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Richard Groves: A not-quite-extinct community type

Richard Groves: A not-quite-extinct community type

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The first time you see a black Amish buggy on a country road, you smile. You can’t help it.

When you see a sprawling Amish farm with a large barn and a tall domed silo and a man in the field plowing with a team of horses and, behind the house, a clothesline filled with the morning’s wash, you pull over and take a picture.

You feel like you have been transported back in time to a simpler day.

Then you notice that the buggy has brake lights. And turn signals.

And you think that maybe novelist Barbara Kingsolver was right when she said that the Amish are “like a community type that went extinct a generation ago. But it didn’t, not completely.”

A couple of weeks ago my wife and I went on a swing through the Northeast, visiting children and grandchildren. Our route home took us through the Amish country around Lancaster, Pa., a land of prosperous farms, horse-drawn buggies and towns and villages with names like Bird in Hand, Ephrata (that’s biblical) and Lititz (the birthplace of the pretzel).

And, yes, there are a couple of towns with names that you wouldn’t expect conservative religious folk like the Amish to live in. You’ll have to look them up; I’m not going to tell you.

According to Donald Kraybill, Senior Fellow Emeritus at Elizabethtown (Pa.) College’s Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies, the Amish, who came to Pennsylvania around the time the Moravians came to North Carolina, are engaged in a neverending struggle with technology.

The Amish are not monolithic. They “fall along a continuum of low-to-high traditionalists,” Kraybill says in his hefty volume, “The Amish.” There are Old Order and New Order Amish, as well as other “affiliations.” Mennonites and Brethren are cousins.

While Amish responses to technology range from rejection to acceptance and adaptation, Kraybill says that “even the most progressive Amish homes are spartan.”

If a technology is rejected, it is likely because it conflicts with fundamental Amish values, most notably a religious faith that is grounded in centuries-old Anabaptist beliefs, the family and the community.

Take, for example, the Amish attitude toward electricity. The Amish are not opposed to electricity. They are opposed to being on the grid. Battery-produced electricity is fine. Generators are fine.

The issue with the grid is that it allows “the world” access into the home.

This prohibition came about in the early 1900s, when the seductive technologies were radio and the telephone. The radio brought forbidden forms of entertainment directly into the home. This prohibition transferred easily to include television.

Amish have found creative substitutes for electricity generated by the grid. Some homes have propane-powered refrigerators and freezers, and food processors and mixers that are powered by compressed air.

With no TVs to watch or radios to listen to, “Amish homes are quiet,” Kraybill observes. They are “islands of sanity insulated from noisy and distracting technological intrusions.”

I grew up in a conservative church where I was taught that “the world” could be a dangerous place for people of faith. I was to be “in the world but not of it.” The Amish have been wise enough to know that isn’t possible; they figure that it is better to separate oneself as completely as one can from the lifestyles and values of the world outside the community.

Inevitably, accommodations have been made. When Amish realized that telephones could be valuable means of communication in emergencies, “telephone shanties,” available for community use, began appearing at the end of driveways.

Some accommodations seem contradictory and inconsistent to outsiders. While Amish cannot own or drive a car — because by enhancing mobility, cars threaten the insulated life of the community — Amish might bum a ride with a neighbor. If an Amish business finds it necessary to own a truck or a car, a non-Amish person might be hired to drive it.

The Amish are engaged in an ongoing struggle with modernity, a struggle most of us forfeited a long time ago. We may stop momentarily to question the ethical implications of a new medical procedure or the latest technological innovation, but sooner or later we will find a reason, or a good rationalization, for accepting it and move on.

Seeing the LED lights of an Amish buggy made me a little sad. For reasons I haven’t figured out, I don’t want the Amish to concede to modernity.

That’s my issue, not theirs. The Amish don’t owe me anything, not even an explanation.

Richard Groves is a former minister and educator.

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