Saturday, October 07, 2006

Radical Reactionaries

The tragic Amish school shooting this week caused me to come to a couple realizations about not only Amish culture, but mainstream American culture.

First, I realized how odd it really is that that group has achieved a high level of recognition without a commiserate notoriety. Everyone knows that the Amish exist in this country, that they dress a certain way, and that they don't embrace modern technology. However, the occasional Weird Al parody or short-lived UPN series aside, the mainstream culture has for the most part avoided commodifying a group that holds great voyeuristic appeal. When one thinks about all of the fictional stories in various media about anachronistic "trapped in the wrong time" Encino Man-esque scenarios, it seems puzzling that the mainstream culture has averted its gaze from living embodiements of a different era. While some may attribute such a lack of interest and exploitation to sensitivity, I guess I'm a bit too cynical to assume a motivation that pure.

To the mainstream, the defining trait of the Amish would be their eschewing of technology. However, I wouldn't imagine most people to know the official Amish ideology regarding the use of technolgy (which holds that technology isn't evil). Most people probably don't understand that the reason for the avoidance of technology is to avoid corruption by too much contact with the outside world.

This week, technology aside, mainstream culture was exposed to another aspect of Amish ideology: the belief in forgiveness. The idea of "turning the other cheek" and "loving one's enemy" is so alien to human nature, and contrary to most cultural codes (secular or religious) that I see in a new light this community's resistance to assimilation.

Ironically, though the phrase "turning the other cheek" is clearly imbedded within our culture, I'm finding out that lacking context, many people have no idea what it actually means. I can remember a time in my youth when I wondered what the phrase actually meant, before I read the Sermon on the Mount in the book of Matthew. In college, a friend of mine (who was in my confirmation class several years before) asked me what the phrase meant. More recently, I've been teaching To Kill a Mockingbird to tenth-graders. Atticus Finch is certainly a cheek turner, and I asked both of my classes in discussions if they knew what the phrase actually meant. One of my classes was completely ignorant. In the other, after a lengthy pause, one of the students rasied his hand and said "If someone punches you one one side of the face, turn around and tell them to punch you on the other side." A couple of other students snickered, thinking he was being facetious.

The scary thing is that I actually teach at a Christian school, and many of my students have very strong Biblical backgrounds. They know their Sunday School lessons very well, and are not afraid to incorporate Biblical values into discussions of secular books and ideas. In other words, their lack of knowledge about turning the other cheek is not indicative of a general unfamiliarity with Biblical tenets.

I wonder if the Christian community's de-emphasis of loving one's enemy (and the concommitant positions within the Christian political community regarding such issues as capital punishment and interrogration of terrorism suspects) isn't in some way representative of the dangers of assimilation with mainstream culture, an assimilation assidulously avoided by the Amish to the detriment of their own material comfort.

I also wonder if the lack of scrutiny the mainstream puts on the Amish can be attributed not to altruism, but guilt. We'd rather not be made aware of the degree to which forgiveness is really possible.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Andrew Hoehler said...

"The scary thing is that I actually teach at a Christian school, and many of my students have very strong Biblical backgrounds. They know their Sunday School lessons very well, and are not afraid to incorporate Biblical values into discussions of secular books and ideas."

I know this isn't what you are really getting at, but a problem I've found with the students there is that they know the stories, morals, parables, etc...but fail to follow them for the most part of the school's population.

It's actually not that surprising to me at least. With the way the admin basically shoves the religion down their throats, it's easy to see why many of them tire of it.

7:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The mainstream culture ignoring the Amish has nothing to do with guilt. It has to do with differences. People tend to avoid people who are different from them.
Goatface

9:56 AM  
Blogger Azor said...

Looks like someone has been googling me :-)

Andrew, if a young person knows Biblical teaching and chooses to disregard it, I wouldn't be quick to blame overexposure. If the school culture de-emphasized religion, I would be extremely surprised if that made for a student population more likely to live Christian lives.

8:15 PM  

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