Thursday, 15 November 2012

Simple Living in Amish Perspective

Simplicity is one of those words that seems to define Amishness. One reason people are so fascinated with them is because of their simple lifestyles. They seem to be in tune with nature and to nurture their families and communities by their way of living in harmony with all around them. But is this a view coloured by rose tinted spectacles? Yes, probably.

But there is no getting away from it, the Amish do live a simple life. What are their reasons for living like that and are their reasons compatible with what the Bible teaches about simplicity?

In the average Amish household, you won’t find modern electrical appliances or many labour saving devices; in fact, you won’t find electricity, full stop. You won’t find wall to wall carpeting either. They do things the ‘hard’ way. They don’t drive cars and they don’t have telephones in their homes. While there may be nothing inherently wicked or sinful about these items, not having them enhances their sense of community and family. Without such modern items as tractors for farming, there is a need for each member of the congregation to assist each other with their harvest. Now that cannot be a bad thing.

The Bible does not say anything whatsoever about washing machines, or motorised transport, or ipods. However, the church leaders have, over the years, devised a set of unwritten rules, known as the Ordnung. When some new invention is made, the leaders discuss it amongst themselves to determine whether such an item will have a positive benefit on their congregations, or whether it will militate against their community and their togetherness. While tractors for instance might make life easier, it also gives rise to the temptation to have larger farms, and thereby to accumulate more wealth, which goes against their intentions of simplicity. It is not that they do not accept modern conveniences, but they do weigh them against the benefit or otherwise to their communities.

There are not many Christians who would think twice about whether to buy a washing machine. It is simply not a ‘religious’ issue; yet the Amish consider that they cannot separate their religious life from the rest of their life. Their whole life revolves around their faith and that leads to their practical applications. If having a washing machine is perceived as a threat to their values, their family life and their community spirit, then the leaders do not allow washing machines.

‘Many years ago, Jim Reeves sang a song:

 This world is not my home,
I’m just a-passing through
If heaven’s not my home,
Then Lord what will I do?
The angels beckon me,
From heaven’s open door,
And I can’t feel at home in this world any more’.

The Amish see themselves as pilgrims and strangers; the earth is not their home – heaven is and they are just passing through this world on their way to the next.

“As pilgrims on a path to heaven that meanders through a world of things, Amish people struggle with temptations as they try to keep their eyes on the heavenly prize. But those temptations hold less sway in a community that continually reminds its members that this world is not their home. Simplicity is “not the key to eternal life,” writes Sadie, a young Amish mother. “Yet we feel plainness is necessary evidence that we have set our affection on things eternal.”

From ‘Amish Spirituality: Hope, Faith and Practice’, by  Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt, and David L. Weaver-Zercher.

It goes hand in hand with the belief that they belong to a heavenly Kingdom, not to the kingdoms of this world. They seek to live a life of separation, in accordance with the Bible injunction to ‘be separate’. Therefore they do not see the need to accumulate possessions while here; they concentrate on laying up ‘treasure in heaven’ (Matthew 6v20). They are also keenly aware that they come into the world with nothing and they can take nothing out, so why have many possessions that only have to be behind, why spend money for things you cannot keep? Some of this comes from their origins. The Amish movement began in 16th Century Europe where they suffered much persecution. They fled from Europe leaving everything behind to start a new life in America. One of the most read books in Amish homes is The Martyrs’ Mirror, telling stories of those times and keeping it fresh in their minds what their forebears endured. Accumulating possessions does not seem so attractive when seen against that kind of background.

The Amish also have a keen sense of who is their neighbour. They are prepared to ‘do good to all, especially those of the household of faith’ (Galatians 6v10). They refuse to eat cake when they know that others are starving and it is their power to help; they cannot in conscience live lives of luxury when others have nothing. And add to that the teachings of Jesus regarding trusting God for their daily needs and the dangers of accumulating wealth and possessions. In general, the average Amishman does not have superfluous items for his home, work or family. They live with what they need and no more – a lesson more of us who call ourselves Christians would do well to heed.

Quoting from ‘Amish Spirituality’ again:

"Overall, the Amish are surely less possessed by earthly possessions than most Americans. Their rejection of fashionable dress, motor vehicles, public-grid electricity, and electronic media is rare in an all-consuming world that often equates happiness with the purchase of material things.”

For the Amish, simple living means:

No electricity
No accumulation of ‘gadgets’ or unnecessary things
Having only what they need
Rejecting modern fashions
Making their own, whether that be jars of jam or clothes or furniture
Simple clothing, enough but not too much
A life that is hard work, but nevertheless fulfilling
Small family run farms and businesses
Growing their own fruit and vegetables
Preserving their produce
Less waste as they reuse, remake, recycle

While the mainstream western world is just beginning to realise that something needs to be done about the massive overuse and waste of finite resources, the Amish have been living like that since their inauguration.

These things address the lifestyle of the Amish, but is this all that is meant by having a social conscience? Is this all the Amish do – living separately from the world and not using too many of the world’s resources for their own ends? In addition to what they don’t do, there are ways the Amish do positive things to help others too.

When a member of their congregation has a disaster, their neighbours get together to help restore the loss. The Amish do not believe in insurance. In a society where medical treatment is paid for, this might seem irresponsible, but in the face of high medical or dental bills, the congregation assists each other to pay. They might even hold an auction, selling off handmade goods – from quilts to pies to furniture – to raise funds for the need of the moment.

Their good works are not confined to their own people either; they will help their non-Amish neighbour too, in the spirit of the Good Samaritan. They sign up as part time volunteer firemen in their communities; they assist with disaster relief; they will even travel great distances to help rebuild damaged communities after floods and storms.

Are we challenged by the lifestyle of the Amish? Or are we like so many others who see an idealised stress free life that is appealing, but without seeing the spiritual reasons behind it? Do we as Christians live as simply as we could? I have to confess that I don’t. Are we living in the spirit of the Bible’s command, ‘do good to all, especially to those of the household of faith’? Are we following the example of Jesus, or are we still accumulating possessions? Perhaps we need to look carefully to see where our treasure really is.

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