illustration of Amish figures standing in a line


Anything but Simple

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj

By Wendy McDowell

Whenever I’m standing in the checkout line at my local Whole Foods market, I can’t help but snicker and roll my eyes when I see the magazines with oxymoronic titles like Real Simple, Organic Style, and Simple Living. Am I crazy to assume that an attempt to simplify your life might involve cutting down on magazines rather than adding new ones? When I leaf through those magazines, “simple” living looks awfully difficult to me. And what counts as “simple” anyway?

Given my gripe with the way the word “simple” is used (or misused), it is no wonder that I found myself disheartened, even dismayed, by most of the media coverage of the tragic shooting of 10 Amish girls at the one-room West Nickel Mines School on October 2, 2006. (Five of the girls died and five survived; two of the survivors may be permanently disabled.) Many news reports stereotypically painted the Amish of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, as if they were characters in a time-machine movie where people from centuries past are transported to contemporary America and walk around with stupid, startled expressions on their faces. Television commentators invariably began their reports with the line “They are a simple people,” and then spent an inordinate amount of time describing Amish clothing as if they were covering some kind of peasantry fashion show (“and on the grieving men, you see the characteristic broadfall trousers, tailored white shirts, and distinctive wide-brimmed hats, while the women are wearing dark woolen shawls, bib aprons, and black high shoes”). Amish culture was described almost entirely in terms of what the Amish “deny” or “shun,” not in terms of what they believe or embrace.

Denying the desire for vengeance is not a denial; it ends up stirring something in us far more valuable.

At the same time, the Amish were romanticized for their dignified manner of grieving, their unity in the face of tragedy, and their ability to forgive the murderer immediately and to reach out to his family. Most of the comment was done in a tone of voice usually reserved for talking to or about children, even when adults were being discussed. The implication, in light of the “simple people” characterization, seemed to be that only child-like simpletons would be able to forgive so quickly, whereas we in the dominant culture—in all our shiny, technological grandeur—are more advanced than that. We know how to seek revenge: indeed, we demand it.

Of course, the representation of the Amish as clueless rubes or noble peasants reveals more about the people doing the representing than it does about the Amish. Contrary to their place in the American imagination, the Amish of today are thoroughly modern people in a number of significant ways. They own private property, they engage in a healthy amount of business with the outside world, and they farm using the latest methods in animal husbandry and agricultural production. Some Amish businesses have annual sales in the millions. Moreover, their history on United States soil, particularly since the dawn of the industrial age, has included a complex set of negotiations with the larger society.

This is not to deny that the Amish have engaged in significant resistance to modernity and have practiced exclusion from various civil authorities, including the legal system. One of the most important holdouts for the Amish has been in regard to the education of their children. In the chapter “Education and Schooling” in The Amish and the State, Thomas J. Meyers chronicles the history of conflicts between the Amish and government authorities before 1972, when the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the Amish possessed the right to refuse to send their children to public high schools. Meyers details the strong objections given to public schools among the Amish, including the values of “competition, individualism, nationalism, scientific modes of thought, hierarchical organization, and the teenage subculture,” all of which are contrary to Amish culture, with its emphasis on small-scale organization and religious values.1

Though Amish students actually perform better on many standardized tests than their non-Amish counterparts, Amish schools are more focused on teaching character, honesty, and humility than they are on preparing students to function in the larger society. This translates into teaching qualities and habits that are conducive to forgiveness, as is evident in the ubiquitous school motto JOY, which means: Jesus is first, You are last, and Others are in between.2

In fact, the “peculiar” and “unfathomable” ability to forgive exhibited by the Nickel Mines community is the result not only of this careful instruction, but also of hundreds of years of history and theology. The history of the Pennsylvania Amish can be traced to the Swiss dissidents who re-baptized one another in the “Radical Reformation” of 1525. These “Anabaptist” reformers and their heirs faced persecution by civil and religious authorities over the next two centuries. From the blood and ashes of thousands of martyrs, a theological vision was born and developed that included radical obedience and an equally radical ethic of love, with its rejection of all forms of violence. At the same time, in the Anabaptist consciousness a sharp distinction was drawn between the church and the world (some scholars describe this as “two kingdom” theology).

This history of persecution remains alive and immediate to the American Amish of today. Many Amish households contain well-worn copies of the Martyrs Mirror, a tome that chronicles the history of torture, burning, drowning, and dismemberment of the early Anabaptists. Although there have been splits among the Anabaptists over the years (resulting in the Amish and Mennonite branches in 1693, and more recent divisions in America, including between the “Old Order” and “New Order” Amish), the central tenets of submission, pacifism, and humility forged more than four centuries ago have endured and have been adapted to different lands and different times. These deeply held religious values are sustained by rituals and practices that reproduce and support the identity of the Amish community.

As John Hostetler points out in Amish Society, one crucial element in Amish rituals is silence. Amish worship services begin with silence and contain long periods of silent prayer. Noise is considered displeasing to God. Nothing, of course, could be farther from the gestalt of our dominant culture, full as it is of noise, of bleeps and blares and endless (often inane) conversation. Not only are many of us unpracticed at silence, we tend to distrust it. A silent person is often perceived as duplicitous, repressed, or, at best, mysterious. We do not see silence as “a way of living and forgiving, a way of embracing the community with charity and the offender with affection.”3

This “way of living and forgiving” is exhibited in everyday ways among the Amish, from simple acts, such as not responding in anger when someone non-Amish cuts them off on a road, to more radical acts, such as remaining silent when cheated by an Amish neighbor. Silence, as Hostetler puts it, is “active” for the Amish: It is used to promote harmony within their community, but also to establish boundaries between themselves and the outside world.

So, is the Amish ability to forgive “simple”? It is anything but. It is the legacy of a long social and theological history and a complex set of practices and beliefs. It can, however, teach us a great deal about our own assumptions and practices. Above all, we are forced to see that forgiveness requires a capacity for silence and skill in the art of submission, two spiritual abilities that many of us find excruciatingly difficult. I suspect I’m not the only one who has found that even after years of prayer and reflection, there are still one or two people, and a few wrongdoings, that I find myself unable to forgive. Even when I recognize that my pride is getting in the way of what is best for my soul, certain resentments seem to adhere like stubborn carpet stains.

The more I think about it, maybe magazines like Simple Living have a point. Living simply is not a simple task at all, but requires its own set of rituals, symbols, and paraphernalia (not to mention its own wardrobe). Those of us who haven’t been schooled in “joy” from our earliest years need first to unlearn the messages of materialism and vengeance that dominate our discourse. When we are told to walk softly, we are also advised to carry a big stick. We are rarely taught to carry forgiveness instead.

Perhaps allowing our imaginations to be stretched by communities with a strong ethic of forgiveness is the best way to remember the Amish girls who were senselessly murdered and injured on that day last October. Perhaps denying ourselves the desire for vengeance is not a denial at all, because it ends up stirring something in us that is far more valuable. Perhaps something silent is gained, something silent but resonant: a glimpse of redemption.


  1. Thomas J. Meyers, “Education and Schooling,” in The Amish and the State, ed. Donald B. Kraybill (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), 102.
  2. I am indebted to Donald B. Kraybill for this tidbit, from his landmark work, The Riddle of Amish Culture (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 34.
  3. John Hostetler, Amish Society (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), 375.

Wendy McDowell is an associate editor of the Bulletin.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.