PEACE PROBE by Gene Stoltzfus

Monks and Amish by peaceprobe
October 22, 2007, 6:36 pm
Filed under: Getting on the Way to Peacemaking, Nonviolence

Buddhists and Amish, two communities from widely different parts of the world who refuse to use violence against enemies, are in my imagination these days.  Both had members who were killed by someone from outside their community.  Both refused to retaliate.  Both of them consider the person or persons who killed their members to be worthy of love and forgiveness.  Both have developed teachings, styles of social formation, rituals, and tough disciplines over centuries.  

We can learn from these communities who have tried, often with wide margins of imperfection, to build a culture of peace.  In both communities nonviolence is not simply a political tactic but a way of life.  For the Amish people and the Buddhist monks, non retaliation is so deeply rooted and beyond question that outsiders with utilitarian lenses can be startled by the consequences of these deeply held convictions.  

Both my mother and father came from families that had Amish roots.  They used Deitsch (Pennsylvania Dutch) to talk to each other when they didn’t want us, their children, to understand.  As I grew up, Amish people regularly came to our home, often to discuss problems in their community with my father, a Mennonite pastor and Bishop.  I was usually cut out of those conversations either by language or closed doors, but I sensed emotional trauma and trouble.  As a child the solution seemed simple, if there was a problem, just stop being Amish.  I was not attracted to their life of horses, buggies, oil lamps and suspenders. Later my attitude changed as I became more impressed with their conviction and tenacity for healthy living, compassion and faithfulness in a fairly mean world, enraptured by skin deep Hollywood love.   

As a young civilian volunteer in Viet Nam during the war I came to know the Buddhist communities there, the distant cousins of the Burmese monks.  On June 11, 1963, three weeks before I arrived in Viet Nam, Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc burned himself to death at a busy Saigon intersection to protest the persecution of Buddhists by the Vietnamese government.  Self immolation in Viet Nam by monks has a long history, often but not always, interconnected with political protest.

Two years later as a volunteer in Nha Trang, a city north of Saigon I was asked to be treasurer of the emergency relief committee at the pagoda where Thich Quang Duc once resided as a monk.  The huge American troop build-up in 1964 in the Nha Trang area created refugees; and the life style of these foreign soldiers was also exacerbating conditions for the whole population.   I reluctantly agreed to a very brief tenure on the committee, knowing full well that access to money in the desperate conditions that prevailed at the time could lead to suspicions.  Eventually the monks were persuaded to take on the task. They and their civilian supporters carried on the work without negative gossip.  

One year ago, on October 2, 2006 five Amish girls were lined up and shot in a simple one room school building in Pennsylvania.  The world was shocked and held its breath as our “civilization” tried to explain to itself the reasons for one more school shooting.  The encore was even more positively scandalous when the world learned that the Amish reached out to the family of the perpetrator who took his own life, with forgiveness and support, sharing some of the millions of dollars of contributions that came in to help the victims’ families.  Today the school has been torn down and sod planted where children once learned to read.  Was this event of terror a defeat or the suggestions of another way worth noticing?

In Burma the monks who are not in detention have returned to their pagodas where they practice meditation, prayers, daily begging and study of the teachings of the Buddha’s Middle Way.  When months before they suspended services to the military in many areas of Burma they had dusted off one of the most ancient tactics of nonviolent culture – passive resistance and non cooperation.   Through the centuries young Amish have from time to time been conscripted into national armies.  Since the Amish refuse to engage in military service Amish conscripts practice various forms of non cooperation when the option of alternative service is not available.  Some refuse to put on a uniform.  Others refuse to march or take on any assignments.  Their actions have led to a catalogue of responses from officers including tolerance and angry punishment, even death.  For both of these communities,  acts of noncompliance and passive resistance are a method of love and preparation for reconciliation.  Punishment is never an end in itself.  Both understand non cooperation to be a necessary stage of building a culture of peace which is the will God or the higher truth.

As I write, there are memorials, funerals and last rites for monks who died in the act of praying with their feet in the streets of Burma.  Thousands of their supporters today are deciding if it is safe or worth the risk to attend these rites for the monks and their civilian coworkers.  Funerals and memorials are important events in all cultures where the most deeply held values of faith and vision are ritualized.  These events can evoke more repression, however they are also the moment to announce renewed vision and hope.   As the dead are remembered, thousands of soldiers and their officers are wrestling with their moral compasses in search of ways to live with the murders that they carried out.  

These two communities are both growing.  Amish membership now approaches 200,000.  New Buddhist communities are springing up around the world.  Neither one offers an easy path.  Both communities continue to invent ways to overcome new problems of living in a world infused with cultures of violence and therapies teaching adjustment to ego needs. The biweekly worship hour(s) among the Amish probably wouldn’t grab the fancy of a lot of people, although the community meals that follow reflect an able culinary talent and abiding hospitality. The best vegetarian food I have every tasted was with monks in Viet Nam pagodas.  Most young Amish return to the church after “sowing their wild oats”.  Both communities have identifiable garments developed over a very long history of learning to treat the earth and one another with a soft, kind, and respectful touch.  Both look back to the spiritual courage of their founders and continue to invent the way to faithful living.  

The theology/cosmology of the Buddhists and Amish are worlds and centuries apart. However, the outworking of their gentle hands in peaceful living reflects courage, confidence, and innovation that is a challenge to all of us.  I spent some of my days this week thinking about what I continue to learn from them about the creation of a beloved community and the liberation of God’s people and the earth from the toxic stuff of our time.


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