, the sense of community, the fulfillment in belonging, the life they have always known, offers a sustainable way of living and makes us ponder the way in which we live. Do we need the latest, greatest gadget? Do our children need the latest piece of Chinese plastic from Toys R Us? Are we missing out on intimate relationships, really knowing people and ourselves, because we are too busy to look up? Unlike the Amish, we are a fragmented society, going about life unaware of other alternatives. Until now.


References: 

Kraybill, D. (2010) The Amish Way. Patient Faith in a Perilous World. Jossey-Bass: San Fransisco, CA. 


Roberts, Terri. (2015) Forgiven: The Amish School Shooting, A Mother's Love, and a Story of Remarkable Grace. Bethany House Publishers: Bloomington, MN. 


For more information on Peaceful Societies, visit www.peacefulsocieties.org. 





 

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