Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Old-Time Religion

The woman's husband drags her across the floor to a bed where he forces himself on her -- again. But when she goes to police after years of abuse, the male leaders of her religious community (where there are no female leaders) banish her from among them. They won't take her back until she promises to submit to her husband and never call the police again.

Yet another case of abuse in a conservative Muslim community? Think again. That's a story from a series my newspaper recently ran on abuse, and the failure of religious leaders to address it, in the Amish and Mennonite communities of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

As Ontario has authorized the use of shari'a law in civil arbitrations, Canadians might want to consider the impact of allowing social codes based on centuries-old faiths to dominate the lives of women and children. Especially in close-knit communities where those who break from the group are ostricized or worse.

Mennonites and Amish live a life strongly rooted in religious values. Moreso than many Christians, and not unlike many Muslims, religion guides their personal lives, and Scripture verses are used to establish guidelines for family relationships.

I know many Plain people around here. They deserve their good reputation for work ethic, humility, gentleness and good humor. When people anywhere need help, they respond. They send tons of food to poor countries and send strong men at a moment's notice to raise a barn in a day. Many are exactly the God-fearing, family-loving people they appear to be.

But when that world goes wrong, it can go horribly wrong, and the religious basis of their culture offers no safety net. In fact, it often greases the skids to Hell.

Statistics are sparse, but it's likey that the abuse rate among the Plain Sects is no greater than the average among their neighbors in the general population.

The difference is the way abuse is handled. As members of a tightly controlled church system and tradition-bound culture, the victims, primarily women, turn to their male deacons, ministers and bishops for help. They often come away blamed and shamed, in a system centered on Biblical injunctions about the sanctity of marriage, men's authority over women, forgiveness, and extra-legal resolution of conflict.

Work in the recent newspaper series began after two women who didn't know each other contacted the editors about their experience with abuse in Mennonite churches. A couple of reporters began investigating, and they found a pattern. The result was a multi-part series that ran in July. They spoke with at least 10 counselors and 20 victims of abuse and/or their families. Not one of the victims, family members or conservative church leaders who talked to the newspaper would allow their names to be used. Even some counselors only agreed to be interviewed if their names were not used.

The county district attorney said he knew of 24 cases of child sexual assault involving Amish and Mennonites during the past 10 years, but only six were prosecuted (two offenders went to jail and four were put on probation). In the rest, he said, the victims wouldn't testify.

Domestic violence is seldom, if ever, reported, according to police chiefs in the rural townships where the Plain folk live. "They're a little different when it comes to reporting things to the police; they don't like law involvement," said one township police sergeant. He hears stories, he said, but there's "a lot of church involvement in family issues."

Doctors, nurses, dentists, day-care workers and teachers are required to report cases of suspected child abuse. Yet Amish women and children rarely see such professionals.

The concept of "submission" is central, just as it is in Islam. "Jesus died for the church, which is his bride," a conservative Mennonite leader told us. "We husbands are commanded to love our wives with that kind of love -- so much so that we're willing to die for our wives. Under those guidelines, no woman would have trouble with submission."

Plain Sects -- the Old Order Amish and Mennonites, avoid involving law enforcement in their internal disputes. Their historical identity as religious communities is based on the Biblical call to be "separate from" and "not conformed to" the world.

"Agree with thine adversary quickly, while thou art with him in the way; lest haply the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer and thou be cast into prison. Verily I say unto thee, though shalt by no means come out thence, till thou has paid the last farthing." [Matthew 5:24-26]

That's one of the scriptures Mennonites and Amish invoke as Biblical directive not to involve the law in personal disputes. Other scriptures support the spirit of the concept, such as turning the other cheek and loving your enemies.

In the more conservative churches, injecting the law into family matters is considered a violation of Biblical instruction. Church leaders eye professional counseling with suspicion; they fear therapists will lead their people away from the church and its ways. People who need help are expected to turn to church leaders. But most conservative Mennonite or Amish leaders have no schooling beyond eighth grade, and certainly no training in dealing with the psychology of abuse.

"We firmly believe God instituted marriage," said one Mennonite leader. Any problem, no matter how big, can be resolved by God if the husband and wife are willing to work at it. Church leaders give primacy to the marriage, not the couple in it or their children. "Divorce is a continuous state of adultery, with or without the paperwork."

One important difference: Muslims in the West often came here to put distance between themselves and the faith of their homelands. Plain sects in North America came here specifically to practice their faith without government interference.

The legalistic aspect of the Christian Gospel is much less prominent than it is in the Islamic Shari'a. Yet both embody concepts of men and women, family and force, that modern Western societies find, essentially, unacceptable.

More progressive religious minds, in both faiths, would say that God spoke to the people of ancient times in terms they understood, leading them away from bad habits gradually without intending to enshrine as God-ordained for all times practices like wife-beating and slavery.

But fundamentalist religious views do not see it thus. Certainly the excesses of Christian fundamentalism do not extend to sanctioned honor killing, jihad, dhimmitude. Yet they can stand as a warning of what happens when secular societies defer authority to ancient religious codes.