During the third century, in Egypt and throughout the Middle East, men and women fled the cities into the desert, following the example of St. Anthony. They wore simple clothes, ate simple food. They turned their backs on the temptations of urban life, on commerce and innovation—preferring to live alone or in small groups of like-minded people. Their ideal was, through discipline and restraint, to be like angels and to live as closely as possible to God.
Men and women have chosen to live ascetic lives for centuries both before and since the Desert Fathers, but it wasn’t until this week, when a gunman shot 10 girls in a one-room schoolhouse, killing five, that the most visible ascetics among us gained the spotlight. The Amish are a conservative Christian sect with more than 200,000 members in the United States, 28,000 of whom live in Lancaster County, Pa., where the shooting occurred. Until this week, they were a tourist attraction, an oddity, but on Monday many were instantly struck by the perversity of random violence striking a group whose lives center around principles of peace, who during the Vietnam War declined to participate in the draft as conscientious objectors.
Extreme ascetic groups are born in times of tumult and the Amish are no exception. They are descended from Anabaptists, the radical wing of the Reformation. Anabaptists resided throughout Western Europe—Switzerland, Germany, the Low Countries (the Amish were concentrated in the Netherlands). In the generations after Luther, they were tortured and persecuted for believing not just in adult baptism but in a strict set of rules governing everyday life and in excommunication, or “shunning,” for anyone who defied those rules. They arrived in eastern Pennsylvania during the early part of the 18th century, refugees from this persecution.
Even today, a primary Amish text is the 1,200-page “Martyrs Mirror,” first printed in 1662. It is a litany of the faithful who died by fire, by hot coals, by water or in prison. The Amish, says Donald Kraybill, a scholar of Anabaptism at Pennsylvania's Elizabethtown College, have a unique capacity to absorb hatred and violence. “The tradition of suffering for the sake of righteousness is embedded in the Amish religious tradition,” he says.
Other American Christian denominations, such as Baptists and Seventh Day Adventists, are also spiritually descended from the Anabaptists, but no other group regularly undertakes baptism so late—16 or 17 for young women and as old as 20 for young men. Once committed to the community, an Amish person is expected to remain faithful for life. The stakes of this decision are high. The word rumspringa means “to run around”: Amish teenagers are encouraged to take a year for rumspringa before baptism in order that this choice be an informed decision. A parent whose child declined to be baptized in the Amish fellowship and chose a different Christian community would be less disappointed than one whose child was baptized and failed to live up to the Amish community’s rules, says David Weaver-Zercher, associate professor of American religious history at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa.
If there’s any comfort anywhere in this gruesome disaster, it’s in this: before baptism, Amish children are considered “innocents”—and, according to Amish theology, God takes all innocents to heaven. Like the Desert Fathers, the Amish decline to speak with certainty about their ultimate destiny, and when they do speak about heaven, their language is understated, speaking of paradise simply as “a better place.”
“Certainly the Amish believe in heaven and hell,” says Steven Nolt, an historian at Goshen College. “Their theology would say that children who are not yet accountable for making faith commitments would be safe in the grace of God.”
The final fate of the shooter, Charles Carl Roberts IV, presents a thornier problem. Like the Desert Fathers, the Amish believe in living as much as possible like Jesus, and forgiveness and humility are part of that undertaking. “I’m certain that they will find a way to extend forgiveness to the family of the killer,” says Kraybill. Indeed, some members of the community in Nickel Mines, Pa., where the shooting occurred, have already expressed forgiveness to Roberts. But as in many conservative Christian groups, suicide is one sin for which no forgiveness is granted, adds Weaver-Zercher: “There don’t seem to be any loopholes for people who take their own lives.” And the Amish hell grants no respite; it is a place, according to church documents, where “the worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched.”