by Monte Sahlin
Many Christians tend to believe that if one sticks to the more conservative, fundamental position on any question, that path leads to the correct understanding, interpretation or behavior in God’s eyes. Fundamentalist faith is appealing precisely because it seems to be safe, where more progressive or liberal religion is dangerous because it may lead to things beyond the pale.
Then along comes the strange case of 16 fundamentalist Amish in Ohio currently on trial for violent attacks on Amish neighbors and relatives they consider too liberal. The group formed because “they wanted to lead more conservative lives.” They claim they were motivated by good intentions, that the people they attacked had strayed from the true Amish way and needed to be brought “back into the fold.”
Several attacks were carried out in the fall of 2011 in a rural region around Steubenville, Ohio. In each case men and women, some of them elderly, were held down and their beards or hair cut. This is an act that is deeply offensive to the Amish, who believe that the Bible instructs women to let their hair grow long and men to grow beards and stop shaving once they are married.
The attacks were instigated by Sam Mullet Sr., a self-appointed Amish religious leader. The goal was to send a message to other Amish that they should be ashamed of themselves for not being more deeply serious about their faith. He has described the targets of the attacks as “Amish hypocrites.”
A typical incident, as described in court documents, involved twelve men and women who arrived at the home of farmer and his wife at 10:30 p.m. on September 6. The group dragged the man to a chair and cut his beard down to the skin as he cried and screamed for them to stop. Five of the women grabbed the woman and cut off two feet of her hair as she prayed for God to forgive them. The middle-aged couple had bruises and cuts from the attack.
On October 4 a group of 25 went to the home of a 76-year-old Amish bishop and conducted a similar attack. His “sin” was that he refused to endorse a request by Mullet to shun people who fled his group. In some of these attacks, adult children were sent to attack their own parents.
Defense attorneys for the 16 admit that what happened is “domestic violence.” They argue that it is just “a feud over church discipline,” not religious persecution as the prosecutors charge. In other words, they do not contest the violent behavior that the group is accused of. Remember, this is a group that is trying to more faithful to a religion that has pacifism as one of its core doctrines.
The important lesson for Seventh-day Adventists and other conservative Christians is this: Fundamentalism has led these Amish to transgress a core doctrine in an effort to be more conservative about their faith. Fundamentalism is a distortion of true faith that leads to heresy. In fact, in this case it has led to the violation of many other basic Bible teachings. Being too conservative can lead one to actually be unfaithful to the very thing that one is attempting to be more faithful about.
Members of Mullet’s group have taken the stand and revealed really shocking things about his misguided attempt to purify the Amish. He had adult members spank one another with thick wooden paddles. He confined “sinners” in chicken coops for days at a time. He forced the young wives of some of his members to sleep with him to provide “marriage counseling.” He labeled has heretics anyone who questioned his decisions or pronouncements.
It is easy to think that this could never happen among Adventists. But, then, I have only to mention what happened in Waco. Extremism in the defense of “truth” can lead to vice. It is easy to see how one can become too liberal and lose touch with core doctrines. It may come as a shock to some to discover that it is equally possible to become too conservative and end up in the same place.