Summern 2008
Volume 8, Number 3

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MONKS AND AMISH

Gene Stoltzfus

Buddhists and Amish, two communities from widely different parts of the world who refuse to use violence against enemies, are in my imagination these days. Both had members who were killed by someone from outside their community. Both refused to retaliate. Both consider the person or persons who killed their members worthy of love and forgiveness. Both have developed teachings, styles of social formation, rituals, and tough disciplines over centuries.

We can learn from these communities which have tried, if imperfectly enough, to build a culture of peace. In both communities nonviolence is not simply a political tactic but a way of life. For the Amish people and the Buddhist monks, nonretaliation is so deeply rooted and beyond question that outsiders with utilitarian lenses can be startled by the consequences of these deeply held convictions.

Both my mother and father came from families that had Amish roots. They used Deitsch (Pennsylvania Dutch) to talk to each other when they didn’t want us, their children, to understand. As I grew up, Amish people regularly came to our home to see my father, Mennonite pastor and bishop, and discuss problems occurring in their communities. I was usually cut out of those conversations either by language or closed doors, but I sensed emotional trauma and trouble.

To a child, the solution seemed simple: If there was a problem, just stop being Amish. I was not attracted to their life of horses, buggies, oil lamps, and suspenders. Later my attitude changed as I became more impressed with their conviction and tenacity for healthy living, compassion, and faithfulness in a mean world enraptured by skin-deep Hollywood love.

As a young civilian volunteer in Vietnam during the war, I came to know the Buddhist communities there, the distant cousins of the Burmese monks. On June 11, 1963, three weeks before I arrived in Vietnam, Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc burned himself to death at a busy Saigon intersection to protest the persecution of Buddhists by the Vietnamese government. Self-immolation in Vietnam by monks has a long history, often but not always interconnected with political protest.

Two years later as a volunteer in Nha Trang, a city north of Saigon, I was asked to be treasurer of the emergency relief committee at the pagoda where Thich Quang Duc once resided as a monk. The huge American troop buildup in 1964 in the Nha Trang area created refugees; the lifestyle of these foreign soldiers was also exacerbating conditions for the whole population. I reluctantly agreed to a brief tenure on the committee, knowing that access to money in those desperate conditions could lead to suspicions. Eventually the monks agreed to take on the task. They and their civilian supporters carried on the work without gossip.

On October 2, 2006, five Amish girls were lined up and shot in a simple one-room school building in Pennsylvania. The world was shocked and held its breath as our "civilization" tried to explain to itself the reasons for one more school shooting. The encore was even more positively scandalous when the world learned that the Amish reached out to the family of the perpetrator who took his own life. They offered forgiveness and support, sharing some of the millions of dollars of contributions they received to help the victims’ families.

Today the school has been torn down and sod planted where children once learned to read. Was this event of terror a defeat or the suggestion of another way worth noticing?

In Burma the monks who are not in detention by repressive militaryrulers who call the country Myanmar, have returned to their pagodas. There they practice meditation, prayers, daily begging, and study Buddha’s Middle Way. When months before they suspended services to the military in many areas of Burma, they had dusted off one of the most ancient tactics of nonviolent culture—passive resistance and noncooperation.

Through the centuries young Amish have from time to time been conscripted into national armies. Since the Amish refuse to engage in military service, Amish conscripts practice various forms of noncooperation when alternative service is not an option. Some refuse to put on a uniform. Others refuse to march or take on any assignments. Their actions have led to responses from officers ranging from tolerance to angry punishment, even death.

For both of these communities, acts of noncompliance and passive resistance are a method of love and preparation for reconciliation. Punishment is never an end in itself. Both understand noncooperation to be a necessary stage of building a culture of peace that is in accordance with the will of God or the higher truth.

As I write, there are memorials, funerals, and last rites for monks who died praying with their nonviolently protesting feet in Burma’s streets. Thousands of their supporters had to decide if it was safe or worth the risk to attend these rites for the monks and their civilian coworkers.

In all cultures, the most deeply held values of faith and vision are ritualized at funerals and memorials. These events can evoke more repression. However, they are also the moment to announce renewed vision and hope. As the dead are remembered, thousands of soldiers and their officers wrestle with how to live with the murders that they carried out.

These two communities are both growing. Amish membership now approaches 200,000. New Buddhist communities are springing up around the world. Neither offers an easy path. Both communities continue to invent ways to overcome new problems of living in a world infused with cultures of violence and therapies teaching adjustment to ego needs.

Amish biweekly worship hours probably wouldn’t grab the fancy of many, although the community meals that follow reflect culinary talent and abiding hospitality. The best vegetarian food I have tasted was with monks in Vietnam pagodas. Most young Amish return to the church after "sowing wild oats." Both communities have identifiable garments developed over a long history of learning to treat the earth and each other kindly and respectfully. Both look back to the spiritual courage of their founders and continue to invent the way to faithful living.

The theology/cosmology of the Buddhists and Amish are worlds and centuries apart. However, the outworking of their gentle hands in peaceful living reflects courage, confidence, and innovation and is a challenge to all of us. I and we can continue to learn from them about the creation of a beloved community and the liberation of God’s people and earth from the toxic stuff of our time.

— For 17 years, Gene Stoltzfus was Director, Christian Peacemaker Teams. Since retirement he has been living with wife Dorothy Friesen in Fort Frances, Ontario. During and following the Vietnam War, he worked in Vietnam and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, where he spent many days with Buddhist monks. This article first appeared in his blog at gstoltzfus.blogspot.com.

       
       
     

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