Jim Cates on The Amish, Separation, and Politics

I hope everyone had a safe and restful Christmas holiday. Snow arrived in my area at 11 pm the evening of the 25th, making it a last-minute White Christmas.

ballot-boxComing later this week, look for a guest post from a new voice out of Indiana, as well as “Favorites of 2014”.

Today, Serving the Amish author Jim Cates returns with the first of a two-part look at the Amish, separation from the world, and politics.

The Politics of Dancing

I have long enjoyed the image of a very human Savior. And so I have my own re-creation of the scene in which his enemies attempt to trap Jesus with a question: to which authority do the Jews owe their allegiance? Rather than a look of wisdom and kindness, I prefer to imagine an eye roll of frustration and contempt before he says with a waspish tone, “Bring me a coin.” He asks whose portrait is inscribed there and they reply “Caesar.” The King James Bible brings us those now famous words, “Render unto Caesar therefore the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21b).

The Amish believe in separation from the world as Christians, and a plank in their platform of distance is separation from politics, with the scriptural reference above a nail that tightly holds that plank in place. And yet the governments that Christ encouraged his followers to obey, both Jewish and Roman, were top-down patriarchal, authoritarian hierarchies that incorporated little representation from the peoples governed.

The democratic process to which we are accustomed incorporates a much different approach to woo the citizen into rendering to Caesar what should really belong to God. In the words of the 1983 Re-Flex song (from which I shamelessly borrowed this title), “The politics of dancing / The politics of, ooh, feeling good / The politics of moving / If this message is understood.” And the message, of both song and democratic politics, is the morphing of politicians into those who will do whatever it takes to retain the good will of the people who place them in power.


That fact does not automatically make politicians a temptation to be avoided for the Amish. Because they are a) separate from the world, b) still by percentage of total population relatively small in number, and c) disinclined to register with a political party and vote in major elections, theirs is not a collective voice that carries significant ongoing weight with any organized political group. Nevertheless, the fact that politicians do not seek them does not mean that they are unaware of the actions of politicos, and the impact of political events on their lives.

For example, self-employed Amish are exempt from social security (including Medicare) taxes. Those who work for non-Amish employers are not. Therefore, they continue to pay into a system they do not intend to use. Likewise, many Amish send their children to private schools within the settlement rather than public schools. Regardless of their choice, the huge majority will leave at the end of 8th grade rather than continue for four more years, much less college. And yet they pay full taxes to fund public education.

Is this fair? One is reminded of the adage that our court system does not seek fairness, but justice. In the same sense, we cannot be “fair’ in our distribution of taxes. Is it “fair” for a non-Amish childless couple to pay taxes to support the schools? For an English family of six to pay the same tax as a family of two? Rather than fairness to individuals we seek to find a just way to fund a system of education that insures the well-being of our citizens. In the same way we attempt to find a just way to incorporate Amish beliefs into the mainstream system of taxation.

And yet the childless English couple mentioned above can utilize their opportunity to vote. If they are displeased with their burden, they can support representatives in government who are more closely aligned to their views. The Amish choose to maintain a greater distance. Although a minority does register and vote, the greater number abstains from involvement in the political process.


What may first appear to us as passivity bordering on the foolish can more accurately be described as a direct manifestation of the Amish practice of Christian faith. Separating from the world makes it no less God’s creation, and He remains in ultimate control. Therefore, it is in His time and through His grace that all that occurs is allowed to happen. Governments cannot rise and fall without His awareness and approval. Therefore, people of faith strive to retain their patience with the trials that life here provides, and their hope in a life beyond, an eternity spent in His presence.

There is nothing, then, that a government on earth, whether autocratic or democratic, dictatorial or republican, can do that God does not allow. Such oversight does not mean that the Amish do not feel the burdens, financial and otherwise, that “just” compromises to difficult social issues place on them in a democratic society. This is particularly true when they choose to remain distant from political involvement. They believe their actions are consistent with the behavior they are called to perform as Christians, striving to model the perfect image of Christ in an imperfect world.

And yet Christians are also reminded of a Christ who did not remain passive in the face of obstructions. This is the same Jesus who cursed the fig tree for its lack of fruit and threw the moneychangers from the temple (Mark 11:12-17). In the same way, when provoked to cause, the Amish have found a voice to speak out on issues of importance. In doing so they maintain the essential distinction between rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s, even in an environment when placating the voter has taken precedence over blatant power and control. The ability to perform these delicate maneuvers is the subject of the next blog.

Jim is author of Serving the Amish: A Cultural Guide for Professionals.

Image credits: ballot box by Joe Hall/flickr; Lancaster Amish snow photos by Ed C.

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    1. Trish in Indiana

      some thoughts on

      I am always uncomfortable when people apply too facile a correspondence between realities of the first century and those of the twenty-first, but I can see how the Amish would have a view of who “Caesar” is in the passage quoted that equates the term with “the government,” any government, however democratically elected. The Amish experience (not exactly in living memory, but in a memory carefully kept alive) has a thing or two in common with the experience of first-century Jews within the Roman Empire: The Amish “remember” a time when they were an actively persecuted minority threatened with death by a government not of their choosing which felt duty-bound to stamp out their religion and their very identity. Like the first-century Jews of Palestine, they have seen this persecution fade mostly to uneasy toleration as a little-understood minority, and like the Jews they have become dependent (more dependent than they feel comfortable thinking about) on their day-to-day interactions with that little-understanding community beyond themselves. Exclusion from a government bent on destroying them has become a choice not to participate in a civic life that would now permit their entry, but would inevitably change them into itself.

      The first-century Romans must sometimes have been, as many Americans are, insulted at being forever cast as the persecutor. From their point of view they were willing to welcome the outsider, if only they would stop being so, well, so “outside.” Why can’t you people just burn a little incense before a statue of the Emperor? We’re perfectly happy for you to worship that God of yours, too, and really, what harm is a little incense? It’s just a sign of allegiance to the Empire. And after all, don’t you get the benefit of living within the Empire? Wouldn’t you get even more benefit, if only you would accept all that the Pax Romana has to offer?

      The Jews would not burn the incense before Caesar’s image, yet when they reached into their pockets, they could not help finding Caesar’s image there. The Amish must move and live and have their being within a surrounding culture not their own. Our coins, stamped with our image, jingle in their pockets.

      But their incense they reserve for God.

      1. Forest in North Carolina

        Well said Trish. I must confess I am jealous of your eloquence in how you put that. This is a question that comes up in our (conservative Mennonite) church meetings from time to time, although we generally do not vote, believing it to be an unwarranted involvement with the world.

        My personal view, which I believe is in line with scripture, is that as Christian plain people, the most important and lasting change we can effect in this world is to try and help change one heart, one soul, at a time. If I spend time involved in politics, it is time I could be spending preparing myself to spread the gospel. God knows I waste far too much time as it is in trivial matters.

        Earthly kingdoms may come and go, but I believe that Jesus tells us to direct ourselves toward the furthering of God’s eternal Kingdom. This is where our work should be focused.

        I’m not saying we should not assist those in the world who have physical needs; this is clearly what God wants us to do. Nor am I saying that we should not speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves; the unborn, the alien, the poor. But I firmly believe that our responsibility is to prepare ourselves and win souls for an everlasting life with Christ; all other things are temporary and will pass away.

        Just my 1.879 cents worth

        1. Susan F

          Thanks Forest,

          I really appreciate hearing from those in the plain communities.

        2. Ralph Becker

          THE WORLD

          WE ARE IN THIS WORLD, but not part of it. Once you are a CHRISTIAN you are His children, He is your Father, therefore not of this world. Yet you are here to full fill His mission or gift He has given you and spread the gospel to every one. I never forget a funeral I attended years ago, as I left the building over the door a sign said “AS YOU LEAVE HERE TODAY YOU ARE ENTERING YOUR MISSION FIELD” . LET THE LORD USE YOU FOR THIS PORPOSE. All things that happen in this world are controlled (or allowed) by God to fulfill His ETERNAL PLAN. God gave Adam and Eve a choice, they sinned and disobeyed Him. That hasn’t stopped history repeats its self everyday.

      2. Leon Moyer

        Caesar's image

        This needs to be stuck in here somewhere: When Jesus gave the command to “give unto Caesar” he did not say, part of it, or a share for taxes, but he was saying “give ALL OF IT, because WE DO NOT HAVE MONEY WITH ENGRAVEN IMAGES ON IT”!!! (The Israelites had their own money, this was Roman money and belonged to Caesar’s kingdom). This is why he taught in Matt. 17 that the “children” of His kingdom are free from the financial support of worldly gov’t, since then they would be paying for soldiers to fight and kill when Jesus taught we should turn the other cheek to our enemies. Matt: 17: 25 He saith, Yes. And when he was come into the house, Jesus prevented him, saying, What thinkest thou, Simon? of whom do the kings of the earth take custom or tribute? of their own children, or of strangers?
        26 Peter saith unto him, Of strangers. Jesus saith unto him, Then are the children free.
        27 Notwithstanding, lest we should offend them, go thou to the sea, and cast an hook, and take up the fish that first cometh up; and when thou hast opened his mouth, thou shalt find a piece of money: that take, and give unto them for me and thee. (This was to fulfill the Levital Temple tax, as the law was still in effect.)
        LIKEWISE, in Luke 23 verse two, Jesus was accused of forbidding to give tribute to Caesar, and in verse three He did not deny it. They knew what He was teaching, no man can serve two masters, and those who are born into His kingdom anew, do not support the gov’t of the world.

        1. Jim Cates

          Response to Leon

          Your comments on “Render unto Caesar” interest me, particularly in light of several upcoming posts. My next post, part 2 on politics, in part addresses how the Amish liaison with the world, and in a few weeks I have two posts on how the Amish have responded to a nation mobilized for war. I was not raised in an Anabaptist tradition, nor is my current affiliation Anabaptist, but I believe that many of us struggle with how best to live out our morality under the government system(s) in place today. Thought-provoking, Leon!

          1. Leon Moyer

            see ya next year!

            Thanks for the kind words, Jim! It is my intent to provoke thought, that is one thing that differentiates us humans from the animal kingdom, as our cognitive abilities are a divine quality. I look forward to more stimulating discussion about conservative Anabaptist life and belief next year!

        2. Ralph Becker

          yes you are correct. But God allowed Goliath to be slain and the troops ran away.

    2. Alice Mary

      Pagan or Christian holiday?

      An interesting and obviously thought-provoking post from Jim Cates, and comments from Trish & Forest.

      This “holiday season”, I’ve been thinking long and hard about why Christianity (in general) still celebrates the Nativity of Christ at this time of year (winter), mainly because the pagans were already used to celebrating at this time of year (days getting longer)…and it was just easier (according to what I learned in 12 years of Catholic education) to incorporate the celebration of the birth of “the Light of the World, kChrist” into a time already known for (pagan) celebration. Why don’t Christians the world over throw out these pagan references once & for all, and celebrate Christ’s birth in spring (which I was taught was when Christ was really born)? How much does the “government”/business still determine/encourage this winter/pagan celebration? I’m trying to imagine, for example, Black Friday being an economic “moveable feast” occurring in the spring (Christmas, like Easter, would be a moveable feast, no?).

      I’d really like to pose this question to Christian leaders of various denominations throughout the world. Even as a child, I couldn’t understand why celebrating Christmas in winter wasn’t changed centuries ago, to reflect the actual birth of Christ? It always seemed to me that the pagans had the “last laugh”. Isn’t it time to celebrate a Christian holiday when it actually occurred?

      Alice Mary

      1. Trish in Indiana

        to alice: does this help?

        Christians have been celebrating the feast known as Christmas, and have celebrated it in conjunction with the winter solstice, a lot longer than we have put up manger scenes and sung carols about the little town of Bethlehem. Those nods to history are medieval embroidery on a feast whose meaning is at a more theological than historical level.

        That is, Christmas is not exclusively, primarily, or originally about the historical moment of the birth of baby Jesus. It is a celebration of the central reality of the Christian faith, the Incarnation of God, who deigned to participate in our humanity.

        That Incarnation, that “taking on of flesh,” has no meaning if it means ONLY the birth of a baby in Bethlehem 2000 years ago. It must mean also God’s desire from the earliest eons of time to be one with His creation, and it must mean God’s love made visible in our own actions today, and it must mean the promise of Christ’s glorious return at the end of time to judge the living and the dead.

        To seek the historical “birthday” of Jesus in the spring would be to miss the point of Christmas. December 25 is not BabyJesusmas, a feast of a cute little infant in a manger full of hay, but Christmas, the feast of everything Christ was, is, and will be in human history. Rightly did our spiritual ancestors anchor this feast on the long-celebrated Feast of the Unconquered Sun, for they were making a statement to their pagan neighbors, a statement about who is REALLY our unconquered source of light.

        1. Leon Moyer

          diving deep

          Trish: You wrote above: “Rightly did our spiritual ancestors anchor this feast on the long-celebrated Feast of the Unconquered Sun,…” The Anabaptists, who are spoken about on this website, do not consider the Roman rulers who ordained and combined the day of sun worship with a celebration of the birth of Christ as their “spiritual ancestors!” Those rulers of Rome and other worldly empires are anathema to born again believers everywhere, as they reflect and identify with the Catholic church, from which the Anabaptists separated because they discovered around the 1500’s that the Catholic church was not following or teaching all the Bible principles nor doing the will of God as written in the Bible.
          Further, their are many if not most conservative Anabaptists who do not believe in “celebrating” anything, as that is “worldly” and fulfilling the lusts of the flesh, contrary to scriptures. First John 2: 15-17, etc.

          1. Trish in Indiana

            It is not the pagan Roman rulers who are the spiritual ancestors of whom I spoke, but their subjects who were in the Christian minority.

            Yes, it is true that this website focuses on the Amish, but it is run by someone who is not Amish, primarily for the sake of those of us who are not Amish. Naturally, those of us who are not Anabaptists will have views that differ in some regards from those of Anabaptists. Up until now, Leon, no one had made me feel unwelcome here as a Catholic.

            1. Mark - Holmes Co.

              Diversity is what keeps this interesting. Trish, I value my Catholic friends even though we may differ in some of our opinions.

      2. Ralph Becker

        ALICE MARY,
        A good question you asked. If we read the new testament we find nothing about celebrating Christmas as we do or Easter. But the Lord at the last supper, His Last REQUEST was THIS DO IN REMEMBERENCE of ME.I have often thought if we come together to remember HIM, we would be remembering Him in his birth, life and resurrection at HIS TABLE by worshipping, thanking Him , praisng Him for what he did for us at cross. The breaking of bread, was a memorial to Him for belivers to REMEMBER HIM.

    3. Alice Mary


      That is way “beyond” what I was taught…perhaps I’m too much of a simpleton (like the Amish in their “plainness” & simplicity?).

      “…God’s desire from the earliest eons of time to be one with His creation, and it must mean God’s love made visible in our own actions today, and it must mean the promise of Christ’s glorious return at the end of time to judge the living and the dead…”

      I still don’t see why CHRISTians insist on adhering to pagan celebrations…centuries past the “original” “slap in the face”, I’ll show YOU who’s “…REALLY our unconquered source of light,” etc.

      I know Christians who don’t celebrate Christmas because their belief system puts the emphasis on Christ’s resurrection (having come to redeem us & give us eternal life.) It still doesn’t make a lot of sense, no matter whose (pagans, wiccans, native shamans, fill in the blank…) celebrations we link Christianity to…would it be heresy to acknowledge (publicly) that the man who was born as that little baby, grew up to be who most of the world knows him to be (Jesus Christ, Saviour, Lamb of God, etc., etc.) have his followers celebrate his birthday when it actually occurred? (Jim Cates mentioned his idea of a very human Jesus…frustrated…rolling his eyes…I can picture it!)

      OK, I DARE Christians (somewhere) to acknowledge (not necessarily go all out and celebrate as we do now) Jesus’ birth as being when it actually took place. Put it on the church calendar as such. How awful an idea is that?

      But since none of us were there to witness it first hand, I suppose it’s a moot point.

      Alice Mary

    4. Trish in Indiana

      Certainly you could do a birthday party for baby Jesus in the spring. Of course, you still would not know the exact date; that is lost to history.

      However, it would not be as major a celebration as Christmas, because it would have only that one, relatively minor, meaning of a birthday party for baby Jesus, rather than the depth of meaning of the community’s ancient celebration of the mystery of the Incarnation. It would be a fast somewhere on the level of solemnity of the Annunciation on March 25, when we celebrate specifically the event of Jesus being conceived in Mary’s womb and announced to her by the angel Gabriel. The Annunciation, in fact, comes closer to focusing on the historical event of the “moment” of the Incarnation, because it is about when Jesus’s human life on earth began in the womb, rather than on the day he happened to come into the air, so to speak. It is interesting that Christians began celebrating the Annunciation many centuries later, and on a much smaller scale, than they began celebrating the richer feast of Christmas. It’s part of the medieval embroidery, and was simply dated nine months before Christmas, rather than attempting to define the physical anniversary of the historical event.

      If you do celebrate the physical birthday of Jesus at some date in the spring, I would caution against letting it get big enough to compete with Easter, which, as you point out, is an even bigger feast to Christians than Christmas, and unlike Christmas, is rooted in the historical anniversary of the event shortly after Passover.

      1. Trish in Indiana

        oops, typo!

        That’s “feast,” not “fast.” (Why does the English language have to make those two words look so much alike????)