Shunning within the Amish Community in Lancaster County: The Practice of Social Avoidance
Although the Amish community is reluctant to use legal or political force against those who violate Amish practices, they do excommunicate or shun transgressors. Based upon religious scriptures, the Amish believe that members who openly sin again traditional church doctrines must be purged from the church as a warning and safeguard to maintain the purity of the church.
Members who are excommunicated and shunned are avoided by active members in all social and business activities. However, the offenders are always welcomed back to the community if they repent.
The Pennsylvania Amish are very reluctant to excommunicate and shun members. In fact, such extreme measures only occur on rare occasion. The practice is only initiated after all attempts to persuade the transgressing member to repent have failed. It is done in the hope that the individual will realize their mistake, repent and rejoin the church. It is certainly not done to harm the individual.
Origin of Excommunication and Shunning Within the Amish Community
Although many religious groups other than the Amish practice excommunication of offending members, shunning is relatively unique to the Amish.
The Amish originally grew out of the Anabaptist movement which, itself, was a response to the excesses of the Catholic Church. (Please see
for more details).
The Anabaptists believed that the New Testament required the church to discipline transgressing members. They felt that if, after long counseling, an offending member did not repent, that person should be excommunicated until they did repent. However, communication and contact with the transgressing member was permitted to continue,
Jacob Ammann, a young Anabaptist leader from the Alsace region of modern-day France, strongly believed that the Bible mandated that excommunicated members should be avoided at all costs. He cited the Anabaptist Confession of Faith as authority for the practice of shunning.
When the Swiss Anabaptists refused to shun excommunicated members, Jacob Ammannn and his followers broke away and formed the Amish movement in 1693.
Reasons for excommunication vary from owning an automobile to owning a computer; from drinking alcohol to the refusal to kneel during religious ceremonies.
Amish faith is designed to encourage humility. Through humility, the individual acknowledges the spiritual authority and supremacy of the community. Therefore, any kind of mockery of Amish beliefs and teachings is taken very seriously.
Excommunication is done only as a last resort. When a transgressing member is at risk of expulsion, community leaders work hard to persuade the member to repent and rejoin the church, At all times these efforts are performed with love for the member's welfare. Members are not threatened or treated with hostility.
Usually, an offending a member is given several months to reform their ways. For instance, if an Amish businessman needs to own and use a computer for a business project, he is usually permitted several months to complete his project before he must get rid of the computer.
In some instances, transgressing members are given a six-week probationary periods while community leaders work to reinstate them.
Excommunicated members of the Amish community are not only expelled from the church but shunned as well. This means that all active members must avoid the offending individual in all social activities.
Members who refuse to shun the offending individuals risk excommunication themselves. Life-long friends and family members are also required to shun the wayward individual. Even parents must shun their own grown children. It is felt that by avoiding the transgressing individual, the faithful won't become defiled by their sin. Usually, the excommunicated member drifts away from the church and the Amish community.
Actually, shunning does not mean total avoidance. Restricted interaction is permitted. For instance, spouses may continue to live together but they may not engage in sexual intercourse.
Also, shunned members may attend family gatherings. However, on such occasions they are required to sit at a separate table to symbolize their exclusion.
Usually, active members can not engage in business transactions with shunned members. However, if such a transaction is unavoidable, a third party must handle the exchange of money.
Although rarely implemented, shunning has proven to be an effective means of social control. For the Pennsylvania Amish who value the importance of community very highly, the fear of being cut off from one's friends and family has likely prevented many individuals from the temptation to join a more moderate church where electricity and automobiles are allowed.
To learn more about the Pennsylvania Amish Community of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania:
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