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Austin Cline

Incest, Forgiveness, and the Amish

By March 18, 2005

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The Amish are a largely insular community and authorities tend to leave the Amish to themselves - including when it comes to dealing with legal matters. Unfortunately, this allows for the development of corruption and the perpetuation of injustice. One problem that appears to have continued for quite some time is incest and the sexual abuse of young girls.

In Legal Affairs, Nadya Labi writes:

The license the Amish have been granted rests on the trust that the community will police itself, with Amish bishops and ministers acting in lieu of law enforcement. Yet keeping order comes hard to church leaders. "The Amish see the force of law as contrary to the Christian spirit," said Donald Kraybill, a professor at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania and an expert on the group. As a result, the Amish shy away from sending people to prison and the system of punishment of "the English," as the Amish call other Americans. Once a sinner has confessed, and his repentance has been deemed genuine, every member of the Amish community must forgive him.

This approach is rooted in the Amish notion of Gelassenheit, or submission. Church members abide by their clergymen; children obey their parents; sisters mind their brothers; and wives defer to their husbands (divorce is taboo). With each act of submission, the Amish follow the lesson of Jesus when he died on the cross rather than resist his adversaries.

But can a community govern itself by Jesus's teaching of mercy alone? It is sinful for the Amish to withhold forgiveness—so sinful that anyone who refers to a past misdeed after the Amish penalty for it has ended can be punished in the same manner as the original sinner. "That's a big thing in the Amish community," Mary said. "You have to forgive and forgive."

Apparently, they can't govern themselves very well in this way, at least not so that justice will prevail. Incest continues despite the perpetrators claiming that they are repentant. They may be shunned for a couple of weeks, but after that all is supposed to be forgotten — and that's if the victims are lucky. Labi describes the case of one who had all her teeth pulled in order to keep her from talking to the government.

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