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Amish Resistance

The continuing much-publicised conflicts in Amish communities in Ohio has interesting jurisprudential issues.

As I understand, the differences have to do with community membership, excommunication, and symbols of a lifestyle; a particular religious grouping led by Samuel Mullet saw some families leave an area they controlled, and Mullet excommunicated them. The excommunication was undone by local leaders, but continuing leadership disputes led to community punishments, and eventually into forced shavings.

It is tempting to understand this as simple assault, but that neglects the social meaning of these acts; these are attempts at self-regulation in religious communities. An interesting quote:

"I just let them run over me? If every family would do just as they pleased what kind of church would we have?"

Contrast traditional communities with modern notions of religious liberty. But it's more than that; these communities do not have sovereignty, but in traditional times (millet system under Turkey, People of the book living in Muslim lands, and before universal sufferage in Nederlands and the rest of europe), religious communities had substantial legal-ish power; they had their own courts and legal traditions and they thus had a number of tools to regulate their communities. The Chief Rabbi of a community was not just a cheerleader or a religious leader; the Beth Din of an area was not a minor thing. In deciding on a single legal system that applies to the entire nation, we diminished the tie of families to their religious community and created (or at least greatly expanded) their ties to the entire national community. This shift is a significant component in the creation of the modern nation-state.

To the extent that symbols are part of the meaning of a culture, the beards and dress of the Amish are a marker of membership in a community. Just as we see unhappiness at religious communities seeing their symbols being worn by people outside the community (whether light, like removing mezuzot from homes that are not owned by Jewish folk, or heavy, such as more-conservative Orthodox yelling at Women Rabbis for wearing kippot and calling themselves Rabbis). Likewise, mocking pictures of Mohammad or Yeshua evoke protests and occasional direct action by some Muslims and Christians.

It is a reasonable desire of religious and other communities to control their symbols, to self-regulate, and to manage membership in their group. It is also a desire that often leads to expressions that contradict national rule-of-law and the reasonably libertine intuitions of modern western society. We have explicitly chosen not to support religious communities in that way; we deny them sovereignty. I feel this is a good thing; I believe in western secular values. Their needs are reasonable, but they cannot be accomodated to the extent that they contradict our own foundations, and we should strive to maintain and extend our traditions of secularism, open criticism, and rule of law so much as is possible.

We claim all symbols for all of humanity. We reject politeness that would prevent criticism (even in the form of mockery). We do not accept that cultural terms and symbols will be protected, and to the extent that we accept cultural terms into law (such as marriage), we accept that people and cultures may have variant terms (cultural marriage, religious marriage) that are not coextensive with the legal ones. Still, we do all this knowingly, ideally understanding the choice our society made in this, and offering sympathy for those to whom we cannot accomodate.