Series Blog

To Obey or to Stray: That is the Question

The Amish are not a monolithic group. In fact, they live in more than 450 settlements spread across 30 states and one Canadian province. The founders of each of these settlements determine their local Ordnung or set of church rules. Some new settlements became stricter than the communities they left, and others relax the rules. Women’s head coverings and dress styles might change. Maybe gas-powered lawn mowers were not allowed in the home community, but they are allowed in the daughter settlement. 

In “The Amish: Shunned,” diversity is especially noticeable in the contrast between the community where Anna came from and the one where Naomi came from. Anna is from a Swartzentruber group, which is the strictest of the strict. Naomi comes from a more progressive community. Here are some of the differences: 

* Naomi managed to fly to Florida and live there with minimal supervision.

* Anna was not even allowed to ride in a car, which meant she had never been further than fifty miles (a two-day buggy ride) from her parents’ home. 

* Naomi had a decent basic education, even though she was educated in an Amish school. She was able to pass a GED without too much trouble, soon after she left the culture.

* Anna was also taught in an Amish school, but one in which education is de-emphasized. It is not important to the parents whether their children learn proper English. Anna was reading at the fourth grade level when she left her community. 

* Naomi left with a desire to further her education and become a nurse. She looked forward to making her own choices. 

* Anna struggled with making her own choices, because back in her community, nearly every decision was made for her. She was still being tutored in preparation of earning her GED. 

So the variations of the rules from one community to another can make a person’s head spin -- from minutiae to larger life questions. To most people looking in from the outside, it all seems so arbitrary. Why are most Amish people allowed to ride in cars, though they may not own them? Why do some Amish allow their buggies to be decked out with reflector tape and LED lights (some even have blinking lights and turning signals), and other Amish will go to jail before mounting an orange SMV symbol on their buggies? What does restricting technology have to do with living a godly life anyway?

The answer to these questions was clarified for me when an Amish man in “Shunned” talks about obedience to church rules. He says, “You lose obedience, you lose the church. Amen.” 

And that is the common thread in all Amish communities -- from the most traditional groups to the most progressive -- it is about obeying the rules that were established, no matter what those rules may be. “The Amish way” is about humbling oneself by “giving up” or “giving in” for the sake of the community. It is what gives the Amish their strong sense of community, so steeped in tradition. 

Obedience to the church Ordnung is not so easy for everyone. It’s why some of us feel compelled to leave the Amish to follow the path that is most authentic to who we are. However, it is the sense of community and our place in it that those of us who leave inevitably miss the most. In the mainstream culture where individuality is valued over community, it is hard -- if not impossible -- to find the sense of community we left behind.

Is it any wonder that the seven of us whose stories are followed in the documentary feel torn between our two worlds? We all try, at least for a time, to have a foot in both worlds. But ultimately what the Amish teach us is right: that one is either Amish or not -- there is no in-between. Eventually we just have to choose between one lifestyle and the other. This difficult choice is only required of those of us who question the lifestyle or wonder about life in the outside world. Those who are content with knowing their place in the community and obeying the Ordnung, may never even think about “the road not taken.” 

Naomi and Anna take divergent paths. One sacrifices family and community for her freedom, while the other sacrifices her personal freedom to take her place in her family and community -- as a daughter; as a favorite aunt of 40 nieces and nephews; and as an obedient church member. What is evident in both their lives is that their choices were heart-wrenchingly difficult to make. 


Saloma Miller Furlong is author of two books, Why I Left the Amish and Bonnet Strings: An Amish Woman’s Ties to Two Worlds. She appears in 2012's “The Amish” and in “The Amish: Shunned.” Visit her website and her blog to read more of her reflections about her heritage.

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