The purpose of Amish shunning

February 11, 2014

aptopix-amish-attacks-lave-1jpg-9eff303da6a1a729Image credit

“But have you seen the second half of the documentary, the part about shunning?” a friend asked me after I blogged about this documentary.

I hadn’t, but now I have. The Amish “shun” those who leave their sect, not allowing any real or regular contact with the community after they join the “English” world. And I have to admit, I came away from the second part of the documentary with a greater understanding of the purpose of shunning:

The Amish have a way of life they need to protect. They believe in it with all their heart.  We may not believe in it, but they do.

Amish life is so different from the mainstream life all around them that it’s only natural that young people would be tempted to leave. Cellphones, trucks, music, television, movies, computers–they’re big competition to farm chores, a horse and buggy and Sunday meeting.

But here’s the thing: Suppose the Amish DID allow young people who leave to come back at will and enjoy family and friends. Pretty soon, others would also want to leave and live an “English” lifestyle.  Cultural cross-pollination would begin. And pretty soon the Amish culture would disappear.  Because there’s no such thing as being “a little Amish.”  Someone’s either Amish or not.

Shunning is a necessity to protect the Amish lifestyle and culture.

That’s its purpose. And it’s effective.

It’s not that different from rules in other doctrinaire sects you’ll find in every religious tradition.

Looking at it from our modern point of view, it seems cruel and intolerable. Draconian, even.

But answer this: how should they effectively protect their culture? or should they just let the chips fall where they may?

I’m not going to sit in judgment of the way the Amish live–that’s their deal.  I wouldn’t want to be Amish. And I feel badly for the young people who feel stuck in the middle–they love their families and community but they don’t want to be entirely Amish.

But I also have an understanding of the “all or nothing” nature of that life. That leaving and coming back to visit is like being a little bit pregnant–which is to say, impossible.

I may not hold their beliefs, but I can’t blame the Amish for wanting to protect their way of life as long as possible.  I’m sorry there’s such awful collateral damage.  But I just don’t see a practical way the Amish can protect their lifestyle and still allow significant interaction with the outside world.

It’s a sad situation, in a world full of sad situations.

I’d love to hear what you think.


14 comments on “The purpose of Amish shunning
  1. Ryder Ziebarth says:

    Don’t they get a year to decide? Go try and choose? I agree with you on all points, except they have been shunning long before TV , albeit smart phones were even invented.
    You put forth thoughtful reasoning,but it still sounds like “spanking” and that was never a good idea, either.

    • admin says:

      I’d hoped you’d weigh in on this. Yes, shunning has always been their armor against the world but I think that more kids want to leave now. Once they leave, they can’t go back just for visits. In the documentary, one man went back 7 times before finally leaving for good. It’s just a fascinating study that I hope you get to see on TV or other venues.

  2. Diane says:

    Thank you for this post. I’ve now gotten a totally different view of shunning. For the first time, I can understand why they do it.Not something I could do, have no contact with my beloved family members. But I do understand.

  3. Life is full of choices, and choices have consequences. Our generation doesn’t seem to like this reality, but reality it is. Years ago I left a religious sect (not Amish). It was so painful because while I didn’t believe or agree with the doctrine any longer, I still totally loved the people and enjoyed being in fellowship with them. But I couldn’t have one without the other. I understood. The way I thought and believed was dangerous to the way they thought and believed. And I understood that the need to have those thoughts and beliefs was paramount for believers. So I had to make a choice, and in the end I chose my beliefs over the people I loved. While it hurt, it came as no surprise when they did the same to me.

    • admin says:

      You said it well. Thanks for sharing your personal experience….

    • Julie Phelps says:

      Chloe, you nailed a key issue in today’s society – at least the society I am familiar with : Actions and choices have consequences. It seems to me that parents are not teaching that to their children. They shield them from most consequences, and the consequence of THAT is the erosian of the fabric of our combined lives.

  4. I grew up on the edge of an Amish community in NE Ohio, and have tremendous respect for their way of life. I have been lucky enough to have been invited into their homes and their lives. Their way of life may seem ‘hard’ by our standards, but it is very beautiful. Amish teenagers are allowed to leave for a short period of time to explore the ‘English’ way of life (sow their wild oats if you may). Almost 100% return.

  5. Jennifer Steck says:

    I can’t imagine how difficult shunning is for everyone involved. I tried to click through to the documentary Carol and the link didn’t work for me. The way you explain it makes so much sense, but I could never turn my back on my family members. As long as the choice to stay or leave lies with the individual, each person makes a decision knowing what is going to happen. Still…difficult.

  6. Julie Phelps says:

    I am glad you posted this, Carol. The Amish may appear harsh to some of us English, but I can now see the logic behind their shunning.

  7. donna says:

    As much as I understand their reasoning behind shunning, as one who has been shunned {in Wal-Mart no less}, I understand the pain this action also brings. Not just pain as in “I love my family and want to be a part of their lives but I can’t”, but the pain that says “Now you are not good enough to be a part of this family”. This opens up a whole other can of words for those on the receiving end of shunning. As much as it is meant to protect the “order” it is also used as a shame-based disciplinary tactic to manipulate others into being conformed to what is “expected” of them.
    As hard as it is for those that leave, staying in an atmosphere you are not 100% devoted to is just as difficult. So I agree with you that there needs to be some way for the Amish to “protect” their “ways” and not allow the world to infiltrate in. Sadly, the emotional and spiritual damage shunning can do is inevitable and so, so sad.
    I have counseled young adults {and families} coming out of the “group” and the damage of shunning…I cannot even put it into words. These kids are broken and alone :0(.
    Our group was not Amish but quite similar in beliefs and practice. Not an easy subject to cover! Thank you for sharing your thoughts. The Amish and other similar groups are often misunderstood.

    • admin says:

      Thankyou for sharing such a personal story. It’s interesting how the “not good enough” and “shaming” came up … I just blogged about self-image and self-esteem. I’m going to think some more about your very thoughtful comments. Thanks again.

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