Amish refuse to fight in wars, serve on police forces, or sue in a court of law
One of the founding beliefs of Anabaptism and one which defines the Amish is their adherence to the doctrine of non-resistance. This belief influences the Amish approach not only to the military but to politics, law enforcement, and litigation. The Amish belief in non-resistance has deep roots. Living these convictions in a world which often resorts to violence has not always been easy.
Pacifist or non-resistant?
If asked to describe their beliefs regarding use of force, Amish would likely choose the term “non-resistant” from among a number of synonyms. “Pacifist”, while it may accurately describe a segment of Amish belief, fails to take in the other forms of non-resistance that Amish condone.
These include refusal to sue in a court of law, or to use coercive force as a member of government (positions which prevent Amish from suing or holding political office). “Pacifism” implies a particular set of attitudes, primarily regarding war. Amish abstain from the use of force in all situations.
Roots of non-resistance
The Amish belief in non-resistance is rooted in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Jesus instructs his disciples to “resist not evil, but whoever shall smite thee on they right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39). Amish take this admonition quite seriously, and see the violent approach to solving problems as un-Christian.
Amish feel that true Christians should truly turn the other cheek, and take historical inspiration from the actions of their forefathers. One story recounted frequently among Amish is that of Dirk Willems, an early Anabaptist persecuted for his beliefs.
Fleeing from authorities, Willems crossed a frozen pond, only to have his pursuer crash through to the ice. Rather than leave his enemy to a certain death and claim his own freedom, he returned to help him onto dry land. Willems was subsequently executed.
Jacob Hochstetler is another Amishman who, during the French and Indian War, offered an example that resonates today with his many descendants. Facing an attack by Native Americans, Hochstetler forbade his boys to fire back in defense. Jacob and two sons were subsequently captured, and his wife, son, and daughter scalped.
Hochstetler chose not to retaliate in the spirit of non-resistance, as he belived it wrong to take human life. As a result Hochstetler lost his loved ones and his freedom. While modern Americans might find it hard to understand Hochstetler’s decision, Amish today take inspiration in the early Amishman’s example, seeing it as how Christ himself would have acted.
Two Kingdoms doctrine
The Amish non-resistant approach is tied up with Christian “Two Kingdoms” doctrine. Amish follow a very strict interpretation of “two kingdoms” doctrine.
Two Kingdoms doctrine is the belief, held by numerous Christians, that there is a spiritual kingdom with its own set of rules, and a worldly one. The worldly kingdom and its authorities is seen to be instigated by God. Amish respect and follow the rules of the worldly kingdom, so long as they don’t interfere with God’s dictates.
Mandatory military service or using force as a police officer, or indirectly as a government official or agent of the state, is in the Amish view un-Christian and in violation of the rules of the spiritual kingdom.
At the same time, Amish do not condemn police officers or military. They recognize that they are fortunate to live in a country which allows them to practice their religion without persecution by internal or external enemies. Amish certainly appreciated the response of law enforcement after the Nickel Mines school shooting which took the lives of five Amish schoolgirls.
Amish pray that there is a place in heaven for agents that use force as well. For that matter, Amish would never presume to know how God will judge His people.
History of Amish non-resistance
Historically, Amish have been persecuted for their non-resistance beliefs. Outsiders have seen the Amish response as suspect or hypocritical. Amish issues with military service date back to the Revolutionary War.
At certain times throughout history, Amish have even paid others to stand in for them, or have paid commutation fees to avoid service, a practice that led one historian to call the Amish Civil War experience “not one of their finest hours” (“Military Service and Conscription”, Keim).
Amish were persecuted to varying degrees in World Wars I and II, as were members of other non-resistant religious groups, such as Hutterites. The Amish, as a German-speaking minority who refused to take part in battle against an aggressor Germany, were viewed as particularly suspect and even treasonous. This resulted in vandalism as well as forced service in some cases.
In one particular case, two young Hutterite brothers died in a military prison. Amish experienced similar trials in some cases.
Some alternative service programs had been set up for Amish and other Conscientious Objectors (COs), but Amish consideredthese less than ideal. These alternative service plans typically had Amish youth working in worldly environments such as urban hospitals.
Amish youth often went away to such service only to return with wives from different faiths, or opting out of Amish baptism. Not wanting to compromise beliefs or endure persecution, Amish sought an alternative way to fulfill their civic requirements.
Alternative service for Amish during war
The Amish Steering Committee was a body which was formed in 1967 in response to concerns over draft policies and the alternative service arrangement during the Vietnam War. The Steering Committee successfully lobbied for changes in Amish youth hospital service, facilitating an alternative, more favorable plan that had Amish working on farms in Amish environments to fulfill Alternative Service requirements.
Alternative service was much more favorable in Amish eyes to military conscription, though presented its own issues, especially when youth were placed in worldly environments such as city hospitals in order to fulfill alternative service duties. The widely-read present-day Amish publication Young Companion was started at this time, under the name Ambassador of Peace, as a way of lending support to Old Order youth in alternative service.
Some disagree with the Amish approach to military service, seeing them as freeloading on the sacrifices of others. When viewed against the Amish interpretation of Two Kingdoms doctrine, one may also wonder how Amish feel about the law enforcement and military who utilize violent means in order to keep them safe.
Amish do not outwardly condemn these individuals, and in fact rely on and appreciate the protection given to them by law enforcement, for example.
Amish beliefs in non-resistance run deep, with a long history and strong spiritual roots. Amish non-resistance is manifested not only in times of war, but also in the sphere of everyday life, influencing Amish political participation, openness to using litigation, and interaction with law enforcement.
For further information, see:
“The Amish View of the State”, Paton Yoder;
“Military Service and Conscription”, Albert N. Keim;
“The National Amish Steering Committe”, Marc A. Olshan; found in The Amish and the State, eds. Donald B. Kraybill and Marc A. Olshan
Mennonites, Amish, and the American Civil War, James O. Lehman, Steven M. Nolt
Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy, Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt, David L. Weaver-Zercher
The Martyrs Mirror, Thieleman J. van Braght