In search of peace and contentment

Paul Miller gives an overview of the origins and basic principles of the Amish faith based on his in

The Amish in North America are a religious counter-culture that has not only persisted but also thrived in the hustle of modern Western society. With only about 5,000 members in 1900, they were widely predicted to fade and vanish from the United States cultural scene. To the contrary, the religious sect now numbers about 175,000 and is found in 26 states and the province of Ontario. The Amish continue their traditional lifestyle apart from mainstream society and they both survive and thrive in North America.

The Amish are a minority religious group with their roots in the Anabaptist movement which emerged in 1525 in the middle of the Protestant Reformation. The Anabaptists (the name means to “re-baptize”) took issue with Ulrich Zwingli and Martin Luther, believing that the prominent leaders of the reformation too soon compromised with the religious establishment. They were unwilling to follow through with reforms that may have truly restored Christianity to its biblical forms.

Anabaptists differed with Protestant reformers on three significant issues. First, they believed the true church must be a voluntary association of believers who personally choose to follow Christ. They rejected infant baptism as a means of declaring affiliation with the church and of civil registration. Second, the Anabaptists maintained that church and state are by God’s design separate institutions. The foremost allegiance of believers was to the church and only secondarily to the state as long as it did not compromise commitment to Christ. Third, Anabaptists held that the Christian cannot use violence either in self-defense or in defense of the nation-state. They believed that the command of Jesus calls Christians to suffer loss or injury rather than to protect themselves by force.

Because of their religious stance, Anabaptists were severely persecuted by Catholic and Protestant leaders alike. Since both church and state were allied, Anabaptists were hounded by religious and civil authorities. Thousands suffered severe persecution and death by fire and sword.

More than 175 years later, the Amish developed out of an internal division in 1693 that called for stricter church standards and clearer distinctions from the rest of society. The Amish gained their name from Jacob Ammann, a prominent leader who challenged laxity in the religious life of the group.

By the time the Amish were established, capital prosecution of Anabaptists had ceased. However, other forms of intimidation and persecution actually intensified. Many of the Amish and other Anabaptists were successful farmers and artisans, but the law of the land made their property subject to confiscation and denied them the right to own land. In many instances, they were driven from arable land and forced to move into the mountains.

By 1720 the Amish followed their Anabaptist cousins emigrating to the New World. Thousands moved to North America and continued to emigrate for the next century and a half. They came in search of tolerance, religious freedom and economic opportunity so often denied them in Europe.

The religious convictions of the Amish are evident in their faith community where they practice a lifestyle of nonconformity. Within their church communities the Amish practice love and mutual concern for all members. While they do not practice a community of goods, the Amish help each other with aid when disaster strikes and also help with medical expenses. The Amish reject government subsidies of welfare, unemployment compensation or Social Security retirement pensions.

The Amish believe the scriptural teachings of a clear separation between the church and the world call them to distinctive patterns of dress, transportation, use of electricity and telephone, and simple homes and lifestyles. The principle they apply to modern life is to always weigh cultural and technological changes in view of their potential impact on spiritual commitment, community values and family life.

The Amish believe the ethic of personal integrity, community values and a disciplined spiritual walk produce true contentment and fulfillment. They are not perfect, but their patterns result in a life that is admired and coveted by many in the turmoil of modern society.

Paul Miller is the executive director of the Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center, an interpretation center located in Berlin, Ohio, in the middle of the world’s largest community of Amish.
Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.