Monday, July 9, 2018

Five Things Christian Men Can Learn from the Amish

The video that was making the rounds this spring, honestly, was not all that unusual.  It was for a Christian Man-Conference, for Men who Are Strong Big Manly Jesus Men, and I've seen its like before.

What that hyperkinetically edited promo promised precisely mirrors our cultural expectations for manhood.  Explosions! Guitars!  And drums!  And jumping!  Much jumping!  Praise leaders jumping.  Basketball players jumping.  Motorcycles jumping.  Monster trucks jumping.

Jumping is what Jesus men do, apparently, although just looking at all that jumping makes my knees ache.  Man, it's tough getting older.

There was shouting about having power, and more explosions for Jesus!  And dual-wielded submachine guns for Jesus!  And Mixed Martial Arts Cage Matches for Jesus!  Every single man-box, neatly checked, in a bona-fide Holy Ghost Exclamation Point Testostorama, and I just...sigh.

I mean, it looked sort of fun, to the twelve year old boy in me.  I mean, honestly.  It did.  I have not lost touch with that part of myself.

I saw everything the world tells us about being a stereotypical man in 21st century America mirrored back as relevant to being a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth.  And I wondered: perhaps there's something off here.

Does a life-commitment to the Way of Jesus mean you are loud for Jesus, aggressive for Jesus, hungry to be entertained by Jesus?  Does it mean that you are, in appearance and action, conformed to the expectations of the secular culture for Manliness?

Rather obviously from those flagrantly rhetorical questions, I'm pretty sure that it doesn't.

There are other models for being an XY-chromosomed disciple, ones that look quite different from the norms of our society.

Lately, my understanding of what it means to be a man and a disciple has been more shaped by the narrator-protagonist in my postapocalyptic Amish novel, WHEN THE ENGLISH FALL.   His name is Jacob, and he was my best effort at writing an authentic Amish man's voice.  Creating a character as a storyteller is such a peculiar thing, because it requires you to step a little bit outside of yourself.  While there are bits of me in Jacob, he is not me. 

Most significantly, he's Amish, which I am not.  In an effort to create him which bordered on hubris, I studied and listened to and researched the culture of the Old Order.  It worked, more or less, or so folks who know the Amish better than I have told me.  There are inaccuracies here and there, which I expected.  But the tone works.  I got the voice and the geist of Jacob.

In the act of finding that voice, I found my faith changed and deepened.

Because while I do not choose to live an Amish life, I am a committed Christian, and that feature of Jacob's identity is front and center in the novel.  That meant putting my faith...and my whole soul...in relationship to a different branch of the Way.   In finding Jacob's voice, I found myself relearning something of what it means to be a man and a disciple in this peculiar era.  Given how much of a struggle men seem to have following the path of Jesus these days, this seems like a nontrivial thing.

This being the era of listicles, I'll offer up five ways we Englischer men who claim to follow Jesus might benefit from the Amish understanding of manhood.

1) A Christian man is calm.  In all of my reading and research into Amish life, there's a fundamental stillness to their souls, a placidity that is not inert, but rather unswayed and unbowed by the endless churn of the world.  The ideal among Amish men is not one who gets agitated, not one who is easily riled, not angry all the time about every last thing.  He doesn't feel that it's his task in life to shout down everyone he disagrees with.

In that, there's a remarkable functional similarity between the Amish ethos and that of the ancient Stoics, those philosophers of the Greco-Roman era who saw that being unphased by anything was a significant virtue.  In our hyper-emotive era, when we are expected to rage and weep and howl at the least input, this is profoundly countercultural.

The roots of an ethos of measured calmness are also fundamentally biblical, with a deep foundation in the Wisdom literature.  The wise soul does not allow anger or panic or anxiety to rule a life.  Wisdom does not bellow or shout down.  It remains unflappable, and sticks to what it knows is true.

That's true if your day is just an average day.  It's equally true if planes are falling from the sky and the world as you know it has come crashing down.

In our reactive, ranting, overstimulated, hyperagitated #tweetstorm era, that's something worth remembering.

2) A Christian man is humble.  Yes, I know, we're all supposed to be constantly one-upping each other, in an endless display of higher-primate alpha-male dominance.  We're told to be brash and bold and loud.  We're supposed to build our brands, and self-promote, and claw our way up over the bodies of those weaker than us, all of those delightful mortal sins that popular consumer culture reinforces in us.

But that's not the path of Jesus.  It just isn't.  It has never been.  There is no legitimate reading of the Gospel that says otherwise.  If you want to be proud and feel powerful, you're welcome to go hang out with with Anton LaVey or Ayn Rand.

Six of one, half a dozen of the other.

Among the Amish, humility is a fundamental virtue, one that my protagonist Jacob lives out repeatedly in his engagement with those around him.  He sees himself, first and foremost, as a servant to those around him.  Though he is resourceful, competent, and able, he sees all of those strengths as existing primarily to be a strength to those around him.  Not to dominate or control them, or to advance himself, but to give aid and help bear the burdens that fall on those around him.

When his community is threatened...by storms, by violence...Jacob simply does what needs be done, turning himself over to the building up of others.   He does his duty, no matter what that might entail, even up to the point of exposing himself to suffering and death.

This is, again, a fundamental dynamic of the the teaching of Jesus.  It's the cross in a nutshell.  And it is utterly alien to the culture of self-absorbed "manhood" taught in our society.

3) A Christian man is diligent.   Popular culture presents us with an image of men as eternal man-children, permanent adolescents who like nothing more than to loaf about and can't manage to do much of anything.  Golly, Dad just put the diaper on the baby's head again!  Men are so witless!  Hah!  Hah!  Better get back to the mancave to yell at the sportsball while organizing our collector cards!

Christian manhood isn't like that.  We're not called to be shallow, not flighty, not driven by appetite.  Christian men remember what it was to be a boy, the energy and creativity of it.  We are allowed to still enjoy those things.  We're allowed to be childlike.

Childish?  Not so much.

Oh, sure one can enjoy stuff.   But we are also no longer boys, and we should know it.  There comes a time when we must set aside childish ways, as the Apostle Paul reminds us.

That means attending to duty.  It means pursuing labors even when they aren't what we feel like doing right at this very moment.  It means not giving up, simply because we're feeling tired or disinterested.  It means pursuing competence at those things we know we need to accomplish.

And Lord have mercy, do the Amish pursue and value competence.  They are an intensely pragmatic and results-oriented folk, who commit themselves to crafts that require attention and focus.

It means patience, and the willingness to do what we know Christ demands of us, while letting God do God's work at God's own pace.  That, in this Veruca Salt I-want-it-now age?  That requires being intentionally countercultural.

It is also the essence of what it means to be a disciple.

4) A Christian man is reflective.   This one is tough, because it means we've got to be willing to look hard at our own lives and admit that we can be wrong.   If you err, and you realize there's a possibility that the thing you just did or the thing you just said is incorrect, you correct yourself.

This is hard.  It stabs at our pride, at our sense of self and sense of strength.  We would rather double down.  We would rather be defiant in our correctness.

But the process of growing and developing as a disciple requires that we constantly check ourselves against our primary commitment, which is following Jesus of Nazareth.  If we act in ways that don't measure up, we've got to be willing to admit we're on the wrong path.

The operative word here is repentance.  Yes, repentance.  If you never allow for your being wrong, you won't ever repent.  We've got to be willing to let repentance...that turning away from our brokenness that is every day of the Way...actually be what we do.

The Amish are profoundly serious about that form of self-discipline, continually checking their own actions and thoughts against the standards of their Ordnung...the Order that rules their communal and personal lives.  Jacob is continually checking himself against what he knows his faith requires, and even then, is sometimes surprised to discover that his assumptions about others are completely wrong.

And then he corrects himself.

When was the last time you reconsidered something about yourself?  Or told someone, hey, you know, I completely messed that up?

That's not being weak.  It's repenting, and without repentance, you do not have the discipline to be a citizen of the Kingdom of God.

5)  A Christian man is peaceful.  In this peculiar, benighted age, we seem obligated to troll one another.  There's a fierce and relentless hostility, one that seethes and burns in so much of our communication with one another.  Insults and conflict rage, as we take opposition and difference to mean we've got to prove ourselves dominant in every exchange.

That's not the path of Jesus.  Never has been.  We like to turn to those times Jesus felt and articulated anger to justify our own acting out in rage...and ignore the ethic that is clearly taught in the Gospels.  Overturn the tables!  Turn out the moneychangers!  Booyah!

But when Jesus taught us what to do and how to act, that wasn't what he said.  When the Apostle Paul taught how to approach the World, that wasn't what he said.

When interacting with peers and colleagues, we are to be peacemakers.  When faced with those who oppose or oppress us, the centurions and jailers?  We nonetheless act and speak with honesty, decency, and respect for their persons.

Jacob deals that way with his English friend Mike, who may be profane and live a "complicated" life.  He deals that way with Asa Schrock, the bishop of his settlement who frustrates and challenges him.

But he also is firm and respectful with murderous men, even as his own life is threatened.

It's how we convince others.  It's also how we show who we are.

Again, this is immensely challenging.  Men are aggressive.  It's one of the reasons we do well in the world.  Aggression...and the focused energy it creates...is part of our nature, and it can be useful, particularly where large predators are involved.

But the easy embrace of self-serving violence is not and has never been the Christian path.  Christians have engaged in violence, sure.  Wherever Christianity has subsumed itself into state power, it has become warped into an instrument to justify violent action.  Occasionally, there have been Christians faced with demonic, dehumanizing powers so destructive that violence seemed the only option.  Faithful men such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer or John Brown took up arms against the brutal demons of their culture, and it's impossible to reject their witness out of hand.

The Amish...and Mennonites generally...present us with a different path.

They are willing to resist, if their way of life is threatened.  But they will never strike out, because to do so would violate their integrity as Christians.

When faced with the choice of using violence, even in self-defense, they don't.  This is not because they are weak.  Nor is it because they water down their Christianity with dreamy idealism.

It's because they're better disciples of Jesus Christ than you or I.

As a lifelong Christian who prays daily, studies the bible, has three degrees under my belt, and pastors a church, I can say this.  In their radical nonviolence, there is a purity of faith that I in my carefully constructed greyscale Just War rationalizations lack.

This was the path of the early church, after all.  Complete nonviolence, even unto death.  Protestants in particular have forgotten this, as the stories of the martyrs are set by the wayside, replaced by tales of success and prowess and material prosperity.

Despite this, it is What Jesus Did, and What He Told Us To Do.

I struggle with this, particularly when I see injustices inflicted on the weak.  I struggle with this more deeply still, when I feel my loved ones are threatened.

When I wrote Jacob, there are moments in the story when he faces similar threats.  His responses to violence, drawn from his faith?  They are more authentically Christian...more like Jesus and the first Spirit-fired churches...than mine.  He doesn't punch back.  He doesn't attack.  He avoids violence, no matter what, because that is what Jesus did.  Period.

We don't want to hear this.  From our pricked pride and our innate, kata-sarka male aggression we resist it.  We come up with rationalizations.  We proof text.  We wave our flags.  It feels good.

But if we do not allow ourselves to see the deeper strength of their nonviolent path, we are being willfully blind, and we are not allowing ourselves to learn from those whose faith is stronger.

In our shallow, violent, hyperkinetic time, it's easy for men who've claimed Jesus as their primary life commitment to wander from his path.

Calmness.  Humility.  Diligence.  Reflection.

And a soul turned fiercely and defiantly towards peace.

These virtues are fundamental to the Christian journey.  They are also, as much as I like my pride and my aggression and things blowing up, the demands Jesus makes of us.

They aren't easy.  But good things rarely are.