The people you meet on the plane

You sometimes meet interesting people flying across the Atlantic, and this trip has to just about take the cake for it. On the way from Minneapolis to Amsterdam yesterday morning, my flight was carrying a group of Amish bound for Zurich.

Now, the Amish are perhaps another institution Americans are more familiar with then Europeans. They are not very large in number, but they have enough media presence that most people know who they are. The Amish are a Protestant religious group who, beyond just ordinary adherence to their faith, also live moderately segragated lives from the American mainstream. They speak a southern German dialect commonly but inaccurately called “Pennsylvania Dutch.” They wear a particular style of clothing, the men tend to wear long beards but not mustaches, and the women dress very conservatively and wear small bonnets, as commanded by Paul in the New Testament. They also don’t drive cars and restrict their access to quite a few other modern conveniences.

The Amish are widely seen as more isolated from the world than they really are, and their society is a great deal less idyllic than it is made out to be. Since I’m ethnically Mennonite (a related but more mainstream faith) and spent my college years in a heavily Amish area, I have a bit more experience with them than the average American and I can assure you that the Amish are good deal more connected to the world than they are made out to be. Quite a few leave their communities and join more mainstram life. There are drug problems, and I gather domesitic violence and child abuse are not rare. They are not subsistence farmers; they sell their crops for cash, put the money in banks and buy food at grocery stores. Apparently, roller blades are very fashionable in Amish communities right now, and I remember seeing a lot of horses and buggies at Taco Bell on Sunday afternoon.

Anyway, why would they be travelling to Zurich, and what does this have to do with Europe?

Well, somewhere around Iceland, the Northern Lights flared up because of the giant sunspot that’s going on right now, and I pointed this out to a few people who rushed to the windows to see. Then, I used the opportunitiy to talk up one of the Amish passengers who went to look.

It turns out that the Swiss Reformed Church invited them to Zurich as part of a reconcilliation effort. You see, the Zwinglians – the founders of the Swiss Reform movement – were the reason the Amish are in America at all. At one time, you could be executed in the Holy Roman Empire for being an Anabaptist like the Amish. The whole history is long and complicated, and frankly not terribly interesting. However, it seems that some form of apology is in the offing.

Why does this matter? For the most part it doesn’t. The Amish aren’t a terribly big group, and the Swiss Reformed Church is just another Protestant sect in a world full of Protestant sects. However, it is an indicator that, at least among non-fundamentalist Protestants, the ecumenical movement is still pretty strong. The Amish are unusually remote and have no important political base. Reconciling with them can only mean a fairly genuine intention to reconcile with everyone who might be viewed as sharing some common values.

This kind of strategy makes a certain amount of sense when you look at how religious politics work in Europe. Nowadays, the Anglicans and the Lutherans have more in common with each other than with mainstream agnosticism or fundamentalism. I notice here in Belgium, for example, a lot of “generic” Protestant churches without specific doctrinal affiliations. In America, the denomination names are much less important than they used to be, but the differences between conservative and liberal churches are very strong and getting stronger. I don’t see much Protestant fundamentalism in Europe, so is it possible that the distinctions within Protestantism are just disappearing here? Does this have an impact on Europe’s remaining state churches?

5 thoughts on “The people you meet on the plane

  1. Scott, I just read “The Weaver King” by Anthony Arthur. It was about the Muenster Commune, contemporaries of Menno Simms (? Mennonite founder).

    The Mennonites are the mildest and most sensible people in the world, but the Anabaptists started out pretty rough. The Muenster approached Charlie Manson territory. The pacifism of the Mennonite branch, according to this book, grew in part from Muenster’s very bad opposite example.

    Where I grew up there are Hutterites, who are related I think. I rode a bus with two speaking mostly German but also reading the Reader’s Digest. An ex-farmer friend does jobs for them that their rules forbid them to do, sort of like the goy who helps out Orthodox Jews. He says that they’re the only people who can survive as independent farmers any more — extreme frugality, autarchy, group cooperation, no debt, and very hard work.

    The people conservatives pretend they want to be.

  2. There’s a wonderful play about the M?nster Anabaptists by Friedrich D?rrenmatt called “Die Wiedert?ufer”. I had to read it in German class in Indiana – to the best of my knowledge, there is no English translation. It’s a pity – few modern Anabaptists study what happened at M?nster and most aren’t even aware that it ever happened. Until I got to college, I only knew about it through Engels’s interpretation.

    It’s true that there are elements of modern Mennonite practice that come from their attempts to repudiate the whole M?nster affair. I think the refusal of political power is the main one though. It seems to me that the doctrine of pacifism started before M?nster and it was the M?nsterites who decided to drop it.

  3. “I don’t see much Protestant fundamentalism in Europe, so is it possible that the distinctions within Protestantism are just disappearing here?”

    Not compared to the US perhaps, but I would guess they constitute at least a few percent percents of protestants of even the most liberal c?untries. They’re typically very low-profile and not acknowledged by the media or popular culture so people probably think they’re even fewer than they are.

    Aren’t evangelicals 40% of churchgoing anglicans or somethign like that. Nick linked to some article in the Guardian, can’t recall exactly….

  4. Depends on how you define fundamentalism of course. What I was talkining about, now that I think of it, were “strongly religiious, strongly conservative protestants, at odds with mainstream values and mores.”

    A few percents is a very unqualified guess, I do think they’re somewhat less insignificant than you would think from media coverage. But still pretty few.

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