Recent headlines surrounding the violence in Ohio have sent shockwaves throughout the Amish community. For the past three weeks, stories have surfaced over six men and women who have had their hair and beards shorn off across counties of Carroll, Holmes, Jefferson and Trumbull. Victims have included a 13 year old girl and a 74 year old man.
For any other community, this act is bizarre and intrusive, and to be honest an unwelcome reality of a spreading (let’s face it) and apparent madness in its citizens. But put this headline into a strictly pacifist and religious community – with one of the lowest crime rates in the World – and you have a fundamental oxymoron.
Let’s look at this objectively.
To any outsider, the Amish and violence go together like chalk and cheese. They are simply not connected, and thought of as completely unacceptable (and for the majority of followers, stay this way). It is a principal as ingrained as any of their views, ranging from no sex before marriage to living without modern conveniences. To put it simply, being against any kind of violence is as an accepted and long standing tradition for this religious sect as any other.
But to any insider in the Amish community itself, this is a complete juxtaposition in the face of their collective conformity, order and religious culture. Just as the religious group “believe that their religion, faith and the way they live are inseparable and interdependent”, as the BBC cites, this faith classifies violence as being completely against their religion, faith and culture.
Therefore, peace is fundamentally linked to Amish culture – full stop.
In fact, the Amish community are strict pacifists and conscientious objectors, and consider any breach of this code as premise to be ousted from the group. As hair is a religious, as well as historical, symbol of obedience and abidance of their belief, violence against this esteemed tradition is an action which is worthy of being shunned.
Thus it is surprising, and completely out of character, for such an act to have been committed. The attackers, believed to have been from a clan in Bergholz in Eastern Ohio, involved over eighteen families. And yet this violent act has been met with hostility by the Amish community towards a police enquiry, and progress over finding the specific attackers has been proving difficult.
Those involved with, or related to, the attackers and those attacked have made it difficult for further official investigation, as this means being explored – in public – by the press. Police enquiry is alien to such an introverted and sell-sufficient convergent community, and so it is no surprise that Sheriff Fred Abdalla, working on the case, explained that although “you see this crime being committed, […] I’m sitting here with my hands tied”. Furthermore, as Professor Donald Kraybill of Elizabethtown College adds, “[the Amish] are loath to press charges because it conflicts with their religious beliefs about non violence and not using force [or the force of law] in their daily life”.
As a peaceful and civilised people, who have followers of around 200,000 across America, “this story is very odd and clearly outlier behaviour [and] an aberration in Amish society” as Kraybill explained.
Not only have the Amish been brought into public scrutiny, which is against their very nature, but they have also highlighted the fact that things can go very wrong when the rules of conformity are broken. This unrest and implicit internal disillusionment (or at the very least, partial estrangement) within the Amish community proves that actions really do speak louder than words.
Because for this religious group, all it took to breach their metaphorically silent and untouched inhabitancy was a small group of supposedly shunned members with an axe to grind – or rather, hair to cut – to leave a lasting impact on outsiders like you and I.
But why does it?
Well, on the surface, this story reveals to us that all it takes is one single newsworthy act to completely alter our perceptions of a religious organisation; in this case, of the Amish community.
What was a peaceful and metaphorically unheard of community has been turned into an enigmatic case study of what happens when rules and regulation are breached.
It just shows that everything has a consequence, no matter how bizarre the act. And that what we do, to a large extent, might matter far more than what we say – and that once it has been executed, it cannot always be taken back, and may be splashed across papers, or at least talked about. Because what is newsworthy often is just that: news worthy.
So let’s hope the police have no need to probe much further: not that the Amish community would welcome an outside “force of law” much further within their otherwise quiet life. And maybe, then, the Amish community can get back to living in peace … with hair intact and all.