Saturday, 28 October 2006

The Amish go to court

The Amish have generated an enormous amount of good will in recent weeks by their immensely dignified and Christ-like response to the massacre of their daughters by a neighbour, Charles Carl Roberts. I personally was enormously impressed by the sacrificial courage of some of the girls themselves and was obliged to revise my admittedly superficial impressions of the Amish as a sect hopelessly mired in legalism at the expense of the greater principles of the Christian faith.

Legalism, for those unfamiliar with the word, is a religious term used to describe the mindset of those who get caught up in the letter of the law as opposed to its spirit, and whose pursuit of holiness and the knowledge of the Holy One gets sidetracked into the pursuit of infractions and endless wrangling about the petty details of what constitutes holiness. The Taliban are probably the most vicious modern examples of this kind of mindset. The Pharisees were the incarnation of legalism in Jesus' time.

So I was greatly heartened to see that the Amish, in their retreat from modern society, had managed to keep the core principles of their faith alive and well, even robustly vigorous,despite the weight of detail of their "thou shalt nots."

But now another Amish man, "John Doe," is intent on demonstrating that though the foundations are solid, some of the construction above ground is shoddy and silly. He is a Canadian who has married an American, "Jane Doe," and is suing the American government over its insistence that he pose for a photograph as part of his application for American citizenship.

"Interpreting the Bible literally, they ... believe that photographs are 'graven images,' the making of which is forbidden by the Second Commandment," reads the lawsuit. Now it is not up to the courts to determine the theological validity of the argument, and I earnestly hope they stay away from that entire aspect, but I am not a court, so I am free to make my pronouncements.

This is not a literal interpretation of the Bible at all. It is an extrapolation, precisely the kind of thing that legalists delight in. Let's take a simple, straightforward law, interpret it widely and spin off a host of regulations based on that interpretation, with which to burden the hapless followers who trust our "wisdom."

The whole point of the second commandment is to avoid the worshipping of material objects, not to avoid the making of images. God himself, subsequent to giving the Ten Commandments to Moses, commanded the making of a bronze serpent, which was destroyed by Gideon generations later, precisely because it had become the object of worship. If the thrust of the Second Commandment had been the sinfulness of making images, he never would have commanded Moses to do such a thing.

So I honestly don't believe they have a theological leg to stand on. And I really wish that John Doe had not undertaken this lawsuit. The court is going to be obliged to either rule on the validity of their theology, or infringe directly on their freedom of religion, both very negative outcomes, in my mind. The other alternative - ruling in their favour - would also be a negative, because it would provide a loophole in national security that could be exploited by various groups who do not possess the gentleness of spirit of the Amish.

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Fern R said...

American courts are unlikely to get into a religious debate about the second commandment. They're probably going to look more at the law which requires a picture to be taken. The courts will consider what the purpose of the law is, whether taking a picture of an immigrant effectuates that purpose and whether the law unfairly "picks on" a particular religion.

In my unprofessional opinion, the case is a loser. There have been cases involving women who wouldn't remove their head coverings for a drivers' license picture and the court denied the claim.

Janet said...

I can't say that I wish them well. After I wrote the post, I discovered that they are suing anonymously because the Amish community would disapprove. They would prefer turning the other cheek, which would have been the path of greater wisdom.

Of course, I wanted a chance to rant about legalism a bit. This is what people think of when they think of religious people - lemon-sucking joyless folk who delight in nothing. It's a distortion, but a trap that is easy to fall into. Those who like a clean house can get obsessed with dirt if they're not careful. But a clean house is still a beautiful thing.

Not Your Mama said...

We do have an unusually large number of those lemon-sucking folks in the US but I'd never have considered the Amish as part of that crowd.

They are some of the least offensive, most non-interfering people on the planet.

They aren't even remotely a part of the whole religious-secular war going on here.

Patrick Martin said...

Fern, didn't one of the women in the head covering cases win in at least one court of appeal? I seem to recall reading some foolish opinion in her favor and then lost track of whether the ruling was overturned on further appeal or not.


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