Being a Lutheran can be a cross, especially in trying times. Why insist on believers having citizenship in two distinct kingdoms—earth and heaven—when one of them, the world around us, is so dysfunctional? So I took a three-day leave of absence to join an Amish congregation whose bishop, Vernon Raber, told me, "We are citizens of one kingdom only, the kingdom of Jesus Christ!" I thought they were an excellent group to escape to, good Christians singing and praying in German, my mother tongue, and avoiding the vulgarities of politics. I liked it.
My ephemeral desertion to Raber's world might raise eyebrows among my Lutheran coreligionists. "How can you enjoy the company of people disdaining this world, which is of course not Christ's (John 18:36) but nonetheless the realm of our hidden God?" they might ask. Someone will surely reprimand me: "Have you forgotten Luther's counsel that we Christians must engage the secular reality we live in, which is ruled not by faith but by reason, the 'empress of all things,' in Luther's words?"
It would not surprise me to hear someone ask: "Do you deny that our faith in the Good News of being redeemed sinners sets us free to fulfill our divine tasks in this sinful and temporal world? Are you not mocking Christ's sacrifice?"
Well, I don't deny this, nor do I wish to mock Christ, and I haven't forgotten Luther's advice. But even a confessional Lutheran might be permitted an occasional reprieve from sound doctrine to delight in the company of a warm-hearted minority of people believing an entirely different theology—people like Vernon Raber.
I ran into Bishop Raber and his flock in what's called Little Arabia, a flat, rural section of southeastern Illinois where ancient oil pumps lift and lower their bizarre heads rhythmically. Many of the machines belong to Amishmen like Raber who do not own cars but drive horse-drawn buggies. They use the wells' natural gas to turn their own pumps and generators, but have contracted outside companies to exploit the petroleum. Raber said he had five oil wells but that his real business was breeding fish. He estimated that he ruled a quarter million of these creatures swimming in 20 ponds on his 140-acre property until trucks cart them to resorts for sports fishermen as far away as New York and Ontario.
Raber made it clear that he had none of the worries of his non-Amish neighbors. The 36 families in his congregation had full larders. During the hunting season, they had shot plenty of does, slaughtered 30 hogs, and made 1,000 sausages. The women had bottled copious amounts of fruits and vegetables from their gardens.
Carrying their Burdens
So now they had plenty of food and no need for gasoline. They didn't smoke, they didn't drink alcohol, they didn't watch television and, moreover, were spared the health-care problems plaguing the rest of society. These descendants of German and Swiss Anabaptists shun the world as much as possible. Of course, when a fire breaks out on a non-Amish neighbor's farm, the Amish are usually the first to help. Beyond that, they eschew secular reality. They do not carry health insurance or pay into Social Security; in their eyes such modern schemes would fly in the face of Paul's admonition to "carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ" (Gal. 6:2).
"It works," said Raber, who, like all Amish ministers, has never been to seminary, and whose church members elected him bishop for life by drawing lots from a hymnal. "Five of our members just underwent surgeries costing a total of $90,000. So a deacon wrote a few letters to other members and to sister congregations, and soon the medical bills were paid." Sitting next to me on the driver's seat of his buggy, Raber knocked me cheerfully in the side with his left elbow: "This is cheaper than health insurance, isn't it?"
These Amish were clearly doing well, as were their brothers and sisters nationwide. With an average of seven children per family, the Amish have become the fastest growing religious minority in the U.S., doubling in size every 20 years. One century ago, the Amish community numbered 15,000; now they have grown to a quarter of a million. They attract converts too. Raber introduced me to two young women in his congregation who used to be Roman Catholics. They seemed happy.
I began to envy them, especially when Raber took me to his congregation's schoolhouse. Compared with my childhood of having to share a classroom with 80 other boys in bombed-out Leipzig after World War II, this seemed to me like a dream world. There were three bright classrooms with no more than eight kids each. There was Wanita Yoder, a handsome young teacher dressed in a home-sewn light green garment. She knelt next to the children to be at their eye level while explaining intricate points of an antiquated form of German, in which the Amish sing, pray, and, with English phrases mixed in, communicate.
The Amish keep their children in school for only eight years, teaching them English, German, arithmetic, reading, handwriting, and the Bible. Even their instructors have no higher education. But where else have I ever seen teachers kneeling next to their students in class? Nowhere have I experienced happier, trimmer, and healthier-looking boys and girls.
Stark Theological Contrast
But I did say this was an escape, didn't I? I loved what I saw, until the thought occurred to me that none of these kids would ever become physicians. I asked Raber about that.
"Could you be a doctor and still be Amish?" He hesitated, then replied, "Theoretically you could. But by the time you graduate you would have exposed yourself too much to the wickedness of the world." So I wondered aloud: "Does this mean that, having been through this kind of experience, I will go to hell?" Raber became adamant: "No! We would never say this. While we avoid this lifestyle, we must obey Jesus' words, 'Judge not lest you be judged'" (Matt. 7:1).
Our brief dialogue exposed the stark theological contrast between this Lutheran and his enchanting Amish hosts. Fearing the temptation of falling into sin, they would rather not risk worldly vocations as physicians, lawyers, policemen, or politicians. The Lutheran, on the other hand, has the Reformer's admonition in his ears: "Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly." In other words, do your duty in the secular "kingdom," aware that you are fallible and bound to sin but also that Christ is always there to implore for forgiveness.
We drove to see Joseph Beachy, an Amish cabinetmaker. Together Beachy and Raber questioned me about my life and work. I told them about an article I had just written, about a so-called Lutheran named George Tiller in Wichita, Kansas, a physician whose voice could have been heard on the Internet announcing that he had killed 60,000 children in their mothers' wombs, mainly late-term, and that he had been aborting an average of 100 more per week.
Tears welled up in the eyes of these bearded men. Although they did not say so, I sensed that at this point they must have recognized the flaws in their one-kingdom theology; while it is perhaps wonderful to live a wholesome Amish life, the realities of what we Lutherans call the "kingdom to the left" still must be grappled with by legal, political, and other means. Letting evil run its course is not a Christian option. Visibly shaken, Beachy gently took my arm and led me outside.
22-Stanza Hymns and a 90-minute Homily
The next morning, a Sunday, buggies pulled up in front of Raber's property. Bearded men in black suits piled into his basement to "salute one another with an holy kiss" (Rom. 16:16, KJV). They took their places on benches without backrests to the left of a makeshift lectern. The women came down from the first floor and sat on the other side.
A deep male voice intoned the first word of the Anabaptist hymn "O Herre, in deinem Thron" ("O Lord, in Thy Throne"); the others fell into a powerful a cappella in harmony, slowly, hauntingly, for 22 stanzas. More hymns were sung, followed by a one-hour sermon on Psalm 107 partly in English, partly in dialectical German. After more singing, another preacher gave a 90-minute homily on the Book of Daniel entirely in 16th-century German. It was all law. A lesson from one of the Gospels was read but left uncommented on; we were not taught the gospel's immensely liberating message that as redeemed sinners, we must boldly embrace our role as God's masks through which he carries out his hidden purposes, to borrow one of Luther's axioms.
When I left for St. Louis after the service, Raber told me that his flock would soon send out members to form new congregations far away. This was good news at the end of my stay in Little Arabia. Yet I knew that I could never join them. I am joyful over having experienced the Amish alternative to my own world. Did not Luther say in 1525, "There must be sects so that the spirits may clash"?
I have no wish to belittle the Amish—quite to the contrary. When I left Raber and his people, I was filled with gratitude that in their midst, I had found spiritual rest and regained the strength to return to my Lutheran reality of working with rolled-up sleeves in God's left-hand kingdom.
Uwe Siemon-Netto is director of the Center for Lutheran Theology and Public Life, which is affiliated with Concordia University in Irvine, California.
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