Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Pennsylvania Amish School Shooting

The nation has been horrified once again by a shooting at a school. While all of the school shootings in recent years have been horrible and should remind us that there are way too many guns out there for people with psychological problems to use, this particular case is especially disturbing. It is especially disturbing because the Amish are a very close-knit community of Christian believers who have pacifism as one of the hallmarks of their faith. Therefore, to have this level of violence instigated by an outsider who came into their community is indeed a major tragedy for their community.

Violence is not new to the Amish tradition though. They are the descendents of the 16th century Anabaptist tradition. The Anabaptists (who got their name from their refusal to accept infant baptism and their decision to "re-baptize" themselves as adult believers in Christ) were perhaps the most biblical of all of the 16th century reformers, yet were the most persecuted of that century. They denied the biblical validity of infant baptism. Whereas the other reformers went a long way toward reforming the church on the basis of sola scriptura, the Anabaptists took sola scriptura to its logical conclusion denying infant baptism. With the church and the state tied together as closely as it was in the 16th century, to deny infant baptism was tantamount to denying one's citizenship. As a result, Anabaptists became the scourge of both Protestants and Catholics in western Europe. They were hunted down, tortured and hundreds were executed for their religious beliefs by burning at the stake and even drowning (a cruel method of mocking their emphasis on adult baptism).

The Anabaptists were distinctive for several important beliefs. (1) They believed that baptism was reserved for adult believers who had experienced a personal conversion. (2) They placed great emphasis on Christian discipleship, instructing that Christians should live like Jesus lived. (3) They were pacifists, refusing to take up arms even to defend themselves. (4) The practiced separation from the world, meaning that their communities tended to be separate and to themselves, a tradition that the Amish practice today. (5) They were strong supporters, perhaps the most vocal in the first 16 centuries of Christianity, of the notion that the institution of the church and the institution of the state should be separate. (6) They had a very strong sense of community, again a concept practiced by the modern-day Amish. (7) They had a distinctive ecclesiology, meaning that they believed that the church is not made up of every citizen of society (the belief in Europe in the 16th century) but the church is only made up of those baptized believers who have had an experience of personal converstion. (8) They believed in restoration of the NT ideal of the church rather than in a reformation of the 16th century church.

The modern-day Amish (as well as the Mennonites) are the inheritors of this Anabaptist tradition. Pacificism, living like Jesus lived, strong sense of community, etc. has characterized the Amish for centuries. These were peaceful people. They did not look for trouble. They kept to themselves as much as possible. And, so that is what makes the killings of these little girls in one of their schools so tragic.

But even more interesting is the question of how the Amish in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania are going to respond to this. In fact, their response which will probably be articulated only in their community and not to the world, will most like be to simply return to their simple lives and deal quietly with their grief in their community with the loving support of their neighbors.

We live in a very violent world. And the foreign policy of our president has not contributed to peace in the world, but rather has stirred up the anger of many people in the world toward each other and toward the United States. In such a time as this, it is sobering to be reminded of the simple question "What would Jesus do?" I suspect that if we watch the Amish of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, we will get a good indication of how that question is to be answered.

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