Prairie View

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

More Lethal Than Covid-19?

A number of months ago, in a surprising set of circumstances, I found myself explaining something  that I had never tried to articulate before to a lawyer from Topeka, Kansas.  He was asking about Amish Mennonites and inquiring about their religious beliefs.  I told him that living out one's faith in the context of community is one thing that is very important to Amish Mennonites.  To put it in slightly exaggerated terms, they (we) believe that a Christian life is lived as part of a body of believers or the Christian life hardly exists at all. 

He had stated publicly that he was attending the meeting we were at on behalf of his church, so I knew that he was no stranger to religious ideas.  Nevertheless, I could tell that this confident man didn't quite know what to make of what I was telling him.  He was too courteous to argue, and too doubtful to offer any affirmation.

Today I read something posted by Gerald J. Mast on Facebook that echoed some of the same sentiments that I shared with the lawyer.  When I read it, I made an instant connection between racism and what I had told the lawyer.  Here's what Mast said:

For a substantial number of Americans, the concept of a "public good" or a "common good" is completely absent from their conceptual framework. There is only individual good, the good that I pursue myself or that I experience myself. It's not something that I can share, except insofar as I offer it personally to another individual as an act of individual charity or piety. And this is reinforced in the religious sphere by a definition of salvation that is entirely personal--Jesus died for my individual sins and my guarantee of salvation is my individual decision to accept Christ's death as the sacrifice that vindicates me before God. This means there is no understanding of social or structural or collective sin or of communal or collective salvation; therefore also no social or collective repentance or responsibility.

Some of this is a little bit too deep for me.  It's also a little bit too "Amish" for me.  That is, the language of evangelicalism and fundamentalism makes much of the necessity of the new birth, a personal transaction between an individual and God.  In our Amish Mennonite churches, we have mostly adopted the same language, and by it, I believe, lost some of the richness of our historical Amish understanding of living a life of faith.

I idealize recovering some of those Amish sensibilities.  As Mast notes (elsewhere in the same post, mostly),  this Amish sensibility is deeply entwined with feeling a responsibility to promote "common good."  It avoids the kind of individualism that has become toxic in the "mask" wars, for example.  Consider this quote from Mast's OP:  "It takes a rhetorical scholar borrowing from feminist studies who is also a preacher to really explain why many Americans are so averse to wearing face coverings in the middle of a lethal pandemic: "On this reading wearing a mask attacks the feeling of absolute autonomy, cuts at the roots of individualism, assaults feelings of sovereign selfhood, and becomes an existential threat to identity."

I believe that we have sometimes unfairly disparaged "joining the church" through baptism as the sign of a changed life as the Old Order Amish do.  This is, in fact, similar to what launched the Anabaptist movement in the 1520s, of which the Amish group is an offshoot--adult baptism being a declaration that Jesus is Lord, with an accompanying commitment to a life of discipleship in the context of Christian community.  The "package" is gelassenheit (surrender), to God and to our brothers and sisters in Christ--the opposite of asserting and claiming individual rights or "sovereign selfhood.".

I see something very different from gelassenheit in some conservative Anabaptist Christians' strident criticism of leaders who attempt to rein in the spread of Covid-19 or to warn of its potential devastation.  They assign devious motives to anyone whose edicts inconvenience them or whose scholarly projections don't quite pan out.  They construct and publicize elaborate conspiracy theories around these inconveniences and "suspect" motives. They miss the fact that the "off" numbers quite possibly resulted from some people actually taking the limitations on activities and the warnings seriously--resulting in being spared the worst case scenarios).  They don't admit that they are possibly even misunderstanding the numbers, and the mistakes may actually not be present. They seemingly have no understanding of the fluid nature of knowledge about a new disease.  "Mistakes do not prove conspiracy."  John Waldron, a Mennonite doctor writing soberly on COVID-19 said succinctly.  That this truth is not readily recognized by some of us is not only cringe-worthy, but repentance-worthy.

I see no gelassenheit in blatant refusal to abide by policies for mask wearing from civil authorities or expectations communicated by church leaders.  I see in it a breathtaking assertion of individualism and sovereign selfhood.

Not being able to see beyond one's own inconvenience to the good of the community is a fundamental departure from historic Anabaptist practice--as though no connection exists between a life of faith and its expression in a Christian brotherhood and among those around it.  If that "Amish" sensibility is lost, the potential devastation to our faith community may be even more lethal than Covid-19. 


Note:  Spead out over the past few weeks, this post has been beset by many technical difficulties, which involved loss of text, rewriting, and "save" malfunctions.  Today I was shocked to find that it had, in fact, not yet made it to publication.  Just in case more than technical difficulties were involved, I'm praying for protection over this effort. 


  • I've been surprised and confused at the Anabaptist response to Covid-19 regulations. This helps me see the bigger picture--the transition from a subculture's "common good" worldview to the more American "individual good." I agree with you that something valuable is lost in the process.

    By Blogger Dorcas, at 7/29/2020  

  • Dorcas, I see now that I never thanked you for this comment. I do appreciate it and am glad if it was helpful.

    By Blogger Miriam Iwashige, at 8/22/2020  

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