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.
Coming 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. He can be contacted through this blog or his website at servingtheamish.net.
Image credits: ballot box by Joe Hall/flickr; Lancaster Amish snow photos by Ed C.
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